Increasingly discouraged by her failure to engage in a committed relationship in college, a young woman decided to explore the topic at greater depth in her senior thesis.
She found out that she was far from alone.
Confession: I’ve spent the past four years obsessed with the love lives of Middlebury students. It’s not because I’m nosy (though I kind of am); or hypersexual (though all college students kind of are); or out of the loop (I’ve experienced probably too much). My obsession stems from repeatedly recognizing romantic failure as among the most (if not the most) prominent causes of unhappiness, anxiety, and even depression among my female peers—myself included—while at Middlebury.
I should say I’m a white, heterosexual, socioeconomically secure, academically successful woman—and now in a respectful, committed relationship. I’m aware of my privileges. Many of my friends share similar advantages, and one could argue that romantic stress is a privilege in and of itself: we have the mental and emotional energy to engage in and ruminate on romantic experiences, an indulgence many students don’t have time for. Still, despite the angst caused by a heavy academic workload, intimate friendships, divided social scenes, career pressure, ceaseless snowfall—nothing seems to bother my friends more than their relationship troubles.
In college I wasn’t friends with the entire student body, but think of me as an extroverted extrovert. I’m a talker, a people person, a floater. I have close friends who are artists, athletes, activists, hipsters, nerds, and, like many Middlebury students, I also consider myself all of these things. I ran our campus’s most-read student blog, drank on weekends, buried myself in American literature on weekdays, and occasionally (frequently) stressed out in between. I overextended myself in the mostly good way Midd Kids know so well. But by the fall of my senior year, I realized that all my female friends—even the one-meal-a-month acquaintances we all have—had experienced at least one relationship-induced episode that left them shaken and morose. My obsession with this calcified, which is how I came to focus my nonfiction creative writing thesis on women’s romantic experiences at Middlebury.*
* It’s important to note that I am interested in the romantic and sexual experiences and desires of Middlebury women who are not heterosexual as well, and while I hoped to cover bisexual and lesbian experiences in my thesis work, I had to limit my scope to heterosexual experiences due to a lack of time. Further, I fully intended to write about the experiences and desires of men at Middlebury—I included both genders in my extensive interviewing and surveying—but after feeling overwhelmed by the amount of material I was trying to sift through, my adviser suggested I focus on just one gender for my thesis.
It’s a more complicated topic than one might imagine and requires a bit of background: A couple of years ago, a New York Times writer named Kate Taylor contributed a piece to the Style section titled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.”
The story opens with a young woman at the University of Pennsylvania who describes her noncommittal-though-sexually-active social status as one predicated on a “cost-benefit” analysis with “low risk and low investment cost.” Wrote Taylor: “It’s by now pretty well understood that traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by ‘hooking up’—an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse—without the emotional entanglement of a relationship.”
This sounded like Middlebury to me, and a survey I conducted seemed to confirm my observations: While some people date, I found that roughly 81 percent of the students I surveyed participated in hookups, or noncommittal sexual engagements. What troubles me, though, is not the high percentage, but the very definition of hooking up. I’m convinced that hooking up at Middlebury is different than the concept Taylor addresses.
The term is ambiguous, but most people understand it as a one-night stand—a physical encounter between consenting adults without any expectation of emotional investment. And though one-night stands happen at Middlebury, they’re not as frequent as you might expect. In fact my survey showed that fewer than 10 percent of sexually active students said they exclusively engaged in one-night stands. The hookup culture most prevalent on campus is something different: two students sexually engaging over the course of many weeks, months, even a year, without officially committing to one another. Or, as many students say, there’d be no “defining it”—that is, they’d not enter a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship with labels, openly express their emotions, or spend time together outside the bedroom. If this seems absurd, disrespectful, and unnatural, that’s because, in many ways, it is.
During the spring of my junior year, I met up with a boy every weekend night. I’d convinced myself that our conversations about Nietzsche meant we were developing something, only to learn months later he “didn’t think of me as a human being when we were hooking up.” My friend Jen (all names have been changed to preserve anonymity) was excited about a boy she’d been seeing for several months until she learned he was also seeing three other girls. Another friend spoke of a guy she’d hooked up with for a semester: he told her he could be “90 percent committed to her . . . just in case something happens, and I want to see someone else.”
While these pseudo-breakups hurt, they weren’t breakups, and that’s what made them so troublesome. Really we only lost the physical nature of the relationship, which we’d attempted to convince ourselves—as our culture regulated—we liked. Worse, we were hiding this guy-related stress, ashamed that such “meaningless” experiences could shake our emotional stability.
But we were distracted from our schoolwork, had withdrawn from socializing, and we were complaining, which evidenced a different reality: my friends and I didn’t just want to hook up. In fact, we hated hooking up. We wanted commitment, labels, love. We wanted real, live, official relationships. And this reality made us feel like idiots.
So why were we engaging in such hookups? Because everyone around us appeared happy doing so and no one we knew dated, so we assumed that ultimately we’d be happy too. We also enjoyed the initial attraction, attention, and excitement, even if that seems vapid. Yet we were raised to believe in female independence, power, and equality. Unlike our parents or grandparents, we didn’t necessarily choose to be feminists—those who wholeheartedly advocate for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes—we just were.
As we were socialized to believe real feminists thrived off noncommittal sex, we thought being fulfilled by monogamous heterosexual relationships seemed paradoxical. Our identities seemingly required we share in romantic ambivalence. But our inability to be ambivalent created dissonance in us.
There’s an interesting divide between how scholastic journals and popular publications like the Atlantic or the Times examine the hookup culture.
Most sociological studies evince concern for the hookup culture’s detrimental effects on women—as most female interviewees hoped hookups would evolve into a relationship, while most men preferred no-strings-attached. Yet these studies offer few suggestions beyond abstention, which doesn’t seem realistic. Moreover, these scholastic publications—being expensive outside academia and little known—don’t have large cultural influence.
But what about the publications we do read?
Almost every widely shared article about hooking up endorses the idea that the hookup culture is compatible with the lifestyles of busy, career-driven women. This much-cited claim by Hanna Rosin, which was published in the Atlantic, perhaps best summarizes this perspective:
“To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of a hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role as an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”
I knew I should trust the studies on the (albeit dusty) Davis Library shelves more than the popular media. And yet I couldn’t shake my frustration over my inability to embrace these anti-monogamous ideals. If the Ivy League women cited in the Times could embrace “low risk, low investment hookups,” couldn’t I do the same? I soon found out that it wasn’t just me and my friends who were unhappy “playing that game.”
After interviewing 75 students and analyzing 314 online surveys, I was astounded by female students’ unanimous preferences not for the
hookup culture—but against it. Despite having diverse initial perceptions about hookup culture, 100 percent of female interviewees stated a clear preference for committed relationships. And 74 percent of female survey respondents reported that, ideally, they would be in a “committed relationship with one person” at Middlebury.
Further, 91 percent of female respondents presently in a committed relationship with a Middlebury student (or alum) reported to be “very happy” or “happy” with their situation, while a whopping zero percent of those consistently sexually engaged with one person—but who haven’t discussed their exclusivity—said that they are “very happy.” (Eight percent are “happy.”) And fewer than 20 percent of single and sexually disengaged female respondents said they were “happy” with their situation. Only about 35 percent of female respondents (and 44 percent of male respondents) find noncommittal sexual engagements fulfilling in the moment and feel fine about them later. The rest are generally dissatisfied.
Also illuminating are the interviewees’ reflections.
Kelsey, now graduated, spoke to many interviewees’ experiences. After engaging in a Middlebury hookup for more than two months, she found that her stability crashed after an unexpected “cut-the-cord” talk:
“I barely slept that night. I was just crushed, and that went on from January to July, at least… [the next semester] he wouldn’t talk to me. It was really hard because he went from being someone I could tell anything to, who knew everything about me, to someone who wouldn’t acknowledge me at all, and I think that was the hardest part—that it shifted so fast. I’d see him everywhere and it hurt every single time, because I simultaneously hated him and wanted his acceptance.”
Almost every female interviewee echoed Kelsey’s sentiments, if not experience. They reported feeling frustrated over sexual partners’ conflation of “exclusivity” and “seriousness”; disappointment over their inabilities to divorce physical intimacy from emotional investment; and confusion over how to hone even friendships without having their sexual partners perceive them as “clingy,” “crazy,” or “aggressive.” (All terms in quotes were theirs, not mine.)
Kelsey went on to say that post-pseudo-breakup, she initially embraced the “traditional hookup culture” (as described by Kate Taylor in her Times article), but after a brief period of feeling empowered, she was left with “this emptiness in my stomach, this loneliness, again and again.”
She added: “I tried to convice myself that this ‘freedom’ is what I wanted, but I knew that what I was really craving was a relationship.”
I’ve got many pet peeves, but sanctimony definitely tops the list. So as one who aggressively preaches female independence, I deemed myself a hypocrite for concluding almost all heterosexual Middlebury women want, maybe even need, committed men.
But now I’m coming to the conclusion that I might not be hypocritical at all. I’d believed that liberal feminists should enjoy, even pursue, casual sex—an idea rooted in the notion that women don’t innately crave commitment, and that society manipulates such dependency to promote patriarchal female oppression. But if feminism is about promoting female equality and happiness, then pushing ourselves to engage in noncommittal sexual relations we consistently dislike is moving us as far from feminism as possible.
Hookup culture traditionally influences men to prefer noncommittal sexual engagements. However, in my survey, more than 70 percent of male respondents indicated they want to be in a committed relationship at Middlebury; only six percent of male respondents said they hoped to participate in casual hookups without the desire to ultimately commit.
So I worry that women are inadvertently confirming a culturally manipulated (and likely unrealistic) male perspective is not only normative, but superior. By actively subscribing to unconfirmed male “preferred” sexual behavior as a means of “sexual liberation,” women might be bolstering—rather than reacting against—societally primed male dominance. Ironically, both partners in this dance might be equally unhappy with the outcome.
Having confronted my own romantic desires and learned that hundreds of peers similarly crave stability, I’ve come to feel confident, hopeful, and empowered. Perhaps by recognizing that independence and co-dependence are not mutually exclusive, we (intelligent, self-sufficient Middlebury women and men) can seek romance, express emotions, and share with sexual partners without losing any semblance of ourselves.
Maybe we’ve been playing the wrong game all along.
Leah Fessler ’15 graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Middlebury in the spring. Her senior thesis, “Can She Really ‘Play That Game, Too’?: A Narrative Exploration of Young Women’s Relation to Hookup Culture at Middlebury,”—for which she received an A—can be found at http://hookupmiddlebury.weebly.com/
For the past year, Leah has been in a committed relationship and reports to be very happy.