Opinion | Hookup culture in college is influenced by digital media

By Juliana Morello, Staff Columnist

Let’s face it, hookup culture is everywhere, especially in college. It’s a time when many young people live on their own for the first time, experiencing independence and freedom in various ways during a crucial period in their development. 

If you’re in college, chances are you know the difference between a “situationship,” “friends with benefits” and a “sneaky link.” You know what dating apps work and which don’t, you know what “soft” and “hard” launches on Instagram are and you understand the connotation associated with a 3 a.m. “u up?” text. But where did we get this understanding of what everyone’s talking about?

I think our ability to navigate dating and sex as college students has to do with the way people use technology and social media. As college students in the digital age, we grew up with the internet. From the rise of social media platforms such as Snapchat — which encourages sharing temporary images and is perfect for those, ahem, lewd photos — to the popularity of dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble, we’ve learned to navigate digital media and use it to our advantage. In this case, for dating and casual sex.

Similar to how our parents have trouble with the concept of going on dates but not dating, and how our grandparents still use the term “going steady,” we are constantly redefining our relationships with people and sex. Our generation has digital media, which allows us to spread and share our views on hookup culture and casual sex in ways previous generations never could.

Think of the way Facebook completely redesigned how relationships are described — not simply having the options of either being single or taken, but the in-between, “it’s complicated.” Not to mention, the whole idea of being “Facebook official” altogether.

That’s right, the social media platform — you know, the one that allegedly started as a way to rank girls’ hotness — was a way for our college predecessors to let everyone know the sticky, scandalous details of their relationship drama. 

And just like how “it’s complicated” morphed into Instagram relationship launches and relationships I like to call “dating-adjacent,” most terms we associate with relationships and sex have roots in older concepts. I mean, when’s the last time you heard someone describe their sneaky link-type situation as a “booty call?” Most of the terms we use now didn’t exist even a short while ago, and it’s partly because of the technology we have access to. The reason we know these terms — and are probably well associated with them — is because they’re all around us. 

If you’re on TikTok, you might have seen a video or two of people sharing the absolutely unhinged things their situationships have told them. In this trend, people gain views and likes by exploiting the way they’re spoken to by people they’re hooking up with but not committed to. Whenever I see these TikToks on my For You Page, I’m always caught off guard. Yes, it’s all jokes, but it’s the emergence of the situationship — of the relationship you can have with someone without actually having any kind of relationship with them — that makes people feel like they can text each other disrespectful things and share it with an audience for laughs. 

TikTok has an especially interesting role in the way we use digital media to describe sex and dating now, as people become more and more comfortable with sharing intimate personal details on the internet, sometimes by using a code word to avoid being detected by the algorithm.

Then there’s the use of “dating” apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble. I could talk forever about the impact Tinder has on today’s youth — myself included — but I’ll keep it short. In essence, Tinder is often categorized as a dating app, but studies have shown that 80% of male and 55% of female college students use Tinder for hookups. Using Tinder in college means receiving thirsty pickup lines from people you very well could have a class with. I’ve used Tinder in the past, and I was surprised at the caliber of the messages people I’ve seen around campus bombarded me with. If you need an example of the types of messages college-aged people send each other on Tinder, check out Pitt Chicks’ Tinder Tuesday on Instagram, a weekly compilation of the funniest, boldest and straight-up horniest messages people at Pitt have received.

Although dating apps should help you find love, apps like Tinder have turned into more of a game, allowing for people to swipe endlessly, sorting through profiles of people and rating them over and over. A few of my friends even have Tinder in the games folder on their phone. But, when you’re faced with what seems like unlimited options, it’s hard to choose. And when one single message could lead to almost instant gratification regarding meeting and hooking up with someone, it makes sense that there’s very little shame involved. With that mentality, it’s easy to forget that you could see the person you’re flirting with in the library or walking down the street — which, I feel the need to emphasize, is very, very possible. But, after all, shooters gotta shoot.

My point is, like how Tinder is categorized as a dating app but you and I both know it’s used mostly for hookups, we’re learning the nuances of hookup culture through digital media. Hiding behind a screen — even if your profile has your name and real pictures of you — makes it infinitely easier to talk to people about sex and relationships in a way you would probably never do in person. Dating apps and social media have allowed us to reach a level of honesty we’ve never been able to do before, and it’s manifested as talking about casual sex.

If you ask me, breaking down the stigmas surrounding casual sex is great. I don’t think Tinder is the enemy people believe it is — it can be a great resource for people who are just seeking out hookups and one-night-stands, which can help them experiment sexually without judgment. Not only that, but the rules aren’t written in stone, and I know quite a few people in serious, committed relationships with people they’ve met on the apps.

However, I do think that it’s possible to reach a level of over-casualness regarding sex and the way it’s talked about online — that, eventually, people will forget that who they’re sending a horny message to is a real person, with friends and hobbies and homework and a life. Not to mention, hookup culture online can definitely build up unrealistic sexual expectations.

But, as long as you’re careful, the internet can be helpful and fun and a great way to learn more about yourself as a sexual being. It might be a little overwhelming at times, but it really is cool for us to have these types of resources at this point in our lives, and it’s fun to think about how we’ve chosen to use them.

Juliana Morello writes about whatever’s on her mind. Follow her on Instagram @juliana.morello or write to her at [email protected]