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Is hookup culture progressive or detrimental?

“Sex, because it is such a vulnerable thing, can open up all of these tender and vulnerable parts of us. Those who don’t have a strong and secure emotional connection with their partner may not be equipped to manage all of those feelings that are coming up. So, they may either run, or cling,” Jessica Engel, psychotherapist and dating coach in the Bay Area said.

This fight-or-flight mode response is familiar to many teens today. With high academic pressure, stress can start to overtake emotional well-being, ultimately propelling teens to seek escape. Alongside monotonous class time and busy work, it’s no wonder that some people need to let loose on the weekends. The long term effect, however, is much more bleak than ideal: this euphoric release often takes shape in a short-lasting manner, and quickly fizzles into a mud bath of emotional consequences.  

One explanation for this new normal may lie in the stressful lifestyles that many high schoolers have constructed. With hooking up, teens may find that they can impulsively contact someone to engage in a mutual benefit touch, with little long term commitment.  Balancing the large commitments of day-to-day responsibilities, the choice to hook up may be easy when compared to the more effortful and tedious development of a relationship. Thus, accumulated stress is often combatted using the easiest fix: a perpetual one-night stand fueled by ravaging hormones.

In the March 2024 Bark survey, 37 percent of students with school-associated stress experience this stress five to seven days per week. This school-caused stress provides reasoning for peoples’ inclination to hook up. With this in mind, the discrepancy of joy associated with the teenage experience may be due to ranging levels of experimentation, which is detectable in the hookup culture that has revolutionized the idea of one-night stands into a routine of consistent thrill exploration. Unfortunately, the thrill of experimentation tends to be short-lived, and Redwood students have not been left unscathed. 

Out of the 277 people sampled, only six percent reported feelings of embarrassment while hooking up. However, when asked if they had experienced embarrassment after their encounter, 15 percent replied yes. While 22 percent of students felt excited during their hookup, only nine percent associate excitement with their hookup today. This decline in students’ thrill shows the negative emotional impact that brief physical entanglements can have on modern teens. Further, the number of people who feel uncertain about their hookup increased by 34 percent in the weeks after their encounter. These emotions, whether or not influenced by overall satisfaction, paint a picture of adolescents who have built a habit that they don’t know how to stop. In grad school for counseling psychology, Engle used drama therapy to help people relinquish themselves from their comfort zones, and soon created The Bay Area Dating Coach, an organization with a mission to foster meaningful relationships. Through her work in the local community, Engel has worked to teach an integral lesson: finding comfort in being uncomfortable. 

“It’s really important to know yourself and to allow yourself to deviate from hookup culture if [it] does not match your needs. This[Doing this] can take a lot of courage, and you may find that other people are still aligned with hookup culture,” Engle said. 

With current popular culture, this can feel impossible to do. If a friend is engaging in sexual encounters, one might feel pressured to give hookups a try, even if their gut is telling them to stay away. Regardless, teens should feel empowered to make their own decisions and follow paths that are healthiest for them.

“I think that allowing yourself to go after what you want is going to lead you [forward] with much less regret and many more meaningful experiences that match your values,” Engle said.

Additionally, as social media has popularized a culture of always being “in the know,” hooking up may seem like the entryway into the social climate. Teens have seemingly developed an immunity to the detriments of a virtually connected world. This amplifies the importance of Engle’s points because as teens are being stimulated with a virtual flow of information, their peers’ choices become central to their sense of self-worth. Ultimately, whether or not they feel connected enough socially, they may feel inclined to make up for the difference with meaningless sexual encounters. 

A 2022 study conducted by Pew Research found that 32 percent of teens in the U.S. classify social media as having a positive effect on them due largely to the social connection it facilitates. With today’s youth becoming accustomed to this change, social media has the potential to provide the same benefits of interaction without the burden of emotional depth. This can be likened to teens revolutionizing how people feel connected in a relationship as they feed into a technology-based fabrication of connection rather than emotionally deep interaction. Giving them the power to be emotionally apathetic, superficial relationships, whether in the context of a hookup or an Instagram direct message, have binded people together without thorough intention. Yet, this isn’t a new concept after all. 

In the early 21st century, America Online chat rooms modeled novel versions of Zoom’s breakout rooms. The unforeseen stir-in to these online social groups was singles who used the chat rooms to locate sexual partners. Often, people were drawn to this digital realm due to the inherent sense of anonymity that was once unthought-of in the sex world. Rachel Kachur, a researcher at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has uncovered some intriguing truths regarding the developments of no-strings-attached sex. 

Around the time when she had started at the CDC in 2001, Kachur was investigating the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) within the newly technological world. However, one issue persists: students aren’t being educated in sex to the degree that today’s technologically advanced world requires. In fact, it shows in the pervasive lack of porn literacy. In trying to discover a solution to this seemingly uncontainable problem, Kachur has devoted her research to improving the education of STIs in the American public amid increased access to porn.

Porn literacy, a term unfamiliar to many of today’s adolescents, has become an imperative aspect of understanding the implications of hookup culture. Boston University’s training program within the Rothman Violence Prevention Lab aims to educate teens on how to improve media literacy on porn websites. From the sex euphemisms to the overarching taboo of experimenting, it is difficult to tell how to be healthy in today’s temptation-forward culture. In reality, society seems to be struggling to know whether or not they’re building long-term pleasure or debt-collecting habits. With pornography at a costless access, people have a world of fanciful sex readied at the click of their fingertips. This accessibility to porn is not only detrimental to teens developing ideas of what sex looks and feels like, but also promotes a culture reliant on sex in order to release tension from the day. 

“What is making it hard, at least from the research that [CDC has] been doing for [today’s teenagers], is that so much of that sexual education is being taken out of schools, and not being replaced [by better education]. Instead, what’s replacing it is access to so much pornography, and that’s not sex education — it’s not even realistic sex,” Kachur said. “If people are going to porn for education, then we’re setting up people for failure and [in effect] perpetuating violence [and] a hierarchy in sex.” 

This theme of a world revolving around porn can feel difficult to wrap one’s head around, and may even seem too far-fetched for what today’s teens are up to. However, likening this realm to that of hookup culture provides a clue as to what the modern desire for pleasure looks like. In the privacy of one’s home and hand, it can be possible to achieve the same euphoric effect as in the mutual benefit of a hookup. Euphoria, among other desires, seems to be fueling a culture that is best understood in these hookups. Redwood sophomore “Ainsley,” who prefers to remain anonymous, provides perspective on ever-evolving teen desires and the stigma of sex culture, helping to break down this taboo topic. 

“I don’t think there should be this weird stigma around [hooking up],” Ainsley said. “[It seems] like if you don’t do enough, you’re a prude and not experienced enough. If you do too much, then you’re a slut.” 

This anecdote of the social pressure to have an ideal amount of sexual experience often feels unattainable for today’s youth, and unfortunately, it doesn’t stop after adolescence.

“There’s this emotional risk that can be taken when you’re engaging in something like sex. There’s a double standard that [women] live in, [who] are taught to ride this very fine line of being the good girl and not being the prude, [while also] not being the slut,” Kachur said. 

The similarity in Ainsley and Kachur’s responses brings to light the emotional impact of hooking up, especially on women. Their uses of the words “prude” and “slut” display a timeless theme of stigmatizing people based on their sexual experience, which one can only assume is made worse by the constant information flow of the modern world. When there’s pressure coming from all angles to experiment, people may have to scatter their morals to stay afloat. Unfortunately, students like Ainsley sympathize with this feeling as they wonder whether or not the hookup is worth the residual impacts that often accrue. 

“Personally, I get kind of attached; so, I don’t love hooking up because then I think the guy is like ‘Oh, great, thanks, bye’ and then I’m like ‘Oh, boyfriend, question mark?’” Ainsley said. 

When asked how hookup culture affects one’s ability to build relationships in the future, Ainsley hypothesizes that it gives certain demographics an excuse to have fun without emotional commitment.

“Hookup culture definitely takes away from relationships because guys don’t need to make you their girlfriend [in order] to hook up with you — they kind of get the goods without having to buy you dinner,” Ainsley said. 

It can be difficult to be a teenager without having culture-promoted experiences. When lacking peer validation, one can feel left out, producing an exhausting lifestyle all around. Amplified by the virtual connection of today’s world, some may find it difficult to create meaning in their interactions. Whether or not this is due to the popularity of virtual conversation and the chat rooms people have enclosed themselves within, it is clear that people are developing coping mechanisms that will either have positive impacts or leftover negatives. It is integral that every individual feels empowered to follow their morals and reach their goals in a way that suits them best. Whether you choose to engage in hookup culture or not, Engle encourages consideration of the grand scheme of adolescent decisions.

“For people interested in dating and relationships, who don’t get started because of fear — or are sort of taught by family or culture [to prioritize] academics and work over dating and relationships — I think that they do end up feeling like they really missed out on a key part of their lives [and] a key part of their development. Then, there’s often actually some grief to go through when they haven’t been able to have those typical teenage experiences,” Engel said.

This feeling of being excluded from teenage norms is somewhat unavoidable, but as long as teenagers conduct themselves safely and deal with consequences responsibly, hookup culture may have the potential, after all, to be a healthy stress outlet.

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About the Contributor
Jamie Glennon

Jamie Glennon is a sophomore at Redwood High School and is a cub reporter for The Redwood Bark. She enjoys dancing, planning outfits, and devouring lemon pound cake.