Dating at Dartmouth: Shifting norms and blurred lines

by Jaden Young | 2/9/18 2:25am

This article was featured in the 2018 Winter Carnival Issue.

Jordan Bustabad ’21 said there’s only one way to truly learn how to navigate hookup culture.

“I feel like the only way you will know the ins and outs of it is if you actually experience it,” he said. “Basically, you can watch the game of baseball, you can practice it, you can read about it but until you’re in the moment playing it, you’ll never truly realize the experience of it. You have to be in the moment to understand the complexities.”

But when he had a sexual experience that left him uncertain of his own emotions and desires, he found himself feeling alone in his struggles.

“I didn’t realize the extent of the psychological effects it had, in the sense that I was thinking about a certain experience for a couple days, which is something that I haven’t done before,” he said. “There definitely were people I could’ve gone to, but my stubborn self decided to deal with it on my own, and that definitely was a mistake. It was all I could think about for two days straight. I couldn’t really focus on anything else but what happened.”

For students like Bustabad, it can be difficult to find constructive ways to learn to navigate the emotional travails of hookup culture, sex and relationships on campus while minimizing the consequences that accompany experience.

The phrase “hookup culture” is frequently invoked when trying to conceptualize sex and relationships on college campuses. It’s an environment that encourages casual sexual encounters focusing on physical pleasure, with less emphasis on emotional attachment.

However, sex and dating on campus may not be exactly as it seems.

“The percentage of people engaging in hookup culture is not as high as people think,” Student Wellness Center healthy relationships and sexual health specialist Tong Fei said. “Everyone is thinking, ‘Everyone is hooking up, so I’ve got to participate, I can’t be left out,’ and a lot of people are feeling pressured to fit in by engaging in hookup culture.”

According to the 2016 Dartmouth Health Survey, respondents averaged about two sex (oral, vaginal or anal) partners in a year. Nonetheless, discussions of campus hookup culture persist, and some students do choose to participate — a choice made for a variety of reasons.

“It’s indicative of a larger cultural shift where, particularly with women, we’re no longer expected to go to college to get our ‘MRS. degree’— to find a husband,” said Anne Pinkney ’20, who is involved with a number of sexual violence prevention and sexual wellness organizations on campus. “In that way, it can be empowering.”

Dartmouth’s D-Plan can also make casual hookups an appealing option.

“When you’re only given a certain amount of time, it sometimes gives you an excuse to escape that emotional labor or accountability,” Fei said.

But it’s clear that not everyone is actually engaging in regular hookups. In the 2016 Dartmouth Health Survey, 29 percent of respondents reported that they were not sexually active. So why does it sometimes feel like everyone is participating in hookup culture? Part of why this seems so pervasive on campus, Fei said, is because those participating are disproportionately vocal.

“We don’t hear when people are having a healthy long-term or long-distance relationship — those people choose to be private and keep it more to themselves — and the voices we hear are students who are saying ‘I just slept with so-and-so’ or ‘we just hooked up,’” Fei said. “We don’t have a platform or an avenue for people to share what a healthy relationship looks like.”

As Bustabad discovered, this culture of casual sex can have real emotional impacts.

“Because of the physicality of it, it can lead to feelings of being used for your body, feeling objectified,” Pinkney said. “It’s all situational — it depends on how the interaction goes — but in this realm of casual sex, it’s very easy to feel used, even if you’re voluntarily engaging in it.”

Most students haven’t had much formal education on how to navigate sexual decision making — to treat others with respect and have confidence in their own desires and limits. Dartmouth students come from all different backgrounds of sexual education and cultural approaches to dealing with sex and relationships.

“In middle school and high school, I was taught that abstinence is the way to go — never have sex,” Bustabad said.

But what his schools did teach about having sex looked very different from the campus dating scene.

“They looked at it through a different lens — like, with the assumption that you were in a relationship and would be doing it with the same person again,” Bustabad said. “I definitely came from a home where the topic of sex was avoided. You didn’t mention it because it just had a bad connotation, sadly.”

Because Dartmouth students come from such a wide variety of backgrounds, combating gaps in prior sexual education can be difficult on campus, and communication between partners can easily break down.

“When we encounter people from all these different communities and cultures who have their own set of values and communication styles around sex and relationships, it adds to the dynamic and nuanced situation when we’re dealing with hookup culture,” Fei said. “Not even knowing your own wants and needs and expectations and just jumping into something — given the small campus we have, a lot of problems can happen as a result. Knowing your own limits and boundaries is one thing, but how you communicate that to your partner is another thing. We don’t have a standard of how to communicate that, and we have lot of negative connotations attached.”

For Fei, part of the problem is that healthy sexual decision making and communication are not taught to us; we’re expected to just know how to manage.

“A lot of these things, we did not grow up learning how to do — you’re expected to just know, for it to naturally happen — and for a lot of healthy relationships it takes practice,” Fei said. “We hear a lot of people saying, ‘You learn from your own mistakes,’ and part of it is true. You have to experience and maybe get hurt and hurt other people to learn some stuff, but how do we make sure we minimize the harm and tears and emotional labor? How do we minimize the mistakes and try to have a healthy life?”

For a topic as taboo as sex, it can be difficult to facilitate productive, helpful conversations about it. But there are people at Dartmouth like Fei and Pinkney and groups and programs like Sexperts, Movement Against Violence, Dartmouth Bystander Initiative and Dick’s House counselors that want to shift the culture away from this taboo on talking about sex. These groups exist to provide knowledge and to support students as they navigate sex and relationships on campus.

“All these things — sexual health, sexual violence, consent — it’s incredibly difficult to ‘teach’ that,” Pinkney said. “Self-reflection is important.”

Promoting that self-reflection can sometime be a matter of exposing students to thoughtful conversation about sexual wellness.

“There’s a lot of stigma about going to a workshop about healthy communication or healthy relationships because you don’t necessarily want to be seen as not having that knowledge,” Pinkney said. “You have to get students to engage voluntarily with these resources. I think a big part of it is word of mouth. Getting the word out to students in a way that does not seem imposing or putative is key.”

Pinkney noted that there are additional benefits for participation in these conversations.

“Sexperts, for example, you get a PE credit for that [training],” she said. “If you incentivize these things, people will engage in the resources.”

For students who do choose to participate in hookup culture, there may be a few considerations to keep in mind. To Fei, hookups are rarely worthwhile.

“Maybe 10 bad hookups will teach you one good thing about being in a healthy relationship, but we have to consider the opportunity costs; what are you losing through the process? How much good are you getting out of it?” she said.

And their casual, noncommittal nature could make it easy to lose sight of treating others with respect.

“Are we taking accountability?” Fei said. “Do we have the courage to separate from something that’s not what we wanted? Are we respecting other people by parting respectfully, or are we just not dealing with it because the term goes so quickly and you don’t have to see this person next term?”

According to Pinkney, consideration of the nuances of hookup culture, like effective communication, is also vital.

“That’s extremely hard to do, especially considering the role alcohol plays in hookup culture,” she said. “Be aware of power dynamics like upperclassmen versus lowerclassmen. Be aware that hookup culture relies heavily on entrenched societal norms. Be aware ... that in hookup culture, feelings of attachment are not at the forefront. It’s a physical connection.”

Whatever choices students make in their sex lives, resources on campus are there to support them, if students are willing to access them.

“If people are like me, pretty stubborn and ignorant, you’re gonna try to deal with it on your own, but you don’t realize that there’s so many avenues of support here and so many resources you can take advantage of that you would be a fool not to,” Bustabad said.