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Thursday, May 23, 2024

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The consequences of inconsequential sex

Investigating the dangerous sexual norms hookup culture promotes.

Content warning: This article discusses at length sensitive topics including rape and sexual assault, which may be distressing or triggering for individuals with experiences related to these issues. 

As many college students can attest, debriefs about the previous night’s escapades and sexual encounters have become a Sunday morning ritual. But many mornings as I excitedly sit on a friend’s bed to hear about her night, I watch her face uncomfortably twist as she recounts a sexual experience it seems she’d rather forget. 

Inside the belly of our modern-day hookup culture lies a masked rape culture. Hookup culture’s promotion of inebriated sexual encounters desensitizes unwanted sexual contact and delegitimizes rape accusations, normalizing various dangerous consequences of rape culture. 

Hookup culture, a primary sexual script on college campuses, is often framed as a movement for female sexual liberation. Our generation’s sexual subculture, where casual sex is encouraged and celebrated, encourages impulsive decisions and dangerous avenues of sexual interaction. 

Parties, clubs and bars on college campuses nationwide are the typical spots for socialization, and intense alcohol consumption is often seen as common practice on campuses, impairing students’ judgment as they spend time in these spaces. 

Because the party scene is the main space on college campuses where sexual interaction is instigated, sexual encounters are filtered through rosé-colored glasses, which can cause unwanted or unmemorable sexual experiences and regrettable hookups. A study by sexologist Timothy Reling found college students tend to attribute unwanted sexual contact to contexts where hookup behavior is more common and alcohol is present — places like dorms, off-campus apartments and fraternity houses. 

Hookup culture’s encouragement of casual sex despite questionable circumstances or a lack of consent sets the stage for rape myths to be accepted. Rape myths are false beliefs and stereotypes about rape survivors and offenders, often prevalent in hookup culture, which can undermine the credibility of rape accusations. Examples include labeling sexually active women as “unrapeable” and portraying heavily intoxicated women as promiscuous. 

When these myths gain widespread acceptance, they trivialize accusations of rape and sexual assault: this is rape myth acceptance. Rape myths thrive in environments where the assumption that “any sex is wanted sex” runs strong. As rape myths gain validation in hookup culture, they perpetuate stereotypes about sexual assault, resulting in diminished seriousness toward accusations and an increasing social acceptance of sexual assault.

Hookup culture, which often reinforces traditional gender roles with men as aggressors, creates unequal power dynamics that can lead to non consensual scenarios. This normalization of male-driven sexual behavior further exacerbates the issue of encouraging men to pursue women without regard for consent. 

Hookup culture also has negative impacts on men and those who do not identify with the gender binary. In the sexual narrative set by hookup culture, men are characterized as constantly wanting sex and can face ridicule for not engaging in constant sexual contact. Additionally, the heteronormativity which looms over the primary places of sexual contact on college campuses such as parties, bars and clubs excludes queer and gender-nonconforming people. It is important to acknowledge women are not the only victims hookup culture claims, but the literature researched for this story primarily focused on women.  

Isn’t hookup culture what college students want? 

Although hookup culture is often considered essential to “coming of age” and sexual education, several studies find college students around the United States are unhappy with current dating culture. 

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A 2019 study from Occidental College researcher Lisa Wade found 75% percent of surveyed college students reported they would prefer a hookup model that supports romantic relationships and concentrates less on the “casualness” of sexual relationships. Surveyed students did not feel satisfied with the hookup culture on their campus, yet they continued to partake in casual hookups due to a “fear of veering from social norms.” 

To delve into the ways hookup culture has manifested in Madison, I spoke with students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about their experiences. All students asked for their identities to be cloaked due to personal reasons. 

Sitting late at night on the cracking ice of Lake Mendota, a frat boy shared pensively: “I went hard into hookup culture because it’s what everyone tells you to do and pushes you into, but I ended lots of nights in someone else’s bed, feeling uncomfortable and, at times, used.” 

“I never felt really happy with just casually sleeping with someone I met that night, but my friends always encourage me to pursue the next exciting option,” a Sophomore boy added. 

Over several hungover visits to Raising Cane’s after Badger football game days, I have listened to friends recount tales of falling into casual hookups simply because it was easier to say nothing than to say no. While shoveling fries in her face a female friend confided: “For sure, I have felt that pressure to just go with things or let a guy make out with me at a party even if I didn’t want to because it’s a party, and that's what you’re supposed to do.” 

Running a manicured hand through her hair, nonchalantly, the blonde girl sitting next to her chimed in, “I learned pretty quickly to stop reacting when a guy grabs me at a bar. I just accept it as the price of putting on a low-cut top and going out.” 

Unwanted sexual contact has seeped into every crevice of the party scene. It’s become accepted as the tax one must stomach for going out. But we do not owe anyone unwanted contact in exchange for simply wanting to go out on a Friday night, looking and feeling our best.

So… what can we do?

Hookup culture is deeply ingrained in contemporary college sexual culture, and that is not going to change. Although the casual nature of hookup culture has many downsides, it can also encourage sexual liberation for women and experimentation in judgment-free spaces. 

To take control of the sexual narrative on college campuses and make sure sex is safe, comfortable and enjoyable for all parties involved, here are a few recommended remedies: 

Challenge rape myths. When someone is sharing a story about a sexual encounter that includes a common stereotype about rape or sexual assault, challenge the dangerous myths they are spreading. For example, if a friend is saying “Her outfit was so slutty, I just knew she wanted me,” confront them for assuming that someone’s clothing equates consent. 

Look out for your friends. If a friend seems unsure, uncomfortable or overly intoxicated, check in with them. Communicate with your friends, listen to any concerns they have about their partners or sexual encounters and take them seriously if they seem unsure about an encounter. 

Communicate boundaries. Sometimes it can be scary or awkward to say no or communicate boundaries, but our concerns and needs are legitimate and should be taken seriously. You should feel empowered to speak up for yourself regarding sexual situations. We are the only people entitled to our bodies.

Open the conversation. Focusing conversations away from a fascination with hookup culture and toward considering hookup culture’s pitfalls is important to confronting its issues. Hookup culture’s marketing as a progressive movement of liberation from traditional sexual norms has overshadowed its negative consequences and the space it allows for rape myth acceptance.

The next time you find yourself sitting at a Sunday debrief in a disheveled apartment surrounded by empty wine bottles and ashtrays and notice your friend seems uncomfortable with the sexual interaction everyone else is giggling about, offer them supportive space to investigate their feelings and open up about their discomfort with the experience. 

Sammi Desch is a staff writer and a sophomore studying political science and communications. Do you agree hookup culture emphasizes dangerous sexual norms for younger people? Send all comments to

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