How university hookup culture negatively impacts women of colour

I think it’s pretty fair to say that at most UK universities, a certain culture of hookups and casual sex is not only a standard, but encouraged. When you’re in such a developmental stage in life, and balancing a crushing academic workload, the stress that comes with such detached dating is often the last thing you need.

That’s not to say it can’t be good in some respects. Many consider the non-committal freedom that hookup culture provides to be sexually liberating, and especially empowering for women. It’s true that we’re no longer trapped in the traditional, often restrictive, dating and marriage expectations of previous generations, so young people today are able to explore their sexuality much more freely.

Ness Cooper, a Norfolk-based clinical sexologist and sex and relationship coach, is committed to helping people to do so. Her experience with teaching university-age students has led her to discover that social stigma and peer pressure are the largest issues among her younger clients, which can tie into that culture.

When studying with The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Cooper covered hookup culture and found that statistically, many individuals actually had positive experiences as long as they consented. She spoke to Kindred. about the importance of aftercare and expressing emotions, saying crucially, "It’s not just sex".

As a result, Cooper believes that hookup culture can be a positive thing for young people, though she emphasises the importance of education around consent and STIs.

I think that when you’re a student surrounded by that culture on a daily basis, it’s much easier to notice some of its common negative aspects. Particularly when some young people are perhaps less informed on how to go about casual sex in a respectful way.

At their core, hookups are free of seriousness and emotion, which often allows for a quantity over quality mindset to form (whether that's how many Tinder matches you're getting or your body count). Frequent participation in, and the temporariness of hookup culture can cause doubts in your self-confidence and self-worth when it’s all about the ease of getting detached physical affection.

Women are often left feeling used and disposable, reduced only to our bodies and what benefit they can give to others. We become critical of ourselves when we 'catch feelings', as though we need to perfect this cold, unattached mindset in order to be considered a true feminist.

So for some, it can understandably feel like the negatives outweigh the positives.

I often find myself noticing certain ways in which people of colour can suffer especially. I think it’s important to question: are there issues on top of those that women of colour are uniquely faced with, and therefore struggle to navigate?

Put simply, yes.

That is, in my experience, and in those of virtually every other non-white person I know at my university. What often seems to bond us together, more than anything, is shared negative experiences of the ignorance (if not just blatant racism) of some of the white students around us, when it comes to sex and dating.

I’d argue that hookup culture is created by white people, for white people. Being rooted in racial inequalities, it caters for certain people more than others - as is the standard in life. Studies have shown that the young people who are most likely to partake are heterosexual, able-bodied, white and conventionally attractive (so essentially, have Eurocentric features).

When you’re clearly an ethnic minority in the city where you live and study, most of the time you naturally feel 'othered'. It’s impossible not to notice that you don’t look like the majority of the people around you. As a result, you might feel you can’t fully relate to your white friends about particular matters when race is involved.

I’ve found that this has caused me to inherently feel as though my race is a 'thing' - that it is relevant, it matters, and it’s being noticed in daily situations when it really shouldn’t. A lot of modern university culture, such as clubbing, house parties and the use of dating apps, only further perpetuates this, allowing for an abundance of fetishism, microaggressions and racism to be targeted toward minorities.

The ignorance of some men on Hinge is shocking but at this point, has become so normalised. Every one of my WOC friends is used to hearing the classic "You’re actually really pretty for a *insert race* girl", and it’s not at all uncommon to see people specifying ‘no Blacks’ or ‘no Asians’ in their Tinder bios.

Some other examples that immediately come to mind include overhearing some white man’s proud statements: "Never have I ever been with an Asian!" and "Nah, you know I love my African girls". Plus the way that being referred to as 'exotic' is apparently meant to be a compliment. Even the fact that you’re able to choose which ethnicities you do or don’t want coming up on some dating apps is enough to pave the way for fetishism like that.

Young women of colour often can’t be sure that they’re not just a fetish to whoever's pursuing them. Chances are, they've also had certain self-critical thoughts ingrained in their minds for years, from the media or just similar things they’ve heard, experienced or been made to feel about their desirability in relation to their race.

Can we blame people of colour then, for maybe not having the same desire to participate in hookup culture as white people do? We aren’t always against it, but I think the issue lies in that we don't feel fully comfortable within that sphere.

Ultimately everyone can want the readily available validation that casual sex offers, but it shouldn’t be like that. On top of the universal problems that the culture creates, minority women should never doubt themselves or feel forced to be over-sexualised to compete with their white counterparts.

I often wonder where a lot of this originates from, that is, why my POC friends and I sometimes feel so out of place and unsuitable in hookup culture. Perhaps it stems back to our upbringing within traditional ethnic households, where stigmas and judgement remain, and so there’s a pressure of talking (or rather, not talking) about sex.

Again, for me, it feels like my white friends have more freedom to broach the subject with their parents while the rest of us don’t. Of course, you can’t generalise, as every family is different regardless of race, but if I’m honest I’ve not met many immigrant BAME parents that would proudly support their child’s 'hoe phase'.

Sometimes it’s then the opposite, and we feel pressure from our peers (especially at university) to talk about sex as a completely casual, unemotional thing - in line with the view of physical intimacy that hookup culture promotes. Truthfully, it can be exhausting.

In thinking about why topics like sex seem to stay awkward and avoided, I think a difference in generation and beliefs plays a significant role. I personally never got 'the birds and the bees talk' from my parents and as uncomfortable as even now I feel at the thought, maybe children in ethnic families would benefit from having a place for certain topics like that from a younger age, rather than having to work boundaries, values and concepts, out on their own.

Cooper equally discusses how parents may have their own stigma and shame that can prevent them from knowing what to say. Just like there are children’s first aid courses for parents now, she feels something similar could be helpful, but on relationships and sex education (RSE).

She says: "Remember that sexuality, relationships, and the body are fluid and forever changing and that what may seem like a right answer during one moment, may not be for the future for your children, so be open to change and listen."

In the end, I feel lucky to have POC friends that I can talk to and relate to about these sorts of issues. But fundamentally, it’s really a disheartening representation of the ignorance that so many young WOC in the UK still face, so it’s clear that further education is needed so as not to normalise it any further.

There’s nothing wrong with women, regardless of race, wanting casual sex, but the culture itself is flawed, and I believe, stacked against women of colour especially.

I also look forward to the future, when some of us can become parents and hopefully create safer, more open spaces for topics like this - for our children to be reminded of their worth from a young age, and feel more comfortable talking about sex.

I think maybe, to help prevent some of the standard negatives of hookup culture, it would be best to start at the start.