How Does Hookup Culture Affect Sexual Assault on Campus?

A call for open-minded debate about all the reasons that blurred lines exist.


Due to pressure applied by student activists and the Department of Justice, colleges all over the United States are trying to reduce the incidence of sexual assault on campus, or at least trying to avoid bad publicity or the loss of federal funds. Asked what subject might benefit from more rigorous debate, Leah Fessler, a recent college graduate who writes about romance, sexual culture, and gender dynamics, wondered if looking at unwanted sex from a different angle might help.

She writes:

Is campus rape sometimes an extension of hookup culture — the far, disturbing end of an increasingly fluid "sexual culture spectrum"? I think the effort to reduce rape, sexual assault, and unwanted sex could benefit from debating that question. When environmental influences on rape and sexual assault are discussed, the focus is often on alcohol, binge drinking and Greek life facilitating excessive intoxication. But what about the less understood role played by social pressures that push students to have and promote emotionless, casual, “meaningless” sex?

This debate does not imply that all instances of campus sexual assault are potentially affected by sexual culture on campus; crimes like that of Brock Turner, to me, evidence sociopathic behavior and crystal clear lack of consent, not confusion partly caused by environmental factors. Nor should this debate be a gateway to blaming rape victims, claiming that alcohol turns people into rapists, or suggesting that hookup culture ought to be replaced by collegiate abstinence. The ultimate goal should be helping people have the sex they want in an intentional, communicative way.  

I graduated college one year ago.

I have known and interviewed multiple women who struggled to decipher between assault and casual sex. I can personally attest to the immense pain, confusion and damage such blurred lines produce. And among the myriad reasons some crimes are not reported is uncertainty as to whether what occurred was assault, or rape (a tremendously loaded word), or not. Consent plays a hefty role in this predicament; many survivors struggle to accuse their rapists as such if they consented to some or even most of a sexual engagement, but not all physical acts that occurred.

Yet when discussing what to “do” about campus rape, I seldom hear open-minded debate on the deep reasons why these blurred sexual lines exist, why consent was incomplete or absent, or why students get into situations where miscommunication, or even abuse, is most likely to occur.

This analysis has to go beyond talking about intoxication. Do aspects of our noncommittal, emotionless hookup culture discourage or even stigmatize sober, intimate conversations about sexual and romantic preferences?

Does pornography that centers on the male orgasm, ignores female pleasure, and sometimes strays into acts that many would perceive as abusive normalize abusive sex? It stands to reason that inexperienced young people are most likely to have their views of sex shaped by porn, especially as America's inadequate system of sexual education fails to educate many of them about what wanted, pleasurable sex looks like for all genders.

These conversations demand great care.

It can be challenging to discuss environmental factors that may influence rape, like alcohol or hookup culture, while also emphasizing the important truth that survivors are not to blame and the crime itself is never excusable.

Still, the conservations are worth having.

Understanding hookup culture, and questioning what may be my generation’s deeply complicated and perhaps delusional relationship with sex, will not entirely resolve campus rape. Legislators have an important role to play, as with the move toward affirmative consent. And nothing, besides students not raping other students, will entirely resolve the problem.

Yet perhaps by analyzing campus sexual culture more holistically, we can understand and diagnose otherwise obscure root causes for sexual misconduct on college campuses.  These cultural and perceptual changes almost certainly won’t happen unless we dare to engage this debate.

Fessler will be participating on the panels “Youth, Sex, and Limits” and “The State of Sex in America” at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Email to add your voice to this debate.