by Jennifer Hickes Lundquist and Celeste Vaughan Curington
Are “hookup” apps leading, ironically, to a revival of dating culture on college campuses? While doing research for our forthcoming book with Ken-Hou Lin on online dating, Romantic Apartheid: The Enduring Racial Divide in the Era of Online Dating, we find that dat-ing apps are providing a way to bypass the romantic gate keeping that campus party culture has long dominated. Many students are now leveraging these apps to circumvent the worst of the college hookup scene. Yet, online platforms also introduce new challenges.
Women and racial and ethnic minorities, in particular, resent how the disinhibitory effect of cyber-communications can expose them to a wide range of racialized and sexist online interactions. However, dating apps give these students greater control over partner choice empowering them to set the context of a first meeting, which is a unique advantage of online dating that tempers the negatives for many of those we interviewed. Despite their drawbacks, these new technologies have the potential to make college intimacy not only safer but also more fulfilling for a larger cross-section of students than traditional hookup culture.
The U.S. College Hookup Scene: A Background
Many studies have documented the post-1970s rise of hookup culture on college campuses, which have become the dominant context through which the average student initiates intimacy. While researchers note some positive aspects of hookup culture (e.g., sexual exploration and empowerment), they are counterbalanced by a number of other problematic tendencies, such as misogyny, risky sexual behaviors, and an alienating social hierarchy. As a reflection of larger cultural influences, it is perhaps not surprising that hookup culture is both heteronormative and male-centered. However, the drunken conditions under which many hookups occur, at best, highlight the privilege of men’s pleasure over women’s pleasure and, at worst, facilitate sexual assault and rape. A minority of students report unambiguous enjoyment of hookup culture, while most others are ambivalent, made uneasy by its celebration of selfish and transactional behavior toward others. Among some of the others, it is correlated with depression and lowered self-esteem.
Despite these findings, there is a popular allure to hookup culture, and it is widely accepted as part of the U.S. college experience. While studies show that many college students participate in this culture, there is significant social exclusion. A large minority of American students opt-out, either because they find it distasteful or feel excluded from conventional standards of “coolness” or attractiveness. Studies show that there are important social class, race, and sexual identity dimensions to who decides to opt out. In our interviews with undergraduate students, we find that online dating apps not only provide minority groups an alternative social pathway, but also that most women see dating apps as more liberating and appealing than the hookup scene.
Getting “Hooked” on Online Dating
Online dating originated with the advent of internet access in the mid-to-late nineties, but the widespread adoption of smartphones has made GPS-sourcing dating apps a daily fixture for many. One man we interviewed remarked, “It becomes part of a rotation. The shit you check on your phone.” Describing his frequent app checks, he said: “I’ll check the New York Times, see what Trump did, I’ll check the Patriot’s score, check my dating app…”. Dating companies did not initially consider college students a worthwhile marketing demographic, assuming they already have ample access to same-age singles in their day-to-day college social lives. In fact, the main goal of online dating sites and apps has been to recreate the college dating market for twenty and thirty-somethings, most of whom no longer have access to a pool of potential dates in their post-college work orbits. In a recent industry survey conducted by ABODO, entitled Swipe Right For Love? many were taken by surprise to learn that 70% of college students report using online dating platforms. We, too, find that dating apps are ubiquitous on college campuses. One lesbian-identified student we interviewed spoke to the pervasiveness of dating apps: “On the bus in the morning, there are people just Tindering, swiping. It’s crazy… People say whenever they need a poop break, they just go on Tinder.” A white man estimated the prevalence as, “Oh, I’d say it’s 100%.”
A student checks for new matches on Tinder
How do students first start using these platforms? We find that students of all backgrounds approach these platforms as an easy and self-proclaimed “lazy” way to test the dating waters upon entering a new university setting. For some, dating apps lead to humorous group bonding activity as students engage in “group swiping” or “tindering” with friends. Friends often “app play” on one another’s accounts, poking fun at profile details, co-creating profiles, and laughing over messages exchanged. Even when apart, students described taking screenshots of dating app profiles or their online interactions and sending them to friends. Although we generally think of online dating as being quite private, the performative aspects of one’s profile display and the selection processes that go into swiping are often quite public within one’s social networks on college campuses.
Moreover, even in a very large university setting, the likelihood that one will see someone from an app on campus or have a friend of a friend in common is much more common than in the urban, non-college user settings where we also conducted interviews. One Asian American student purposely ignores the profiles belonging to classmates when she “tinders” in order to avoid an awkward interaction with someone in class who may not have reciprocated interest on the dating platform. Conversely, many students told us that they rely on online dating profiles to make large universities seem smaller and to determine who in their classes is available or, in the case of gay students, who is “out.”
Our student interviewees say they use dating apps because they either consider themselves “too shy” for the party scene or because they dislike the drug and alcohol dynamics at play there. A number of students described lower anxiety in online dating because rejection is both more indirect (e.g., nonresponse) and takes place outside the purview of others. A man told us, “At least for me it’s been a big thing for my self-esteem and confidence. I feel like if it weren’t for Tinder, I would feel a lot less comfortable meeting people just in person.”
Indeed, there is something about getting matched on a dating app, where both people must swipe right on one another to indicate mutual attraction, that holds powerful sway in the backdrop of the indifferent hookup culture. In the average hookup, mutual attraction is not necessarily articulated and norms dictate that participants should show less interest in one another afterward than they might show a distant acquaintance. One student described fraternity parties on her campus where hookups are common: “The hookup culture is a big thing and it sucks. No one cares, and there is no commitment. You’re just kind of giving up your worth for nothing because you feel like you have to.” By contrast, online dating apps take on an almost quaint earnestness. One must put the time into assembling a profile and, in so doing, signals an interest in making a romantic connection. After a successful match, the couple then moves on to a series of online interactions before an eventual face-to-face meeting. Given this multi-stage process, it is harder to claim that one’s interest was a drunken mistake or the result of “beer-goggling” as is so often the case in hookups. Students told us they found this basic premise a refreshing contrast to the uncertainty and alienation of the hookup. One student prefers meeting men on the app as opposed to the usual “going to a party, drinking, and making out with some kid who wouldn’t talk to you the next day in class.” Another student found it difficult to go back to the random hookup culture after using dating apps, noting that at parties, “there’s also more chance that you can have absolutely nothing in common. They’d be the kind of person I swipe no to and I didn’t read their bio so I wouldn’t know.” Unlike older online daters we interviewed, who say that some friends and family see it as a venue for the desperate, students see little stigma in online dating. Given the pervasive cool aspect of the hookup, the lack of perceived stigma stands in marked contrast.
Read the full article in the Fall 2019 issue of Contexts.