It's Complicated. Beyond the Hookup Culture: Taking Initiative and Mitigating Risks

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed
May 2015

Navigating what has become known as the “hookup culture” is no easy task for young people of all ages and both sexes. Although it has now been popularized in song (including pop star Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” [Perry et al, 2010] and country musician Blake Shelton’s “Lonely Tonight” [Anderson and Howard, 2014]), for years researchers could only guess at the longer-term consequences of the advent of casual, intimate, and sometimes even anonymous sexual behavior among teens and young adults.

Indeed, eight years ago this month my Camping Magazine article “Hooking Up, Losing Out?” (Wallace, 2007) explored that very issue while casting light on what was considered a seismic shift in sexual attitudes and practices of youth.

Changes on that scale have been few, starting with the advent of the automobile in the 1920s, which facilitated unsupervised dating, followed by the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s (which by today’s standards seems rather tame) and the one taking place now (Garcia et al, 2012).

Does it matter? It very well might.

Sexual decision making may have important implications for you and your camp this summer. Thus, it’s a critical time to consider what your camp’s expectations are for your behavior and how it could impact your campers’ development.

At many camps, discussions with campers about sex, if they occur at all, are led by trained professionals. Most likely, any guiding you do will be in the form of role modeling and how you might respond to questions from the children.

One thing is clear: Times have changed. And, fortunately, new data have arrived. Unfortunately, it’s, well, complicated — as the ubiquitous Facebook® relationship status so often reveals.

Puberty: a Changing Landscape

Earlier onset of puberty in children only accelerates the process of preparing for impending change and, when it occurs, harnessing, processing and, in some cases, acting on complicated biological and psychological forces.

While earlier puberty in girls (defined as beginning of breast development) has been acknowledged for years, in 2012 the narrative began to shift with new research from the American Academy of Pediatrics revealing that American boys are showing signs of puberty six months to two years earlier than they did 30 to 40 years ago (Herman-Giddens et al, 2012). In that study, puberty was defined as genital and pubic hair growth and early testicular development, which on average was age ten for white and Hispanic boys and about nine for black boys.

As children of both sexes move through puberty and into their adolescence, hormones surge, bringing about well-known physical manifestations of maturity.

But supercharged doses of hormones influence more than just physicality — they also engender changes in mood and emotion. During this time a massive reorganization of the brain ensues. Sleep cycles switch, making young people more nocturnal. And cognitive advancement makes them more inclined to think abstractly. Thus, these youth are better able to see the nuances of a host of life situations, including, perhaps, their first romantic relationships with members of the opposite, same sex, or both.

Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg, PhD, in his book Age of Opportunity — Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, offers some warning signs, stating, “Early-maturing adolescents experience a greater gap between when they mature physically and when they mature in other ways. This discrepancy can cause problems, as when an adolescent develops an interest in sex before he can think ahead well enough to carry condoms, or when a girl starts to attract boys before she has the emotional wherewithal to decline their advances” (Steinberg, 2014).

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Puberty can be a confusing time not only for children but also increasingly for their parents and other caregivers, including their camp counselors.

Most girls at least seem prepared. Boys, on the other hand, may not be.

In his book Challenging Casanova, psychologist Andrew Smiler shares that only about half of American high school and college students have talked with their parents about sex, and the majority of them are girls (Smiler, 2012).

With parents avoiding “the talk” and mandatory sex education in schools still somewhat limited, too many children are left shortchanged in preparedness for the developmental milestone that is puberty. But that doesn’t mean that they’re steering clear of sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half (46.8 percent) of high school students have had intercourse (CDC, 2015). And, according to a 2014 TIME magazine article, nearly 80 percent of them had no formal sex education in advance (Sifferlin, 2014).

In his April 2013 piece in The Huffington Post, “It’s Time to Make Sex Education Mandatory in Our Nation’s Schools,” author Steve Siebold said, “The average teenager has been exposed to more sexually explicit movies, games, magazines, and other materials than we have in our entire lives. They’re learning lovemaking through porn” (Siebold, 2013).

Sex in America Today

Indeed, your technology-infused generation may be learning about sex, and sexuality, in ways foreign even to your parents.

A 2010 article in Pediatrics reported that early sexual activity among American adolescents presents risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. No surprise there.

It also points to the media, including television, music, movies, magazines, and the Internet, as motivating factors for initiating intercourse. “There is a major disconnect between what mainstream media portray — casual sex and sexuality with no consequences — and what children and teenagers need — straightforward information about human sexuality and the need for contraception when having sex” (Strasburger, 2010).

An opinion editorial by Nicholas Kristof for The New York Times, “Politicians, Teens, and Birth Control,” similarly bemoans our failure to adequately prepare young people for sex, stating that American teenagers become pregnant at a rate of about one a minute, three times the rate in Spain, five times the rate in France, and 15 times the rate in Switzerland. Kristof argues, “. . . states and schools should embrace comprehensive sex education, teaching contraception, the benefits of delaying sex, and, also, the responsibility of boys” (Kristof, 2014).

Getting in the Game: the Hookup Culture

According to Teens Today research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), while older teens are more likely to report being sexually active than are younger teens, nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of sixth graders report some type of sexual activity other than kissing (Wallace, 2008).

In her book You’re Teaching My Child What?, psychiatrist Miriam Grossman states that 34 percent of girls are sexually active by age 15 and by ninth grade 20 percent of teens have had oral sex (Grossman, 2009).

As we have seen, in our society sex is hard to escape, even for young people. And all that exposure may create a sense of urgency for them to become sexually active, often before they want to be.

Eighteen-year-old John says he felt that pressure because “My friend kept saying, ‘Come on, man, get in the game!’”

Fourteen-year-old Alex felt pressure earlier, after his dorm mates at prep school taunted him for being a virgin in ninth grade.

Ellen said, “I turned 17 and it was like, ‘Well, I have to have sex now.’ So I did.”

Peter, 15, had sex with a girl at a party because she handed him a condom and told him they were going to. Feeling he couldn’t return to his friends with the deed undone and risk ridicule, he complied — and he wasn’t happy he did.

He is not alone. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy states that the majority of teens who have had intercourse wish they had waited (stayteen.org, 2015).

Historically boys have been painted as the aggressors. However, recent research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), in collaboration with SADD (CARE/SADD, 2012), points to changing gender roles in sexual behavior, with teen girls 16 to 19 years old more likely than boys the same age to say they have ever participated in sexual intercourse (31 percent to 22 percent) and other intimate sexual behavior (40 percent to 29 percent).

Downsides of Casual Sex

“Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review,” published by the American Psychological Association, tells us that hooking up (defined by the authors as brief uncommitted sexual encounters among individuals who are not romantic partners or dating each other) has “taken root within the sociocultural milieu” of adolescents and emerging adults, with 70 percent of sexually active 12- to 21-year-olds reported having uncommitted sex within the last year (Garcia et al, 2012).

It further reports that the negative consequences of hooking up can include emotional and psychological injury and sexual violence.

While reviewing the data, researchers found evidence of “hookup regret” in a web-based study of undergraduate students reporting embarrassment (27.1 percent) and emotional difficulties (24.7 percent). Conversely, on average, both men and women seem to have a “higher positive affect” than a negative one following a casual sexual experience.

Odd.

Ironically, while a majority of both men and women are inclined to engage in such behavior, they often say they desire a more romantic relationship.

Perhaps most disturbing are links from this cultural phenomenon to sexual violence.

Landslide — Sexual Assault on Campus

Facing a landslide of sexual assault allegations on college campuses across the country, the White House in January 2013 issued a memorandum establishing a task force to protect students from sexual assault (The White House, 2014a).

Despite the fact that some have challenged a definition of sexual assault that includes “verbal, visual, or anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual activity or attention” (Contorno, 2014), a report from the White House Council on Women and Girls paints a rather grim picture of the problems faced by young people of both genders and differing ages, especially college students (The White House, 2014b).

Women and girls are the vast majority of victims: nearly one in five women — or nearly 22 million — have been raped in their lifetimes.

Men and boys, however, are also at risk: one in 71 men — or almost 1.6 million — have been raped during their lives.

Tellingly, most victims know their assailants.

The report also discusses the psychological fallout and economic repercussions ($87,000 to $240,776 per rape) of what can really only be called an epidemic. Finally, it identifies some contributing factors, including “the dynamics of college life” in which “many victims are abused while they’re drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated” (The White House, 2014b).

The link between intoxication and sexual assault is hard to deny, even if some brave college presidents have been criticized for pointing it out (Svokos, 2014).

A “Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study” conducted for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice states that the majority of sexual assaults occur when women are incapacitated due to their use of substances, primarily alcohol (Krebs et al, 2007).

On that point, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that “more than 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape” (NIAAA, 2013).

Some other potential factors include the hookup culture — something controversially referred to by columnist George Will (2014) and discussed by the Kinsey Institute (Garcia et al, 2012).

While causes and effects are important, so, too, are solutions. To that end, the federal government has called for far-reaching action, including changing the culture (The White House, 2014b).

Perhaps that offers an opportunity to take a closer look at the common cultures of camp.

Creating a New Normal

The prolific nature of sexual assaults on college campuses raises the question: Are camps safer than schools? While the obvious answer seems to be yes, the less obvious is why.

Partly because summer camps have a unique ability to create campus cultures qualitatively different than those elsewhere.

Yes, we need to be prepared for the worst. Michael Shelton made this point in his 2004 Camping Magazine article, “Staff Sexual Assault: Prevention and Intervention,” which takes camp directors on a cautionary tour through definitions of sexual assault, gender differences in perceptions and communication, and the handling of allegations (Shelton, 2004).

In truth, sexual assaults can be an issue anywhere. Denying that fact would be counterproductive, for it would leave your camp — and all the others — at risk, if for no other reason than for failing to follow federal laws relating to sexual harassment and assaults.

What is productive is to reflect on what makes camps the physically and emotionally safe places that parents, teens, and children say they are. These important nuances, such as respect for the individual, freedom to try new things without fear of failure, and an emphasis on individuality, community, and teamwork are all critical components of caring, compassionate camp communities.

Together, we can create a “new normal” for cohabitating adolescents and emerging adults — not only by what we say, but also by what we do

In an environment removed from the college culture and from broader societal norms, summer camps remain some of the last, best places on earth for the development and maintenance of safe, nurturing relationships among counselors and campers alike.

It’s time to look beyond the hookup culture and take initiative for mitigating risk.

Maybe it’s not so complicated after all.

 
References
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Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association, and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBC Universal’s parenttoolkit.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
 
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