Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
March 30, 2023

How hookup culture encourages emotional apathy

By LILY KAIRIS | October 26, 2017

Hidden Brain

Ahh, I thought. This must be good. So I pressed play and listened attentively as a sociologist specializing in relationships and adolescent development explained how college campuses foster a culture of emotional distance. The lessons felt all too familiar.

As a college senior, I have three plus years of hookup culture under my belt. I have wing-womaned my friends at bars and house parties; observed the strange mating rituals of dates at fraternity formals; agonized over the subtexts of meaningless interactions (Why doesn’t he send any emojis? Why didn’t he make eye contact when I passed him in Brody Cafe?); and mastered the art of nonchalance.

This isn’t something that comes naturally to me. In fact if we had it my way, college dating would look a lot more like a terribly-written 1980’s rom-com crossed with a Jane Austen novel.

When someone has a crush, they would simply write the object of their desires a hand-written letter detailing their appreciation and leave it at the other person’s doorstep.

They would then meet up that evening at the masquerade ball (because, of course, there are balls every week). The two would share a choreographed waltz. If the wooed individual isn’t feeling it, they would simply finish the dance, bow and depart. No hard feelings.

But if the wooed individual was indeed feeling “the vibe,” the couple would finish their dance, retire to the gazebo in the back garden and spend the next few hours deep-talking and sharing their favorite songs. It would be glorious.

Okay, I’m 80 percent kidding. Even as I wrote that, I was shuddering in embarrassment at myself. If some random dude actually left a handwritten letter at my doorstep, I would probably be quite sketched out. And learning a choreographed waltz sounds like far too much effort.

But the point is that I am a die-hard romantic at heart.

From my childhood spent binge-watching 1940’s romantic comedies to my ballroom dancing education (yes, I legitimately was taught ballroom dancing and etiquette skills for four years) to my parents’ and grandparents’ obsession with telling their courtship stories – well, I was basically screwed.

I arrived to Hopkins with rose-colored glasses superglued to my face, prepared for meet cutes and heartfelt serenades, and I was met with the grim reality of casual sex.

At my very first frat party freshman year, I remember watching my first two college friends as boys approached them and asked them to dance, then they kissed sloppily against the brick wall. Both of those female friends would later regard these interactions with disgust, but at that time, I was in awe. I was shocked.

I thought, what just happened? What mysterious secrets of flirtation did my new friends understand that I did not? And how did three sentences exchanged with a stranger quickly transition to aggressive groping against the wall?

Oh, sweet, innocent little Lily. I had so much to learn. As I would later realize, college courtship is nothing like 1940’s films. In fact, it isn’t really courtship at all. When people hook up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they connect on an emotional level. It doesn’t even mean they want to get to know one another.

All that it means, really, is that one body enjoys the presence of another body, in a purely physical sense. Lisa Wade, the sociologist featured on NPR, also argued that hookups are about “bolstering reputations,” and honestly, I could see that too.

Many are the nights when I praise my female friends for their hot, accomplished, well-connected, socially-woke conquests, in a way that — if I’m being totally honest — is rather uncouth. No human, male or female, wants to be spoken about like a checkmark on a list or a gold medal to place in an ever-increasing trophy case. People are people, not prizes. But the Hopkins sexual culture would argue otherwise.

I know there’s nothing I can change about the way things are. As you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, I get it. And?” waiting for the other shoe to drop or for me to tell you something you don’t already know. Because yes, hookup culture isn’t really breaking news. It’s something we expect, and it’s something we’re forced to embrace as college students, or else we risk loneliness or social isolation. But since it’s my senior year, and I will soon depart from this institution and enter the wide world of adulthood, I figured I needed to come out and say what needed to be said: Hookup culture is idiotic, really.

I’m so confused as to why it became normal for people to play this game of apathy. Listening to NPR, there was a line that stuck out: “Students have to go out of their way to ‘perform meaninglessness.’ They have to prove that they’re not emotionally attached to their sex partners, and in fact that they care less than the other person.” What the fuck? It’s a contest to see who is less invested? When did it become sexy not to care?

I, for one, think caring is the most attractive quality on the planet, and I feel personally offended by this notion. But beyond that, I’m downright afraid of the quality of peoples’ relationships if they live by these rules.

Hook-up couples, according to this idea, coexist in a purely transactional relationship, brought together by only convenience, hormones and a promise of reciprocation (I scratch your back, you scratch mine). They communicate in detached terms, both paralyzed by the fear that they might show the other person that — gasp — they actually feel something.

“Catching the feels” is spoken about with the same hushed horror as venereal diseases.

With all this pretending and all this restraint, there is little room to feel legitimately connected. There is little opportunity for any real, meaningful relationships — whether they be fleeting or not — to develop. Sure, maybe I’m biased by my romantic leanings, but I can’t help but think about all of this and mourn the college hook-up culture and the poor souls it enslaves.

Because, when all is said and done, does it really amount to anything?

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