Gender Roles in Hook Up Culture

by Claire Callahan | 10/17/18 2:20am

by Mia Zhang Nacke / The Dartmouth

Popularized perceptions of college life cast a narrow view of sexuality in which men hit on women at drunken frat parties, leading to one-night stands with no strings attached. How accurate is this portrayal when it comes to Dartmouth’s hookup culture, and who participates in it? 

Jane is a straight woman in a sorority. Her name has been changed for this article, as have the names of others interviewed. “There’s definitely some subtle pressure to join in, especially when you’re in Greek life,” Jane said. “The pressure to participate in Greek life is pretty exacerbated by students not knowing where they belong and what kind of people they want to be.” 

Jane observed that the more enthusiastic participants of hookup culture tend to be younger. 

“Once you’re a senior, your friend group has kind of settled down and you’ve kind of figured out your place on campus,” she said. “It gets a little monotonous going out all the time. It’s way more fun for me personally to just hang out with a bunch of close friends and have a really chill time.” 

John identifies as a gay man and is in a fraternity, despite his initial aversion to it. While he has had a positive experience, he, like Jane, recognizes the dangers of Greek life. 

“Based on my experience of being openly gay in high school, [Greek life] seemed to draw the type of people who made my high school life not the greatest experience ever,” he said. “But I’ve found that there are definitely places where there are people who are cognizant about the actual and potential harms of Greek systems and do their best to mitigate that.” 

He feels very comfortable in his Greek house because he sees it as his space, but that isn’t true of all the houses. 

“There are certainly spaces on campus where I would be less comfortable being with a guy,” he said. “I just have tried to avoid those spaces anyway, because I figure that if I’m not comfortable being with a guy there, there’s a reason for that, and I should avoid that space altogether.” 

John thinks his hesitation to openly make out with a man at a party is a mixture of his personality and his anxiety about what others would think. 

“I’m not a big fan of PDA regardless of the respective genders of the people engaging in it,” he said. “But as a freshman, when there wasn’t any space that was mine, I think I would’ve been worried because there’s a part of me that would be like ‘I don’t know how people in this space feel about it.’”  

Despite all the talk of making decisions regarding hookups, John made it clear that he didn’t always have the option. 

“It’s not like there was ever a time where I was like, ‘Oh, we have the ability to be making out on the dance floor and I’m actively avoiding it,’” he said, laughing. “I think I should put that caveat in there, because it’s not like I was regularly having to push guys away from me.” 

In fact, John emphasized the main difference between LGBTQIA+ and straight hookups: his straight friends can go out and generally expect to go home with someone if they want to, but it’s a bit harder for John. 

“It’s not like I can see any guy and be like, ‘Ooh, he’s my type, let’s go and see what happens,’” he said. “Chances are, he’s going to be straight, just from a pure statistical probability perspective.” 

Sally, a straight woman, has engaged frequently in hookup culture largely due to her own boldness. 

“I was the person who had the most push and was the one calling the shots,” she reflected. “I was literally like ‘Yo, come to my room, we’re having casual sex unless you’re not into that.’” 

She has found that being straightforward is the best approach to hookup culture. 

“I don’t do really well with ambiguity,” Sally said. “I think that’s the downfall of a lot of relationships, whether they’re casual or serious. For me, it’s a lot more comfortable to know where I stand and let the other person know.” 

Jane is currently in a relationship, but when she was having casual sex, she never initiated. 

“It’s definitely expected for the guy to initiate every time,” she said. “That, of course, exacerbates gender roles in society in which the guy is supposed to be the pursuer and the girl to acquiesce.” 

Because of traditional gender roles, Sally enjoys initiating casual sex. 

“Sometimes it’s totally a really wonderful power trip, the woman being the aggressor,” she said. “You’re like, ‘I am in control,’ and when you think about hookup culture, that’s not necessarily what you think of.” 

She wishes men would be entirely explicit and direct. 

“There is no harm in asking,” she said. “That is actually the best thing that you can do. If you verbally say, ‘Hi, do you want to save sex?’ or ‘Can I kiss you?,’ not only are you really getting a good read on whether the other person is into it, but you’re giving them a chance to say no.” 

Is that coming on too strong? 

“What would be coming on too strong is the assumption that I want to have sex with you,” she said. 

Like Jane’s comment, this example reflects broader gender roles. 

“When you look at that in the context of larger societal issues, you could kind of say that there is an implicit assumption that women will kind of always want sex,” Sally said. “By not giving a woman the chance to say no and doing all of these subtle things and seeing where it gets you ... that’s just pretty screwed up, honestly.”

All three commenters felt that hookup culture encapsulated a wide range of scenarios and could lead to multiple outcomes. 

“The idea of hookup culture here is low commitment ... but that’s kind of contradictory,” Sally said. “I’ve had one-night stands, one night stands that turn into three- or four-night stands … and hookups that really immediately became something that was more emotional and lasted for a while.” 

A lot of Dartmouth relationships were born from casual hookups, but Jane and John had relationships that began elsewhere. 

“We met in class and became really good friends,” Jane said. “We just hung out a lot and studied together, and friendship eventually led to more.” They casually hooked up before making it official, as did John and his ex-boyfriend. 

“We were different in the fact that the first time we hooked up, we had already spent some time together sober,” he said. “I think that’s not how most relationships begin. Part of that is just because the social scene, and the general culture feels like it revolves around hooking up. A lot of relationships arise out of hookups because I think there are a lot of people who participate in hookup culture but don’t prefer hookups over relationships.” 

It can seem like everyone only wants to have casual sex, which leads to pressure of hyper-sexualization. 

“You would enter a space like [a Greek house] with the assumption being that there is some kind of explicit sexual orientation by you just being there,” Sally said. “That kind of leads to a lot of things that are pretty unhealthy.” 

It is easy to feel like everyone else is engaging in hookup culture, John said. He thinks this perceived ubiquity leads Dartmouth students to overestimate the prevalance of casual sex on Dartmouth’s campus, thereby creating pressure to conform to a norm that is not a norm.

“There are many people on campus who don’t engage in hookup culture and are very proud of that fact,” John said. “There are also people who absolutely love hookups, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed of that either.” 

John emphasized the importance of paying attention to your instincts. 

“Don’t feel like you have to go hook up with someone because that’s the norm,” he said. “Don’t go to certain spaces because they have the reputation of being good places to find a hookup if you’re not comfortable in those spaces. Stay true to who you are.”