Flashing lights, gyrating hips and inebriated Yalies fill Toad’s on Wednesday nights. The music pulsates to the beat of unfulfilled desire. The darkness cloaks desperate expressions, but it can’t cloak the smell of sweat that clings to the air. In this environment, hips and lips meet not necessarily with purpose but out of need for release. In this environment, I’ve made some decisions I regret and others I laugh about in retrospect. The same seems true for many Yalies, or, at least, for those who partake in the Woads tradition.
Yale’s romantic climate tends notoriously toward trivial short-lived encounters under the disco lights of Toad’s (to the lyrics of “Living on a Prayer”) or under the influence of any number of substances at a frat house. “Romantic” texts consist of blunt booty calls at 2 a.m. or timid messages with unexpressed emotions hiding between the lines. All this lack of commitment and sexual frustration falls under the normalcies of hookup culture.
It’s this hookup culture that so many Yalies complain about yet continue to participate in. In my two years here, I haven’t gone a week without hearing someone comment with annoyance about the predominant hookup lifestyle.
So why does it exist?
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For freshmen, the first few weeks on campus serve as an introduction to hooking up — and it can be a shock. Many come in without prior romantic experience due to a variety of factors — lack of access to a suitable dating pool or authoritarian parents, for instance. College removes many of those barriers.
“You have freedom; you have choice. It’s the first time you can do whatever you ‘want,’ which I think just becomes trying whatever you didn’t do in high school,” Madeline Adolf ’18 explained. “If you didn’t hook up a lot in high school, you want to play the field. If you were in a long-term relationship in high school, you want to play the field.”
And for those first few months of freshman year, hooking up can be exciting. With so many new, intelligent, attractive people around, perhaps it’s difficult not to want to experiment, especially for those who have little experience with physical intimacy. On the other hand, the immediate prevalence of hooking up among the incoming class could easily be attributed to the self-perpetuating nature of such behavior.
At least, that’s how Lelina Chang ’18 sees it. “It’s a snowball effect,” she said, “because if you assume the culture is already here, [you] feel pressured to [participate].” If such a culture weren’t so accepted as a fact of romantic life at Yale, then students might realize that more people are open to dating, she added.
Additionally, this pressure can manifest as a sort of competition. “How often we’re getting laid, and by whom, becomes yet another metric by which we judge ourselves relative to the amazing people around us,” Adolf commented.
Of course, not all students choose to participate in hookup culture. Nicole Cai ’18 described how she experienced culture shock when she witnessed the prevalence of hookups at Yale. In her native France, romantic relationships were classified either as dating or nothing. For her, hooking up was a truly foreign concept.
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While some feel pressured to partake and others choose to avoid the superficial physical intimacies so endemic to Yale’s culture, still others are active and willing participants. Contrary to Caitlin Flanagan’s claims in her 2010 article in The Atlantic entitled “Love, Actually,” several women I talked to seem to willingly participate in and benefit from hookup culture, rather than simply enduring a so-called “cultural insurrection.”
“Engaging with the hookup culture can be productive if it’s approached from a mindset of empowerment, not from the mindset of submission,” said Brandon Marks ’18. Although he now has a girlfriend, having ultimately found the hookup culture “utterly unfulfilling,” Marks was open to the idea that sexual liberty can contribute to personal growth. At the same time, he stressed the importance of actively setting personal boundaries rather than letting the hookup culture or other people determine them.
Adolf, too, seems to approach hookups from a mindset of empowerment. Yale’s extremely liberal environment allows many people to embrace their sexuality for the first time as they rightfully should, she asserted. Adolf explained that she views hookup culture as an avenue by which to better understand ourselves; through hookups, we can figure out what we want and like.
Linda Oh ’17 expressed a similar sentiment. “At first, it was an exploration of my sexuality but now it has developed into something fun that I enjoy doing with people I am attracted to,” she said.
According to these students, hooking up need not entail a drunken one-night stand with a stranger you’ve just met at a party. Rather, it can be a conscious choice to be intimate with people you enjoy, without the need for commitment.
There’s that word — commitment.
For many Yalies, hooking up arises from an aversion to romantic commitment; it can often seem easier than having a serious partner. And without commitment, any need for emotional investment evaporates. Interactions become a purely physical means to satiate desire, rather than a vehicle by which to deepen intimacy. Or, at least, that’s how Donna Freitas portrays hookup culture in her March 2013 article in the Washington Post: as a checkbox on a list of tasks from laundry to homework. While this might seem ideal for busy students, the reality may not be so simple.
Oh commented on some of the challenges that accompany hookup culture. “Especially with people you know well, you can confuse physical intimacy with real, honest, soul-baring intimacy,” she said. “There’s a difference between interacting physically with someone and sharing bits and pieces of my true self with someone.”
Then there comes the issue of defining hookups within the context of a generally noncommittal culture. “Hookup culture means that your options aren’t black-and-white, single or relationship,” Adolf pointed out. She described romance at Yale as a spectrum with endless possibilities to choose from, which only adds to the complexity of interpersonal relationships.
An aversion to commitment may be understandable given the lifestyles many Yalies lead. Every person I interviewed for this piece cited lack of time as a primary reason for participating in hookup culture rather than pursuing a relationship.
“Yalies are extremely busy, and our sexual desire is often more difficult to leave unrequited than our equally present — but readily postponable — yearning for romance and steady companionship,” said Max Goldberg ’17. He added that relationships don’t align well with the incentive structure that he believes many students share; he described Yalies as academically ambitious, measuring their success in terms of power, money, status or acclaim rather than love.
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Perhaps surprisingly, hookups can serve as a means by which to attain a relationship, rather than as an alternative to having one. Many of the people I spoke with conveyed that they eventually hope to find something long-term through hooking up.
Members of our own generation seem to eschew the traditional expectation of physical intimacy following a relationship’s initiation in favor of the reverse. As Eliot Levmore ’18 puts it, many people at Yale try “benefits-before-friends” rather than the traditional “friends-before-benefits”.
For him, hookup culture provides a different approach to searching for people with whom you experience both emotional and physical attraction. Levmore suggested that apps like Tinder allow people to find those who are sexually interested in them, to whom they are also attracted, before becoming personally involved.
However, such a transition from hooking up to dating isn’t necessarily easy. “There’s this big disconnect between hookup culture and dating culture, where transitioning from one to the other is pretty hard especially in the sex-first model,” Levmore said. “I don’t know if it’s emotional immaturity. I think it’s emotional guardedness, with people correctly afraid to be so emotional with someone they know they’re not going to marry.”
This emotional guardedness that Levmore mentions might also result from a fear of rejection, which permeates Yale’s milieu. As Chang explained, “Even though this is separate from academics and accomplishments, [fear of rejection] is a part of Yale students. The feeling of rejection might be new or unfamiliar, and they kind of stave off from it.”
These difficulties are not exclusive to heterosexual relationships at Yale. Goldberg noted that LGBTQ students at Yale who do wish to date may find it difficult to do so. A queer woman who asked to remain anonymous said that the scarcity of openly gay women made her and other queer women more willing to hook up.
But dating isn’t unattainable. While it’s relatively uncommon freshmen year, relationships — or at least the desire for them — becomes more commonplace in succeeding years.
“The older I got, the better I felt about [dating]. As a freshman I was naïve and everything was so new, even though I had a lot of freedom in high school, Yale was a completely new environment,” said Lucia Baca-Spezzacatena ’17, who is currently dating Marks. “I felt a lot more vulnerable to falling into things I didn’t like or want to do.”
She added, however, that people are more inclined to ask for what they want as they get older, having had more time to think about what they want in their dating and sex lives.
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Perhaps it’s this straightforwardness that we should all strive toward, whether under the multicolored lights of Toad’s or in the sheets of a stranger’s bed. We can content ourselves with familiarity with what we want in place of familiarity with a sexual partner.
Some Yalies choose not to partake in hookup culture at all, while others do. And many in the latter category have found ways to pursue intimacies according to their own desires and levels of comfort. Moreover, whether a hookup serves as a means to a relationship or as a goal in and of itself is a choice. Hookup culture’s existence may be inevitable, but how we navigate it is in our control.
So, that 2 a.m. booty call? It’s your call.