“You still up?”
Truthfully, yes. I’m a night owl — glasses included, feathers and wisdom not so much.
It’s a quiet summer night in for me and my roommate, who is curled up on the couch next to me. A sitcom plays in the background, but neither of us is really watching. I break the silence, letting out a derisive snort and muttering, “He can’t be serious.”
My roommate looks up. “Is that the guy you’ve been talking to?”
“What does he want?”
She smirks. “Are you … gonna go over to his place?”
“It’s one in the morning.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s drunk.”
“Trust me, he’s probably seeing like eight other girls, one of them is bound to come through.”
“You don’t have to justify yourself, you know.”
And with that, I dismiss his booty call and bid him goodnight, fighting a sudden impulse to chuck my phone out the window.
* * *
Sometime during the hours following my 20th birthday, I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw a spinster in the making. Let’s get her a cat, I thought, that’ll round out the picture nicely. A year later, the sentiment still sticks. I think I’ve been jaded by a string of awkward dates with the types of feckless and lackadaisical boys who drink IPAs and are looking solely for a “hit-it-and-quit-it” type of dynamic.
It’s also possible that I’m just bad at dating. However, there is a more plausible explanation: I am trapped in a hookup culture comprising young people who forfeit authenticity and connection for callousness and hypersexuality (the “whateverists,” as one Washington Post columnist has dubbed them).
My generation — forever continuing its assault on the English language — is more concerned with “catching feelings” than they are venereal disease. Instead, I am surrounded by peers who take a boorish pride in flexing their body count like an overworked muscle.
Before going any further, I would like to make one thing clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with having casual flings, and this is not an attack on people who choose to do so.
On the contrary, the point could be made that our late teens and early 20s are a chance to let our hair down and have some fun. I could argue that casual, perfunctory sex is a rite of passage for a college student. We have, after all, come a long way since the blatant sexism of a bygone era: one of hoop skirts, hot rollers and sock hops. Nobody even uses the term “courting” anymore, and unlike the Wellesley women of “Mona Lisa Smile,” I did not come to college to find a husband — a conviction that is well-deserving of Julia Roberts’ megawatt smile.
Newton’s Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I think the same holds true for concepts and ideas: Hookup culture is just as repressive and detrimental as compulsory abstinence. It is a microcosm of everything wrong with the social spheres of college life. And — for all the talk of third-wave feminism and the generally progressive zeitgeist of the digital age — it is hurting women. The rise of this so-called culture is neither liberating nor revolutionary; it is a toxic aggregate of widespread attitudes that can be attributed to persisting biological, psychosocial and institutional constructs.
When I started college, I was under the impression that dating around is supposed to be an integral part of the undergraduate experience. After all, most people are at least somewhat aware that college is where they will likely meet their future spouse.
From an evolutionary perspective, the whole point of dating is to find someone you can tolerate enough to wed and produce progeny with so you can contribute to the gene pool. As a result, women must grapple with the mounting pressure to reach traditional milestones — like getting married and having children — while working high-powered jobs and maintaining a social life.
But by the time a woman turns 30, her fertility begins to decline. We are in a race against our own biological clock that is steadily ticking away. This catch-22 especially hits home with young women. The trajectory that the modern woman is implicitly expected to follow just isn’t feasible for most: How on earth can we be expected to complete the entirety of our education, become financially stable, emotionally mature — oh, and somehow find the love of our lives — all before the age of 30?
Yes, there is always the option to wait. But older mothers — those who become pregnant at age 35 or higher — are at a much greater risk of producing a baby with Down syndrome and other genetic disorders. Yet most people don’t achieve the financial stability necessary to have children until their mid-30s, and it is even more expensive to raise a child with special needs.
These concerns might seem overwrought in the context of hookup culture, but if all the men we meet just want to have sex, our worries are not so outlandish. The scientist in me turns to the basics of human sexuality to explain this phenomenon; in other words, to explain why a friend of mine insists that “guys are a bunch of disgusting, horny fucks.” It’s OK for him to say it, ‘cause he’s a dude. Men reach their sexual peak in their 20s, and women in their 30s, which is why human sexuality is “essentially one giant, missed high-five.” And women are less likely to get off during a casual encounter than are men, which is unsurprising; I have a friend who said her ex-boyfriend believed that girls pee out of their vaginas.
Then again, not all women even want children, which presents a dilemma of its own: preventing and dealing with unplanned pregnancy.
Hookup culture unfairly targets women in this way, forcing them to deal with the aftermath while permitting men to walk away, unscathed. The advent of emergency contraception like Plan B has definitely helped combat pregnancy scares, but I get the sense that people have started using it as an alternative to birth control. Just the other day, my friend showed me someone’s Snapchat story, featuring an empty Plan B pill pack, captioned: “It be like that sometimes.” I privately wondered whether “it be like that all the time.”
The risk of unplanned pregnancy and its consequences is just one of the many obstacles that hookup culture hurls at women. Not only do we have to worry about getting pregnant; women are also more susceptible to STDs and more vulnerable to sexual assault. Worse, the psychosocial stigmas and biases facing women are obtrusive and unyielding. Our sexuality is scrutinized relentlessly: Everyone wants to know if you’re having sex, who you’re having it with and how often, if you’re in a committed relationship or just hooking up.
These attitudes perpetuate a lingering double standard between the sexes: If you’re a woman who has a lot of sex with multiple people, you’re a slut; if you’re not having sex or aren’t into hooking up, you’re a prude. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Meanwhile, a guy can sleep with 10 girls in one week and no one would bat an eyelash.
The pervasiveness and acceptance of hookup culture among college students is, on a larger scale, an institutional problem. For one thing, academics are a challenge. We’re in college to learn, and believe me when I say that professors make sure we understand that school always comes first.
For example, I once had a chemistry professor tell us that if we wanted to get an A in the course, we should be completing every single problem in each chapter before the test. That entails doing the mandatory homework assignments, practice homework assignments and problems in the back of each chapter. One chemistry exam can cover up to three chapters of varying length. I’ll let you do the math on that one (here’s a hint: it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to complete one problem set, depending on the difficulty).
Every fall, wide-eyed freshman enter their first college classes, where the professors — after assigning chapters upon chapters of reading — urge them get out of their dorms, and join everything they can. “Go to Gobblerfest,” they say. “Make the most of out of your college experience.” And those freshman, looking at the syllabus they just received, wonder: “How?”
Things never really change after that first year — college is all about the hustle. Everything is a competition: how much you study, how little you sleep, how good your grades are. Every day is wake up, go to class, eat, go to class, go to the lab, work out, eat, study, sleep, rinse and repeat.
At the end of it all, it’s 1 a.m., and I don’t know where the hell my day went. There’s just never enough time. In relationships, no one wants to make an effort to cultivate something serious anymore, and to be fair, why should they? Hooking up is both quicker and easier than investing the time and patience needed to build something real. It’s a low risk, high reward venture — and who wouldn’t want that?
* * *
“Hey there, can I get a Corona Light please?” I flash the bartender a smile, which quickly vanishes when I see the bill. I hand over my credit card with a small twinge of regret and leave a tip, silently hating myself: I just paid six dollars for what should be a two dollar beer.
A stranger — buzzed hair, button down, borderline blackout — sidles up to the bar and orders a tequila shot. I bet he says “bro” unironically and uses Axe 3 in 1.
“Do you have … like … a boyfriend or something?” he slurs.
I’m confused. This is the sort of question that typically truncates a conversation, the tongue-in-cheek yet concurrently obvious guy-code for saying, “Why aren’t you interested in me???” It was possibly the worst pick-up line of all time.
I turn in my seat to face him head-on. His vacant expression — with the heavily lidded, red-rimmed eyes and lazy smile playing around a mouth that can barely form the words — suggests that he’s approximately two drinks away from waking up in someone’s yard the next morning.
“Um … it’s complicated.”
Wrong. The correct answer is a definitive and resounding “No” — my relationship status is as uncomplicated as my drink order.
“Ah, so I should fuck off then.” It sounds like a question.
“Yeah, you should.”
Tequila Guy downs his shooter, sucks on a lime and dutifully departs with a smirk. I return to my own drink, which I have been nursing for the past 20 minutes. The night is cold and the beer now warm. Another swig — this one gets me a mouthful of shredded lime, whatever is left of the wedge I managed to coax into the bottle. Gross.
My friend, who is sitting next to me at the bar, seems too absorbed in the extravagant plate of nachos in front of her to have noticed that little exchange (I hope).
She drains her glass of vodka cran and looks at me expectantly.
“You’re gonna finish that beer, right?”
“Of course I am.”
Next stop: Hokie House for one last drink, then homeward bound.
* * *
I have one of those unfortunate “looks” that makes anger difficult to hide. A single stab of irritation, however small, seeps into every harsh contour of my face, like a slow-acting venom.
Luckily, almost every poison has an antidote. So, I tilt my head and toss my curls and plaster on my prettiest smile like the nice girl I am, brimming with “Yes, please’s” and “No, thank you’s” and, my personal favorite, “Oh, you’re totally fine, don’t worry about it!”
* * *
“Oh my God, it’s him.” I feel the blood slowly draining from my face.
My friend turns around as discreetly as she can, but she knows who it is before she even lays eyes on him.
“Let’s leave,” she says immediately. “This can’t end well.”
“But we just got here,” I remind her, raising the glass of Blue Moon (still full) that she had brought me. “Don’t you want me to get your money’s worth?”
“Fine,” she says. “Hurry up and finish it, I’m going to get water.”
She’s one of those water aficionados. It’s her Advil, her cure-all. Whether she’s had a beer, a bottle of wine or half a handle of pineapple Amsterdam, she’s a firm believer in its magical powers. I have my doubts.
I dutifully sip my beer as she vanishes into the throng of bodies, weaving around the pool tables and jukebox to get to the bar. We’re at Hokie House, the air thick with tobacco smoke and the stench of impending bad decisions. I lean against the wall next to one of the pool tables, waiting for her to return.
And as I’m standing there, he and his friends leave the shuffleboard table and start heading in my direction. He’s about to walk directly into me in about five steps. I stand rooted to my spot by the wall, quaking inside.
After what seems like an eternity, he sees me and smiles. Whatever color had drained from my face comes flooding back immediately. He pulls me into a one armed hug, and as he does so, I can’t help but hear him say, over and over: “Sorry, I’m not really looking for any kind of a relationship right now.”
The two other guys he’s with introduce themselves to me and my friend, who shoots me a furtive look, which I return with an imperceptible shake of my head. We exchange pleasantries, inquiring about finals and winter break plans. He and his friends are planning a bar crawl of sorts.
“You two wanna come with?”
My friend and I glance at each other, both apprehensive.
“Uh … yeah, sure. We’ll come,” I say, not knowing what I was getting myself into.
We decide on Sharkey’s and Champs before ending the night at TOTS. Just then, a girl saunters up to our little group — to him, really — by the pool tables. She’s taller than me, leggier and just in general “more.” I’m Lizzie Bennet, she’s Lois Lane. All of a sudden I am acutely aware of my outfit: a Christmas sweater and peacoat over jeans and riding boots. Prim, proper and completely un-sexy. I mentally chide myself for not wearing something a little more revealing; then I remember that I wouldn’t fill it out, anyway. And why the hell did I decide to wear my glasses tonight?
They’re talking and he’s laughing and I don’t know where to look. She’s got her hands all over him like poison ivy, but he seems to welcome the itch. I raise my glass to my lips, wishing I had ordered something stronger.
“I think there’s something going on between them,” my friend says, as if she were Columbus “discovering” America.
The girl disappears with her friends, and the rest of us start our crawl.
* * *
TOTS, for once, is not packed tonight. No cover charge, either. I know it’s just two dollars, but if you think about it, that can get you a meal at Taco Bell.
There he is, lounging on a barstool, drinking a rail that he definitely doesn’t need. We’re talking and his arm reaches for my waist, pulling me closer — his signature move.
Now, standing just a few inches away from him, I see his mouth curve into a smile. In retrospect, maybe he felt happy to be with me in that moment, but more likely, he was hammered and I was just another pretty face.
The moment is so intimate that I barely notice my friend tap my shoulder.
“Hey, I’m really tired,” she says pointedly, eyeing the two of us.
“It’s okay, you can go home,” I tell her.
“Yeah,” I reassure her. “I’ll be back soon … get some rest.”
She deposits her empty cup at the bar and leaves. Then I realize — the guys are gone, too. It’s just me and him.
I am now standing close enough to notice his bloodshot eyes and slightly dazed expression; he’s drunker than I thought. I wonder how exactly he plans to get home. Just as I pull out my phone to call him an Uber — I’m sober enough to walk — the girl from Hokie House appears.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she sneers, putting a hand in my face, “I’ve been fucking him for the past five months.”
For the second time that night, I feel myself blanch. I shoot him a look; he won’t meet my gaze. He looks angry, embarrassed and — could it be? — a little hurt.
He puts his face in his hands, mumbling, “This is so fucked up.”
“Congratulations,” I tell her firmly. “We’re leaving.”
I take his elbow and guide him out of TOTS, down the stairs and onto College Avenue. Before I can stop them, before I even know they’re coming, the tears spill from my eyes and slide down my face — thick, fast and hot. A quiet sob escapes my throat. And all I can think is this: He had left me for the girl with the skintight jeans and “do me” eyes.
Idiot girl, snarls the voice of reason in my head. He didn’t leave you, not really; he was never yours — nor was he ever going to be yours — no matter how much he pretended otherwise. I didn’t know it was possible for such a sweet guy to leave behind such a bitter aftertaste.
Hindsight is 20/20, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my suspicions.
Look — I’m a writer. We are brooding, sensitive creatures who love a good story and love to hate cliches, no matter how pertinent. Here’s one: If a guy seems too good to be true, he probably is. I learned that the hard way.
At this point, he is barely able to walk. Remnants of the past week’s snow, now iced over, coat the sidewalks. As we approach a lampost, he seems to fall in slow motion, landing facedown in a mound of snow at the base of a tree.
I cry harder.
I have no idea what’s come over me; I’m equal parts drunk, upset and more than a little alarmed.
“Come on, just get up,” I plead. “Your Uber is almost here … let’s just go home.”
Then, somehow, he manages to stand. He looks down at me, now barely coherent, his gray-green eyes rimmed heavily with red.
“I’m sorry … I … I have to go back to her.”
In that moment, I realize I need to get the hell away from him and everything he represents; this hookup culture that I can’t seem to escape.
And so, I turn on my heel and run — all the way back to the warmth and comfort of my apartment, even if it’s just for a short while. I’m just grateful that he won’t remember any of this in the morning.
* * *
It feels as though we have entered the age of a so-called “dating apocalypse.”
They say chivalry is dead; it seems that plain old decency has perished with it. Hookup culture reflects a generational dearth of patience, authenticity and the acumen to achieve either. We Gen-Z-ers are restless yet reticent, craving instant gratification with the click of mouse, the blink of an eye or a right swipe on Tinder. We want change, and we want it now, sweeping the streets with our political malcontent in the thousands. Simply put, no one is willing to wait for anything (or anyone) anymore.
I refuse to settle. I want to feel a spark; even the smallest flicker of a flame would suffice.
Maybe it’s all just a vicious cycle, rinse and repeat. But maybe, just maybe, change is on the horizon.