Hookup Culture as Rape Culture: A Shared Complicity

By Megan McCabe

Thanks largely to the efforts of survivors-turned-activists Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, the founders of End Rape on Campus, sexual assault on campus has moved to the center of public and political debate. Under the Obama Administration, there has been a push to use federal law to hold schools accountable to address the high levels of rape on campus (See, for example, the 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights). The resulting efforts from universities represent important steps to respond to victimized students, hold perpetrators accountable, and promote campus safety.

At the same time, the sexual patterns on college campus that have come to be known as “hookup culture” have come under scrutiny by popular media and academics alike. Generally speaking, this “hookup culture” dominates social life on college campuses, especially for students of privilege. In this environment there is an inversion of previously dominant dating scripts: today physical encounters, ranging from kissing to intercourse, typically occur outside the context of or precede dating and relationships. These “hookups” are usually initiated at social events where large quantities of alcohol are consumed, outside the context of romantic relationships with no expectation of commitment from the other party.

Theologians and ethicists have raised concerns about this environment, largely highlighting the supposed dangers of practices that separate romance and commitment from sexual expression, thus necessarily leading to mutual objectification of sexual partners. In response, it is common to presume that the best thing to do is promote a return to dating practices and sexual expression only in the context of committed relationship.

In contrast, I think it is important that we attend to this relational and sexual culture as a particular manifestation of rape culture. In her new book, Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It defines rape culture:

Rape culture manifests in myriad ways…but its most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting a crime. Rape culture encourages us to scrutinize victims’ stories for any evidence that they brought violence upon themselves—and always to imagine ourselves in the terrifying role of Good Man, Falsely Accused, before we ‘rush to judgment. (3-4)

Specifically, the sexual and relational culture on college campuses, of which hooking up is itself only a fraction (albeit a dominant one), has moral significance because it is infused with violence. This culture takes for granted that sexual objectification (largely of women) and violence are acceptable and standard forms of sexuality.

The alcohol-laden party atmosphere—part of the “college experience”—is generally interpreted as overly sexualized by those concerned with hookup culture. But, rather than being merely overly sexualized, it is the context for patterns that ignore the agency and full personhood of women. Parties can come with themes, some of which Donna Freitas includes in her book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. Through interviews with undergraduate students, she identified themes such as, “CEOs and Their Secretary Hos,” “Dirty Doctor’s and Naughty Nurses,” “Professors and Naughty Schoolgirls,” and “Superheroes and Supersluts” (81). These titles do communicate a sexualized environment. More specifically, it is a sexualized environment in which men hold positions of power, while women are placed in subordinate roles of sex objects.

belvedereFreitas quotes a young man who said, “Girls often get the most drunk at these ‘Theme Parties,’ which is often the incentive for single guys to attend, in the hopes of having sex” (88). Critics of sexual assault policy tend to assume that it is common for women to have sex and then “cry rape” when they regret their drunken decision. However, rape only occurs when women are drunk if there are men who are willing to take advantage and perpetrate an assault. The quotation above makes clear that the culture on campus takes such practices for granted. One has to wonder what exactly counts as “having sex” according to this young man’s perspective.

Indeed, the highly sexualized, alcohol-soaked environment is the context of the majority of campus rapes. According to a study cited by Freitas, 90 percent of unwanted sexual encounters took place within the context of a hookup (49). In such cases, the agency of women is denied when they perhaps were consenting to other forms of physical activity. Further, both hookups and rapes are most likely to occur out of the context of parties. Often college parties take place in the homes of male students, leaving women without less power in the situation. Some men report that they are willing to do “almost anything” for a hookup. Such confessions sound troubling and insidious when viewed through practices typical of campus rapists: intentionally plying young women with alcohol to get them incapacitated, blocking women from leaving parties, or even controlling access to transportation home. These methods represent some of the ways that men may attempt to coerce or force sexual contact with women. The problem, then, is that what is considered a “hookup” in this environment, or is considered promiscuity by ethicists, may actually be infused with coercive violence.

This kind of coercive violence may take place on a continuum, ranging from meeting legal definitions of rape to encounters that, while troubling in their coercive nature, are not illegal. Assessing the morality of campus rape culture must include this continuum, rather than merely mimicking the criminal justice system. Transformation of this culture is necessary to complement the policy initiatives that have been developed in recent years.

While it is common for opponents of hookup culture to advocate for a return to dating, with emphasis on fostering committed relationships, this approach would not provide an adequate response to the problems of rape culture that are found in hookup culture. Rather, rape culture extends into the broader sexual culture on campus as well, shaping dating and romantic relationships. Women’s agency is undermined on campus through stalking by would-be and former boyfriends; controlling behaviors exhibited in current relationships; and repeated romantic overtures that leads to male anger in the face of rejection.

How we talk about the patterns of campus sexuality and relationships matters. As the quote from Harding (above) communicates, rape culture encourages us to empathize with perpetrators, not with those who are victimized. Further, it pushes us to accept coercive and abusive behaviors as normal expressions of sexuality. By failing to accurately name the pervasive reach of rape culture we participate in covering over and normalizing sexual violence. The beginning of transformation of this culture is in the transformation of how we perceive and talk about this culture. In this way, we move closer to the chance of adequately addressing the cases that victimize students through criminal acts, and as well as the broader range of abuse.

This post is part the Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education at Daily Theology.

Megan McCabe is a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College, working in the area of theological ethics. Her dissertation explores campus rape culture, with an eye toward broad social complicity and potential transformation.