Ask anyone who has ever stepped foot into a high school, and they’ll tell you that high school is nothing like the way it’s portrayed in movies. People don’t jump on to lunch tables and break into perfectly choreographed musical numbers, nor are the walls adorned with larger-than-life murals of the school’s star basketball players. (OK, so maybe I’m pulling from one movie in particular, but you get the gist). Hollywood’s portrayal of college, however, isn’t far off.

Walk into any college fraternity party, and all the movie tropes are there: beer pong, the all-mysterious “jungle juice,” speakers blasting the top 40 hits and a packed dance floor occupied by many, many couples locked at the lips in the throes of passion. At my first college party, it didn’t take long for me to realize that not many of those “couples” were actually in committed relationships; rather, they were just engaging in a party activity so popular that there’s even an Instagram page dedicated to it: making out with strangers. 

Coming from a rather conservative upbringing, the whole party atmosphere was a culture shock for me, but the discovery that hookup culture is alive and real shocked me most of all. You see, I’m a romantic at heart, and what I was seeing around me seemed to defy my very definitions of love and relationships. As I watched my friends so easily accept and join this culture, I felt stuck and alone, isolated in this fast and casual world by my notions of romance and having one true love. What’s wrong with me? I thought as the girls around me gossiped about all the boys they’d kissed the night before. Am I the only one not enjoying this? I’d wonder as I yet again squirmed away from a boy who got too close at a party.

For a long time, I grappled with the feeling that perhaps I was behind the times. Perhaps I was too prudish for this new society, which had fully embraced its own sexuality and freedom. Or maybe proponents of hookup culture knew something I didn’t: Maybe they knew that Mr. Right would not come along and sweep me off my feet, no matter how long I waited, and I might as well have some fun.

“Hookup culture makes me so sad. Is romance dead?” I texted a friend once, in melodramatic despair. “Is love just a farce?” My tender heart was breaking at the thought. She messaged back promptly, with a question I had never once considered: “Why do they have to be mutually exclusive?”

It was such an obvious question, yet never one that had even crossed my mind, as I’d just automatically decided in my mind that love and hookup culture were polar opposites: neither could live while the other survived. 

Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, renowned sex researcher who delivered the TEDx talk “Is Casual Sex Bad For You,” would beg to differ. In an interview with Vogue’s Karley Sciortino, Vrangalova stated: “Sex and love are two separate needs, and humans have both of them … Just because you have sex with a lot of people doesn’t mean that you don’t need love and relationships — people will want that no matter what. However, people may decide to postpone love and relationships in order to have more sex, because we live in a culture that doesn’t leave room for open relationships for the most part. But there is no research suggesting that having a lot of casual sex will somehow impede your ability to have relationships or form intimacy in the future.” 

Our generation is known to engage in more premarital sex with more partners while holding off on marriage for longer than generations past, but that doesn’t mean the sanctity of marriage is suffering for it. Rather, marriages that begin later in a couple’s life have a lower chance of divorce than those that begin in a couple’s early 20s. That means that marriages today might even last longer than those of our parents’ generation. In short, hookup culture in college does not infringe on love and romance in our futures.

To my fellow romantics out there: fear not. Hookup culture does not mean the death of our hopes and dreams. It can be difficult to classify this culture as “good” or “bad,” and I have concluded that it is neither — instead, it is merely a byproduct of social progress, and we are free to follow it or leave it; neither path is more righteous than the other.

Ashley Zhang can be reached at ashleyzh@umich.edu.

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