Preventing sexual assault among high school and college students requires a hard look at the dating and relationship culture prevalent among young adults.
While dating has steadily declined since the 2000s, especially among college students, hooking up has skyrocketed. A “hookup” is a purposefully vague term which refers to any casual sexual encounter, ranging from kissing to penetrative sex, with the primary commonality being that there can be no pursuant bonding or commitment. Not surprisingly, there is a connection between hookup culture and the sexual violence experienced by Americans, especially between the ages of 18 and 24. In fact, researchers point to the role it plays in facilitating and promoting sexual assault on college campuses.
Hookup culture is clearly not the only factor contributing to sexual assault. However, for college and high school students, it is impossible to have an honest conversation about sexual violence without addressing it. In fact, since relationships are such an integral factor of the human experience, the implications of the culture should be present in our discussions about youth mental health as well.
On March 31, the organization Launch, an affiliate of Lee’s Summit CARES, began a community conversation about hookup culture by presenting a screening of the film “Liberated,” a documentary that follows several students through their spring break experiences. After the film, researcher and author, Donna Freitas, led a discussion focused on the way in which media dictates culture through rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity. These mandates require men and women to view each other as objects for use and as a means toward accumulating social capital.
The audience explored the consequences for individuals and society as a whole. Not surprisingly, the post-event surveys confirmed in our local population what research indicates is happening on a larger scale: Hookup culture poses a real and present danger to the mental, physical and emotional health of young adults.
The film primarily focuses on college students’ journey, but our conversations with high school students reveal that they are already well acquainted with these cultural expectations. In fact, students at Summit Tech Academy produced a trailer for the event that offers an excellent window into their perspective.
To date, there is no formal research involving high school students, but we know they are eager to talk. They sound exactly like college students on this topic: dissatisfied with the roles they feel forced to play, roles that strip them of their dignity. Regardless of their feelings about casual sex, they yearn for authentic, mutually respectful, empathetic relationships, and they are eager to talk about it. Freitas encouraged students to become critical thinkers about relationships and dating.
As parents, teachers and healthcare providers, what sort of conversations can we facilitate that will encourage our students to think critically about who they want to be, in all facets of their being, including in their sexual lives? How can we encourage them to re-introduce humanity into their relationships? One strategy supported by Launch is to host small venue screenings of “Liberated,” followed by group discussion. These are simple to host, as the film can be viewed on Netflix by groups of less than 30.
Co-authors Andee Carr and Jenifer Martin are co-founders of the Lee’s Summit CARES affiliate, Launch. They are guest authors for the Health Education Advisory Board, a mayor-appointed, volunteer board that promotes and advocates community health by assessing health issues, educating the public and government agencies, developing plans to address health issues, encouraging partnerships and evaluating the outcomes.