Feminism and hook-up culture

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Article Sex and Sexuality Women Young Adults

As a feminist, how do you react to sexualized theme parties?

I found out about theme parties when I was teaching a course on women and spirituality.

We were discussing how restricting images of God to masculine language and images affects society whether you believe in God or not. One student raised her hand and she said, "Men make themselves into gods at the parties on campus."

I asked her what she meant and she said, "Oh, you know, ‘pimps and ho's' [whores], ‘CEOs and office ho's,' ‘maids and millionaires.' "

Then I found out that they all dress the parts when they go out to these parties. As CEOs the men wear business suits and as secretary ho's, women wear lace bras and tie their shirts up and wear little skirts.

And so we added to a diagram I often use in class that shows common social dichotomies: We had God, human; man, woman; and then we added CEOs, Golf Pros, millionaires, professors on the top of the line, and below was basically ho's, ho's, ho's, school girls. These archetypes are coming right out of porn movies, but porn archetypes have become normative in campus culture.

The women in my class had thought long and hard about gender, but they were all going to these parties.

I tell all my students that by conforming to these rules, they are supporting the way women get labeled on campus. Women are essentially disempowering themselves. Party culture, and particularly the guys who throw the parties, decide how women dress when they go out. These parties raise questions about class in addition to human dignity. Most of the students don't think twice about it. It's just something they do.

It's a growing problem because we aren't having complex conversations about what's going on. Even though all these schools, regardless of whether they are Catholic campuses, have lovely mission statements about educating the whole person, nobody really reflects on what they mean practically. 

I have this conversation in all my classes regardless of the subject because I know the students are encountering it and they need to have some critical evaluation of it.

Sexual assault is a big problem on college campuses. How does hook-up culture interact with sexual assault? 

I met a young woman who was doing her senior thesis on hook-up culture, and she said she felt like all sexual activity that happened in hook-up culture was sexual assault. Because young people don't know how to communicate with each other about hooking up, she said that it's extremely difficult to get out of a hook-up should one person, most likely the woman, become uncomfortable with the situation. She said there is no language for addressing this situation.

I would never have gone so far as to say that every hook-up is sexual assault because that takes away the woman's agency.

Still, one of the things that was very clear to me when I was interviewing certain students for the study was that they had experienced sexual assault, but they weren't calling it sexual assault. It was very clear that the sex wasn't consensual, but they weren't calling it rape. 

There is a lot of sexual assault that's happening, but people don't know where the boundaries are or how to name sexual assault anymore. What is sexual assault at a lingerie theme party, when you have people who are tightly packed and there's a lot of drinking and dancing? If it's not violent, then students don't call it assault or rape.

I think hook-up culture has emptied sex out so much on college campuses that it requires that students desensitize themselves. But when students desensitize themselves, they have sex like robots almost. They don't know whether they want it or not.