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Drunk Sex With Strangers Is Not All It's Cracked Up to Be: How "Hook-Up" Culture Almost Ruined College

'Hooking up' has been spun as sexual liberation for career-focused young women. It doesn't square with my campus life.
 
 
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It's freshman year. I'm at a new student orientation party at the University of  Pennsylvania, wondering what exactly is in my cup. "Jungle juice", I'm told, as if that should explain things. I make out the words "everclear" and "blackout drunk" over the din of awful house music blasting from the expensive-looking speakers in some fraternity house. I have no idea what's going on, and neither do many of my fellow classmates, which doesn't stop them from passing out drunk.

I stayed for an hour or so – enough time to get asked, in the tradition of great cliches, if I were a lesbian, a prude, or a slut. Enough time to see multiple strangers pair off in dark corners, trying and failing to stand up straight.

From expensive bottles of vodka to nonexistent conversation, to black lights and vomit, this was an idea of fun that I hoped wouldn't cross over to all sectors of campus life – though I eventually found out that it did. Swap out vodka for beer, or cheap nameless grain liquor, fraternity houses for bars or clubs, and this scene was replicated over and over for four years.

For an elite few at Penn, that night was fairly typical, including the confusion felt. A friend I wouldn't meet for another three years was raped that night, at that party, probably in the room I stood in for all of 60 minutes. That was  not too unusual an occurrence either.

There's been much said about a  recent New York Times article on women having  sex at American colleges.

"It's not representative!" "It's too accurate!" "It's not news!" "It's old news!"

The reporter chose my alma mater for her exploration of college-age women's sexuality, and her findings indicate that women were leaning into their careers and opting out of long-term romantic entanglements, for which they didn't have the time, in favor of fleeting sexual encounters. In short, they were "hooking up".

I have since graduated, but some of the observations made in Kate Taylor's article rang an unfortunate bell, one I hear loudly tolling – even 100 miles and two years away from campus. That hook-up culture is now rampant is no surprise to me or anyone else who's graduated from college in the last 25 years. But women, Taylor tells us, are the driving force behind hooking up in 2013, a product of a generation of women facing "broader opportunities" than ever before.

But this assertion of women's agency in sexual encounters doesn't sound quite right. How are we to interpret the fact that, despite their insistence on being sexually liberated, the women Taylor featured wouldn't let their names (or number of sexual partners) be printed? Evidently, they still feared unwelcome repercussions from their touted sexual liberation.

Yes, I did know women who explored sexually and enjoyed their hook-up experiences – however fleeting. But sentences such as: "Women said universally that hook-ups could not exist without alcohol, because they were for the most part too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk," or "In general, she said, she thought that guys at Penn controlled the hook-up culture" sound more like the university life I knew.

So-called "hook-up culture" never was about women taking control. Instead, it always seemed to me a by-product of an institutionally destructive "college culture", one that hurts women and whose effects can still be felt years after graduation.

College culture is a nebulous term, one defined divergently along racial, socio-economic, religious and geographic lines – lines that, on a campus like Penn's, still hold incredible sway. I'm aware that my experiences are not necessarily representative of 8,000 other undergraduates', but anecdotally, looking back, I can't think of a single woman who spoke of exclusively positive experiences on campus.

 
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