Hookup Culture on College Campuses During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The hallway of Walz Hall screamed in silence. The stillness of Muhlenberg College seeped into the dorms. The hush of the building, deafening, eerie, unusual. Everyone on this campus seems to have disappeared. The first-year students living among these walls, confined to their rooms, afraid of the pandemic, afraid of judiciary repercussions from the College administration. A foyer that once smelled of marijuana when entering the building now smells of chilled air and an old staircase. A once familiar sign of college life, now empty, lonely, longing for the familiar.

Entering the first-floor, the door is heavy and creaks with each subtle movement. Usually filled with groups of people talking, the laughter that once echoed through the halls is replaced with silence. Carpets line the floor in an attempt to be inviting. The dorm walls are decorated with posters, photographs, banners. All evidence of a place that is filled with people living in their homes. The reality? Emptiness.

Rachel*, a first-year student at Muhlenberg, shared what was going on in the dorm halls. During August and September the College was on a phase one plan which meant no visitors were allowed on campus, students could not enter dorms they did not reside in and could only have one person in their room from their dorm hall at a given time. “My one friend was hooking up with a couple of guys and one of them was from the first floor of our building. You aren’t really supposed to do that but she did,” said Rachel. Rachel mentions that the best way to meet people on Muhlenberg’s campus is to walk around and hang out in public spaces, since you see the same people every day. “I’m just assuming (other people didn’t follow guidelines), because you always hear people talk about how annoying the restrictions are,” mentions Rachel. “A lot of the communication is over Snapchat.”

In an article published by Vox, psychologist Carl Pickhardt introduces the idea of pandemic crushes — the harsh reality for most of us living in these physically isolating times. He notes that these pandemic crushes are not necessarily romantic crushes, but rather act as a fantasy living in our minds. These crushes say more about the admirer than the admired, as our pandemic crushes allow us to mentally escape the physical isolation and instead enter an altered reality that is noncommittal and a pleasant distraction. Pandemic crushes offer some sort of emotional relief, allowing our imagination to drift from the state of isolation to fantasize over the idea of someone in a new and exciting way. Pandemic crushes act as something to look forward to at the end of this lonely tunnel. Texting, FaceTiming, and DMing someone throughout the course of lockdown gives us hope that when we can resume our natural state of interaction and affection with one another, that a new relationship will blossom and be ignited.

Writing in Psychology Today,  psychotherapist Sharon K. Farber says that being touched and touching others are fundamental factors in what it means to be human. Farber notes that levels of oxytocin in our blood is consistent throughout our lives. Oxytocin, known as the “love hormone” allows the body to achieve balance between being stressed and calm. Oxytocin also stimulates muscle activity which causes orgasm in both men and women. If we need oxytocin to be released in order to reach this balanced state of being, how can we achieve that in a period of isolation without feeling touch starvation?

For thousands of college students working remotely from home, their unfortunate reality may be experiencing touch starvation. For college students who are living on their school campuses or in college towns this semester, their access to hookups may be more attainable than others.

“I have a few friends who have gotten into relationships since being at Muhlenberg,” said Rachel. “One of my friends was talking to someone before they came here and they got together here. Some people are definitely in relationships but not a lot of people are.”

Living on campus during a pandemic when most of the students are at home is a strange environment. You are in college but it doesn’t feel like you are immersed in college culture. “I feel like we’re missing out and I feel like the majority of us know we need to be safe, there’s just a few groups of people who don’t follow guidelines. But the majority of us do feel like we’re missing out on going to bigger parties or being out with larger groups of people and stuff like that. There’s a lot of time’s we’re like, ‘what do we do now…’” It’s a natural human instinct to connect. Connect with others, connect with a space, to an environment. People will always find a way to stay together, even on a desolated campus.

For some, connecting with others is taken to unsafe extremes. Students who are living on Muhlenberg’s campus with strict guidelines and restrictions to which spaces and individuals they can be in close proximity with are not respected by some. “It makes me a little angry. Of course, I would love to go out and do all the normal stuff but the fact is, it’s not safe to right now and in doing so, you’re endangering yourself because young people can get Coronavirus and suffer from it,” says Rachel.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought that only older adults could get really sick from COVID-19. In an article published by Johns Hopkins, the CDC indicated that over the summer, people under the age of 30 in the U.S. accounted for over 20% of COVID cases. This trend is now continuing into the fall. Young adults are experiencing the same extreme symptoms; fever, body aches, loss of taste and smell, cardiovascular deficiencies, and many more. The initial idea that young people are immune to this virus has dissipated. We are all at risk. “If you don’t want to help better our community and you don’t want to help do everything in your power to make our community safe so that everyone can come back onto campus in a healthy way, then what are you doing here?” asks Rachel. “If you wanted to go out and party then you should’ve stayed home. You’re 18, at least 18 years old, do you not have basic human empathy to realize this isn’t about you? Of course I want a normal college experience but this isn’t about that anymore, this is a global thing.”

Parties are viewed as a way to get drunk, mingle, and for some, find someone to go home with that night. The possibility of meeting someone new to hookup with is sometimes more accessible at a party, influenced by alcohol, music, and a dark care-free setting. Rachel expresses views that many college students feel right now, especially being on campus. There are those who are putting themselves first at the expense of others’ health and are risking the chance for the entire student body to return back to campus in the future. “I get wanting to do some normal things,” said Rachel. “I know some people who do hookup, they make sure they’re being safe and the people who they are hooking up with make sure that they haven’t engaged with anyone else closely and have been following guidelines, and I think that’s the safe way and the smart way to do it.”

Students not obliging to rules isn’t something new. It isn’t COVID specific. It isn’t a pandemic issue. Since the beginning of time, romance novels and generational stories indicate that young adults have been finding ways to see each other for thousands of years.

With the announcement from Muhlenberg College that all students will return to campus for the Spring semester, more students will continue to find unique ways to connect. The human need to touch and be touched is not preventable. There will always be a way to connect.

Nicole Solomon and her roommates want to go out to dinner in Columbus. Considering where to go, they’re on Google Maps looking at places that offer outdoor dining. A block away they can hear bass pounding music coming from the fraternity house that neighbors their apartment.

The Ohio State University. Home to roughly 45,000 undergraduate students. A college town that is usually filled with busy streets, a thriving nightlife, and one hell of school spirit. Today in a pandemic, not much as changed. Nicole, a current junior, mentioned that since the return of football season, large parties and gatherings picked back up again. “One thing that I’ve seen is a bunch of people who are completely disregarding the rules of COVID,” says Nicole. Nicole shared what the hookup scene at OSU is like this semester during the pandemic. “What’s happening is people are heavy on the apps, and there are some people on apps who are asking in advance, ‘are you being safe?’ that type of stuff. Apps are big in general, let’s put it this way, if you’re OSU Greek Life, you have a circle of who you go to. Frats are holding less events, so people are resorting more to apps, but you still have people going to those events and trying to do shit. You also have girls being thirsty on Snapchat, posting thirst traps more often. Posting something somewhat provocative to catch a guy’s attention.

Nicole mentions that OSU students heavily use dating apps to meet a new prospective hookup partner. Additionally, she mentions the term “thirsty,” meant as being eager or interested, to explain that dating app users are desperately looking for attention from others. By posting a “thirst trap” social media users post a photo with the idea of enticing a desired viewer sexually. “You know with hookups you can be more like done,” explained Nicole. “There’s more pressure now to have a recurring hookup, I don’t know if there’s pressure for relationships, but I think the relationship thing, for me personally, was like I was just in a spot where I was way more happy to be in a relationship, that was my vibe. For my friends Caroline* and Grant*, they were unofficially together for a very very very long time and since we were leaving school and school was getting shut down, they literally got together the day we left OSU.”

“Due to COVID two of my four roommates actually entered into relationships. Two of us got into relationships shortly after COVID started. It was like whoever you were talking to, it was deciding make or break, do you want to continue seeing this person. You have to decide because this person will be in your circle,” said Nicole.

For many who were faced with this decision, a choice had to be made. Is it worth getting into a relationship with the guarantee that there will be companionship and physical touch or do you go separate ways if you aren’t ready to commit and are then forced to face an isolating reality? Nicole walked me through her close network of friends and their experiences with finding a partner on Ohio State’s campus amidst the pandemic.

“Brody* got into a relationship in COVID through Tinder or Hinge or something like that. They are both (Brody and his girlfriend) being very safe in my opinion. They had their first two dates with masks on. When they wanted to do stuff, they took their masks off and kind of discussed their circles and all that. So in my opinion that is the right way to go about hooking up in COVID.” Nicole went on to explain that she knows a guy who hooked up with his ex-boyfriend with a mask on because of his autoimmune disease. “I think the only reason they worked out and it wasn’t terribly awkward was because they had other experiences.” She then shared that one of her friend’s Lizzy* is trying to be safe because she wants to see and hangout with Nicole and her roommates. “She’s been hooking up with someone and he’s living in a house that is unsafe. It seems to me that the guy she hooked up with has no regard for ‘rona, you know what I’m saying,” said Nicole.

“Basically what’s happened is the people who want to hookup and the people who want to hang out, everything has just moved underground, at people’s apartments, in frats, they’re putting tarps up around frats. The only thing you could do to get punished by going to these kind of events, and let’s be real, who goes to a frat party if not to f*ck, why else would you be at that event, and like what happens is it’s really unsafe. I live next door to a frat, someone tried holding a 70 + person party, I tried calling Ohio State Police and they won’t come. They’re not willing to endanger their police officers.”

In an article from The Lantern, Ohio State’s award-winning student newspaper, the response time by Ohio State University Police Department from phone call to scene was evaluated. Student journalist Edward Sutelan noted that police officers gauge their response to calls by urgency — higher priority calls are attended to first. There are no current written articles about the specific incident when Nicole called OSUPD and no one reported to the scene, but it is questionable where parties and COVID regulations fall under their priority policies.

Nicole has since left Columbus and returned back home as cases have been exponentially on the rise in Ohio.

Down the coast, in a metropolis that breeds some of the craziest nightlife in the world, is home to the University of Miami. With students back on campus and some classes being held in person, my twin brother Ethan Bruck and his two friends Ethan Guller and Jose Carlos Paz discuss what college life is like in Miami during the pandemic.

“I guess people are using Tinder more now, things haven’t really changed here,” said Jose. “I guess parties are smaller but that’s the only change and you have to go out of your way to talk to a girl. Make effort.” Both Ethans nodded in agreement. 

“You have to communicate more for sure,” said Bruck. “If you want to see a girl you actually have to message her.” Jose agreed that you have to express interest, tell her you want to see her out, actually invite her to come out. 

The three of them all said they haven’t asked anyone they’ve pursued if they have or had COVID. They said most people they’re hanging around with have common sense and know to stay home and quarantine if they’re sick.

“There’s so many people we don’t know, you can’t just DM a girl and say ‘hey you should come over this weekend, she’ll just be like who are you ?” said Bruck. They explained that the social world at UMiami is vast, you barely know a quarter of the students. “I’ll sum it up for you,” said Bruck. “You have to put in more effort because you’re just not really meeting as many new people and there aren’t big events, things are intimate.”

“It’s hard!” said Guller.

The three of them are continuing to navigate the hookup world amidst a pandemic in Miami. With parties still happening but on a much smaller scale, the network to meet people in a city that is home to more than 470,000 people has shrunk significantly. While Bruck and his friends note that people in their network are being safe and quarantining, some students at the University of Miami are still partying, still hooking up, and still looking for their weekend fling.

Sitting in my childhood bedroom at home writing this, I can’t help but think about how hookup culture has changed in my life since March 2020. At the beginning of the pandemic I slid into my current boyfriend’s DM’s on Instagram to start some form of conversation. Reaching out to him back in March, I had no intention of what would come out of things. I was merely bored, scrolling Instagram, and the thought of him came to mind. On impulse and pure desire to connect with anyone other than my family, I sent him a message. 

After I messaged Bobby ‘22, I remember wondering if others were using social media to connect with distant acquaintances or to make new ones. Sitting across the room from him now, I am curious to see how he believes hookup culture has changed because of the global pandemic.

“I don’t think that things have really changed,” Bobby began to say. “Most big schools are in session so most people are still meeting on campus. I’m not sure how people who aren’t at school are meeting people to be honest, but I don’t think much has changed at least for schools that are meeting or people meeting other people on campus.” He then mentioned to me that the people who are out and still partying  are not likely living at home, but rather are living on a college campus or with friends who don’t think COVID will negatively affect their lives.

Bobby, a current junior on the football team at Muhlenberg, shared his opinion on whether the Muhlenberg freshman experience is different this year or first-year students would significantly miss an aspect of their social life because upperclassmen are not on campus. “At first it was probably really difficult to connect because there’s no parties going on. You can’t just meet someone on a Saturday night and take it from there,” says Bobby.

“It’s going to be a culture shock,” he added. “When upperclassmen are allowed back on campus it is going to be so different for the freshman and there will definitely be a social disadvantage.”

What makes Muhlenberg’s campus special and intimate is the upperclassmen’s influence on the culture. Current students and student life is what makes each campus unique, and with the absence of life at Muhlenberg, first-year students are getting a rather out-of-ordinary experience. These students who are on campus for the first time are unaware of the regularity of campus life, the life hacks you learn along the way, the secrets passed down through generations. Students are physically on campus, but are they experiencing campus the way it’s intended to be? As colleges make plans for the spring, rules and regulations to ensure social distancing are going to have a hard time competing with our natural drive for an oxytocin hit. Whether we have been isolated or if our lives barely changed during this pandemic, we are all going to be chasing the obsessive crave for human connection, touch, and affection.

*For anonymity purposes pseudonyms have been indicated with asterisks.

Photo courtesy of Cdd20 from Pixabay

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