What it takes to create a hookup tradition

One of many first occasions I attended as a college fraternity and sorority adviser—a task that informs the analysis detailed in my new guide, The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities—was held at an Orlando nightclub. As I was circling the venue, I came across what would become a familiar sight: a fraternity male and a sorority female making out in the bushes. A few days later, Tatum, the woman, stopped by to say hello. (The students gave permission for me to write about them. All names and identifying information have been changed. Tatum said that her friends teased her about her hooking up to the man. She described him as someone who “loves” her. “is afflicted with the double curse of being unattractive and socially awkward.” If you aren’t interested in him, I asked, why kiss him? The woman sighed, and said that she was desperation at her decision. “I wanted to hook up with someone, and he was all that was left.” Tatum’s insistence that her hookup partner literally constituted her only option for straight romance made me laugh, until I reviewed the guest list and saw that approximately two-thirds of the party guests were straight women. On one level, the party’s gender imbalance made sense, but on another, the math simply didn’t add up.

There are many women who live on campus at American universities and colleges. Cisgender female students outnumberTheir cisgender male counterparts are found in nearly every sector of undergraduate higher learning today. That is not surprising. wasn’t always the case. Colleges and universities opened their doors to women in stages, and some of the biggest dominoes to fall—Princeton, Yale, and the University of Virginia—were among the most recent. Many of the institutions that were coed during integration had significantly higher male enrollments than the rest of the 20th century.Th century. For example, Cornell’s 1930s sex ratio was 3 men to 1 women. The University of Michigan’s sex ratio was 2-to-1 during the same period.

While the sex ratio imbalance was visible on all coed campuses, it was even more pronounced at then-rural institutions like Penn State, where male students outnumbered their female cohorts in the 1930s by a ratio of 6-to-1. While his colleagues debated the merits of coed classrooms, Penn State sociologist Willard Waller observedDue to the unbalanced intercourse ratio, males needed to work onerous at their college for love, irrespective of how excellent the specimen.

Waller’s analysis methodology has since been called into question, but his observation that gender imbalance affects romance customs found solid theoretical grounding 40 years later in the Guttentag-Secord theory, which is named after the Harvard psychology professors who developed it. This theory holds that the gender that constitutes the numeric minority inherently has more partner options and thus controls the script of romantic and sexual relationships. Historically speaking, when women have held this position of power in dating culture, they have leveragedItto encourage the formation monogamous bonds

A 40-60 sex ratio means that there are 50 percent more women than men on today’s average campus.

Since sex ratio theory privileges the less populous gender, the first generation of female college students should have been overrun with male suitors. Proving that every rule has an exception, this largely wasn’t the case, as women were seen as intruders in male space whose presence in the classroom had a feminizing effect. Cultural change and increased educational and professional access for women spurred by the suffrage, women’s liberation, and civil rights movements helped push the campus sex ratio closer to equilibrium. The number of women attending college increased in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1994, the sex ratio was balanced at 50-50. In the almost 30 years since, the gap has widened in the opposite direction. Today there are about 40 men for every 60 women on many college campuses. This may not sound like a significant disparity until you frameThe numbersJon Birger, a business journalist and economist, does this in a similar way. Specifically, when we convert ratio to a more familiar mathematical form, percent, we see that a 40-60 sex ratio means that there are 50 percent more women than men on today’s average campus. This number has an underrecognized but monumental effect on all facets of the college experience, including, and especially, students’ social lives.

My institution, Rollins College (a small, four-year liberal arts college in Winter Park, Florida), is on the same 40-60 sex ratio list as the University of Georgia, the University of California–Los Angeles, James Madison University, New York University, Boston University, the University of North Carolina−Chapel Hill, and a multitude of other campuses. The sex imbalance in American higher education institutions is fundamentally changing campus relationships for men and women. If college men are not asking their female classmates to go out to dinner and a movie, what, might you ask, does a straight male student’s love life look like on today’s campus? That varies according to campus, social group, and individual, of course, but when asked to recount the details of their previous weekend’s social calendar,Here is what three white Rollins fraternity members from different chapters professed to have been up to.

Parker scrolled through his phone’s contact list until he landed on another prospect. “Netflix and chill?” he typed.

Tom, a tall and gregarious senior from New York City, accepted an invitation to attend a sorority semiformal with his close friend Molly, whom he’s known since his first year and with whom he engages in frequent noncommittal hookups. Once Tom arrived at the party, he was delighted to discover that instead of bringing men to the event as dates, many of Molly’s sorority sisters had either attended the event solo or brought a woman friend, making the sex ratio of the room approximately 1 man to 2 women. After the alcohol began flowing and everyone had drunk a few, Tom admitted that he was not a fan of the relationship between men and women. “things got pretty wild.”Different reports differ on the details of what happened. Molly claims that Tom was killed. “stuck his tongue down the throats of five or six of her friends.”Tom insists that he only dated three women.

Ryan’s fraternity threw a small invite-only house party at the apartment of one of its members. Although the third-year business major from Miami wasn’t personally in the market for a random hookup, Ryan was committed to helping his roommate and fellow fraternity brother find love—or at least have sex. Ryan took a quick count of the guests as the party progressed. What he discovered—that there were 20 fraternity men and over 30 women in the house—boded well for his roommate. Ryan checked in with his friend via text the next morning. Ryan received a one-word text reply to his query about the situation. “Sexcess.”

Parker, a second year student from Kansas City, was required to wake up at 6:45 AM to complete his internship at a local insurance company. He planned to spend Sunday afternoon with his friends at a local bar, with the intention to call it a late night. Madison, a communication major from Atlanta, met Parker at the bar. Madison was part of his extended sorority and fraternity friend group. After a brief chat, they made vague plans. “maybe hang out at some point in the future.”Parker texted Madison one hour after arriving home and invited Madison to his house. “Netflix and chill.”Madison quickly declined the coded invitation for casual sex. Parker shrugged and replied with a text. “np; mb next time”(No problem, maybe next time). He then scrolled through his phone’s contact list until he landed on another prospect. “Netflix and chill?”He typed.

If research tells us that most college students aren’t hooking up all that often, the self-reported nature of these stories draws their factual accuracy further into question. But whether the alleged romantic escapades played out exactly as the men described them doesn’t really matter; it’s precisely because any hookup story could be partially true that allows all hookup stories to be taken seriously.

While the landscape of college hookup culture has been fashioned into something of a straight male fantasy, according to a group of female students who run in the same crowd as Tom, Ryan, and Parker, this romantic terrain turns college men into so-called fuckboys.
Sociologists offer a less crude explanation of the situation. Using data from a survey of 1,000 straight, female American college students, professors Jeremy Uecker and Mark Regnerus showedOn campuses like Rollins where women make up a higher percentage of the student body than men, women reported that they had fewer traditional dates, were less likely have boyfriends and were more likely to engage in hookups with men.

My anecdotal account of the form that hookup culture takes at Rollins is buttressed by qualitative data compiled by researchers at Indiana University– Bloomington. Between 2004 and 2008, professors Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton tracked a cohort of 53 female students throughout the entirety of their undergraduate tenure. All the women in their study lived on the same floor of a campus residence hall during their first year, and to get a comprehensive and nuanced view of how their personal and academic lives unfolded, Hamilton moved in alongside them. One of the things that Armstrong and Hamilton discovered and wroteAboutIn Party-Paying was that many college women see men the same way that men see them—namely, as sexual objects, ephemeral playthings, and forms of entertainment and amusement.

Since the publication of Armstrong and Hamilton’s research in 2013, the buzz about women’s engagement in hookup culture has grown into a chorus of voices that catalog the ways that women are mobilizing hookup culture to serve their own ends. Indeed, one of the upsides of living in a society where women have autonomy over their sexual lives is that it opens up opportunities for women to pursue their own sexual desires. Specifically, when women and men are free to follow the same romantic script (i.e., hookup culture), researchersNoticeThey have similar lifestyle choices after graduation. They choose to prioritize their careers over their romantic relationships.

Fraternities have a long history of engineering circumstances that tip the scale even further in men’s favor.

Although hookup culture has benefits and drawbacks for both genders, sociologists don’t see the embracing of hookup culture by today’s college women as a sign that sex ratio theory has been either rendered irrelevant or has gone off the rails. Rather, many, including sociologist Lisa Wade, see it as an adaptation to a social environment that women don’t have the power to control or change. While straight college women may not be looking to pair up with the intent of settling down at the rate they used to, sex ratio theory posits the uncomfortable hypothesis that some women are choosing this course, in part, because there aren’t other options. It’s clear: A straight college woman might be looking for a serious boyfriend on a campus with a 40-60 population. But, it is unlikely that many men will volunteer to do the job. Women who attend universities with more equal sex ratios often don’t have it any easier because the population who controls the campus social scene systematically manipulates party demographics to create a hookup culture where numerically, there shouldn’t be one.

The gender imbalance at Rollins explains why there will be more women than men in attendance at all-campus functions. But the skewed ratio at the fraternity and sorority party Tatum and I both attended didn’t make sense when situated within the demographic context of the national Greek-letter community. According to the trade associations that white fraternities and sororities are members of—the North American Interfraternity Conference, or NIC, and the National Panhellenic Conference, or NPC—thereTogether, 750,000 active fraternity and sorority members on North American campuses during the 2017–18 academic year. The number of women and men was roughly equal. While the gender split was pretty even, it is important to note that how white fraternities/sororities organize themselves on college campuses can be a little different.

White sororities existed before 2003 didn’t haveThere are no enrollment caps or quotas. Each chapter could admit as many applicants or as few as they wanted from the applicant pool. This resulted in a campus Greek letter community with different chapter sizes. While there were certain benefits to this model—total control over one’s membership population being chief among them—the lack of an umbrella admissions policy threatened to breed divisiveness among the organizations by allowing the growth of a few supersize chapters that would consume competition while permitting the exclusion of individuals from the broader Greek community who wanted to join a fraternity or sorority but weren’t invited to join these specific groups. The 26 NPC sororities switched to a supply and demand admissions model in an effort to promote inclusion. The basic idea behind campus sorority communities is to take the number women who sign up for recruitment sororities each year and divide it by the number on campus. This system increases the likelihood that a woman will be accepted into a house. This means that all sorority chapters at any campus have roughly equal numbers of members. In a phone conversation, then-NIC spokesperson Todd Shelton told me that NIC member fraternities didn’t actively reject the idea of adopting a similar membership quota system as much as they didn’t see a need to seriously consider it. As a result, it’s possible to have a fraternity chapter with as few as a dozen members on the same campus with one that has several hundred. It is odd that white sororities or fraternities are committing to autonomy on this issue, given how interconnected these groups are.

The unwillingness of the NPC and the NIC to consider the implications of having different membership models means that no one is paying attention to how uneven fraternity chapter sizes affect the nature of the fraternity and sorority social scene. Even while acknowledging that they are part of a larger Greek-letter community, the complete body of fraternity and sorority chapters rarely come together to do things as a group unless they are forced to. The primary form that interaction between groups takes is through mixers, a vague and amorphous term that refers to everything from pumpkin-carving contests and cupcake baking to pool parties and paddleboarding outings. In the spirit of avoiding cliquishness and promoting intergroup relations, many schools’ student-run NPC and Interfraternity Council, or IFC, governing boards require each sorority and fraternity chapter to socialize formally with each other at least once per school year. What this means for a community with uneven demographics is that every time a fraternity “mixes” or pairs up with a sorority for an event, there usually will be more women than men at the event. At a growing number of schools, the numeric difference between the genders is measured not in tens, but hundreds. The average IFC fraternity chapter size at the University of Texas at Austin during the spring 2022 semester, for example, was 101, while the average NPC sorority had a whopping 231 members. In 2019, there were5,516 women are spread across 19 NPC and 2,726 males across 26 IFC fraternities at University of Georgia. This makes the average sorority membership 290, compared to 105 in each fraternity. While a mismatch of male and female partygoers doesn’t necessarily guarantee that hookups will occur, the sex ratio theory has taught us that it increases the odds that they will.

While white sororities’ well-meaning attempt to be fair to women creates a dating milieu that is markedly unfair to them, fraternities have a long history of engineering circumstances that tip the scale even further in men’s favor. In the 1930s, Waller observed a pervasive culture of “petting” (a mid-20th-century term that refers to sexualized kissing and touching that includes, in its most expansive form, nonpenetrative forms of sex) within the fraternity and sorority community at Penn State. This was strange because the college’s sex ratio at the time was 6-to-1, and because of this, it should have created a dating script that privileged monogamy over casual sex. After digging around a little bit, Waller discoveredWhat was the situation?: Fraternity members deliberately manipulated the sex ratio in order to give men a numerical advantage. This was done by preventing first-year members dating coeds, restricting non-member male access to fraternity parties and cultivating a culture that promoted social rank and prestige, making it a form social suicide to date anyone other than a member of the fraternity. Fraternities managed to create a dating culture that was void of sex ratio theory by blackballing their competition.

The genius of this strategy was not lost on the subsequent generations of fraternity boys. Even after the campus sex-ratio turned in their favor, they continued to practice it. The current heirs to these strategies are not reluctant to give up. Evening out the playing field doesn’t help them, but it creates an environment in which they have to exert more effort to spark a romantic encounter. This is contrary to now, which, in Tatum’s words, “is where it is now.” “the only thing a guy needs in order to get in a girl’s pants is a pulse.”

“I’m going, because he acts like his fraternity is a sanctified space. I have no interest in being anyone’s ratio,”The sorority woman was on her way out of the building. party.

This is clearly an exaggeration. However, in some cases it may not be so. Rollins hosted a spring semester kickoff every year for the fraternity section I worked with. “darty”Day party on the shores a lake infested with alligators. Urban legend has it that when the developers of Disney World were building the theme park in the 1970s, they collected the reptilian residents living in the area’s boggy marshland and relocated them to said lake, which is just 20 miles up the road from the college. Even the biggest skeptic of the tale doesn’t have to venture far along Lake Jessup’s shoreline to transform into a believer. Alligators are everywhere: sunbathing on the beach, watching motionless with eyes just above the surface, and clustered in groups at the base of large trees with their heads tilted back and massive jaws gaping wide open toward the sky—especially in the spring, when the eggs of the various bird species that live in the trees begin to hatch and the newborn chicks embark upon their first flights. For the alligators, it’s almost too easy; the baby birds literally just drop into their mouths.

A different type of opportunism was displayed during the 2018 darty. The event began when two buses arrived and expelled their contents—about 30 men from one fraternity and roughly 80 women from multiple sororities. The group spent the next few days drinking, dancing and being warned by bartenders about the danger posed by the gators. This was Corbin’s fourth trip to the lake, and he is a friendly, portly senior from New Hampshire. Although the luster of the experience was beginning to fade, it did not diminish the memories of his first visit. “Coming here for the first time, it’s just you, your fraternity brothers, and all of these women,”He said it to me. “So many that it’s almost overwhelming. And then you realize: They are all here for you.”He quickly corrected himself, perhaps sensing that his previous statement was not good. “They are all here because of you.”

Corbin’s tenure in his fraternity evolved from party attendee in year one to party organizer by years three and four. Corbin, an avid golfer, found the sport a fitting metaphor for the event’s overarching goal. “You always aim to tee it up for yourself, you know? You want at least a 1-to-1, but obviously we prefer it to be higher.”Corbin sees it as a win-win scenario to have more women than men at the annual celebration. He claims that women feel safer and more comfortable when there is more of their kind. However, perceptions are not always true to reality. The upside of the large number of fraternity males at the lake party is that they have a significantly higher chance of having sex. At the lake party, a guy’s odds of getting laid were, in Corbin’s words, “astronomical,”Not only because of the sex disparity and implied senses of obligation but also because of how the bus ride home was.

The sheer number of passengers crammed onto the buses made it necessary for women to sit on fraternity men’s laps during the 30-minute ride back to campus. The story that Corbin told me about his bus ride home—and the events that transpired afterward—follows the same rote plotline as the sexual tales told by other members of his fraternity community: college boy has his pick of romantic partners and, when given the opportunity, chooses them all. In this case, too, all the red flags (chief among them the fact that drunk fraternity members aren’t the most reliable of narrators) that signal that his story might not be wholly true are overshadowed by the possibility that parts of it might be. Corbin says he kissed and rubbed the breasts of the woman seated on his lap.“Woman No. 1,”On the bus ride back from campus, he called her “Missy” (as he called him). The push-and-shove chaos that followed upon arrival led to the separation of the two. Corbin attempted to locate Woman No. Corbin tried to locate Woman No. 1 in the crowd but, in the end, he got into step with the others and began talking to them. “Woman No. 2.”He ended walking this woman back home to her apartment. “where one thing led to another.”Corbin excused his self in the awkward aftermath of the encounter by claiming that he had to attend a prior commitment. This commitment was broken by Woman No. 1’s place, where the couple “finished what they started.”

Schools with 40-60 sex ratios aren’t the only places where you will find fraternity members manipulating the law of supply and demand to serve their own interests. The same thing is happening at universities where male students far outnumber female students. Nicole and Elizabeth are second-year sorority members at 58-to-42 Purdue. They report that the men in fraternity chapters will routinely invite five to six sorority chapters to a function and then “want us to compete for them.” They attended the parties as first-year students because the social scene was new and exciting but have since stopped attending because after a while “it gets annoying.” Amanda is a third-year student at 65-to-35 Rochester Institute of TechnologyShe told me that she felt empowered when she arrived at campus knowing that she was in control of the romance department. “The boys all know that women have the ability to be more selective,”She told me. Amanda knew that she could go to fraternity parties knowing she would have her pick of men. But Amanda was also well aware of the tricks fraternity men used to manipulate the sex ratio. Older members of fraternities prohibited outside men from entering and made it impossible for younger members to socialize in the same way. They made their members serve as doormen or bouncers, bouncers, DJs, drivers, and bartenders. Amanda’s view of the last group was mixed. While she appreciated the fraternity’s assistance in getting to and from their parties safely, she learned the hard way that giving her contact information to one fraternity member (by requesting a pickup/drop-off by text) was tantamount to giving it to all of them.

Rose was a Duke senior.55-to-45) when I spoke to her about her experience in her university’s Greek system. She was in her second year and attended a fraternity mixer with a group of her sisters from her sorority. They were shocked to see more men than women when they arrived. Rose asked her friend, who was playing a DJ, if they could change the music. The man agreed and pointed Rose to the playlist on his cell phone. When she got on the phone, she discovered a bunch of messages in the fraternity’s group chat. One of the messages stated, “The sex ratio is way off. We have to get more girls.” Rose confronted her friend about the comment, and his dismissive response—“You just saw something that you shouldn’t have seen”—infuriated her. Rose said that she told her sorority sisters what happened next. “I’m going, because he acts like his fraternity is a sanctified space. I have no interest in being anyone’s ratio.”Rose said that the fraternity guys got upset when Rose and her friends left, but they later got better. “we got all these apology messages in an attempt to fix relations between the organizations.”

A few years ago, Sean Hernandez, an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, was people-watching from his fraternity house’s balcony and noticed something that struck him as strange: Despite being in the heart of fraternity row, all the individuals coming into and out of the fraternity houses were female. One explanation for this has to do with a controversial policy held by all Panhellenic sororities that prohibits alcohol consumption inside sorority houses. This rule—which chalks its necessity up to liability concerns and insurance regulations—means that any social get-together involving alcohol (which is pretty much all of them) is displacedto fraternity homes or third-party venues. Renting an off-campus space for parties and the responsibility that comes with it is what prevents sorority women avoiding inviting five fraternities to their next mixer.

NIC fraternities have the same liability concerns, and until recently were content to accept the additional risk and added insurance costs to keep throwing parties. In an interview with the authors of The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses, Atlantic journalist Caitlin Flanagan noted that the second most common type of insurance claim against the fraternity industry is for rape. She continues: “The more you supervise the fraternities, the more you establish a legal duty of care. The national administrations of the fraternities don’t closely supervise the individual chapters for the same reason.” In 2018, in response to an ongoing pattern of alcohol-related deaths and skyrocketing insurance premiums, the NIC banned consumption of alcohol that is above 15 percent alcohol by volume, or just about everything except beer, wine, and malt beverages, in fraternity houses. While the NIC’s hard-liquor ban moves fraternity and sorority alcohol policies closer together, the NPC’s “no tolerance, no alcohol” rule keeps fraternity row as the de facto campus party headquarters. A 2021 research study revealed what we already knew: Underage college women who want to drink but don’t have fake IDs have very few options other than fraternity parties for where to get and consume alcohol without risking arrest or disciplinary action from their college or university.

At USC, the differences between the sorority and fraternity alcohol policies alone didn’t sufficiently explain to Hernandez why women were doing so much work to attract male attention when the script crafted by the university’s 52-48 sex ratio suggested that they shouldn’t have to. This prompted Sanchez to take up the question in his master’s thesis. The results from his survey of USC’s Greek-letter community substantiate what students have told me: Fraternities engineer sex ratio imbalancesby creating innovative mechanisms for male population control. USC fraternity men restrict access to their social events to unaffiliated men, just like their peers at Purdue or RIT. Fraternities do not exclude potential rivals from their parties. However, they also manipulate the sex ratio in favor of unaffiliated students and multiple sorority women by opening their party door to unaffiliated female students.

Even with the numbers stacked against them, women are not in such oversupply at USC that their individual stock should be devalued. This especially goes for the campus’s most desirable women—those who, by virtue of their membership in top-tier organizations, have accrued the most social capital and greatest number of partner options. While it would make sense that women from less prestigious sororities or those occupying lower rungs of the social ladder would hook up more often and with more partners to preserve their status and relationship with men, Hernandez didn’t find this to be true. A 2017 research study of hookup culture at an elite liberal arts university yielded the same results. Specifically, what Hernandez and the researchers discovered was that the most coveted women hook up at roughly the same rate as women lower down on the popularity totem pole. While many factors play into this, the numbers suggest that they have no other choice. The oversupply of women means that hooking up has become a requirement for preserving their relationship status with fraternity men. Put another way, the informal romantic code within USC’s fraternity and sorority social life is “hook up or get out.” By manipulating their guest lists so that women always outnumber men at their house parties, fraternity members try to make women disposable. But even the best ideas don’t always go as planned; in the rest of my book, The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities,I share how sorority ladies are fighting back by joining together and restructuring campus social scenes so that the sex ratio is in control. Their favor.

From The Advantages of Pals: Contained in the Sophisticated World of At this time’s Sororities and FraternitiesJana Mathews

Supply: What it takes to create a hookup tradition

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