Combating Male Superiority Within Collegiate Hookup Culture

By: Katharine DeSantis ’22, a Political Science and Philosophy double major.

The following work was created for FYS 101: Feminism and the #MeToo Movement

Brief description: “Combating Male Superiority Within Collegiate Hookup Culture” is an analysis on the nature of romantic relationships as seen today on college campuses. This paper strives to define “hookup culture,” explain where the inequality is among men and women, and encourage societal shifts that would promote a balance among all participants, regardless of gender. Further, this piece hopes to achieve a greater understanding of the oppression of women, and liberate young adults to explore sexually and grow individually in a college setting that is equal for everyone.”


Introduction

Many people would agree that being apart of a romantic relationship adds value to their life. It gives a person comfort, security, and happiness to have another to rely on and bond with. Although there are many layers and options for romantic relationships, the focus of this paper is on a specific type of relationship phenomena: the “hookup culture.” In today’s society, young adults are engaging more and more in a noncommittal type of relationship that gives them the same benefits of a traditional one, yet without the emotional attachment. In this paper, I will analyze these relationships as seen on college campuses. By defining what a “hookup” is, explaining the significance of hookup culture, and exposing the gender dichotomy that exists, I will examine this dynamic through a feminist lens. I also will discuss how this culture reflects the superiority of males in the relationship, and how, with certain societal shifts, we can balance hookup culture to be equal and positive for all participants.

Hooking up has the potential to be a growing experience for young people, or an outlet to express and explore one’s sexuality. It is important to critique the male dominance of the culture so we can properly understand the need for reform and begin to create a hook up culture that is equal toward all genders. If more people are fluent in understanding how masculinity and femininity play a role in hookup culture, we can combat the unequal power dynamic by working to actively shift the societal expectations of women and men. To begin, we must evaluate how male/female expectations affect the hookup scene; in doing this, we can educate young people how to navigate in a way that is healthy and equal for everyone. This type of societal shift would liberate young adults and allow them to make choices that are solely for themselves. By opening this dialogue, we have the potential to cultivate a community of individuals who are free to explore and experience romantic relationships in whatever capacity they desire to.

Due to the unequal balance of power between men and women within the hookup culture, specifically male superiority, young adults are unable to fully experience the positive aspects of sexual relationships during their college careers. To support this argument, I am going to define hookup culture on college campuses, and explain how men and women act within this hookup culture. In doing so, I also will explain why hookup culture can be a positive aspect to one’s growth, but due to the gender dichotomy that exists, how hookup culture currently is oppressive to women. Further, I am going to explain how hookup culture can be a liberating experience for college students, and how we can transform societal expectations from negatively affecting young adults to encouraging exploration and growth. It is important to me that I not only discuss the current state of hookup culture on campuses, but where hookup culture can go to cultivate acceptance and happiness for all young adults navigating through college.

Defining hookup culture

“Hooking up” is a well-known phenomena on college campuses that is characterized by a sexual relationship between two or more participants that lacks any type of commitment prior to or post sexual engagement.[i] Hooking up is also a separation between one’s sexual activity and emotions[ii] and serves to fulfill sexual desires without tying oneself down to a committed relationship. Relationships have shifted from “dating” to “hooking up” due to a dynamic that is “related to the increased prevalence and social acceptance of premarital sex, increased dating and sexual initiating behavior among women, increased rates of unmarried cohabitation, and older ages of first marriage and childbearing.”[iii] The desire to hookup is also inspired by the desire to socialize without compromising school or career goals, the need to conform to their peers’ expectations, and the ability to use alcohol as an excuse if the hookup was the result of an intoxicated decision.[iv] Finally, the last defining characteristic of the hookup culture is that it is not necessarily everyone’s first choice; that is, many people participate because they feel there is no other option to having personal relationships with each other.[v]

Performance in Inequality

The hookup culture on college campuses proves to be unequal when examining the sexual double standard that exists between men and women. As Judith Butler states, “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo.”[vi] This description of gender identity can pertain to hookup culture when defining why men and women act in certain ways as a means to appease societal standards. Within hookup culture, men are encouraged to hook up, often facing pressure from other men to do so to achieve a socially acceptable form of “masculinity.”[vii] Whereas men are taught to value hegemonic masculinity (or social dominance of men), women are taught to conform to emphasized femininity, or the accommodation of men’s wants in exchange for security and protection.[viii]Within hookup culture, male hegemony is especially prevalent due to the fact that men are the only ones receiving the sexual and social benefits for their hookup status.[ix] While a man will enjoy a hookup that is attuned to his desires and gain social approval from his peers for it, a woman is unequally faced with backlash for engaging in the same activity.

Women are forced to navigate through hookup culture carefully, because they are held to strict standards for acceptable sexual behavior that differ from men. First, women are taught that there is a relationship imperative, or cultural expectation that women are only to engage in sexual relationships with men they are dating or married to.[x] This standard makes it “extremely restrictive for girls who are told that they must have a relationship in order to be socially validated at the same time that they are told that their sexual adventurousness is the most important tool in getting and keeping a man.”[xi] Women are then left settling for hook ups rather than committed relationships,[xii] contradicting the societal expectations that “proper” women only have sexual relations with men they are dating. The reputation of a woman is then determined by the amount she hooks up, whether that means earning the label of a “prude” for not engaging enough, or being “slut-shamed” for engaging too often. In an article from the ​College Student Journal,​ Rachel Kalish states:

When one party is able to act freely without concern for stigma, and the other party is not, the playing field is clearly not level. In this unequal setting, achieving sexual pleasure for young women becomes even more difficult, as they are made to feel bad about their choices when they do not seek out sex.[xiii]

Men often encourage women to engage in this type of non-exclusive committed relationship, yet they may judge a woman for how far or how often she participates in hooking up. This makes the tread for women even tougher in deciding which men to trust, what type of sexual activity she should engage in, and how often she should choose to hookup.

Alongside women’s struggle in deciding how to navigate through the hookup scene in college, a woman is also faced with numerous emotional consequences if she missteps in the game. When a woman is encouraged to engage in committed relationships, yet is only offered hookups, she can be left disappointed, and possibly romantically hurt or rejected.[xiv] This may negatively impact a woman’s self-worth, self-confidence, and willingness to engage in romantic relationships later in life. If a woman gains a bad reputation, she is then stigmatized for her actions, resulting in the curtailing and retracting of her sexuality.[xv] This correlation can be extremely detrimental to women, but is not an issue for men who are congratulated for engaging in hookup culture and taught to separate their feelings from their sexual experiences to remain “masculine.” This dynamic shows multiple spokes on the cage of oppression because women are not only at higher risk for negative consequences from a hookup, but they are also left emotionally unfulfilled while men reap the social and sexual benefits from the engagement.

Possibilities for the future

Although hookup culture is currently oppressive to women, it has the potential to be a healthy opportunity for young adults to explore their sexuality in a mutually safe and encouraging environment. With increased sexual freedoms hookup culture offers, it can give the same benefits to women that it currently gives men. Without the commitment or emotional investment that an exclusive relationship entails, both male and female actors can fulfill their sexual needs and become acquainted with various types of people and experiences. It allows for young adults to decide what qualities and characteristics they desire for long-term romantic relationships, and gives individuals the chance to explore safely with easy access to resources the college might offer them (i.e. access to contraceptives, STD testing, mental health services) if they so need it. College is an ideal setting for personal growth, and if individuals have equal sexual freedom, they can make choices for themselves without gender-biased consequences. This type of shift would also allow for greater acceptance of sexuality, because everyone could explore in a way that is fitting to who they are and who they want to be.

Hooking up can become an equal opportunity for young adults on college campuses if we teach children to respect all genders equally, if we establish clear communication about the boundaries and expectations of every sexual relationship, and if we lessen the pressure to engage in more/less sexual behaviors based on outdated standards. To teach children how to respect each other, we first should eliminate the idea that boys should be ridiculed for expressing anything other than “masculine” behavior. If we let boys play with the toys they want, if we discipline boys in the same fashion we discipline girls, and if we instill the value that people can be whoever they want to be without adhering to a gender binary, we can help youth learn to respect each other equally and without barriers. Second, we can instill in girls that they can wear what they feel comfortable in, pursue any job they might want, and make independent choices for themselves without influence from male expectations and power.

Further, establishing clear communication about boundaries and expectations of a sexual relationship can help both members feel validated in pursuing whatever degree of sexual behaviors they desire. This also prevents one participant from feeling emotionally abused, and decreases instances of sexual violence or discomfort. Many women in today’s society feel powerless against the wishes of a man, therefore adding a barrier to her ability to voice her wants during a sexual engagement. With open communication that is encouraged by all parties, both partners in a relationship can have their needs met and voices heard.

Finally, if we lessen the pressure to engage in the hookup culture, individuals can pursue whatever form of sexual relationship they choose without fear of upsetting one’s reputation. The pressure to engage in romantic relationships is seen avidly among social media, given by parents, and encouraged by peers. If we shift from negative pressure to positive encouragement, we teach young adults the benefits of equal and safe sexual activity. With this type of shift, “women [can be] viewed as autonomous actors empowered to request ​ordecline sex,”[xvi] leveling the field between men and women to feel equally comfortable engaging in sexual behaviors that are satisfying for all participants.

Objections

Societal shifts, especially centered around gender power imbalances, can be tough to combat. Many people believe that changing society’s views can take decades, and never shift in the direction we want them to. Especially when addressing male superiority, reaching males who are advantaged by the imbalance can be challenging. Many men also believe they are not the problem, but that women need to step up to their level and voice their desires louder.

These claims, although valid, are not the only reality the world has seen. Thanks to the work of individuals and organizations, movements such as desegregation, women’s suffrage, and the legality of gay marriage became outstanding examples of how society’s attitude toward certain groups can change when challenged by powerful individuals and communities who work to change it. Men who believe that women should “rise to the occasion” need to understand that there are many barriers preventing their success, and without men willing to share their freedom, women will have no room to stand next to them. In this form of oppression, individuals will continue to stand firm in their work towards equality for all genders. By continuing to address the issues, educating ourselves and others, and taking small steps in our everyday lives, we can all work together to level the playing field between men and women in all aspects of life, including hookup culture.

Conclusion

By shifting the hookup culture from something to conquer, or something to tread carefully through, to a culture of freedom and exploration for all participants, more individuals can engage in the capacity they feel truly comfortable with. As seen in collegiate hookup culture, men often dominate the scene, leaving little room for women to express their desires and have the same type of benefits that men do. Current hookup culture is a proponent to the oppression of women, when examined from all sides and analyzed in the feminist perspective. Although these barriers seem extensive, with conscious action to shift away from pressure and ambiguity, we can teach young adults how to engage in a hookup culture that is mutually beneficial and explorative for all parties. This would equate to opportunities for men and women to have sexual relationships that are communicated clearly and offer equal benefits for everyone. When individuals are offered a safe, healthy opportunity to express themselves and have personal growth, the impact can be positive on an entire society.

Endnotes

[i] ​Jacqueline Bible, Brad Van Eeden-Moorefield, SoYoung Lee, Lisa Liberman, “The Influence of College Hookups on Future Romantic Relationships: A Review of the Literature,” in ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 300.
[ii] ​Kelly Conor, “Sexism in Practice: Feminist Ethics Evaluating the Hookup Culture,”in ​Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion n​ o. 2 (2012), 27.
[iii] ​Danielle M. Currier, “Strategic Ambiguity: Protecting Emphasized Femininity
and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Hookup Culture,” in ​Gender and Society​, no. 5 (2013), 704.
[iv] ​Kelly Conor, “Sexism in Practice: Feminist Ethics Evaluating the Hookup Culture,”in ​Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion n​ o. 2 (2012), 27.
[v] ​Rachel Kalish, “The Gendered Meaning of Trust and Its Role in Sexual Decision-Making
within American Collegiate Hookup Culture,” in ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 411.
[vi] ​Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in ​Theatre Journal​ 40, no. 4 (December 1988), 519.
[vii] ​Danielle M. Currier, “Strategic Ambiguity: Protecting Emphasized Femininity
and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Hookup Culture,” in ​Gender and Society​, no. 5 (2013), 704.
[viii] ​Ibid, 706.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] ​Rachel Kalish, “The Gendered Meaning of Trust and Its Role in Sexual Decision-Making
within American Collegiate Hookup Culture,” in ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 413.
[xi] ​Ibid, 418.
[xii] ​Jacqueline Bible, Brad Van Eeden-Moorefield, SoYoung Lee, Lisa Liberman, “The Influence of College Hookups on Future Romantic Relationships: A Review of the Literature,” in ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 304.
[xiii] ​Rachel Kalish, “The Gendered Meaning of Trust and Its Role in Sexual Decision-Making
within American Collegiate Hookup Culture,” in ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 418.
[xiv] ​Jacqueline Bible, Brad Van Eeden-Moorefield, SoYoung Lee, Lisa Liberman, “The Influence of College Hookups on Future Romantic Relationships: A Review of the Literature,” in ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 303.
[xv] ​Rachel Kalish, “The Gendered Meaning of Trust and Its Role in Sexual Decision-Making
within American Collegiate Hookup Culture,” in ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018), 417.
[xvi] ​Jill Filipovic, “Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back,” (Berkeley, California: Seal Press, 2008), 14.

Bibliography

Bible, Jacqueline, Brad Van Eeden-Moorefield, SoYoung Lee, and Lisa Lieberman. “The Influence of College Hookups on Future Romantic Relationships: A Review of the Literature.” ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 299–308. https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=a9h&AN=132341817&site=eds-live​.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” ​Theatre Journal​ 40, no. 4 (December 1988): 519. https://doi.org/10.2307/3207893​.

Conor, Kelly. “Sexism in Practice: Feminist Ethics Evaluating the Hookup Culture.” ​Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion n​ o. 2 (2012): 27. https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=edspmu&AN=edspmu.S1553391312200029&site=eds-live​.

Currier, Danielle M. “S​trategic Ambiguity​: Protecting Emphasized Femininity
and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Hookup Culture.” ​Gender and Society,​ no. 5 (2013): 704. https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.43669824&site=eds-live​.

Filipovic, Jill. “Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back.” Edited by Friedman, Jaclyn and Jessica Valenti, 13-27. Berkeley, California: Seal Press, 2008.

Kalish, Rachel. “The Gendered Meaning of Trust and Its Role in Sexual Decision-Making within American Collegiate Hookup Culture.” ​College Student Journal​ 52, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 410–20. https://washcoll.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=a9h&AN=132341828&site=eds-live​.


Kat DeSantis is a freshman at WAC, recently elected as Parliamentarian of the Student Government Association and otherwise involved as a coxswain on the Women’s Rowing Team, a member of Alpha Omicron Pi, a delegate on the Model United Nations team, a “George’s General” school ambassador, and serves as the Communications Director of Hillel. She looks forward to sharing her piece with others so that everyone might play a part in breaking down the barriers of oppression and promoting a more just society for all.

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