Hookup: The ambiguity of collegiate intimacy

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This is the first installment in a four-part series exploring UC Berkeley’s “hookup culture.” Students’ names have been changed or withheld in order to protect their privacy and foster honest conversation.

It is a typical Friday night party. The musty combination of sweat, hormones and repressed desires are undercut by the acidic smell of Vitali and the dry stench of beer. Grinding undergrads and pulsating music flood the space.

At a certain point, the innocent “What’s your major?” leads to suggestive looks. While some prefer to consummate their newfound friendships on the dance floor, other couples will peel out of the crowded lower level rooms to seek privacy elsewhere. Observers may nudge each other or snicker if they see their friend going upstairs with another, trading in their red plastic cups for a more elastic polymer product.

What happens next can vary, yet a simple “We hooked up” would likely suffice as an explanation in most circumstances.

The term is especially pertinent near the end of each semester, when the mysterious online forum UCB Anonymous Confessions — known more commonly as AnonCon — provides UC Berkeley students with a place to procrastinate instead of studying for finals by posting anonymous confessions and desires, even seeking nameless partners for clandestine rendezvous in secluded areas of the campus.

While hookup culture is an undeniable facet of campus life, it is hard to define in qualitative or definitive terms. While some see it as an opportunity to take advantage of unsuspecting coeds, many view it as being mutually advantageous — a way to let loose, have fun and capitalize on the availability of same-age peers that college provides.

“To me, hooking up is not sex, but it’s beyond making out,” a freshman male said confidently while seated at Cafe Milano. His buddy, a sophomore, shook his head in disagreement.

“Wait a minute,” said a graduate student seated at a nearby table. “You didn’t hook up with someone if you didn’t have sex. If you had sex, you specify that separately, right?”

Linguistically, there is no definitive answer as to what the term “hookup” constitutes. A definition on the website Urban Dictionary delineates a hookup as a “purposefully ambiguous, equivocal word to describe almost any sexual action.” In an alternate definition, an online user states, “I have absolutely no idea anymore.”

The vagueness of the term holds appeal for many students, allowing them to protect their reputation by either taming a risque encounter or bolstering an anticlimactic evening.

Amanda Hess, writing for GOOD magazine, said the vagueness of the term “hookup” may even be intentionally designed to help both men and women evade social judgment on their sexual actions. Women — disgraced for going too far — and men — shamed for not going far enough — can both spin the term “hookup” in their favor. In that sense, this all-encompassing phrase, hinting at anything from first base to sex, could be the ultimate gender equalizer.

From a strictly psychological standpoint, college students, or those who fall within the age bracket of between 16 and 25, are at a very critical period in their development.

Starting in puberty, the amygdala — part of the limbic system specifically related to processing emotions and arousal — is exceptionally active. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex — responsible for helping control emotions and facilitating cognition of actions — does not develop until around age 20. What results are individuals driven by their amygdala and hormones to be extremely sexual before the self-control and internal regulation the prefrontal cortex provides is established.

“Social factors, biological factors and lack of long-term forethought all play a role in the hookup culture for students,” said Christopher Gade, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. “(Students’) brains aren’t designed to think that way yet. The prefrontal cortex is a muscle that is underdeveloped and is not nearly as accessible or developed as it will be later on.”

Perhaps the ambiguity of hookup culture is reflective of the ambiguity of this life stage itself — the period between being a teenager and an adult in which the majority of college students find themselves. Riddled with hormones and living relatively independent from moral authority figures, college students do not fall into the traditional category of “adolescents.”

But without any real responsibility and, until age 21, lacking legal validation of their adulthood, they are not entirely adults either. What results is someone who, in the context of hooking up, seeks the physical intimacy of adulthood while ignoring the maturation and emotional intimacy that many believe accompany it.

Eager to express their adulthood, many students are quick to experiment with drinking, smoking and sex, all the while unbridled by any real sense of obligation or accountability.