If you’ve ever left your dorm window cracked open, you’ve likely unintentionally eavesdropped on various conversations between random Brown students. Perhaps they are debating where to get lunch or chatting about their organic chemistry exam. Occasionally, you might overhear a conversation you know you are not meant to be privy to: a retelling of a friend group’s night out, a juicy tidbit of gossip or maybe even a recap of someone’s hook-up. In an unfortunate twist, you might recognize the names being discussed outside your window. Their intention wasn't for you to know, but in an insular community like Brown where conversations circulate freely, many of us end up knowing the details of other people’s sex lives through a broken game of telephone. Is that ethical?
I received a question in my virtual anonymous questions form that asked about the ethics of talking to your friends about hook-ups and the impossibility of privacy between sexual encounters on a college campus. While Brown’s undergraduate population is just over 7,000 students, it can sometimes feel like there are too many familiar faces. Social circles function more like interconnected webs: Everyone seems to be a friend of a friend. In this web where we end up hearing many stories about people we don’t necessarily know, those stories can end up shaping our perceptions of strangers. The same often goes for relationships and hook-ups. We know who our friends have hooked up with, even if we have never met them. When we pass that person on the street, we don’t say hi, but we know the details of their sex life.
When we openly discuss our hookups or dates in public spaces, we subject ourselves to the possibility of others becoming privy to details about our intimate lives. Given the hyper-connected social scene at Brown, it's not rare for someone else’s sex life to enter the gossip mill without their knowledge — that doesn’t seem fair. When you enter into a sexual relationship with someone, no matter the level of intimacy, we unknowingly sign an implicit social contract allowing the other person to share details about the sexual encounter. Some people may be okay with that level of openness, but most, I imagine, are not.
There is no rulebook determining the extent of privacy one gives up when consenting to a hook-up. But, in my experience, it can seem like a lot. Hook-up culture has reputational impacts that could cause some people to actively abstain. Maybe that would change if it were guaranteed that nobody else had to know about your sex life, but that is often not the case. When other people talk about you when you’re not around, it’s already uncomfortable. That discomfort is even worse when it’s about something as intimate as your sex life.
That’s why it becomes essential to evaluate what you personally find acceptable. Every person has the right to tell their friends about a hook-up, but everyone also has the right to be uncomfortable with their sex lives being shared with others. We should feel empowered to communicate all of our boundaries with our sexual partners and from there we can only trust that they respect them.
The next time you share a story about your late-night hook-up with your entire friend group, think about what the other person would want. If you don’t know, take a moment to think how much you would want the other person to divulge. Would you want them to share an embarrassing detail from the encounter? The adage we’ve heard since kindergarten says “treat others how you want to be treated.” This golden rule was once applied to playground games, but it still stands today. We are all navigating different levels of sexual experience and working through the complexities of hook-up culture together, so let's be kind to one another when we have the chance.
If you have questions about sex or relationships that could be discussed in a future column, please submit questions to an anonymous form at https://tinyurl.com/BDHsexcolumn. Anusha Gupta ’25 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.