by Dr. Joe Malone, PhD, CFE, LWMC, CPT
A former student of mine and I wrote a book that came out in 2018. In it, we outlined many of the damaging effects of hookup culture. From the research of others (and there are too many to name here) these are some of the low lights we discovered.
First, college women’s, but not college men’s, depression symptoms increase as their number of sexual partners in a year increase. Second, research shows that women take part in this behavior even when they feel uncomfortable doing so. Next, men especially overestimate women’s comfort with hookups. Only 32% of men said they would feel guilty about having intercourse with someone they just met compared to 72% of women. In addition, the percentage of women feeling guilty over hooking up was over twice that of men, as women tend to seek more emotional involvement in sexual encounters than men do. Then this - many young adults and again, especially women, feel compelled to take part in hookup culture. Lastly, most times alcohol is involved. In a study of 118 freshman female college students, 64% of the hookups involved alcohol use. It appears that alcohol is usually required to make especially females willing to engage in sex with someone they don’t really know.
If all of that isn’t alarming enough, let’s finish this only partial list of the negatives with two extremely big ones. Around 80% of sexual assaults on campuses occur during a hookup. In the last 15 years the prevalence of sexual assault against women on college campuses has motivated campus authorities to decry what they identify as rape culture. They are justifiable in doing so as any sexual assault is one too many. At the same time, these same authorities say nothing against hookup culture and actually send a strong non-verbal message through the way orientation is handled with condom distribution and instructions about the student Health Center for STD treatment. This affirms, in reality, that they are expecting college students to be sexually active and that this is just part of the college norm. But, when we look at the above cited statistics on college campuses these days, hookup culture is for all practical purposes fueling rape culture.
As already mentioned, a major harm of hookup culture is of course, STDs. Largely because of hookup culture-promoted promiscuity, STD rates have been skyrocketing. They hit their highest levels ever in 2015 and continued to climb. Presently, one in two sexually active people will have an STD by age 25. The 15 to 24 age group makes up 53% of the gonorrhea cases and 65% of the cases of chlamydia. Once again, STDs are more dangerous for women. Currently HPV is the most common STD in America. Both men and women can get HPV, but women are 125% more likely than men to have HPV develop into cancer. The CDC states that a female’s anatomy can place her at unique risks for STD infection in comparison to a male.
As an example, one of my students who I had in class in 2007 gave me permission to share her story. She was a somewhat typical sorority sister who drank and was sexually active. Without realizing it, she contracted HPV. She married after college and had two little boys. About eight years out of college she found out that she had cervical cancer and had to have everything, but her ovaries, removed. It was a very scary, possibly life-threatening experience for her, and she felt fortunate that she and her husband had completed their family before she had to have a hysterectomy. There are many more harms and related heartbreaks that we could list here.
I recently listened to a podcast called Just Sex that I found very curious and even disturbing. The promotion said that it concerned hookup culture on college campuses. One of the first statements it made was that there are certain ideas that send the media into a panic, one of them being hookup culture. The inference was that hookup culture is routinely demonized by the media when it is really not that big of a deal and the panic is unjustified.
From there it went into an interview with the author of a book on hookup culture. What I found curious, and quite frankly disturbing, was that from that point on, despite the opening expectations that hooking up is just what young people do these days and that it is normal human behavior, nearly every observation of it showed how negative and unnatural it is, with so many demonstrated harms. The harms being especially hurtful to young women. As a matter of fact, they flat out stated hookup culture does not serve women well. This is where I could find complete agreement, because I believe hooking up fundamentally goes against the woman’s sexual nature.
As I listened, I found their seeming approval to be paradoxical. It soon became clearer though why this might be. They pointed out that hookup culture had come from the 1960s Sexual Revolution and feminist movement. (I had a suspicion that anything that originated with those movements would not be criticized by these two people for deeply held, shared political reasons.) They went on to discuss many, many negative effects of hooking up. For instance, hookup culture says you should be embarrassed for having feelings and feel weak for wanting connection. The author stated that hookups are decidedly not about finding any kind of romantic connection. They had an example interview of a young woman who felt that she was being used in hookup culture, but she also felt she had no choice other than to be used. They stated that the worst thing you can be called in hookup culture is not a slut or even a prude, but you must avoid at all costs being labeled desperate. They also stated that hookup culture demands carelessness, rewards callousness, and punishes kindness. And the misery of living in hookup culture does not end there. They stated that it is important that hookups be meaningless. In fact, ironically, and nonsensically in a normal world, they stated that people generally will have sex with people they don’t like, and not have sex with people they like. They said loving behaviors and mutual respect are to be limited to relationships. A concluding thought was if a woman wants to be respected, she must either opt out of hookup culture altogether or expose herself by hooking up for a period where she just accepts the disrespect.
The book was published in 2017 and the interview was done around that time. At one point during the interview the author did characterize hookup culture as “toxic.” Even so, in this 2021 update to her research to see how the pandemic may have affected conditions, instead of hookup culture being described as the generally hurtful and heartbreaking phenomenon that it is, and calling for a movement against it, it was stated that students in 2021 just want safer, more accountable, and more pleasurable hookup experiences.
The concept of the entire validity of hookup culture was still not questioned or challenged. To me, with all the emotional/mental, as well as physical health problems that hookup culture generates, especially for young women, it would only make sense to build a movement back to romance.
In my own personal research that I conducted in 2019 and 2020 on 437 college students at a large Southeastern University, I found that 60% of the men wanted no part of hookup culture, and 80% of the women wanted nothing to do with it. At the same time, 97% of both sexes said that they wanted more romance and real love in our society. Again, maybe it is time for a Romance Revolt in which young adults unhook from hookup culture and find real love! This would be in direct contrast to what right now many young adults find themselves in, what should be more accurately labeled “hookup hell” on campuses around the world. After viewing all of the damage and destruction caused by hookup culture itself, lets call it what it is - Hookup Hell -and strategically learn to avoid it (like COVID) especially by young women who deserve far better!
Dr. Malone holds a Ph.D. in Health and Human Performance with a specialization in sexual wellness. He has presented at Vanderbilt and Princeton as well as other major universities. Joe served on the CDC Initiative for STD Prevention for Tennessee. His wife of 44 years Jody and he founded the nonprofit Sex IQ: https://www.sexiq.org/
There has been quite a bit of buzz around this topic since the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Ministries across the country have found themselves on vacillating ends of the spectrum between empty and full houses with burgeoning waiting lists. So why the variance?
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