How is hook-up culture affecting college students?

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Article Young Adults

In our May 2014 issue, the editors at U.S. Catholic interviewed theologian Emily Reimer-Barry, professor of theology at the University of San Diego about the messages women receive from the church. Here, she talks more about some of the challenges her students face regarding hook-up culture, and the implications for young people and the church.

We hear a lot about the hook-up culture on college campuses. What are some of the biggest challenges facing young adults?

Women and men are under a lot of pressure in college culture. And certainly one of the ways that I see this, what my students share, is that there's a continuing challenge of body image concerns, for men as well as for women.

At the heart of it is this desire to be attractive to somebody else, wanting to be affirmed and valued and feeling empowered by feeling beautiful or by getting dolled up to go out, and enjoying the attention of someone else, because that that can feel really nice.

The challenge, then, is that sometimes these interactions remain superficial. It feels good to be seen as attractive or it feels good that somebody wants your number, that somebody wants to buy you a drink or something. Yet there's a reluctance for getting to know someone, because you’re wondering both, What are they going to find out about me that they don't like? Or, What is this going to require of me, to get to know somebody better? The fact is, relationships are messy and time consuming.

It's interesting for me to hear when some students, men and women, say, "I don't have time for relationships. I don't have time for that kind of messiness. I'm taking five classes. I have a part-time job. I'm involved with my sorority/fraternity. I like to do service trips. I like to see my family.”

On the one hand I don't doubt that students really are busy in their lives, but what makes me sad is that because they feel these pressures to be high achieving in classes and have a full resume and be so involved, many of them seem to be letting go of opportunities for deep friendships or intimate relationships because those are seen as something that they can put off or they don't have time for.

What are some of the other negative consequences of this pressure?

My fear is that having a lot of friends on Facebook isn't helping a student to understand the real give and take of a deep friendship. Then if they're involved in what we say is a culture of hook‑ups, they get the benefit of the hook‑up without any requirement of developing a relationship, investing one's self in a relationship, making the time commitment of getting to know somebody.

Does that really serve them well for future relationships if they think that they're putting off intimacy now but in a few years their calendars will be more free? If we understand the virtue ethics of our tradition, then we see ourselves and our own daily patterns and behaviors, we become who we are over time.

Our own patterns and habits of life really form our personalities. I worry that if students aren't willing to invest in friendships or relationships of vulnerability and intimacy out of sort of a desire for self‑preservation that over time we might be encouraging that self-preservation over vulnerability and intimacy–the things that really make for deep and lasting friendship and relationship.

So what can we be doing to help prepare students for the future?

I think it's really important for college professors or for programming at the college level or in youth groups, even at high school level, to talk about how important friendships are—deep friendships. It’s important to talk about the role of trust and communication and holding each other accountable. We should be talking about the importance of friendships with people of the same gender and people of different genders and just helping our kids to be good friends as a way of sort of thinking about what it means to be a good person.

So I think as a culture, as a church, we need to continue to promote sort of the good parts of commitment, of relationship, and how that kind of mutual love and intimacy, at whatever stage of life is a good and beautiful thing and something to be desired and not just delayed. I think that will serve our culture well in terms of developing empathy and intimacy long term.

This is a web-only sidebar that accompanies "Mixed messages: What do women hear from the church?" which appeared in the May 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 5, pages 28-32).

Image: Flickr photo cc by Tulane Public Relations