Hooking Up Is Easy to Do (But Pretty Complicated)

“It’s backwards dating.” Photo: Brendan Hunt, Bard class of 2016
Sex on Campus
Is Easy
To Do
But pretty complicated.
Photograph by Brendan Hunt
Bard class of 2016

On the first night of Dartmouth’s fall term, a svelte young woman runs up to the door of my old sorority, pulls off a breezy white dress, and races inside in her bra and thong. She’s apparently eager to join the party. Inside, sisters are running around in short polyester ’70s dresses and glittery pink sunglasses: their “tackies,” intentionally awkward outfits that are something of a middle finger to the Lilly Pulitzer sorority set. Weekly Wednesday meetings — modeled loosely after fraternity meetings — where sisters roast each other and drink lots of beer, have just ended. 

Downstairs I find a pong game, in which players use handleless paddles to hit Ping-Pong balls into full cups of beer arranged on a large piece of plywood. If you sink a ball into the cup, your opponent drinks the whole beer. If you hit a cup with a ball, your opponent drinks half. It’s a little after 11 p.m., and no one is slowing down.

“You were an ’05! Cool!” says my pong partner.

From the look of it, little has changed since I graduated ten years ago. The floor is grimy and covered with plastic cups. A girl is riding a pong table like a surfboard, and another is grinding to Fetty Wap. I show my pong partners the wall in the house my best friend and I painted, a repeated print of Keystone Light cans, the school’s watery beer of choice, that’s still standing.

I’ve come back to my alma mater because it sits at the crossroads of two major themes of modern-day college sex: hookup culture, which seems as rampant as I remember it, and sexual assault, which Dartmouth is gaining an unfortunate reputation for. In the Ivy League, Dartmouth is tied with Yale for the highest incidence of sexual assault of undergraduate women, according to a recent Association of American Universities survey (though Princeton didn’t participate); the education-research company StartClass just released research indicating that Dartmouth has had the highest reported rate of sexual assault on campus of any college with more than 5,000 students in the past decade. (Dartmouth has said this means it’s doing a good job of encouraging students to come forward. “We want to see the prevalence of sexual assault go down and the incidence of reporting go up,” says Justin Anderson, a spokesperson for the school.) Last year, a freshman here was targeted with a personalized “rape guide” posted on a campus chat room and said she was sexually assaulted in a fraternity shortly thereafter. She was one of the 28 percent of undergraduate Dartmouth women who report being sexually assaulted during college.

Lately, researchers have been making an obvious but controversial point: that these two trend lines are in fact related — that hooking up puts students at higher risk of having nonconsensual sex, and that there are elements of this culture, not just at Dartmouth but across the country, that are more complicated than “yes means yes.”

“To understand date rape, you needed to understand the dating culture,” says sociologist Kathleen Bogle, author of Hooking Up, one of the first books to document this culture. “And to understand the sexual-assault problem, you have to understand the hookup culture.”

Hookups, for those who went to college before the term came into vogue, can range from kissing to sex. Partners can be strangers, acquaintances, or best friends, but about half of them are getting together for the first time. On average, women have four drinks before a hookup and men have six. The encounter might lead to a relationship but typically doesn’t. Often, nobody talks the next day.

“It’s backwards dating,” explains one Dartmouth senior woman. “You have sex with a person, then if you like the sex, and you kind of like their personality, you ask them out. It is freeing in some senses. It’s very sexually liberating, and great for women who like to take control of their lives, and great for men. But it also creates a lot of problems. There’s no communication, and there’s lots of alcohol. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

There are, of course, plenty of reasons why students of all genders and all sexualities choose to hook up. It’s physical pleasure without emotional risk. It’s exploratory and experimental. You can try new things, discover preferences. On a college campus, surrounded by available peers, it’s especially convenient.

And many students find it a mostly positive experience. Molly, a Dartmouth senior (names have been changed at their request), says she’s had plenty of good sexual experiences in her time at school, but also several sketchy hookups and one she considers assault. An older guy pledging one of the “better” fraternities wanted to get together, and she was flattered. One night, she outlined her terms. “I said we can have sex if we are going to be exclusive, but I want to hook up” — in this sense, fool around without intercourse — “a few times before we have sex, to prove we are exclusive.” According to Molly, he agreed.

“Then he started putting himself inside my body,” she remembers. “And he was like, it’s just the tip, it’s just the tip. His roommate was passed out, literally unconscious from drinking, in the bed next to us. He kept continuing to enter me anyway. I was like, ‘No, I really don’t want to.’ And he was like, ‘I’m not really going in, I’m just putting it in a little bit.’ Slowly but surely, he went further and further. I kept saying no, and he kept going anyway. Eventually I realized he was going to have sex with me whether I wanted it or not.”

He wasn’t wearing a condom, so she told him to get one. “He was actually so drunk at the time that he didn’t finish, thank God. After that he ignored me for a week.”

Molly says there are few conversations about consent happening during hookups. “The current mind-set is that they should just keep going anyway,” she says. “This is where you get into this trouble of them not hearing you say no. Maybe I could be clearer. But no one wants to be the person who says to someone’s face, ‘I don’t like you, this is awful.’ ”

According to Molly, the majority of her friends at other schools have been sexually assaulted during college, except for the ones who had boyfriends. “If you are completely unavailable to be part of the hookup culture, then people don’t seem to see you as a target.” But if you opt in, she says, you are vulnerable.

Research from Bucknell psychologist William Flack puts statistics behind what can easily be concluded by anecdote. In a study about the incidence of unwanted sex among university students, both women and men said 77.8 percent of unwanted sex happened in a hookup (compared to 13.9 percent in a relationship and 8.3 percent on a date). “It’s safe to say that when you are looking at sexual assault, hooking up is a significant risk factor,” says Flack, who started studying hookup culture in 2001 at the suggestion of his students.

To older generations, the suggestion that hookup culture could be leading to sketchy sexual situations makes complete sense. But in certain circles on campus today, this link is extremely controversial. To suggest that women may put themselves at risk by hooking up — by getting blackout drunk, by getting into bed with someone they do not know — is considered to be an offensive example of victim-blaming. In a recent essay in the Harvard Crimson called “Here’s How I Was Raped,” student Viviana Maymi articulates this point of view: “Everyone has the right to get as drunk as they want to without the threat of being raped … Victims did not ‘put themselves in that situation’ as a result of having been drunk … When a drunk driver enters a car, he knows he is impaired, which is why he is responsible for the death of the person he runs over. Likewise, at a party, a perpetrator knows he is impaired, and should be held accountable for the drunken assumptions he makes and acts on.”

Despite the risks, hookup culture has become surprisingly idealistic, based on a sense of trust that you can take a fellow student home and nothing bad will happen. “The very idea that one should be able to go out and drink and wear sexy clothes and not be sexually assaulted is something that did not even cross the minds of women that are older than me. They thought sexual assault was a guarantee if women were behaving like this,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociologist who studies sexuality. “This generation is surprised they are not as safe as they thought they were, and as they think they should be, and as they are entitled to be. What they are asking for and expecting is where we need to go. But the fact they are surprised we haven’t gotten there yet puts women in terrible risk.”

The past few years of campus activism have certainly raised awareness of the bad things that can happen — though whether there has been an uptick in sexual assault or an increase in the reporting of sexual assault is hotly debated. Much of the messaging is focused on educating students about affirmative consent: “Yes means yes.” (Dartmouth, for its part, is also attempting to address sexual assault on campus by, among other things, adopting an affirmative-consent policy and launching a smartphone app that allows students to chat with campus safety. It’s also banned hard alcohol.)

But the very nature of the hookup may make people less attuned to, or even interested in, what’s going on with their partner. “I think hooking up and emotionless sex is great,” says David, a senior who identifies as queer. “Love it, love third-wave feminism, do what you want with your body. But hookup culture is inherently bad because you’re hooking up with people you don’t care about, so you’re not concerned about their safety. I don’t think you’re as worried about this random person feeling weird about it the next day, because you don’t know who they are.”

Alcohol, of course, vastly complicates the issue. Students say that Dartmouth is educating them that if they have had any alcohol, they can’t give consent for sex. But that message, they say, is not realistic. “We’re a bunch of 20-somethings who are in charge of our own Greek houses and have no real adult supervision,” says David. “I think you could walk into any basement on any night and see two people who are hooking up who are too drunk to be doing it. When you see it that often, I think you’re desensitized to it no matter how often you go into class and recite, ‘You can’t give consent if you’re drinking.’ ”

David’s own experiences speak to the perils of drunk sex but also show how central alcohol is to hookup culture. “I once woke up in the morning and was in bed with someone I did not know, I did not remember meeting him, and I did not know who he was,” says David. “It was like my third week on campus. He was a junior. At the time I really didn’t care. My freshman fall, I was very sexually liberated, and I thought of it as part of the college experience, like, I got too drunk and slept with someone — classic freshman. It really didn’t bother me. I didn’t even wake him up. I put my clothes on, went home, didn’t think about it.” It was only later that he started to worry if he was “having sex with people and not remembering it.”

Another time, he became lucid while making out with a stranger. “I actually blacked in while hooking up with someone,” he says. “I don’t really remember how we got there. I just remember coming to consciousness and being in the process of hooking up. I stopped it and was like, ‘I really have to go home. I’m way too drunk.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no, you’re fine, just stay.’ It was very disorienting to wake up while it was happening.”

John — one of the rare men I interviewed who says he always, always asks for consent, even for a kiss — remembers being woken up by a drunken friend. “Nobody locks their doors at Dartmouth,” John says. “I was asleep and she climbed into my bed and started sucking my dick.” They had hooked up before, but he wasn’t expecting her. “It was weird, I was mostly asleep,” he says. “She was kissing me all over. It escalated, and I finished at some point. I didn’t really know what to do, because she kind of pushed herself on me. And I didn’t have a problem with it. But I try to avoid those situations because I feel like a creeper — even though I didn’t initiate and I was in my bed.”

Students say the hookup culture at Dartmouth is influenced by the fraternity-dominated social scene. “When men run the scene, they feel entitled to their space, they feel entitled to their actions,” says Elizabeth, a Dartmouth senior. “I think there is a subconscious feeling of dominance.”

Female students describe feeling slightly preyed on as freshmen, their stock slowly dropping over the course of four years, while men see their stock rise as they become older and more powerful on campus. Students call this phenomenon the Dartmouth X, though it is by no means exclusive to this school. “I think in the straight hooking-up culture, men tend to get what they want, and women tend to not get what they want,” says Flack. “Typically, men want sex without commitment. Women also want sex, but they also want the guy to acknowledge their existence the day after. They are not getting that.”

One senior explains his strategy for reaping the rewards of hookup culture: “If you wanted to hook up, you would text eight or nine people that you had hooked up with and say, ‘Do you want to play pong tonight?’ Then you would see what kind of responses you get.”

He compares the science to a college sending out acceptance letters — you have to be able to predict who is going to accept and who is going to turn you down. But sometimes multiple girls would respond. In that case, he would just invite them all over to play pong. “Whoever wants to have sex the most is going to have sex under that strategy.”

The women on the other end of the ‘Wanna play pong?’ texts aren’t exactly over the moon about them. But they want to hook up, too, and this is sometimes the best, or only, option. “This guy did his douchey thing, but I happened to want to hook up with someone that night, so it was fine, I didn’t really care,” says Elizabeth of one of her early hookups. “And then I’m a relatively lazy person, so we just kept hooking up for my freshman fall.”

Jordan, a senior in my old sorority, says she hooks up because she doesn’t want a boyfriend. She’s busy in school, has lots of friends, and relationships are too much work. But she is trying to hook up smarter. After “something weird” happened to her freshman year, she now only hooks up with people she knows. 

On frat row late Saturday night, the students look like roving bands of trick-or-treaters. A girl walking arm in arm with her friend announces, “I’m thirsty. In the sex way and the water way.”

Meanwhile a guy on the street gets an exciting email.

“Oh shiiiiit.” He shouts, “She responded to my blitz at 1 a.m. It didn’t say friend anywhere in that. What do I say?”

His buddies gather around the phone.

“How is this? ‘Headed to Psi U. Meet you there?’ ” he suggests.

Nelly is blaring from the nearby Psi U fraternity — “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes” — and students are hanging out the window.

“Okay. Sent.”

His friend slaps him on the back and says, “This is your bar mitzvah, buddy.”

*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.