Intentional Ambiguity

Gender and Society will feature Randolph professor’s research this summer

While waiting for a class to begin several years ago, Danielle Currier heard the students in her class at Radford University tossing around the phrase “hook up.” “Are you talking about sex?” she asked, realizing the slang term had taken on a very different meaning from when she was in college.

“I was amazed about how open they were about what was going on,” said Currier, now a Randolph sociology professor. “That’s what prompted me to start studying what has changed that made sex part of the common conversation about what is going on in students’ lives.”

Currier surveyed 1,100 Radford students and also conducted in-depth interviews with 96 of those individuals. Her research, which will be published this summer in Gender and Society, reveals a lot about the hook up culture, including problems that she hopes society will address.

The first thing she noticed was that “hooking up” meant different things to different people. “No one ever knows what you’re talking about unless they ask you specifically,” she said, adding that the ambiguity is somewhat intentional. It lets men seem more masculine by over-representing their sexual activity, while allowing women to appear more traditionally feminine by downplaying their participation in the same sexual activities.

The behavior that often leads to hook ups has troubling implications, Currier said. Her survey showed that in most cases, alcohol was involved, and the sexual activity was not planned, causing partners to forgo discussions about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases. The unplanned nature of hook ups also meant the sexual activity was not always consensual, with one partner sometimes giving in due to pressure and the influence of alcohol.

“That makes it difficult to determine whether hook ups are making rape more or less common,” Currier said. “I had some women come back to me after their initial interviews and say they didn’t realize they had been raped. They thought it was just something that happens. I find that problematic, because then it makes it more difficult to stop it.

“If you can say, ‘It just happened,’ that takes away some of the shame of it, and it normalizes the behavior,” Currier added. “One of the myths we have in this culture is that everyone wants to have sex and all you need to do is convince someone to have sex with you. We keep telling women to avoid rape. Instead, we need to teach men not to rape. That is where, as a society, we’re providing the wrong type of education.”

One change that would help address the problem would be more honesty about what is happening and what is expected, Currier said. “In terms of the hook up culture, we need an open, honest dialogue about what is going on,” she added.