The scene is familiar—it’s move-in day at a large state university and a bright-eyed freshman is trying to take in the atmosphere. There’s beer pong on the sidewalks. Music from frat-house porches and, inevitably, a bikini-only carwash. Fast forward about 30-minutes and our innocent protagonist has already stumbled through an “Anything-But-Clothes” partiy and fallen in lust more than a handful of times. Oh, and we’ve definitely seen at least two young women stumbling—heels in hand and mini-skirts askew.
House parties, bar bathrooms, dusty back rows in the library—they are all stages for the college hookup culture. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. It’s the reality of campuses everywhere. Or is it?
“For me personally, I haven’t seen anything as crazy as the movies,” says Sarah Palmer, a 20-year-old third year at the University of Georgia, which was ranked number one on Trojan’s yearly Sexual Health Report Card, for 2016, despite the party atmosphere that’s always available when one wants to partake. “I do have friends who’ve had some wild experiences which might be on par with the typical hookup culture, but it’s not a regular thing.”
Palmer isn’t the only one to refute this idea of a rampant, casual-sex culture on college campuses. In May, Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project released “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment” in which they spoke with several hundred teenagers and adults (as well as surveyed almost 3,000 young people) before coming to the conclusion that only about 16 percent of the students in their sample would even choose to have casual sex on an “ideal Friday night.” This means that the almost 85 percent left would prefer other options, such as hanging out with friends or being in a serious relationship.
So, there’s at least some peace of mind for worried parents as they send their young adults off to school for the first time. But don’t get too comfortable—it turns out that this perception of hookup culture might be just as harmful as the practice itself. In other words—and according “The Talk” study above—by putting so much emphasis on avoiding hookup culture and focusing on “disaster prevention” talks, we neglect to teach young adults two very important lessons: how to form mature, romantic relationships, and how to avoid misogyny and sexual harassment.
“I began to feel that we were having a conversation about young people’s romantic and sexual experiences that was really off base and wasn’t really going with the core issues that they are struggling with,” says Richard Weissbourd, who holds a doctorate in education and is a senior lecturer at Harvard. He is also the lead author of the study. “This might be one of the most important things we do—to have a healthy, caring, lasting love relationship. We do virtually nothing to prepare people for it, and I think that’s always been true.”
The study first asserts that when parents don’t educate young adults on what a healthy romantic relationship looks like, they then turn to other outlets such as popular media for guidance. In a world where “Trap Queen” is a term of endearment and wedding-worthy love is found in about two-months on The Bachelor, this reliance on popular media can be an issue. Even those on campus, those dealing with a culture of popular media and social networks, can see this as a problem.
Caron Hope, Assistant Director of Health Promotion and Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP ) at the University of Georgia, and Allie Halbert, RSVP Outreach Coordinator, have both witnessed this lack of education through their work at the university.
“I think students are coming in more aware but then without necessarily having the skills,” says Hope. “They might be aware that they want healthy relationships and they might not want to be part of this hookup culture, but they might not be so aware about how to go about doing that.”
“If we assume that everyone else around us already knows, we feel really uncomfortable asking,” added Halbert, who organizes campus workshops dealing with these topics and talks about the “light bulb” moment students experience when these conversations start.
Digging further into the study reveals the more worrisome lesson neglected in the shadow of hookup culture—that of gender-based degradation, sexual harassment and basic concepts of consent. Though these topics should be high priority, given their shocking prevalence on college campuses (one in five women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted while in college) and the high profile cases that are becoming all too familiar, “The Talk” found that not to be the case.
The study found that while 85 percent of women reported facing some form of sexual harassment (ranging from catcalling to being touched without permission by a stranger), a whopping 76 percent of respondents reported never having a talk with parents on how to avoid sexually harassing another human being. In fact, an appalling 61 percent had not talked with a parent about “being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex.” More than half had not talked about the “importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you.” Perhaps most disconcerting: 57 percent had not discussed the “importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex.”
“I think it’s super important that parents have basic conversations with their kids about consent and harassment. I mean, you just really have to do that,” says Weissbourd. “Help them understand what sexual assault is.”
Luckily there is hope. In the MCC survey, 70 percent of the respondents reported wanting more guidance on the emotional aspects of romantic relationships, and 65 percent were open to getting this guidance in a school atmosphere. So what do you do? From her work with RSVP and Health Promotions, Hope recommends starting to teach children from a young age how to communicate, and maybe even basic concepts of consent.
“I definitely think issues around forming healthy relationships, like the basic tenants of communication, consent, all of those things can be talked about from a very early age,” says Hope. “Of course, it’s going to look different when you’re talking to your eight-year-old versus your 17-year-old, but you can still talk about it and just have that open communication. The more comfortable students are talking about these things at home, the more comfortable they’re going to be talking about them when they’re not at home.”
“The Talk” also outlines five fairly easy steps for adults to initiate these conversations and go beyond simple platitudes, which can be easily found in the executive summary of the study. For young adults (and adults) stressing broaching these topics, Weissbourd offers some simple reassurance:
“Many parents feel that they are not successful in their relationships and don’t have wisdom to share—I don’t think that’s true,” says Weissbourd. “Your relationships can not have worked out well and you can still have a lot of insight and wisdom about what makes a healthy relationship.”
If still uncomfortable having these conversations, many universities offer on-campus resources similar to RSVP (which is now in the process of revamping its healthy relationships program). However, it’s important to remember that while university resources are helpful, some of these lessons need to take place way before a young adult is sent out into the wild.
“Particularly consent,” says Hope. “Students should hear that way before they get to college.”
Emma Korstanje is a freelance journalist based out of Athens, GA.