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Getting busy: Fulfillment without commitment at the University

By Bethany Biron, Managing News Editor
Published October 1, 2012

Curled comfortably beneath a red wool blanket, LSA senior Michelle Cronin glances quizzically at her housemates lounging in the dimly lit living room of Owen House, a co-op on Oakland Street.

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“You’re pretty in-between,” Emilia Breitenbach, a recent University alum, says after thoughtful consideration. “Your mindset is in-between, definitely.”

Cronin ruminates a moment longer, drawing the blanket closer to her body and fidgeting with the frayed threads unraveling along the edges.

“I don’t like hook-up culture, but I have gotten into some random situations and always felt really weird afterwards,” she says.

“You kind of have that guilt complex afterward,” Breitenbach adds. “Where it’s, like, ‘Oh, this isn’t right,’ and you’re more looking for a serious person. But in-between, you’re still dipping into it.

“Whereas for me, I’m just straight up random hookups." Breitenbach pauses. "I don’t want to worry about it.”

As they sit and mull over their experiences, Cronin and Breitenbach find themselves trapped in an ideological contradiction that plagues young twenty-something women in the modern era. It's no longer enough to go to college, find a boyfriend and get married. The priorities have shifted.

As today's women navigate the tumultuous path between romance and career, they’ve increasingly turned toward “hook-up culture” as a means of escape. An arduous week of academia paves way to the sweet freedom of Friday night, and the streets swell with a cavalcade of stilettos propping up scantily clad girls with berry-colored lips and black-rimmed eyes.

With bags slung haphazardly across their shoulders, they sip on gin and tonics between shots of Absolut before stumbling to the dance floor where their lips magnetically meet with a stranger’s, heads ultimately hitting the pillow in that same stranger’s bed.

The proliferation of hook-up culture — promulgated by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, advancements in the women’s movement and the advent of birth control — has fostered a generation that waltzes precariously atop a delicate thread of empowerment and objectification, wavering between endorsing and rejecting a culture that shies away from traditional notions of monogamy.

The transformation of the modern relationship

After trying her hand at monogamy with her first “real” boyfriend during her freshman and sophomore years at the University, Music, Theatre & Dance senior Laura Cohen decided commitment ultimately wasn’t for her.

“It was a big learning experience,” she said. “It definitely showed me that I have very little interest in monogamy … I don’t really think that it’s something I care about in my life.”

Instead, she opted for an open relationship, establishing a mutual understanding between herself and her partner that outside hookups were allowed, even encouraged.

“Being in an open relationship is just great,” Cohen said. “You have all of the security and the support and the love that you have in a traditional, monogamous relationship. But you also have the freedom to go out on Friday night with your friends, and if you end up making out with some frat guy, you don’t have to break up over it.”

As defined by Elizabeth Marquardt, the director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values in New York City, and the late University of Texas sociologist Norval Glenn, a hookup is “anything ranging from ‘hooking up to having sex.’ ” An unbreakable criterion is that it must take place outside the context of commitment.

Engineering senior Stephen Barnard met a girl at a party last summer for whom he quickly developed sexual feelings. They started regularly hooking up.

But as their sexual escapades persisted, they felt compelled to take a stab at being in a relationship. They started doing “coupley things,” as Barnard put it — but their attempt faltered shortly after.

“I was sort of pushing things forward artificially without either of us really being into it, sort of out of obligation,” Barnard said. “Then it all sort of broke down, and we admitted that we were just fuck buddies.”

In 2004, Elizabeth Armstrong, an associate professor of Women’s Studies, conducted a study of the romantic lives of 53 female students at a dorm known for its propensity for partying at a Midwestern state school.

She was surprised to discover how many subjects expressed a desire to experiment with the concept of “friends with benefits.”

Armstrong cited one young woman who developed a contract that defined the parameters of her and her partner’s relationship. This contract, the young woman stated, was developed out of concern that the partner might develop feelings for her.

Determined via text message and instant messenger, the ground rules of the contract defined which sexual acts would be allowed and which forms of birth control were permitted. It set stipulations on spending time together outside of the bedroom to prevent any romantic sentiments that could have arisen over morning-after pancakes.

Breitenbach, sitting at Owen House, said she agreed with the woman in the study, saying her experiences with hooking up in college had largely been focused on meeting carnal desires rather than facilitating meaningful and fulfilling interactions.

“I’ve more just been kind of free-spirited about it, more dealing with physical needs instead of emotional needs,” she said.

Similarly for Cohen, the woman in the open relationship, sex became more of a biological urge than an emotionally laden interaction, and served as a means for establishing independence.

“That sort of occurred to me — that I shouldn’t really have to base my life around these Puritan, Victorian morals,” she said.

The end of the “MRS.” degree

As young women become more self-sufficient, they have subsequently pushed marriage further down the road.

According to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health Statistics Reports, the median marriage age based on aggregated data from 2006 to 2010 was 25.8 for women. Compare this to 21.8 for females in the 1950s.

Part of this spurs from the dissolution of a cultural dynamic associated with finding a husband in college, according to Jennifer Aubrey, an associate professor of communications at the University of Missouri and a former Ph.D. student at the University. For many young women, a career has taken precedence over marriage.

“We don’t think, ‘Oh, we’re in college to get a man!’” said LSA senior Gia Tammone. “That would’ve been the attitude maybe for our mothers, definitely for our grandmothers. We’re in college to better ourselves, not to get a better man.”

And while a woman still makes 77 cents to a man’s dollar, the gap is narrowing: In 2010, the ratio of women’s-to-men’s earnings among 25-to-34 year olds was up to 91 percent from 68 percent in 1979, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The delay in marriage also derives from an unstable job market, forcing students to accrue additional degrees and honors to stay competitive in the workforce as part of “credential inflation,” Armstrong said.

The years of additional schooling needed to rack up the necessary credentials to exude marketability extenuates the increasing average marriage age, she said.

As an aspiring doctor, Cronin, the woman who described herself as “in-between,” said she simply doesn’t have time to meddle in the precarious world of collegiate dating.

“I always knew I wouldn’t think about meeting anyone until I was out of medical school and out of residency, because you can’t really deal with anything when you’re in residency,” she said.

At a college renowned for its academic excellence, the constant strain to succeed among the University's sea of highly motivated individuals is pervasive. For many students, finding the time for a relationship on top of studying for exams and participating in extracurricular activities can be impossible, making non-committal hookups look increasingly attractive.

“Especially at a top-tier university like this, everyone is really, really busy,” Engineering senior Bennett Howard said. “(Students) don’t necessarily have time to be talking to a girl out of state all the time, or spending all kinds of hours with a girlfriend or boyfriend. Convenience is definitely an issue, and a more relevant issue at this University.”

Breitenbach also emphasized that committed relationships tack on yet another responsibility to the already overextended schedule of a typical college student.

“Relationships are quite mentally straining, and when you’re trying to graduate, especially from Michigan, you have all these kind of other stresses — you have to get a good GPA, you have to do all this extra work — you kind of want to die sometimes,” she said.

The preponderance of the double standard

Despite the advancements young women have made toward sexual empowerment, Aubrey argues that “old-fashioned patriarchy” has continued to prevail in a culture largely based on sexual objectification.

According to Aubrey, in a party context women are more likely to be evaluated by their appearances than men, whereas men are more likely to be evaluated on other attributes: resources, access, social connections or financial means.

While out at a bar one night, Cronin said she was approached by a man who groped her breasts. Clearly violated, she inquired what possessed him to engage in such an inappropriate manner.

“He was like ‘Well, didn’t you want me to? That’s why you were wearing that shirt,’” she recalled. “That’s the kind of stuff that I hate.”

In a study, Aubrey analyzed television shows to see how sexual experiences and their consequences were distributed among females and males. She found that female characters received negative penalties for their behaviors more often than males.

“Hooking up is portrayed in a less conflicting way for men than it is for women,” Aubrey said. “Women are definitely shown hooking up, but there is a variation on the emotional outcome of that for women versus men.”

But despite the enduring stereotype that females have an inherent tendency to develop feelings in the wake of a hookup, Breitenbach said she more often experiences the opposite.

She cited a former relationship attempt as evidence.

“He was totally gung-ho about it, and then I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not interested in you at all,’" she said. “He wanted to take it from being hook-up buddies to being a relationship, and I was just not into it.”

Til death do us part?

But what about marriage? Is this culture — marked by the conflict between the physical and the emotional — just a titillating means of keeping marriage on the backburner? Or is the institution slowly becoming obsolete?

In a study from the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of Gen Yers claimed they believed marriage had become an archaic practice. Only 30 percent consider marriage to be a top priority in their lives.

Additionally, data shows 22 percent of individuals ages 19 to 29 are married. This number is down from 29 percent in 1997.

In her November 2011 Atlantic piece “All The Single Ladies,” Kate Bolick paints a portrait of the American woman’s undulating perspectives on marriage, amplified in the wake of vast economic gains.

“As women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind,” she writes in the article. “We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up — and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.”

LSA senior Charlotte Myers’s experience growing up as the daughter of a single, working mother struggling to raise three children has made her skeptical toward wedlock.

“I just want to do things for myself,” Myers said. “If things work out that I get married or have kids or something, then that’s fine too. But it’s not in my plan for life.”

LSA senior Erin Reed, whose father walked out on her when she was three months old, said she would like to get married someday, but is doubtful of the ability to find a partner who will fully commit.

“I definitely think that I’m more cautious in that situation and in the qualities that I would need to see in another person,” Reed said. “My number one is commitment.”

Despite contradictory feelings toward marriage and mounting skepticism toward monogamous institutions, many students haven’t completely foregone the desire to tie the knot.

“There’s a big part of me that’s like, ‘OK, marriage is this antiquated ritual.’ But then there’s the part of me that’s grown up in America, that looks at my parents’ wedding photos and their fabulous wedding, and thinks, ‘Man, I really do want that really beautiful white dress,’ ” Cohen, the woman in the open relationship, said.

Cronin, the woman who describes herself as “in-between,” said she also anticipates marrying someday.

“I think eventually I’d like to get married,” Cronin said with a smile. “Probably when I’m, like, 40, though. Because I’ve got to get my career going first.”