“Hooking up” on college campuses has been the focus of a number of debates, both in the media and in sociology, over the past several years. Some argue that casual sexual encounters are detrimental to women’s self-esteem but that hookup culture “hurts boys too.” Others assert that hooking up, which has supposedly replaced dating on college campuses, is leaving both men and women “unhappy, sexually unfulfilled, and confused about intimacy.” Many sociologists, including Paula England and Lisa Wade, have been in the midst of these cultural debates about hooking up and its effects on young adults.

As hookup culture on college campuses seems relevant (or at least an interesting topic of discussion) to students in my classes, I spend a class during the weeks on gender and sexuality addressing the sociological debates about hooking up and casual sex. There is no shortage of readings that could be assigned on this topic, including many popular media articles. One of the readings that I always assign, “Is hooking up bad for young women?” from Contexts a few years ago by Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton, and Paula England, does a great job of outlining the debates about hookup culture that continue to be relevant. (This article was also the focus of another Teaching TSP post several years ago). I also have them read Hanna Rosin’s article from The Atlantic and Lisa Wade’s response from Soc Images.

One of the points of discussion, the sexual double standard, is repeatedly brought up with frustration by female students in my classes. Why are women who have casual sex considered sluts while men are practically given a medal for hooking up? As I initially struggled to navigate these discussions, I turned to an unlikely place for guidance, the classic musical Grease. Who hasn’t belted out “Summer Lovin’” on the dance floor with friends?

As Sandra Dee (Olivia Newton John ) and Danny Zuko (John Travolta) trade off singing about their summer romance, they seem to be describing two different relationships. Sandra Dee tells her friends, “He was sweet, just turned eighteen,” as Danny dishes, “She was good, you know what I mean?” This song, it turns out, is a perfect illustration of different gender norms when it comes to sexuality.

For the class activity, I have students divide a sheet of paper into two columns with one side for Sandra Dee and the other for Danny Zuko. As they watch the Summer Lovin’ footage from Grease, I ask them to take notes in each column of quotes or themes from the song that reflect gender norms and the sexual double standard.  Afterwards, we make a list on the board of the stark differences in gender norms around sexuality.

I use this activity as a jumping off point from which to discuss the roots of the sexual double standard and some of the issues with hookup culture. Some questions that we consider in class discussion include:

1)     How could hooking up be considered bad for men or women or both? What could you argue are the benefits to hooking up?

2)     How do gender norms operate within hookup culture (Lisa Wade’s article does a particularly good job of outlining this issue)?

3)     Does hookup culture have the potential to disrupt the sexual double standard or to change gender norms?