What I Wish I’d Known About Hookup Culture Before Going to College

Hey kid. Let’s talk about this before you find yourself at a pre-game with a Solo cup in hand, wearing your favorite Betsy Johnson miniskirt. You know, the one with the suspenders that you bought at the outlet mall with your mother, the one that always made you feel sexy at play rehearsal because it has a zipper all the way down the back. Here’s what you should know and memorize, what you should press into your spine like dried flower petals between the pages of your journal. This is going to be fun and messy and damp. It’s okay if it doesn’t come naturally. You will figure it out.

Concerned op-ed columnists and academics will toss around the phrase “hookup culture” and you’ll roll your eyes at it, thinking it’s alarmist and concern-trolling. Young people should be able to fool around and dance and fuck and learn without it being the subject of trend pieces and book club exposés for panicked moms missing you in the suburbs. Every generation has a sexual fad with a silly name, a revolution or a crisis or an epidemic. But it is a thing, hookup culture, and it’s not all bad. Sex doesn’t have to mean love or a forever commitment that neither party really wants. You have so many options and so many choices. Just don’t think any one choice is better than another, morally or socially or whatever else. What’s important is that it is your decision and your decision alone.

It’s okay to not know what you want yet.

You should experiment and stay up too late and collect condoms from the health center and wear lipstick that is way too dark for your coloring. If you want to create terrible mixed drinks using cupcake vodka and cream soda, you should do it. Meet a cute guy in your dorm and dance with him at the Blink 182 cover band concert. Hold his hand on the walk back to your room. Give him a hickey when he starts cooing at the sensation of your lips on his neck, and help him cover up the red mark with makeup the next morning. Kiss him goodbye. There’s no shame in this, no shame at all in discovering what feels good and how you like to be pleased. Get a little loud and naked, you have all the freedom in the world.

Please remember that you deserve kindness. You deserve to have your “no” heard, to have your boundaries respected, to decide when you’re ready to call it a night. Don’t be afraid to say that’s all you’re up for, thank you, I prefer to sleep alone. No matter who they are, if they’re the nice guy next door or the hot girl from the ice cream mixer or a stranger from a party somewhere across campus, you can’t really remember where, they still have to listen to you. And you have to listen to them too, you have to check in with them when they aren’t as enthusiastic as they were a few minutes ago, when they get shy or start looking away, when they hesitate before opening the door. Whatever happens tonight, it’s something you’re creating together.

Listen, kid, this next part is important. You are not weak for having feelings. You aren’t weak for being disappointed when your text messages go unanswered. You aren’t weak for cringing when they walk past you in the dining hall and don’t say hello. You aren’t weak for caring that she looked so gorgeous in the red glow of the party, that he took your arm to help you across the icy sidewalk, that they brought you a glass of water in bed as your racing heart slowed down and you caught your breath. You don’t need to learn to compartmentalize, to not get attached, to get over it. You are human and sometimes you will miss things, you will get stuck on someone’s smile or sense of humor and emotions will catch in your heart like rain in your eyelashes. This isn’t a failing, it’s a strength. Getting pieces of yourself tangled up with someone else is part of the deal of sex sometimes. It’s not a crime to care.

Getting AttachedIt’s okay if you want more than one night with someone, even if you don’t have someone specific in mind. It’s okay if making out on the dance floor isn’t enough for you, if you want to learn last names and middle names and favorite foods and hated podcasts. It’s okay if you want to go see a movie with a date, if you want to bring someone snacks while they study at the library and ask them for advice on your course selections. You aren’t being demanding or traditional for wanting something with a future, even if it’s a future of a few weeks or a few months—wanting the opportunity for a relationship to develop doesn’t mean you’re demanding a marriage proposal. You’re not being sex-negative or stereotypically feminine or pathetically heteronormative for wishing for something that grows. There’s nothing wrong with asking for more than impermanence.

You are not a bad feminist for catching feelings. You are not failing to be woke if you decide that you don’t want to participate in the drinking and the flirting and the swiping and the forgetting. You are not judgmental or prudish or cowardly or insecure. Only you get to decide what you’re comfortable with. It sucks that it feels like you’re “opting out” of the whole thing, that you’re leaving some big party early where the drinks are always free and everyone seems to be having such a good time. Some schools are just shitty like that, where dating is treated like some bizarre, antique mating ritual. I promise there are other people like you, people who look around at parties and wonder what the hell everyone is thinking. Ask someone out for coffee. The worst they can do is say no.

You’re also allowed to want both. You don’t have to choose between long, adventurous nights that don’t last and forming deep, intimate connections that matter. You can be both and—you can hook up and fall in love, maybe even with the same person. College sexuality isn’t a fork in the road where you have relationships on one path and casual sex on the other. You do not have to decide who you are and what you want during orientation like you’re selecting a character at the start of a video game. You can change your mind, be ready for anything depending on who comes along.

It’s not even a binary choice between sex and intimacy—you will see that interacting with humans is a vast spectrum of meaningless and meaningful, of delicious borrowed time and drawn-out epic love affairs.

Sometimes what you want and what they want will mismatch and that will hurt. It will hurt like shame, like embarrassment, like rejection and you will feel like you have no one to blame but yourself. But you aren’t violating some contract for developing feelings. You can’t pressure them into changing their mind and choosing you, but you don’t need to resent your heart for doing what it’s made to do. Let them go and give it time, this disappointment will fade. Take yourself out to dinner and bring a good book.

It will feel like there are rules to hookup culture that no one taught you, an etiquette guidebook that wasn’t included in the orientation packet. Don’t worry about these rules; they’re based in avoidance and fear. Just be nice, okay? Be respectful of people. Don’t pretend you don’t know them or make fun of them for wanting to know you. Ask them what they want and tell them what you want. Be honest whenever possible. Be gentle whenever you can. Be kindest with yourself, because that’s the relationship that matters most, the one that will last until tomorrow and next week and next quarter and next year. Be the best person you can be, wherever you take yourself. Make mistakes and learn from them. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.


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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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