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The Bruno Brief: Hookup culture at Brown

Concluding The Brief’s series on sexual politics, we’ll be looking at hookup culture on campus. This week, we speak with Elysee Barakett, senior staff writer and Bruno Brief producer, about her reporting on the sex lives of Brown students. We hear from faculty members and students about their opinions on casual hookups, dating apps and relationships.

Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed. Send tips and feedback for the next episode to herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.

Katy Pickens

Before we begin, we wanted to include a quick plug. As a student-run nonprofit, The Herald was hit hard by the COVID crisis, and we are still feeling the effects. More than ever we rely on donations in order to continue breaking news and training generations of young journalists. Please consider making a donation today through our website or tinyurl.com/bdhdonate. Thanks for listening. Now let’s get into the episode. 

monique jonath

Sex positivity is agency. It's the ability to choose how when, where, how much with whom you engage in with sexuality, and also being able to choose if you don't want to, like, if your version of positivity is being I don't really like sex, I'm not going to have it then fantastic. So I think that that should be there. I think there just needs to be more diversity of narrative around it. 28:02-28:26

Mason Scurry

“You spend a lot of time talking about your hookups and dating life and whatever. And it seems you can also talk about this with people that you’re not as close to.”

Olivia Hanley

I think that there are probably more people who are in relationships or like hooking up with one person.

Katy Pickens

This season, we’ve been diving into sexual politics on campus. We’ve discussed the history of sex and nudity, reproductive rights, art, sex and scandal, sexual assault advocacy and sexuality at Brown. To conclude our series, we will focus on hookup culture on campus. How do students feel about relationships? Is there pressure to be having casual sex with nonchalant indifference? And do dating apps increase connection or leave people feeling more isolated?

This week, I’ll chat with Elysee Barakett, senior staff writer and producer for The Brief. I’m Katy Pickens, and this is our final episode in the fourth season of The Bruno Brief.

Elysee Barakett

So first, hooking up is casual sexual activity, but hookup culture encompasses the norms surrounding hookups. I spoke to David Rangel, an assistant professor of education, who explained that the actual definition of a hookup is a bit more complicated. 

David Rangel

One of the challenges is that hookup has a lot of different meanings. Some of the students are really surprised to learn that in terms of actual intercourse is less frequent now. So students are engaging in less intercourse now than their parents’ generation. But they're hooking up more, so they're engaging in more sexual activities, but that doesn't necessarily mean just sexual intercourse.   

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Katy Pickens

I have always been confused by what people mean by “hooking up” — it seems like it can mean anything from a makeout to more. But anyways.

For many young people at Brown and college campuses around the country, there can be a perception that everyone is hooking up all the time. But this is a far cry from reality. The Herald and Brown Opinion Project’s 2022 Poll determined that 25% of students are in a long-term relationship. Out of those who reported being single, two-fifths said that they are looking for a relationship, one-fifth reported looking for something casual and the remaining said they are not looking for anything.

David Rangel

For pupils that both participate and don't participate in, students often overestimate the number of people or the percentage of people that are actually engaging in hookup culture, and the result of that overestimation that drags particular actions and behaviors when they decide to go out and hang out at a party or something like that.

Katy Pickens

Hmm. And from the students you talked to in your reporting, did they think more people were hooking up or in relationships? 

Elysee Barakett

There were actually pretty mixed perceptions. Here’s what Vicky Chen ’24 had to say.

Vicky Chen

I think it's a college thing, to be honest. I don't think actually maybe maybe since people are more free spirited, if they're like, more hippie-like, and if we're assuming that Brown has a lot of hippie people that they would be more casual. - 1:55

Elysee Barakett

Anjali Deepak ’23 thought hookup culture at Brown had come to be too much.

Anjali Deepak

I wish it was more relationships. I think it's casual because it's, like, incestuous at this point, at least from what I know, like everyone is just so it is. Like everyone's hooked up with everyone. And I think that speaks to casualness as opposed to relationshipness.

Elysee Barakett

And for Addison Kerwin ’24, it just depends.

Addison Kerwin

It kind of depends what circles you're in. Um, I have a lot of friends who will just like kiss people randomly at parties, most of my friends won't usually like, hook up with someone, like go home with someone unless it's more serious, or at least they like know the person more. And I feel like a lot of my friends who have hooked up with people, it's become something. But I think it's hard to have good hookups.

Elysee Barakett

In the same way everyone had different perceptions on how much hookup culture dominated on campus, people had different views on whether hookup culture was good or bad. 

monique jonath

Just the phrase catching feelings reveals this, but there's this idea that if you're gonna hook up with someone, and it's gonna be quote, just to hook up that you have to be a certain amount of emotionally detached from that person. But then that emotional attachment often translates into thoughtlessness and lack of appropriate communication about expectations from the situation or about, like other relevant information.

Elysee Barakett

That was monique jonath, a junior at Brown. They said that hookup culture can be an external pressure for students.

monique jonath

Part of hooking up this is, I think there's the core version of it, which is just like sex being enjoyable for a number of people and wanting to have it, and then there's also the wanting to be wanted and wanting to show other people that you're wanted. When you find out that someone who wanted you also wanted a friend of yours or also wanted someone who you hate, then that sort of like, I think we have a very zero sum and like capitalistic mentality of that the very earliest scarcity mindset out there. Like there's limited amount of desire and there's a limited amount of attention that people can have. So then you're like crap, like, I'm fighting for this resource with my friends. 

Katy Pickens

Interesting. And I guess when hookup culture devolves into a sort of market framework, that can leave people not feeling so great about themselves.

monique jonath

It brings up a lot of issues of like body and self image and then also the idea of, it creates a false idea that oh, if you possess certain desirable features, then you will be able to hook up as much as you want or you will be to quote pull. Whereas there's like a lot of colonization of desire and a lot of like, upholding of this ideal, a lot of fatphobia, ableism, transphobia. It's like deeply, deeply ingrained in how people want and are wanted. So there is a lot of reinforcement of really harmful and like frankly, colonial beauty ideals in how we treat hookup culture and treat who is most worthy of access to other people's bodies. 

Elysee Barakett

Kerwin also thought the expectation of pervasive, casual hookups may be harmful to students.

Addison Kerwin

I think hookup culture is hard. Because I think for a lot of people consent and conversations around sex are hard. Which they like innately are. They're like personal and intense. And I think it's really hard to have a great conversation when you're just having a casual hookup.

Katy Pickens

That makes a lot of sense — it can be difficult to have conversations about consent or set boundaries if you constantly feel pressure to be hooking up with someone, or if you think everyone else is doing it.

Elysee Barakett

But students underscored that hookup culture isn’t all a bad thing – it really depends on who you are and what you want. 

monique jonath

There is the option to explore your sexuality without having to be in like any sort of committed or emotional something that some people are really afraid of what it would mean to be in a committed emotional something. Like I think that people again view it as something of either I can explore my sexuality or expand my social clout by having like relationships and hookups with a bunch of people, or I can be in this relationship and like figuring out what that means for me, but it seems that people put those two things as being mutually exclusive, which I don't think is the case. 

Katy Pickens

So how does hookup culture impact social life at Brown? Do all students feel this pressure equally? 

Elysee Barakett

The 2022 Poll results showed that students in higher grade levels were more likely to be in a long-term relationship, and the class of 2026 was most likely to be single and not looking for anything. 

Students explained that movies and media about the college experience usually create the perception that college is full of people hooking up all the time, causing first-years to hookup more.

Olivia Hanley

And I think that's just like being a freshman and like being away from home for the first time like having that freedom. And now I think everyone's like, moved on from that phase. 

Katy Pickens

That was Olivia Hanley, a second-year student. 

How do dating apps fit into all of this?

Elysee Barakett

They’re a big part of the conversation. Though some people reported using dating apps to actually go on dates, most of the people I spoke to used them exclusively for hookups. Hanley explained that apps like Tinder, Bumble and Grindr can drive the hookup scene.

Olivia Hanley

If you're looking to participate in hookup culture, the apps is like, the primary way to do that. Like a party scene like isn’t it.

Mason Scurry

I used to use them. And so I'm gay, and I grew up in Montana … I came to Brown, and I didn’t need them as much because people are easier to find here.

Katy Pickens

That was Mason Scurry, a sophomore. 

Elysee Barakett 

Other students expressed their complicated relationships with dating apps. 

Addison Kerwin

A lot of my friends who use Tinder, I think the hookups or just even the use of Tinder comes out of a desire for validation, not out of a desire to like have sex. So I think sometimes people's motivations and hookup culture get a little mixed up. And I know this from my own past experience. And instead of having sex with someone because you want to have sex with someone, it's because of you want validation, or you know, your friends. I don't know, I think it gets complicated. But a lot of people disagree with me.

monique jonath

Do I have one on my phone? Yes. Do I occasionally get on there and swipe around? Yes. Do I ever really go on dates or hookups from it? No, and it's because the few times that I did, I noticed it just felt wrong to me. And wrong, again, not morally but just in my body. 

The couple of times that I've met up with people who I don't know I felt so strange about it, because it felt like I was trying to fabricate desire between the two of us, or just be like or fabricate a history of wanting or of attraction that wasn't actually there. So it was kind of jarring for me to like, get in there and be like, Oh, wow. Now I'm expected to carry on with you as I would with someone who I've had like a long-standing relationship retention with but it's not there.

Elysee Barakett

Hookups mean different things to people, and students felt that the culture surrounding hookups wasn’t necessarily all good or bad. The harm from hookup culture comes from pressures created by mainstream culture, but those pressures and stigmas can be minimized through healthy conversations about what sex can and should be.

Katy Pickens

Thank you for listening to the finale of season 4 of The Bruno Brief. This episode was produced by Caitlyn Carpenter, Liliana Greyf, Finn Kirkpatrick, Samantha Renzulli, Jacob Smollen, Elysee Barakett and me, Katy Pickens. 

If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review.

Before we sign off, I also want to just say thank you to all of our listeners and Bruno Brief team members for making my time on this podcast so special. This is my last episode on The Bruno Brief because starting next semester I will be managing editor of the newsroom for The Herald. I will definitely miss our time in the studio, but I can’t wait to listen to the amazing things the team will produce. Bye for now!



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