NEW YORK — Guy meets girl on a modern campus. He's attracted, she seems to be. What should he do? Work up the courage to ask her for her number? Ask her out to dinner? Send flowers, perhaps?
Or just have another guy in his dorm say at a party, “Hey, he really wants to hook up with you. He thinks you're cute. You should go to his room.”
The latter strategy is actually a common one on modern college campuses, according to a grim study released last month by the Independent Women's Forum called “Hooking Up, Hanging Out and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Mating and Dating Today.”
Courtship is dead and romance is mortally wounded, the research suggests. The findings were based on a poll of 1,000 campus women and in-depth interviews with 62 women attending 11 of the more elite colleges in the nation. Modern love relationships at American universities commonly consist of “hookups” — the new slang for casual sexual encounters with no promise of anything further.
In the national survey, 40% of women said they had experienced a hookup — a deliberately vague term defined as kissing, sex, and everything in between. One in 10 had hooked up more than six times. Often they were drunk; frequently the hookups took place in co-ed college dorms.
“Dating and mating has always been very murky, but there's less clarity now,” said Elizabeth Marquardt, an associate scholar with the Institute for American Values who helped Texas sociology professor Norval Glenn collect the data. “There are no socially prescribed conventions.”
It's not just that the rules have changed since the days of gentlemen callers. There are no rules of engagement in modern relationships. The result, said Marquardt, is “a lot of confusion and ambiguity.”
Still, a majority of college women are crystal clear about what they want: a gold band.
Notwithstanding its lackluster media image and the damage to marriage inflicted by the sexual revolution, 83% of the modern college women polled said marriage was a major “life goal”; 63% said they'd like to meet their husband in college.
Also, only a minority of college students hook up frequently, and it is easy to find students who don't like the idea of hooking up at all. Twenty-year-old Washington State University student Megan Kennedy said, “Respectable girls just won't go out and do that.”
Three freshmen recruited from California to the University of Portland volleyball team grimaced as they heard the study results. They have heard of hooking up in high school. Usually it happened at parties, when students were drunk.
“If a guy expects that, that's not really the sort of guy you want,” said 18-year-old Laura Pappas.
Monique Kettler, 18, was more blunt: “Sorry, dude.”
Perhaps it is this attitude that accounts for another study finding: 39% the college women polled said they were virgins, including one third (31%) of senior women. Some of the women in the study clearly grasped the connection between their present relationships and future marriage. “It is strange but I feel like I have a commitment to whoever I will end up with,” a young woman from the University of Michigan said. “So a lot of my time right now is kind of laying the groundwork for what I hope will be a healthy situation later on. A lot of people are, like, … ‘Why do you not just hook up with anyone?’
“t is because of the future.”
The Walk of Shame
For those who are hooking up, however, the future in love is uncertain. The campus social scene is hardly designed to help them meet the goal of life-lasting love.
Not surprisingly, women reported they often felt “awkward” and confused after hooking up. (They call it the “walk of shame” when they have to return to their own room the next morning wearing the previous night's clothes.) And many women admitted to hooking up with hopes it would lead to something more.
“A lot of people seem to cope with [hooking up] real well, but for me when it happens, it means a lot,” a New York University student said. “I mean the next day I'm thinking about him. I go, what does this mean? It's crazy.”
A significant number of respondents (12%) in the study agreed with the statement, “Sometimes it is easier to have sex with a guy than to talk to him.” A student at Colby College student explained, “Sex and hooking up are not necessarily tied to as many emotions as talking face to face with someone.”
A whole new lexicon surrounds the hook-up culture. “Friends with benefits” is a term used to describe couples who hook up repeatedly. “Like I know this girl,” said a New York University student, “there's this guy on my floor and she lives upstairs and they'll just call each other at random times” for encounters.
“The talk” is the term used for the conversation that women usually initiate, asking a man if repeated hookups mean anything. “When she asks, he decides,” the study found.
Apart from the risk of rejection, there are unprecedented statistical odds working against women: There are 100 women for every 79 men on campus, nationally, which gives the males a sort of shopping advantage.
Anecdotal evidence backs the study's findings. The Internet is rife with student articles offering advice on hooking up. Last year, students at Brigham Young University — a Mormon school with a conservative reputation — launched a Web site to facilitate “non-committal make-outs” between total strangers. And women's magazines on campuses offer titles such as “One-Night Stands That Worked” and “How to Make A Player Propose” suggesting casual sex can get women what they want. The current issue of Cosmopolitan magazine offers a “Hook-Him Handbook” including advice to postpone having sex for “at least several dates” but gives the example of a woman who breaks the rule “just to tide him over.”
Hitched at the Hip
Hookups do not appear to help young people form and sustain mature relationships, concluded the study, adding that, although only a minority of students hook up, it tends to “lessen the overall quality of college mating for everybody.”
The flip-side relationship of hooking up, for example, is being “hitched at the hip” — a couple that spends virtually every waking and sleeping hour together.
“There really is not much dating,” a University of California-Berkeley student told the researchers, “people either just start hanging out together and live together and they are boyfriend and girlfriend. Or, they just like do random hookups.”
Agreed a Yale University student, “There's a saying here that people are, like, ‘altar bound or messing around.’”
These options leave women looking for a more traditional, less fast-paced approach frustrated. “In the past, no one had to take one whole big risk at once,” said Marquardt. “It wasn't like you invested your whole physical and spiritual being” in an attempted romance.
In their report, Marquardt and Glenn criticized adults' failure to help young people make wise dating decisions. Marriage is a crucial life decision, it is of vital importance to the stability of society and children, and it remains a goal of young women yet, “nobody talks about marriage,” said Marquardt, “except to say, ‘Don't marry too young.’”
The solution, said the researchers, is to create new “socially prescribed rules and norms … that can guide young people … and support toward the marriages they seek.”
The study also criticized coed dorms. “In the dorms I think [hooking up] was huge,” a Rutgers University junior told the researchers, “it was so easy to come back to your dorm, and everyone's there at 2 or 3 in the morning … everyone's intoxicated.”
Michael J. McManus, writing in the Washington Times, agreed that coed dorms are a problem. When Boston University had the courage to change the rules in 1989, he noted, it declared an end to people of the opposite sex spending the night in dorm rooms to cut down on sex, student conflicts, vandalism and loss of privacy for students.
The problems improved immediately and while initially, the number of college applications fell from 23,877 before the policy was announced to 19,644 for 5,000 slots, in 2001 there were 28,221 applications. As well, their average SAT scores rose from 1263 to 1283.
Real Love Production's Mary Beth Bonacci, a teacher of chastity education, says another cure to the hookup culture is to “to teach [youth] about the meaning, the sacredness, and the dignity of human sexuality.”
In her 15 years of work, she said, high school students have been very receptive to the message that sexual encounters can never be casual, that sex outside of the context of the stability and love of marriage can scar your heart. “I meet kids all the time [who have been having casual sex], who say, ‘You know, I am just not capable of feeling love anymore.’”
Bonacci said that “lost kids” may be worse off than ever in the current culture, but also, where the chastity message is taught, she finds that “kids listen,” and that message has been spreading for a decade.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that chaste people aren't just better off morally — they're happier.
States the catechism, “The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.
“Man's dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint” (No. 2339).
Celeste McGovern writes
from Portland, Oregon.