For many young adults, college is the first place you get a real taste of freedom. You’re free from reputations formed since childhood, free from parents, free from your tired teenage life. You’re also surrounded by a lot of attractive, horny people who are simultaneously experiencing freedom for the first time, and also finally have the bedroom space to enact their desires.
While the last few years have reshaped the way we think about sex and physical intimacy—there is a much greater understanding of consent, and more awareness about the ways communication is misunderstood—that knowledge is unevenly distributed, and many young people really don’t know what they’re doing as they stumble toward their first few sexual experiences. We are frustratingly far away from the ultimate goal that we all deserve: physical intimacy that is not only safe but is also good.
Seeking a good hookup experience can feel like navigating an impossible quagmire, especially given toxic campus cultures that pressure students into having sex and can make intimacy feel transactional even when it’s fully consensual. The lack of clarity around the phrase “hookup” is part of the problem—depending on who’s talking, it can mean everything from a kiss to sexual intercourse. And though a hookup is usually someone that you don’t have a romantic relationship with, it can be anyone from a stranger to an acquaintance to a “fuck buddy” you have an understanding with. So here is what you need to know to make hookup culture work for you:
Where to Start
Knowing how to communicate your needs is an essential first step—both in making sure you are satisfied, but also making sure that your partner(s) are comfortable and consent to everything that you want to do to and with them. It’s also an important skill to develop as you continue to have sex, regardless of the number of partners you’ll have throughout your life.
You should begin with honest introspection about what you want to get out of it, and what you’re comfortable doing. This process can happen in your head, or it can come in the form of an actual catalogue. Burlesque performer and sex educator Fancy Feast recommends making a “Yes and maybe list” to physically commit your comfort level, needs, and wants to paper.
“A yes and maybe list is a list of actions in your ‘playbank,’” Fancy Feast told me over the phone. “You can ask yourself, ‘Is this something I jerk off about, am I really curious about it?’ That would go in your ‘yes.’ If it’s something you definitely aren’t interested in or something you didn’t enjoy, that would go in your ‘no.’” A “yes,” for example, could be a mix of positions or kinks you know you are into, like doggy style, or things you haven’t tried but definitely want to, like being handcuffed or spanked. And if those are things you’ve tried and dislike, or actively have no interest in trying, they go in “no.”
“Anything else would go in your ‘maybe.’ And that could mean maybe on my body but not on someone else’s body. Maybe if we had immediate access to a shower, or something like that. Anything that comes with a caveat. I think that’s really useful whether or not you’re in a relationship, whether or not you’re hooking up. You could even put it in a Google doc and send it to somebody else!”
Formulating this list obviously requires rudimentary knowledge of what you do and don’t like. Some of this may have come from previous relationships or hookups before college. But not having hooked up with someone doesn’t mean you don’t have context for what you may be interested in. Fancy Feast suggests online resources, like the advice site Scarleteen. “It has ‘teen’ in the name, but I’ve recommended it to people who are in their 40s,” she said. She also recommends following sex educators on social media to get more specific advice.
Thinking about it in literal terms will also give you the words to use when you begin to communicate your needs—and this is where a lot of people have trouble.
The Basics of Consent and Communication
Shazidur Talukder is a Communication and Consent Educator (CCE) at Yale. That means he teaches other students through workshops, and acts as a low-pressure liaison to sexual health resources like free condoms or discreet STI tests. “I don’t know where I would have learned the vocabulary if being a CCE isn’t something I decided to do,” the sophomore told me over the phone. “And I don’t think that that’s OK.”
Most college campuses have peer organizations that lead freshman orientation and help students acclimate to college life. At Yale, incoming students get a 90-minute program that encompasses sex ed, communication, and consent. The challenge is that a lot of these kids have gotten through life without learning anything about sexual health and some lack even basic anatomical information. When Talukder asks them what sex ed they got in high school, “most people said, ‘There wasn’t really any.’”
The communication and consent portion of the workshop is interactive and intended to simulate the discrepancies in the ways people judge verbal and nonverbal cues. “There’s a ‘frozen yogurt’ exercise, where there’s one ‘invite’ and four invitees who get asked out to froyo, and each of them have different mindsets,” Talukder explained. “We ask students what affirmative and not affirmative signals look like—even though people don’t say yes or no in the scenario, you can still tell. And you can kind of extrapolate that to conversations about sex. The idea is that it looks similar.”
These exercises are helpful, but freshman orientation programs across the US are complicated by dense schedules that make all of the information difficult to remember. “The schedule is back to back,” Talukder said. Many of these workshops also never touch on communication as a means to having better sex or more fulfilling hookups, because, Talukder said, “institutions don’t want to directly tell students to have sex.” So much of what students learn about sex comes from trial and error. “I tell a lot of students you have to learn by your mistakes,” Talukder said.
Making mistakes with your partner is a healthy part of learning about yourself sexually, but not all mistakes are created equal. There’s a huge difference in having bad sex because you did not like something you tried (or your partner ended up being clumsy), and the kind of bad sex that leaves you feeling uncomfortable and regretful of what you’ve done because you struggled to articulate your desires. There’s also a big difference between both of those and being coerced or being taken advantage of when you’re in a vulnerable position.
“There have been times where my friends have woken up like, ‘Oh my god, where am I?’” Talukder told me. “Almost all of my friends have had bad experiences. I didn’t realize how common it was until I came to college—people not listening, or whatever it is. No one really talks about it.”
This is especially true of women in heterosexual hookups, who struggle to have certain sexual acts reciprocated and who orgasm less than men in hookups. “I still hear from girls that while they may have an orgasm, it’s not an expectation the way it generally is for guys,” Peggy Orenstein, author of the bestseller Girls and Sex, wrote me in an email. “Not in a hookup.” Unsurprisingly, women experience post-hookup regret at higher rates than men. And more than 20 percent of college women said they’ve experienced unwanted sexual contact.
Making mistakes with your partner is a healthy part of learning about yourself sexually, but not all mistakes are created equal.
Much of this inequality stems from toxic masculinity and misogyny. Men are socialized to view women as sexual prizes and lack communication skills and emotional resilience because our culture casts these traits as “unmanly.” In these gender roles, women are gatekeepers, cast as either prudes or sluts depending on their decision to hook up. Women are also viewed as objects and told they have to learn how to appease men lest they become victims of sexual misconduct or even violence. This dynamic is especially dangerous for women, but it isn’t good for anyone.
Solving the systemic problems that create toxic hookup culture is far beyond the scope of this article. But a frank discussion of hookup culture necessarily involves acknowledging it so that it can be navigated. Empower yourself to treat your partners with respect—break the cycle of ghosting or shaming. Be vigilant about recognizing behaviors within hookup culture that are unacceptable and do your best to intervene. And (though it should not be your problem) take precautions to be safe when going out.
Alcohol and Parties
This is all obviously complicated by alcohol. In 2015, the National Institute of Health found that 58 percent of college students aged 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the last month. Drinking can lead to sex that students regret, but the fundamental contradiction is that college students (and post-grad adults, honestly) drink to lower their inhibitions and work up the courage to approach someone they like—but when everyone is drinking, communicating clearly can be impossible. “There’s definitely a correlation on campus. If you’re sexually active then you probably drink,” Talukder told me. “If you don’t go to parties people assume you aren’t sexually active unless you’re in a relationship. Most of my friends’ sexual encounters have resulted from parties. Besides frat parties, there isn’t much to work with.”
“It’s scarier and more vulnerable to be sober and with it. That means yeah you might say something awkward—you might say ‘dock’ when you’re trying to say ‘dick’ or ‘cock’ and you can’t choose. That is OK.”
Communication and consent workshops also guide students through the effects of alcohol. A big topic is “alcohol myopia, where you don’t forget about more distant concerns but they loom less in your mind compared to more salient cues,” Talukder explained. The workshop also explains that consent should not be assumed and cannot be given when drunk (or high), and that alcohol should not be used as a scapegoat in cases of sexual misconduct. “Consent should be a clear, unambiguous, ongoing agreement,” Talukder told me. “If you’re drunk you can still recognize the signals. You need to be conscious of not looking for what you want to see.”
It may be impossible to envision a world where hooking up happens without alcohol, but sobriety is a necessary step in making sure your hookup is consensual—and sober hookups tend to be much better because both parties are present and able to communicate. “I’m not a statistician, but polling the people in my life—like the people who have had experiences when they’re drunk and have had experiences when they’re sober generally rave about the sober ones and tend to not remember or wish they did not remember the ones that happened when they’re drunk,” Fancy Feast told me. “It’s scarier and more vulnerable to be sober and with it. That means yeah you might say something awkward—you might say ‘dock’ when you’re trying to say ‘dick’ or ‘cock’ and you can’t choose. That is OK. We don’t die of awkwardness though it may feel that way.”
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t drink at a party, or that drinking in moderation can’t be enjoyable. It also doesn’t mean that hookups can’t be found at a party. But if you meet someone at the party that you want to hook up with, know your limits. Walk away if you or your partner is drunk. And instead of drinking to develop the courage to approach someone or hookup with them, practice being a better communicator. One of the easiest ways to do this is by being a question asker.
Hookups Are Better When You Ask Questions
“There is nothing more confident than someone who asks a question and listens to the answer,” Fancy Feast told me. “That may seem counterintuitive—for a lot of people, we’re afraid of not knowing something. But having genuine curiosity in the person in front of you is the hottest thing. And it indicates that you’re really interested in what makes them tick. I find that to be the hottest, most baddest shit. All of your peers are too chickenshit to ask questions about what somebody likes!”
Asking questions can be sexy. They’re a fun way to engage intimately with your partner and to learn what makes them feel good. It should be a necessity, regardless of whether you’re hooking up with someone for the first time or you’re in a longer-term relationship (romantically or otherwise). Chloe Yee, a public health educator who teaches consent and health workshops to high school students in New Haven, Connecticut, emailed me a list of non-intimidating and straightforward questions that can be used to obtain consent and make hookups more satisfying:
- I’d love to kiss you. Are you OK with that?
- Can I go down on you?
- Is it OK if I finger you?
- How do you feel?
- What would you like to do?
- Do you want to have sex?
- Are you ready for this?
- Is this OK?
It’s also particularly important to ask questions when there’s any kind of power dynamic. Though both partners should ask questions, men should make sure to check in if its a cishet hookup, for example. Everyday Feminist offers a great list of ways to “pay attention to power dynamics” in hookup culture. These include who is older, whose place you’re partying or hooking up in, whether you’ve just bought your date a drink or dinner, and who has more experience. If you’re in a position of power, make sure you act like you’re also in a position of responsibility.
“I think one of the big lies out there is that communication is something for people in relationships.”
Abuses of power can happen even with well-meaning partners. The Journal of Interpersonal Violence published a study in 2017 that examined a group of 145 heterosexual men, 92 percent of whom were white, and found that they tended to conflate sexual desire with consent and had difficulty accurately gauging nonverbal cues. This study tested respondents for levels of empathy, hostile sexism, and hypermasculinity, and found that even progressive, feminist men could still be guilty of this behavior. Dear men: Ask questions, and listen to the answers.
Of course, responding to these questions and learning how to speak up about your likes and dislikes takes a bit of practice. But you can take it in steps, like the yes and maybe list that turns the practice of thinking about your sexual preferences into a habit. “Maybe that means practicing by yourself if you’re alone in your room jerking off,” Fancy Feast told me, “or writing it down.” It may seem like a cringe-worthy movie scene—like in (500) Days of Summer when Tom hypes himself in the bathroom by talking at his reflection in the mirror before finally sleeping with Summer—but it doesn’t have to be an out-loud pep talk.
You can rehearse these phrases in your head to the point where they become less intimidating to say to someone else. During sex, asking “is this OK?” is quite simple, and gives your partner a way to navigate the fear of feeling like speaking up is critiquing any aspect of sexual performance or self-worth. And it gives them permission to ask you what feels good in return. “I think people are often punished for their desires or made to feel shame about them,” Fancy Feast said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
The pre-hookup conversation also doesn’t have to be serious. “Instead of thinking, ‘Wait, we must sit down and think on these matters more,’” Fancy Feast said, “it can be during the walk down your quad. It can be as simple as, ‘Hey, I like having hands in my hair but I don’t want to be choked. I want to go down on you and I want you to go down on me. I don’t like having anything in my ass. How does that sound?’ I don’t think anybody has been like, ‘Oh crap, I wish you hadn’t said that, I no longer want to hook up.’”
This principle of making conversation less serious can be applied to the steps leading up to the hookup. In the daytime, instead of “Do you want to go on a date,” it can be, “Do you want to get coffee?” If you’re out you can ask, “Want to dance?” or, “Want to get drunchies?” Practice accepting rejection as a healthy part of participating—no one owes you a hookup, and just because someone said no doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t find a partner who wants hook up with you.
If you’re inviting someone back to your dorm (“do you want to get out of here/do you want to come home with me”) make sure you clarify your intentions while you’re walking. You should ask your partner what they want to do that night and take steps to make sure it will be safe (at least one party should have a condom). You may want to ask if they want to sleep over. If you’re in a position of power, make sure you don’t pressure them—restate that it’s their choice and that you will not be offended by their decision. Continue to check in. Be attentive to nonverbal cues like unresponsiveness or lack of enthusiasm, and don’t assume that your partner will be comfortable enough to speak up all the time—so give them space and empower them to say no.
If you’re intimidated by saying this all aloud, it can be “sending a text to the person sitting next to you,” Fancy Feast added. “I think one of the big lies out there is that communication is something for people in relationships. If you’re hooking up, no one talks, and you do your best. It shouldn’t be that way. Use whatever is going to make communication easier. You can fake it till you make it.”
Dating apps make this a bit easier—if you’re meeting through Tinder, Bumble, or Grindr you can easily chat about what you’re looking for because mutual attraction has been established, and the conversation doesn’t have to happen face-to-face. “There’s no shame, and if it’s at night there’s the understanding that you’re probably looking for something,” Talukder said. “Even if you match on Tinder but you never talk, sometimes you’ll see them at a party and they’ll come up and say, ‘Oh we matched on Tinder,’ and maybe something will happen.”
Look Out for Each Other
If you are going out, make sure you’re with friends you can trust and who can make sure you get home safe. Communicate with them about what you’re looking for, and check in with your friends throughout the night to see how they’re doing. “My friends ask each other, ‘Sex or no sex, are we hooking up or not?’” Talukder said. “They will squeeze each other’s hands, or give some kind of sign.” Know where your friends are and who they’re going home with—and ask them to do the same for you.
You can also look out for people outside of your friend group. Bystander intervention is being a good samaritan to your fellow students, and checking in on a shady looking situation before it escalates into something genuinely dangerous. The potential to save someone from assault—or other bad outcomes—vastly outweighs momentary discomfort. (Never put yourself in the path of danger. Most campuses have a hotline for campus security, which is different than campus police or any type of law enforcement, who can escort students or drive students home).
College hookup culture is pervasive, and in many ways, incredibly toxic. It’s what we’ve got to work with—but it doesn’t have to be.
Lehigh University’s Student Affairs group breaks it into five steps: “Notice the event, interpret it as a problem, assume personal responsibility, know how to help, and implement the help.” For example, you see a couple making out, but you notice one of them is cornered. They look uncomfortable. You notice the person blocking the pathway is an upperclassman and their partner is younger. You duck in and pretend to be the younger person’s friend, asking, “Are you OK?” If they confidently say they’re fine or tell you to fuck off, you leave them to it—no harm, no foul. If they say it uncomfortably you can ask again, offering to make up an excuse like you found their phone or pretend to be drunk and get in the way. If they say explicitly say they aren’t comfortable, go ahead and create that distraction.
It can end there or you can take more responsibility by helping them find their friends or walking them home if it’s safe. This works especially well on college campuses, because there is an existing in-group. “To be able to do that for other people is important to how we grow the culture,” Talukder told me. When I was a student, I used bystander intervention in a number of scenarios, from bailing a freshman in my dorm out of an unwanted keg stand to keeping an acquaintance’s little brother from being grinded on.
College hookup culture is pervasive, and in many ways, incredibly toxic. It’s what we’ve got to work with—but it doesn’t have to be. Every person who learns how to navigate it healthily brings campuses a step closer to what a great sexual climate looks like. Being asked to dance rather than getting a mystery boner pressed against your back in a dark club. Getting to someone’s bedroom without alcohol, because you asked what they wanted to do that night. Knowing you’re on the same page about what you want, because you talked about it. Feeling comfortable to speak your mind while you’re hooking up with someone, including mentioning silly things like “your arm falling asleep,” as Fancy Feast told me.
“During the CCE workshop, we talk about what an ideal sexual campus climate would look like,” Talukder said. The incoming freshman say that there should be more sober sex, that people should approach each other and ask directly about what they want. That world can exist—we just have to create it.