By EMILY WITHAM
During her semester abroad in London, college student Mackenzie Cash decided to enjoy a Valentine’s Day single ladies night with some friends. They found themselves at a nightclub called Pacha near Victoria Station and the evening started off well enough. The girls drank freely and grooved on a small dance floor illuminated by dim square ceiling lights. They intended to stay together all night.
But somehow Cash found herself being pulled into a corner by a young man she didn’t know. He proceeded to kiss her and, drunk off half a bottle of vodka, she didn’t protest. In fact, she enjoyed it until the alcohol began to wear off about 45 minutes later and she started to feel uncomfortable with his advances.
“He tried to get me to go home with him,” Cash, now 21 and a senior at New York University, recalls. “He kept trying to get me to go to the bathroom for obvious fornication purposes, but [I was] still on my game and said no.”
She finally managed to remove herself from the situation, but the ordeal left her feeling uncomfortable. Cash says this experience and the feeling of unease that followed are reasons she no longer engages in the hookup culture that is defining the Millennial generation.
Much has been written about Millennials’ penchant for flighty, unattached, often purely physical relations with each other, ranging from kissing to sex. A James Madison University study found that Millennials assume that their peers are more comfortable with hooking up than they themselves are. As a result, most Millennials think that their peers are hooking up more than they actually are.
A chapter in the book “Sex for Life,” published in 2012, cited a study which asked 48 second semester college freshmen about their involvement in campus hookup culture. Conducted by Occidental College professors Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman, the study found that 61% of the subjects responded that they participated in hooking up, 32% said they opted out, and 8% were in committed relationships. Only 11% of the total surveyed said that they hooked up enthusiastically; the remaining hookup participants said that they did so reluctantly for a variety of reasons, primarily peer pressure.
“I do think there is pressure [to hook up] because many people do it and think nothing of it,” says Stark State College freshman Amanda Yates, 20. “Also, like many things, peer pressure of friends plays an important role as girls and guys tend to tell each other about their hookups, but what about when you have no hookups to talk about?”
Pressure to hook up doesn’t just stem from wanting to fit in with one’s friends; it can also come from others who are looking to hook up themselves and need a partner.
“Whenever I’ve gotten hit on in a bar, it’s pretty much been with the intention of getting me to eventually go home with them,” says 24-year-old high school English teacher Leslie Halverson who identifies as bisexual. “I think this is at least partially linked to the fact that young adults in our generation are waiting longer and longer to marry and settle down, if they do it at all.”
It is clear that the media and Millennials themselves think that Gen Y is under pressure to hook up more than any previous generation. So is there any truth to it? Are Millennials really the hookup generation or do they just think they are?
The short answer is no. Millennials aren’t hooking up any more than Gen X before them. Dr. Sandra Caron conducted a study about the sexual habits of college students beginning in the 1990’s. Her study found that, in the past 20 years, sexual behaviors of college students didn’t change much.
“It may come as a surprise to learn that over the 20-year course of this study, the incidence of having five or more partners has remained largely unchanged,” states Dr. Caron in a fact sheet summarizing the study. “That’s right. While today’s college students think having multiple partners is unique to their generation with their use of terms like ‘hooking up’ and ‘friends with benefits,’ just as many college students 20 years ago were having multiple partners.” The study goes on to say that nearly all of their subjects thought that everyone was having more sex than they themselves were.
The study conducted at James Madison University uses the term “pluralistic ignorance”– the widely accepted idea that everyone else is doing or feeling something more than you are– to describe the perceived Millennial hookup phenomenon. “The students [in the study] failed to appreciate the extent to which others have different comfort levels with hooking-up behaviors,” the study states. “That is, students wrongly assumed that the attitudes of others were more homogenous than they actually were.”
The difference between Millennials and the generations before them isn’t how much sex they’re having or even how many partners they’ve had; it’s how willing they are to openly talk about it, online and in person. The ability to share whatever you want, whenever you want, on the Internet allows Millennials to talk freely about topics their parents would cringe at.
“I think the digital society we live in plays a big part to how different people feel the way they do about hooking up,” says Alexandra Wee, a dating blogger at Mesh. “More young people are wired, constantly sharing and connecting so something once taboo and very personal, like hooking up habits, becomes more casual and easier to talk about with your friends. So, the more people doing it, the more pressure.”