My freshman year in high school, I remember hearing the whispers that “so-and-so hooked up with so-and-so” for the first time. I nodded knowingly. Did that mean they kissed? Or started dating? Or did it?
Since age fifteen, the term “hook-up” has become much clearer, yet the motives behind why people hook up have become much hazier. It’s not out of deep feelings of love, obviously. And it often happens unadvisedly, I fear. Chalk it up to hormones. Blame it on the alcohol. The scapegoats miss a big part of the story.
Whittle away the hook-up culture to its essential parts and you get a crude and inelegant sequence of events: preen your tail feathers, find a mate and do what mates do together. The drinking, the chatting, the play-acting are all auxiliary to this pattern. If you were to identify a college student’s objective in this dance the way you would Ophelia’s in Hamlet, it seems pretty physical.
In many ways, a student’s weekend objective is to have an orgasm, plain and simple. But along the road to that end, he has to learn how to be courageous, vulnerable, honest and creative. He exercises new emotional muscles in a diorama of real-life where he has space to mess up safely without wreaking too much havoc. And somewhere on the path from SAE to KA – which might I remind you is a very scary path – the college student’s objective shifts from finding a mate to finding himself. Goodbye fellatio, hello Freud.
Let me explain. I am a twenty-year-old girl. I hear a lot of bitching about romances turned sour by misunderstandings, and I know more details than I care to know about hook-ups. I know enough to be confident that, when Stanford students are in bed with each other, they aren’t talking about the weather. They’re divulging secrets that are inappropriate to divulge to someone who was a total stranger four hours and five drinks ago. People talk about family drama, career goals, their personal disappointments and failures in school. People talk too much about ex-boyfriends. They look for patterns, trying to explain how they fear attachment because of their relationship with their father, or how they can’t get involved romantically because they are afraid of rejection. All this disclosed to someone who is supposed to serve a strictly physical role in the narrative of Friday night. Why entrust so much in a stranger and confine real friendships to small talk and gossip?
It’s a kind of playing house that serves the marginal space between the childhood games full of trite stereotypes about love and family and the adult responsibilities of building a real family with foundations of real love. We know that lying in bed with someone after being intimate with them is supposed to be an intimate scenario, so we practice being intimate. We smooth out emotional stutters by reaching toward their articulation. You can’t do that when you’re talking to a wall. You can’t even do that talking to a friend at dinner. There is something about the countervailing anonymity and intimacy of hooking up with a stranger that creates just the right temperature and pressure conditions to catalyze an emotional experiment.
Hooking up is a choice. It hurts some people. It helps others grow. Personally, I prefer a dinner date. But the stigma around hooking up is unwarranted. I can’t judge someone for participating in a culture that very subtly facilitates the complex business of emotional understanding. I can, however, judge someone who hooks up with other people disrespectfully and gets what they need at someone else’s expense.
Here I’m stumped. Hook-ups give students the freedom to learn about themselves and their peers precisely because there are so few rules. So how do we engage respectfully in a behavior whose loose parameters facilitate disrespect? I would offer the following: be direct. Communicate so you are clear with the stranger you are sleeping with about what you both want. Be safe. Use condoms. And know your own expectations and don’t put yourself in a situation in which you will get your feelings hurt. Have fun, but watch out. Playing house is no easy business, and we’re no longer dealing with Barbie and Ken.
Contact Renée at firstname.lastname@example.org.