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  • In a culture of casual sex, the path to a committed relationship is marked by the struggle to trust. Tweet This
  • Young adults of all education levels desire an easier path to committed relationships. Tweet This

Last week, I wrote about how the sexual culture in small town America differs from hookup culture on campus. Yet I was also struck by the similarities.

The first similarity I noticed is the mind-boggling ambiguity that young adults face when it comes to relationships. In the small town in southwestern Ohio where my husband and I conducted interviews, couples often had difficulty describing how their relationships began. “It just kinda happened” was a common explanation. Sometimes, it was a drunken “one-night stand” at a party; or a friendship that became physical; or something that began with a meeting through mutual friends, in person, or via social media. But, however it started, the path from first meeting to official relationship status was usually complicated. As one 20-year-old man who worked at Rent-A-Center said when describing the confusion he observes in relationships today, “Some of them say like ‘we’re dating.’ Some of ’em say ‘we’re together.’ Some people that are in a relationship say ‘we’re just talking.’ I don’t know.”

For those in college, the path from casual encounter to an exclusive relationship can be similarly convoluted. In her book, American Hookup, sociologist Lisa Wade observes of college students,

Between the hookup and a monogamous relationship is 'talking,' 'hanging out,' being 'exclusive,' 'dating but not in a relationship,' and a whole host of other statuses. 'I just don’t know if, like, we hook up sometimes or like, we’re ‘hooking up,’ wondered a male student one day about a girl he liked. 'Hooking up' implies an ongoing arrangement, while 'hooking up sometimes' suggests that any further hooking up is random instead of intentional. 'Talking' and 'hanging out' suggest that two people who are hooking up may also be seeing each other on purpose, in daylight, when they’re sober. To be 'exclusive' is to be hooking up only with each other but without emotional attachment or accountability. As far as I can tell, 'dating but not in a relationship' is an actual monogamous relationship between two people who don’t want to use the word, or it might be a pre-relationship status. Most of these terms are purposefully vague.

The working-class young adults I interviewed used many of these phrases and had a similar reluctance to attaching labels to a relationship too soon. The story Wade tells below could have been something I heard in small town Ohio:

[S]ometimes, students don’t communicate about the state of their engagement at all. One of my students watched a couple form and have a lovely relationship without ever admitting that that was what they were doing. She observed that they ‘sleep in the same bed every night and dote upon each other affectionately even in front of their friends.’ They were quite clearly in love, but they never described their arrangement as anything other than casual. ‘It is as if the conversation about making their relationship serious is preposterous,’ she wrote, so it never occurred. She thought it quite odd, but characteristic of hookup culture. ‘It is as if they are dating in secret,’ she wrote insightfully, ‘except that the secret is only to themselves, as the entirety of the outside world sees it for what it is.’

In one sense, the problem is the loss of a courtship script, and yet if we look closely we see an elaborate set of new social cues evolving. Hookup culture itself is a “feat of social engineering,” as Wade notes. After outlining in detail the various steps and behaviors associated with a hookup, Wade says, “its aim is a fun, harmless romp, a supposedly free expression of one’s sexuality, but within oddly strict parameters. It’s spontaneous but scripted; order out of disorder; an unruly routine.” She adds, “And while students can always break the rules or rewrite the scripts, in general hookups follow the logic of the institution: they occur at predetermined places and on particular days of the week, allowing students to fit sex into their schedule in a way that is compatible with the college’s needs. Sex is now a part of how students do higher education. That’s why it can feel inevitable.”

So perhaps it is more accurate to say that the problem is not that we have no scripts, but that we have an overly intricate one—making for more of a maze than a map. Is this a hookup? A regular “meaningless” hookup, or one that ends in a relationship? (Wade reports a recent statistic that traces one-third of new marriages to a hookup, although she speculates that estimate is high.) Is he your friend? Or “friend with benefits”? Are you exclusively together? Or dating lots of people? Are you marriage-minded? Or dating just for fun? There are few obvious markers for men and women to figure out which script the people around them are following. The same act—casual sex—can end in nothing, or in a relationship, or even a marriage. It’s difficult to figure out which path you are on, and this ambiguity seems to plague young adults regardless of education level.  

A second similarity in the relationship landscape for young adults, both on campus and elsewhere, is the risk of sexual assault. We’ve (rightfully) heard a lot about the crisis of sexual violence on college campus, and it’s even higher for college-aged women who are not students. It’s possible that the often precarious living arrangements of these young adults—sometimes moving in with multiple people of both sexes whom they barely know in order to split the rent check, or couch surfing from friend’s house to friend’s house, or living in the same home with their mom and her live-in boyfriend—might contribute to the high rates of sexual assault.

The same act—casual sex—can end in nothing, or in a relationship, or even a marriage. It’s difficult to figure out which path you are on, and this ambiguity seems to plague young adults regardless of education level.  

The third similarity is not surprising given the context of relationship ambiguity and sexual violence: young adults live in a culture of distrust, particularly gender distrust. A 2014 Pew survey found that just 19 percent of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers, 37 percent of Silents and 40 percent of Boomers. As one young man told us, the first thing he assumes about someone when he meets them is that they might be wanted by the law.

It’s interesting (and heart wrenching) to think how hookup culture and serial monogamy may contribute to these statistics. Wade notes that several students told her that hookups lead to “trust issues,” and she quotes another student who said, “Like most girls I want to hook up with, I don’t trust her.” Another commented that there is “an inherent lack of trust in everyone and everything.”

When my husband and I asked young adults who did not go to college about the challenges in their relationships, over and over again we also heard about “trust issues.”

Dan, 20, was talking with his ex-girlfriend about moving back in together after a long break. Both he and his girlfriend had been with other people, and they agreed, “This isn’t gonna be easy for either of us.”  They told each other that they trusted each other, but it was difficult for those words to feel true:

[T]here’s always a little thought in the back of your head, even when we were together it’s always just a little thought like, ‘I wanna go out with my girlfriend to the bar.’  Well, what if she gets too drunk and ends up doin’ somethin’ with a guy?”  There’s always gonna be that thought, but time–I don’t wanna say I’m gonna be naïve, but I’m pretty much gonna be naïve.  I’m just gonna be like, “All right.  Well, if it happens again I’m sorry to say I just can’t do it.” It’s like, “It obviously doesn’t mean anything to you, so I just can’t do it.”  But, fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me. Right? So, it’ll never happen again, but that’s what I believe. I believe that will never happen again. But, like I said, there’s no guarantee.  I trust her. We’ve both been with other people.  And, she’ll have the same issue with me. She’s gonna have to trust me when I go out with my friends that I’m not gonna revert back to my old self and try to sleep with somebody.

Dan vacillated from “I believe it will never happen again” and “I trust her” to “there’s no guarantee.” As much as he wanted to trust, he also didn’t want to be naïve or fooled. The existence of hookup culture at the local bar scene and he and his girlfriend’s past dalliances were enough to rattle his confidence in her fidelity. Likewise, he acknowledged the possibility that she struggled to trust that he wouldn’t “revert back” to his “old self”—the self that partied hard and slept around. Likewise, Rob, also in his twenties and living with his girlfriend and their two sons, described how he didn’t trust himself to be faithful. “My mind,” he said, was the biggest obstacle to marriage.

In our sample of 75 non-college educated young adults, 71 percent described some form of “trust issues” in a relationship, even though this was not typically something we specifically asked about. Forty-three percent said they believed they had been cheated on, even while only 16 percent said they had cheated. My guess is that—just as students tend to overestimate how often their peers are hooking up—working-class young adults tend to overestimate how often their partners are cheating. That suspicion is a symptom of distrust, and the distrust seems a symptom of a sexual culture that tends towards objectification of the person, as well as an ambiguous relationship script that blurs lines, devalues clear communication and makes cheating easier because it is sometimes unclear what the expectations are.  

In this context, the path to a committed relationship is one marked by the struggle to trust. When asked about the most important ingredients for a healthy relationship, trust rolled off the tongue. But young adults we spoke with were quick to blame the prevailing relationship culture for creating an environment of low trust. They sometimes also blamed the kinds of technology—social media, dating apps—that they saw as facilitating casual sex and cheating.

As Wade notes of college students,

Students do sometimes navigate the transition from a hookup to hooking up to talking to hanging out to exclusivity to dating but not in a relationship to a relationship to the heights of relationship seriousness—making it Facebook official—but it’s not easy. Students have to be willing to express emotional attachment to a person in a culture that punishes people that do so, and they have to be capable of responding positively to that kind of vulnerable confession, too.

Some of the students Wade followed up with post-graduation expressed confusion about how to date, and had difficulty being vulnerable. They had so long conditioned themselves to be cold and dismissive towards their sexual partners that for them handholding and sharing emotions was more difficult—and more intimate—than the act of having sex. Farah, a young woman Wade interviewed was “thriving” in her career, but “still trying to melt down the cold shell that she’d built around herself to survive hookup culture.” She had recently made a breakthrough after meeting a nice man and was learning “to not be so afraid of holding hands. Because it’s not scary and it actually feels wonderful.”   

Wade notes that this difficulty adjusting seems different than what Katherine Bogle found in her landmark study of hookups 10 years prior. Wade wonders if things are changing fast. Which makes me wonder—is it possible that the trust deficit, in part caused by hookup culture, could mean that the relationship struggles of young college graduates will begin to look more similar to those of their working-class peers, whose low social trust has been well documented? Or will college students—so good at compartmentalizing in other areas of life—be able to isolate their experiences of hookup culture and move on to form healthy relationships despite their sexual habits?

Only time will tell, but one thing we do know: young adults of all education levels say they would like an easier path to committed relationships. We as a culture must commit to that sort of change.