In a September 2012 article, “Boys on the Side,” in The Atlantic magazine, Hanna Rosin, author of the recently released book “The End of Men,” casts a critical eye at the “hookup culture” of college campuses, arguing that the prevalence of casual sexual encounters is “an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.”
After interviewing dozens of undergraduate and graduate students at institutions not unlike Bowdoin, Rosin concluded that “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.”
Over a dozen interviews with Bowdoin students from an array of social groups, class years and sexual orientations suggests that this is not generally the case at Bowdoin, and that many men and women are dissatisfied with the hookup culture here, mostly as a result of an unspoken set of rules that dictate how students go about navigating sex and dating at the College.
The interviewed students unilaterally agreed that “hooking up” can mean “anything from kissing to having sex,” as Phoebe Kranefuss ’16 put it, and is usually a “very casual” encounter. As Eric Edelman writes in his op-ed this week, “Hookups can have as much or as little meaning as you put into them. They can take the form of friendly hellos, sloppy goodbyes, clear overtures of interest, or cautious explorations.”
“If you are very focused on schoolwork it’s a good option to still have sexual partners and not need to have a constant connection and dependency on them, and I think that can be very beneficial if both people are completely on the same page,” said Kendall Carpenter ’15, who co-chairs the Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP).
But too often, students are not on the same page as the people they choose to hook up with—a symptom of the indefinite meaning of the term, as well as what amounts to an unofficial code of conduct that regulates these encounters, which makes it difficult for men and women to be clear about what they want from their partners.
“You can be having a conversation with your friends and you could say ‘we’re hooking up’ or ‘we hooked up’ and that could mean anything...you don’t have to share your entire life story, but you can still be sexually aware,” said Anissa Tanksley ’14. “But to a certain extent I think it diminishes the importance of those experiences.”
“I think the most important thing on this campus is to have an open line of communication, because it’s really easy to assume that everyone wants this one night stand hookup thing,” said Christa Villari ’15. “In reality, the majority of feedback is that people don’t necessarily want that, that people want to be in relationships and that they’re generally dissatisfied with what’s going on on campus.”
The going myth is that everyone is hooking up, and that there is only one “hookup culture,” governed by sports teams and College Houses.
“There’s a predominant notion that everyone’s hooking up, and I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Matt Frongillo ’13, who leads ASAP with Carpenter. “When the hookup culture becomes a problem is when people feel like they have to fit into it.”
Rosin’s article cites data from sociologist Paula England, who has been surveying college students about hooking up since 2005. England found that on average, college seniors reported an average of 7.9 hookups over the course of four years in college, which Rosin casts as proof that “people at either end of the scale are skewing the numbers.”
“There’s some people who legitimately think that people do not date or have some other relationship other than maybe hooking up, which I think is completely not true,” said Josh Friedman ’15.
The hookup culture at Bowdoin goes hand in hand with the drinking culture. In 2010, 68 percent of Bowdoin students reported they were sexually active, and 67 percent said they had sex while drunk during the previous academic year, according to data from the College’s most recent Health & Wellness survey. Last year, 34 percent of Bowdoin students said they sometimes drink in order to be more comfortable flirting, according to a NESCAC-wide alcohol survey.
“I dont think its necessarily the norm at all, it’s just what’s the most public, because you see people who are intoxicated and hooking up and that’s what you think is the norm,” said Laurel Varnell ’14.
Stereotypes and subcultures
Stereotypes about hooking up and dating have long informed campus culture. A 1989 Orient article reported that the dominant courtship pattern at the College was “mating, dating, and relating,” with students displaying the tendency “to have either a ‘marriage-like’ relationship with another person or no relationship at all.” The same kinds of stereotypes were unsurprisingly at play then as now: “Men often go to campus-wide fraternity parties with an expectation that they can ‘scoop’ a girl by acting in a very masculine manner,” the Orient reporter noted, continuing to make the claim that “Women also perpetuate sex roles. A few [students] confided they used a ‘stupid chick’ act to make their ways to the front of beer lines at parties.”
Now that College Houses have replaced fraternities as hosts of campus-wides, it’s still undeniable that men and women both have active roles in keeping the hookup culture alive and well, and interviewed students identified similar stereotypes to those reported over 20 years ago.
Misconceptions about the hookup culture graft onto the most commonly stereotyped demographics at the College, like athletes, NARPs [Non-Athletic Regular Persons], first years, and others.
“One of my friends said yesterday, ‘I would never hook up with a NARP at Bowdoin, there are too many cute athletic boys,’” said Wynne Leahy ’16.
Athletic teams appear to be the group that determines the social scene, simply because they are the most visible and easily identifiable. Forty percent of students play at least one varsity sport.
“I don’t think you’re limited if you’re not on a sports team, but there is definitely a sports culture at Bowdoin, and it’s neither a good thing or a bad thing,” said Matthew Gutierrez ’16.
Phoebe Kranefuss ’16 noted the stereotyped contrasts between the athlete and non-athlete scene, and said that from her point of view, casual hooking up is much more prevalent among athletes.
“The attitude [of] varsity athletes and non-athletes are generally very different,” Kranefuss said. “I’ve noticed that the varsity athletes are always at Baxter and Crack on the weekends and when you run into them they’re really good at picking up girls, a lot of times guys who aren’t athletes are kind of—not all of them but a lot of the time--they’re kind of the guys you might get to know and become friends with first.”
Among some students, athletic teams enjoy an elevated status in the hookup culture.
Kranefuss said this was certainly the case among people she knows: “One of my friends said the other day, ‘Oh he’s on the baseball team, so it doesn’t even matter who he is,’” adding, “I’m sure if that gets published the baseball team is going to be ecstatic.”
That said, this hierarchy demonstrates perceptions more than reality. It also does not fully account for the changes in the hookup culture as students get older and the novelty and anonymity wears off.
“When you start as a freshman you have all these opportunities before you, people who you really don’t know well enough to decide whether or not it’s a good decision to hook up with them,” said Simon Bordwin, ’13. “At the beginning you don’t realize that...the people you hook up with you have to spend the rest of your college career with, and those are consequences you don’t think about when you’re a freshman. You learn to be a little bit more cautious.”
Bordwin said that students who don’t identify as straight face the same problems when it comes to hooking up on Bowdoin’s small campus.
“I don’t think there are really are that many differences, because I feel like no matter who you want to hook up with there is going to be a small pool,” said Bordwin. “We all exist in these little microcosms.”
Bordwin added, however, that because the queer community is more limited in size, “The gay hookup scene is...very much contained within the gay community because, I would say, most gay hookups happen not at more ‘mainstream’ parties and so for that reason, it adds to its incestuous qualities, but it also makes it a little more private in a weird way. Also, there’s a sense of not wanting to out people and being unsure of who is out or not.”
The microcosms Bordwin describes exist for a handful of campus minorities.
“Generally the people who are the most vocal are the ones who are talking about the mainstream hookup culture, and that’s why it’s seen as a norm. Whereas the queer community has it’s own culture, women and men of color have their own, international students have their own,” said Varnell.
Tanksley agreed, and questioned the degree to which these subcultures interact with each other through the hookup scene.
“Beyond racial lines, there are just certain groups that just never interact. And for those groups to be having relationships outside of those groups is very taboo and you’ll rarely see it, because people feel uncomfortable stepping outside those social lines that have been drawn for them,” she said.
One of the major problems that students identified about the most visible hookup culture is that many parties involve women going to a male residence like, to take the most-cited example, Crack House—the site of the Boom Boom Room, a notorious basement dancefloor. But not before a certain hour, and not before having a few drinks.
“The sports houses are kind of our version of a fraternity,” said Carpenter. “It would solve all our problems if a girls sports team got a house and threw parties, so it [wouldn’t be] just the guys deciding who is coming in and who’s not.”
“I wish that women on campus felt like they didn’t need to go to a men’s house in order to have a successful night,” said Tanksley. “I honestly think that the men at Crack House, if no women showed up they would still party, they would drink and have an amazing night”
Connor Handy ’13, a resident of Crack House who has been in a relationship for over ten months, said that there is a stigma attached to the house that leads many students to misunderstand the nature of the space.
“I’m involved with a lot of different groups on campus...[but] when people hear that I live at the Crack House, they kind of want to hear more about it,” said Handy. “There’s definitely a good amount of judging. There’s just a stigma about it. A lot of people think you have to be drunk to go, you have to hook up with someone—not what we want at all.”
“I think that Crack House gets a lot of bad rap,” said Varnell. “But it’s also somewhat truthful. I’ve heard people make comments like, 'I don’t go into the Boom Boom Room unless I want to hook up with someone,’ which is disgusting...but there are other places besides that one room that are completely normal spaces, where people are talking and hanging out.”
The Rules of Engagement
The stigmas, stereotypes, and miscommunications about hooking up at Bowdoin are rooted in “understood” conventions about how it all happens, which students said they’ve seen lead to an array of emotional experiences, not all the empowering “feminist progress” that Rosin portends.
Students reported that emotional detachment is the rule at Bowdoin, and that men and women alike feel pressure to say they don’t want a relationship.
“A lot of the rules revolve around this idea that you have to act cool about it,” said Villari. “Everyone assumes that no one really wants a relationship, therefore if you hook up with someone, if you see them, maybe you’ll say hi, maybe you won’t. It’s so weird how people pretend like they didn’t just spend hours with that person, or to wake up next to a person and see them the next day at brunch and pretend like you didn’t just wake up next to them.”
According to Rosin, England’s data shows that 74 percent of men and women said they’d had a relationship lasting at least six months while in college, a statistic that is off the mark when it comes to Bowdoin—in a 2008 Orient survey, just under 40 percent of students reported having at least one committed relationship during their time at the College.
Handy said the College’s “almost nonexistent” dating culture is distinct from similar schools.
“I obviously don’t have too much experience with other schools, but I think it’s pretty different at Bowdoin...From a guy’s perspective, it seems like there are a lot of guys on campus who aren’t looking for girlfriends,” he said.
England found that 66 percent of women say they wanted their most recent hookup to turn into something more, and 58 percent of men said the same.
“I came into it [thinking] ‘I want to have a relationship,’ and it was really hard being a freshman and finding that the people I was hooking up with didn’t want the same thing,” said Villari.
Students agreed that one of the unspoken rules is that people have to appear indifferent towards a hookup after the fact, often by ignoring someone in passing or eschewing further communication altogether.
Devin Hardy ’13 called this “the avoidance rule...whoever can be more disengaged is ultimately the person who has the power.”
“Unless at the beginning you’ve made it clear that you want more than a hook up, then the expectation is not even to acknowledge the hook up, it’s just to pretend it didn’t happen,” said Varnell.
Hardy, who works closely with the Women’s Resource Center, said that she is thinking about starting “a ‘Just Say Hi’ campaign” to encourage people to set the norm of speaking to each other after a hookup.
“You would think it would be easier to confront them or to see them and not put your head down and pretend you never hooked up with that person,” said Villari. “But for some reason it’s so taboo, and everyone just assumes that that’s what’s done on campus.”
Nonetheless, not every interaction is predicated on these campus trends.
“There are people who will not say hi the next morning, and then there are people who are really really friendly, and both of those are fine,” said Leahy.
A new era?
So, have we really “landed in an era that has produced a new breed of female sexual creature,” as Rosin suggests? Are Bowdoin students satisfied with the hookup culture, in all its forms? It’s impossible to say for sure, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, largely as a result of the understood rules that govern sexual encounters on campus, and the lack of anonymity that attends a small, highly concentrated student population.
“I look around, and I see women who I see as strong, brilliant, beautiful women who are having these sexual encounters that they regret, and...with people who they wouldn’t be attracted to in the daylight,” said Tanksley. “But it gives them a certain amount of reinforcement and it makes them feel wanted.”
Not everyone at Bowdoin wants a relationship, a hookup, or anything in between—many don’t know what they want, and therein lies the problem.
“I come across people who come up with excuses, reasons why they don’t want a consistent hook up... like, ‘It’s my senior fall,’ or ‘I don’t want to be too attached to someone,’” said Handy. “Bowdoin’s so small that if anything ever goes sour, it can be really awkward.”
Jay Greene ’13, who works with ASAP and V-Day to promote discussions about these issues on campus, said that simply accepting misconceptions about the hookup culture at face value perpetuates the problem.
“My interest is in helping people realize that if there’s an aspect of their social life—hooking up, drinking, gender dynamics—that they don’t like, they can do something about it,” she said.
“Unfortunately I think you do find that a lot of people are dissatisfied with their experiences,” said Villari. “I know people who go out and are like ‘I don’t want to hook up with anyone’ or ‘I don’t want to be in a relationship’...but on the inside they really do want that relationship. And it’s kind of a guise to say that they’re okay with hooking up with all these random people, when in reality it’s because they’re not getting what they want.”
While Rosin’s argument that the hookup culture is illustrative of a new expression of feminism on college campuses does not hold up for many students at Bowdoin, one of the conclusions she draws certainly applies: “Young men and women have discovered a sexual freedom unbridled by the conventions of marriage, or any conventions. But that’s not how the story ends. They will need time...to figure out what they want and how to ask for it. Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women.”
If students are willing to take the time to think about the various implications of hooking up and the issues it attends before hitting the holiday parties this weekend, maybe everyone can start getting what they want.
—Claire Aasen contributed to this report.