Anti-hookup culture screeds have been a staple of publishing for more than a decade. They all identify “hookup culture” as a college campus scourge and seek to tone it down or eliminate it completely. As Amanda Hess pointed out last April in Slate, hookup culture—college as a four-year, alcohol-fueled orgy—is a canard: Fewer than 15 percent of college students hook up more than twice a year. Another truth published in Slate: The hookup culture that does exist is largely a wealthy and white phenomenon.
A new study set to be published in the February issue of the journal Sociological Perspectives shows that the media focus on college hookup culture—whether positive or negative—just solidifies the idea among students that college involves hooking up, whether it really does or not. Barbara Risman, the chair of sociology at the University of Illinois–Chicago and a Council on Contemporary Families senior scholar, interviewed 87 students. UIC started as a commuter school, and it still has a good chunk of students who live at home with their parents. Of Risman’s sample, only 33 percent lived on campus, and that 33 percent was whiter and wealthier than the students who did not live in the dorms. According to Risman’s study, working-class and Latino students were overrepresented among those who lived at home, and those were the students who felt they were missing the real “college experience” because their lives did not allow them access to hookup culture. One older male student, who lived off campus but not with his parents and had served in the military for five years, also felt left out of the privileged world of hookups. “You always want to have the true college experience, quote unquote. Where you live on campus in the dorms and it’s just like parties all around. I feel like I’ve missed out on that,” he told Risman.
The commuter students are often “working 20, or even 40 hours a week when they’re going to school,” Risman says. “But they, too, see the college experience the way the media presents it, being all about hooking up. They don’t feel access to the privilege of that kind of experience, and they talk about it as a loss.” That’s not to say that the students who live off campus don’t have casual sexual experiences; they do. But, according to Risman, “they don’t talk about it as hooking up and don’t see it as part of the alcohol-fueled hooking-up culture.”
In all the pearl clutching about college-age men and women getting drunk and getting laid, we’re missing the fact that for lots of young people in the U.S., college isn’t one big party. As Risman says, it’s “important to diversify our notion of what going to college is.” Maybe if we have a more realistic view as a culture about what the experience of college is like for most students, then we’ll see more books about the college loan crisis instead of more books about hooking up.