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Getting busy: Fulfillment without commitment at the University

Photo Illustration by Terra Molengraff
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By Bethany Biron, Managing News Editor
Published October 1, 2012

Curled comfortably beneath a red wool blanket, LSA senior Michelle Cronin glances quizzically at her housemates lounging in the dimly lit living room of Owen House, a co-op on Oakland Street.

What's your take on hook-up culture?


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“You’re pretty in-between,” Emilia Breitenbach, a recent University alum, says after thoughtful consideration. “Your mindset is in-between, definitely.”

Cronin ruminates a moment longer, drawing the blanket closer to her body and fidgeting with the frayed threads unraveling along the edges.

“I don’t like hook-up culture, but I have gotten into some random situations and always felt really weird afterwards,” she says.

“You kind of have that guilt complex afterward,” Breitenbach adds. “Where it’s, like, ‘Oh, this isn’t right,’ and you’re more looking for a serious person. But in-between, you’re still dipping into it.

“Whereas for me, I’m just straight up random hookups." Breitenbach pauses. "I don’t want to worry about it.”

As they sit and mull over their experiences, Cronin and Breitenbach find themselves trapped in an ideological contradiction that plagues young twenty-something women in the modern era. It's no longer enough to go to college, find a boyfriend and get married. The priorities have shifted.

As today's women navigate the tumultuous path between romance and career, they’ve increasingly turned toward “hook-up culture” as a means of escape. An arduous week of academia paves way to the sweet freedom of Friday night, and the streets swell with a cavalcade of stilettos propping up scantily clad girls with berry-colored lips and black-rimmed eyes.

With bags slung haphazardly across their shoulders, they sip on gin and tonics between shots of Absolut before stumbling to the dance floor where their lips magnetically meet with a stranger’s, heads ultimately hitting the pillow in that same stranger’s bed.

The proliferation of hook-up culture — promulgated by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, advancements in the women’s movement and the advent of birth control — has fostered a generation that waltzes precariously atop a delicate thread of empowerment and objectification, wavering between endorsing and rejecting a culture that shies away from traditional notions of monogamy.

The transformation of the modern relationship

After trying her hand at monogamy with her first “real” boyfriend during her freshman and sophomore years at the University, Music, Theatre & Dance senior Laura Cohen decided commitment ultimately wasn’t for her.

“It was a big learning experience,” she said. “It definitely showed me that I have very little interest in monogamy … I don’t really think that it’s something I care about in my life.”

Instead, she opted for an open relationship, establishing a mutual understanding between herself and her partner that outside hookups were allowed, even encouraged.

“Being in an open relationship is just great,” Cohen said. “You have all of the security and the support and the love that you have in a traditional, monogamous relationship. But you also have the freedom to go out on Friday night with your friends, and if you end up making out with some frat guy, you don’t have to break up over it.”

As defined by Elizabeth Marquardt, the director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values in New York City, and the late University of Texas sociologist Norval Glenn, a hookup is “anything ranging from ‘hooking up to having sex.’ ” An unbreakable criterion is that it must take place outside the context of commitment.

Engineering senior Stephen Barnard met a girl at a party last summer for whom he quickly developed sexual feelings. They started regularly hooking up.

But as their sexual escapades persisted, they felt compelled to take a stab at being in a relationship. They started doing “coupley things,” as Barnard put it — but their attempt faltered shortly after.

“I was sort of pushing things forward artificially without either of us really being into it, sort of out of obligation,” Barnard said. “Then it all sort of broke down, and we admitted that we were just fuck buddies.”

In 2004, Elizabeth Armstrong, an associate professor of Women’s Studies, conducted a study of the romantic lives of 53 female students at a dorm known for its propensity for partying at a Midwestern state school.

She was surprised to discover how many subjects expressed a desire to experiment with the concept of “friends with benefits.”

Armstrong cited one young woman who developed a contract that defined the parameters of her and her partner’s relationship. This contract, the young woman stated, was developed out of concern that the partner might develop feelings for her.

Determined via text message and instant messenger, the ground rules of the contract defined which sexual acts would be allowed and which forms of birth control were permitted.