Every year at Duke, there seems to be at least one or two pieces of writing, in The Chronicle or other publications, woefully lamenting the lack of a dating culture on our campus. Such jeremiads usually also lambast the hook-up culture at the same time, and to make matters more interesting—or awkward—for the reader, they might even contain a personal tale or two. Early on in my columnist career, I swore to myself I would never partake in such a tradition.
But, today, I betray that intention. I do so for two reasons. First, Valentine’s Day is tomorrow—I may never get a more serendipitous and fortuitously timed column run-date than this. Second, I am the only person at Duke, at least to my knowledge, who has written a political science thesis on the hook-up culture. Yes, there was an unofficial one published online my freshman year, but let’s not get in to that.
Don’t worry, dear reader, you’re not going to get any personal anecdotes in this column. But I would like to briefly discuss a few of the concepts of my paper, which uses game theory to model the hook-up culture and predict conditions under which the culture might dissipate. I won’t get too deep in to the game theory here, but I encourage you to read the full text online if you are curious.
The first thing I’d like to point out is that the sociological literature, generally speaking, shows that one mating culture tends to dominate a campus at a time. In other words, the dating culture or hook-up culture might predominate, but rarely is there a critical mass of both. Why this is the case is not altogether clear, but it is an empirical observation that has been noted. At many college campuses today, for instance, the hook-up culture dominates the dating culture. Yet, talk to most Duke alums in their 40s or older, for example, and they will speak of a campus where “going-steady” was commonplace.
There are many different interpretations of what caused the switch on college campuses from a primarily dating culture to a primarily hooking-up culture. The factors most often cited in the sociological literature include: 1) The introduction of co-ed housing and the lessening of supervision, 2) Changes in the gender distribution, 3) An increased rate of alcohol consumption, 4) An increase in access and consumption of pornography, 5) An increase in the sexualization of the mass media, 6) An increase in self-objectification, especially amongst women, 7) An increase in the prevalence of narcissism, 8) A decrease in the perceived risk of sexual interaction, and 9) Changing marriage norms.
Regardless of what caused the switch, however, the question turns to whether the hook-up culture is something we want to keep around or alter. As with nearly everything in life, there are positives and negatives. But even if you think the hook-up culture is the worst thing in the world, almost everyone can agree there are certain ways the culture could be made safer. My thesis identifies one inherent harm of the hook-up culture and five symptomatic harms, all supported by research. The inherent harm is pretty intuitive—emotional distress. Most evidence shows that the hook-up culture leads to less fulfilling and less emotionally enriching relationships than a dating culture.
Symptomatic harms are different from inherent harms, though, in that they are not baked in to the system—they are characteristic of the hook-up culture but need not be. Five symptomatic harms of the hook-up culture born out by research include: 1) The hook-up culture’s facilitation of sexual assault, 2) Differences in reputational outcomes across genders (such as the “stud vs. slut” double standard), 3) The orgasm gap that exists in the hook-up culture, with women reaching orgasm only 32 percent as often in hook-ups as men, 4) The hook-up culture’s increased transmission of STIs, and 5) The ambiguity of the hook-up script leading to misunderstandings or increased pressure, especially for freshman women. If one wanted to counteract the negative effects of the hook-up culture, my recommendation would be to implement policies or outreach designed to alleviate these harms.
The third and last point I’ll note is the collective action dynamic of dating at college. According to survey data published in 2012, 72.4 percent of men and 74.6 percent of women at Duke would prefer to date more. Why, then, doesn’t more dating occur at Duke? The answer, in short, is that the pool of people in the “dating market” is so small that there is little to no benefit for a single individual to switch out of the hook-up market. Think about it: If only 50 people on campus are regular daters, there isn’t as high a likelihood you’ll find equal or greater utility by switching into that pool out of a hook-up pool of thousands. Not to mention that, since the total number of people dating is small, being someone who dates might itself carry a stigma.
The issue is a collective action problem—if everyone who desired to see a more vibrant dating culture banded together to start dating, they’d theoretically be able to overcome the barriers that each individual faced acting alone. Indeed, one sees small pockets of dating culture within some tight-knit communities at Duke, the members of which all express a preference for dating. So, if a vibrant dating scene is ever to occur at Duke en masse, my guess is that it would arise out of some institutional change—such as a popular dating app or popular change in preference—that would consequently lead to a cascade effect increasing the total number of people in the dating population.
My prediction, however, is that such an institutional switch is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Sorry if this thought ruins your Valentine’s Day.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Daniel a message on Twitter @DanielFStrunk.