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  • The ideal of committed sex might be stronger in working-class America than on college campuses. Tweet This
  • “You can't love ‘em if you're just using 'em for a hook up"—a 25-year-old working-class woman. Tweet This

After reading Lisa Wade’s American Hookup, which I reviewed here, I found myself wondering if young adults who do not attend college navigate the “fog” of hookup culture that Wade’s students describe. After reviewing the interviews my husband, David, and I did with 75 non-college educated young adults in southwestern Ohio, I think that the answer is both yes—and no.

On the one hand, one-third of our sample reported having sex outside of a relationship. They sometimes said things like, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that—we’re sexual people, everybody is…. As long as the people are consenting and know where they’re at in the relationship, it’s fine.” Or “people are gonna have one-night-stands and stuff like that, and I think that's just part of growing up.” Or as Jessica, the waitress whom I wrote about here, said,

Sex is sex, regardless of who it’s with. You can make it mean something if you want it to mean something, but other than that if you just want it to be a f***--excuse my language—then it’s not gonna mean anything, and you don’t have to call that person the next day.

Others, like Stephanie, a single mother of two, reported that when she started online dating, she felt a lot of pressure to hook up. She’d regularly get messages from guys asking to have sex, and she eventually decided to delete her email account because her inbox was flooded with hundreds of such messages.

On the other hand, these young adults are not part of a “total institution” like students at a four-year college. As Wade points out, the nature of college as a total institution means that it is difficult for students to escape the dominant culture on campus, and she reports that two-thirds of college students participate in hookup culture. (“Hookup” is an intentionally ambiguous term that can refer to anything from a making out to actual intercourse, so this number does not easily compare with the one-third figure I mention above.) Campus conversations and friendships revolve around the hearsay of hooking up, and to opt out is to risk feeling marginalized. The only students Wade spoke with who did not feel enveloped by hookup culture were those at commuter colleges.

It’s also interesting to note that the vocabulary of “hooking up” did not surface much in our interviews with working-class young adults, even though asking about sexual experiences and attitudes was a significant part of our interviews. Young adults not on the college scene more often described uncommitted sex as “friends with benefits” or a “one night stand.”

It’s possible that those non-college educated young adults who have had a foray into the world of higher education are the ones most likely to participate in hookup culture, even after they’ve dropped out of college. Of those we interviewed, several of the most enthusiastic about casual sex had attended a four-year college for some time.

The vocabulary of “hooking up” did not surface much in our interviews with working-class young adults.

Jessica studied psychology at a large state university, and it was there that she first had sex. “I racked up a few numbers while I was in college,” she says, “It’s kinda like a slutty thing, but I mean, it’s college, right? Whatever you’d like.” Jessica eventually dropped out because she was concerned by her growing drinking habit.

Mark, 29, also dropped out after attending a state school known for its party scene. Mark graduated high school in the top 10 percent of his class and became the first in his family to go to college, but flunked after a couple semesters because he partied too hard. He said that he wishes he “would’ve stayed close to home ‘stead of goin’ to school…. I feel like I would be in a lot different position right now if I’d a stayed close to home.”

Did these students, like those described in sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s book, Paying for the Party, get the worst of all worlds—student debt, no degree, and a harmful sexual culture to boot? As Ross Douthat argued in the New York Times, is this largely “a story about the socioeconomic consequences of cultural permissiveness”?

Christa, a few years younger than Mark but from the same small town, credits her success in college to the fact that she stayed home, living with her parents. “I never moved on campus, so that kept me out of trouble 'cause I never did like get into the drinking scene or anything like that,” she told us. Some of Wade’s working-class students had similar stories.

It seems that for young adults who never go to college or who live at home while attending commuter colleges, though casual sex is common and a bar/club scene exists, there is another strong and competing script about sex. This script prizes sex as an expression of love and commitment and—whatever you think about its practical wisdom—values finding a spouse and starting a family over launching a career as the first adventure of adulthood.

This script is in the cultural air in the small town where I live. You can hear it in the country music blaring from a passing car’s speakers. It’s preached from the pulpits of the town’s 10 churches. The elderly who sit on their porches are witnesses to it, with their wedding rings and the golden anniversary knickknacks in their curio cabinets.

As Tricia, a 22-year-old in a serious relationship who stayed in her hometown instead of going off to college, explained:

I think that another reason people wait longer [to get married is that] they just wanna keep living the college life and, like, going out and stuff and hangin’ out with friends, and I think it’s just, like, too much fun that would get, like, ruined by marriage.

But for Tricia, that order of priorities is a bit backward. She doesn’t see anything wrong with pursuing a committed relationship at a younger age, explaining, “You can still have fun with like, you know, your husband or wife.”

Heidi, 20, was shocked to read a story in Cosmopolitan about a 38-year-old woman who never wanted kids. “Okay, I understand where you’re coming from, but you’re crazy. Because that’s kind of the biggest point in life,” she said “More than falling in love, more than your house, more than your money, more than anything is keeping your family alive, keeping the world going. That’s what you’re put on this earth to do.”

Or as Julia, a 22-year-old mother of two boys, said, “I want a college degree and stuff, but I’ve always wanted a family besides anything.”

Given the emphasis on pursuing love and family in working-class communities, it is no surprise that many respondents expressed the idea that while premarital sex is fine, sex without some kind of love and commitment is risky and less than ideal.

Of casual sex, one young man said:

It's fleeting, it's pointless, and it has nothing to do with the actuality of relational dynamics…It doesn't make logical sense from any standpoint other than you are only trying to fulfill your own need, lustful need, whatever.  You want to feel better about yourself that day, so you want to suck the life out of somebody else. That has nothing to do with love or relationships as far as I'm concerned.

Twenty-year-old Arianna described “an episode” in which she slept with someone she met at a bar. She said it was:

nice knowing that that guy wanted me like that, but it was not a good feeling of, like, there's nothing gonna come of that. You're not going to talk to this person. It's kinda like giving away your body for nothing, you know? And that is a gift. That is – should be something that's, like, treasured. 

She went on to say that she has a friend who sleeps with guys as a “self-esteem thing” but is adamant that for her, it had the opposite effect: “That honestly makes me feel less about myself.”

Nicole, who got pregnant with her daughter right after high school and then married the father, said:

To me, [sex is] very private, very personal; it’s a big commitment.  Some people are just kind of like, ‘It’s just sex.’  So, for them, I guess having sex early in a relationship is just kind of like going out for ice cream. It’s just what you do together. I don’t want it to be that way for my kids.

Other women talked about emotional and psychological risks. Monica, 22 and a single mother, warned other young women to:"make it be somethin’ serious not just the whole one-night-stand thing.” She explained from her own experience:

I mean it affects you emotionally. You can get STDs. You could have a lot of unplanned pregnancies or if you – you know, some people have abortions ’cause it was a one-night stand. That affects you emotionally and that can affect you for the rest of your life. ’Cause I feel like you’re just – you’re pretty much just handing out something that not everybody’s worthy of having.

And 25-year-old Pam summed up a common attitude when she said that while there are “temporary benefits” to casual sex, “part of everybody's heart wants to love somebody. And obviously, you can't love ‘em if you're just using 'em for a hook up.”

These comments are a far cry from the outright celebration of hooking up that Wade heard from some college students. Instead, the young adults we spoke with—though many of them acknowledge that they went through a “party stage” in their late teens and sometimes into their early twenties—expressed a desire to settle down and start families, and this shaped their views on sex.

That’s not to say that young adults who opt out of college have fewer sexual partners. Serial monogamy—the high rates of dissolution of cohabiting unions and higher divorce rates for the non-college educated—could help to explain why the non-college educated have slightly more sexual partners on average, even if hookup culture is less prevalent. In other words, the ideal of committed sex might be stronger in working-class America than it is on college campuses, but those same young adults, for a variety of reasons, are struggling to live up to their own ideals.

Hookup culture might not exist in the same form off campus as it does on campus—in part because of differing cultural values and priorities surrounding family and career—but there are startling similarities between the sexual cultures in both places. I will explore those similarities, including distrust of the opposite sex, ambiguity in relationships, and the risk of sexual assault, in my next post.