Why Hookup Culture Isn’t Responsible For Rape On College Campuses [Lady Bits]

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hookup culture

[Trigger warning]

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling… really, really tired of reading stupid articles about hookup culture. Especially ones that focus on the shocking trend of women seeking out casual sex. First of all, can we PUH-LEASE stop rehashing the idea that only men enjoy casual sex and stop acting surprised when women do, too? Women haven’t suddenly evolved and begun enjoying casual sex after hating it for eons. I’m sure that there have always been some women who have loved casual sex, or would have if it had been available to them. The only change is that it’s more culturally acceptable now for women to seek out hookups. But only more acceptable, not totally acceptable. If it were considered completely appropriate for women to hookup with whomever they want, whenever they want, it wouldn’t be newsworthy.

The latest piece to provoke my long, exasperated eyerolls is this one written by Kate Taylor for The New York Times. Titled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” the article is narrow in scope and full of tired stereotypes. First of all, it focuses on the idea that women pursue hookups instead of relationships because of their academic and career aspirations. It ignores any other motivations women might have for hooking up, and assumes that “hookup vs. relationship” is a black-and-white decision. It’s also super gender- and heteronormative, as if the only hookups on college campuses happen between cisgendered men and women.

What’s more, Taylor’s “research” and interviews were all conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, one elite school out of thousands of colleges in the U.S. Best of all, Taylor admits toward the end of the article that hookup culture isn’t as prevalent as you would believe based on the rest of her piece. She cites the statistic that 4 in 10 college seniors are either virgins or have only had intercourse with one person.

The article has provoked a lot of discussion, including this hilarious piece from The Cut on the seven stereotypical women you meet in hookup culture stories (spot on), and this rebuttal from The Philly Post explaining what Taylor got wrong about hookup culture at Penn. But while I’m annoyed and the general stereotyping and narrow-mindedness going on in the article, my biggest problem with the piece is the way it addresses rape.

In a section called “The Default is Yes,” Taylor discusses sexual assault on campus, and quotes from interviews with women who have experienced sexual assault at Penn. I want to be very clear that I am in no way criticizing the women who shared their stories with Taylor. But the way Taylor has chosen to present them is problematic. The gist of her argument in this section is that, because drunken hookups happen all the time on campus, “guys assume that the answer is always yes.” By the end of the section, Taylor is talking about women’s sexual pleasure in hookups. Really, you move from rape to pleasure?

Sexual assault on college campuses is terrifyingly prevalent. But that’s because of our society’s rape culture, not college hookup culture. Habitual casual sex, in and of itself, does not lead to sexual assault. Taylor’s presentation of the issue implies that, by participating in hookups, women are putting themselves at risk for rape. Her brief, trite discussion of sexual assault in a piece dedicated to hookup culture suggests that rape is a by-product of that culture.

A woman (or anyone, for that matter) should be able to hook up with as many (or as few) people as she wants, but know that she can say no at any time and that her partner will stop. She should be able to go home with someone after a party, but still say no to sex once they get home. She should be able to trust that, no matter how well she knows a potential sexual partner, or whether or not she is in a relationship with them, that they would never perform any kind of sex act without her full consent.

The fact that so many people fail to respect these boundaries and become rapists speaks to a societal problem much bigger than hookup culture. The college men mentioned in this article rape because they have been brought up in a society that constantly justifies rape and places blame on the victims instead of the perpetrators. Do I even have to bring up Steubenville? If they’re “hooking up” whether their partner wants to or not, it’s because they’ve received messages over the course of their entire lives telling them that’s ok.

Presenting rape simply as the “dark side” of hookup culture helps explain it away and justify rapists’ actions. If rapists are considered to be just a part of this hookup scene, an expected risk, then they are not held accountable for what they do. In fact, it’s extremely important to differentiate sexual assaults from consensual hookups. Rape and consensual sex have absolutely nothing in common. There is no gray area. But articles like Taylor’s suggest that there is, and that’s the whole problem.

I don’t deny that hookup culture and rape culture can intersect. And, as Taylor mentions, the role that alcohol plays in hookup culture is a troubling one. But a drunken rapist is still a rapist. If “the default is yes,” it’s not because so many college students are hooking up. It’s because rapists can find so many ways to justify their actions just by turning on the TV, accessing the internet, or reading these stupid hookup culture trend pieces.

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