During the 2002-2003 school year, I conducted focus groups on undergraduate social culture as part of the Women’s Initiative research project. Students talked a lot about the hookup culture in its endless variety, with detours into concepts like “friends with benefits” and the “walk of shame.” Very few talked of the hookup culture with any fondness: both men and women recognized its superficiality and said they would much prefer a different, better way to find intimacy and connection. I was curious about that finding: if neither men nor women would admit to liking the hookup culture much, why did it persist? Why didn’t students look for a different tmodel, or at least try traditional dating?
So I asked, and got very different answers from men and women. Men generally responded that they chose drunken, relatively anonymous hookups over dates because they thought women at Duke were too “serious.” They meant “serious” in at least two ways: first, they were somewhat intimidated by these women in all their effortless perfection. Second, they also believed (erroneously) that if they asked a woman out on a date, she would be shopping for engagement rings within weeks, that women at Duke were looking for men to marry. Women told a very different story. They said that men at Duke did not invite them on dates because they were “lazy,” and because the women made it easy for them. Why should they ask them out when the women showed up, often scantily dressed, at parties with themes like “Secretaries and Executives” or “GI Joes and Barbie Hos”? They recognized that the men set low standards, but the women lowered themselves to meet them.
That’s what bothers me most about the hookup culture. I want young women at Duke—among the brightest in the nation—to realize their own worth. They know what they believe in and how they want to be, and yet they sometimes make social choices that contradict their own values. If women opted out, told men that they would not participate in the hookup culture, men would respond. Though I think the responsibility lies with both women and men to change the hookup culture to one with greater mutual respect, I think women will have to lead this particular revolution. It’s never easy to make choices that differentiate you from your peer group, but those who opt out and try to create alternatives might be surprised by how many of their peers agree with them.