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Navigating Consent: Rape myths and hookup culture

By Bianca Valle

As a survivor of sexual assault, I’ve often felt conflicted over my experience. The thing is films and tv tend to present rape and sexual assault in a very limited way. There’s a mainstream image of a male aggressor taking advantage of a defenseless female, presenting rape and sexual assault as something that’s obvious. But obviously, it is not. Rape myths are stereotypical and usually false beliefs about sexual assault; they tend to validate gender norms in presenting women as the gatekeepers of their bodies, while simultaneously depicting males as the sole aggressors. However, all sexual assault experiences are not the same. Sexual assault is a spectrum, meaning that it can be manifested in so many different ways; all experiences of assault can be harmful and traumatic. Society’s failure to recognize the multitude of ways in which sexual assault can occur leaves many survivors, such as myself, questioning their own experiences. Now, as a sophomore in college, I realize how this narrow view on sexual assault is far more prominent.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I recognized how many people identified themselves with the hookup culture. A lot of this has to do with status and being accepted by peers. Also, the idea of having sex with someone without commitment is really intriguing for some. The act of “hooking up,” in my eyes, is not inherently bad. However, without proper knowledge of the lines of consent and rape myths, hookups can leave room for harm. I wanted to investigate the correlation between rape culture and hookup culture on college campuses; I wanted to figure out how they are both a part of the patriarchal system we live in.

After much research I came across a study conducted by Timothy T. Reling, Sarah Becker, Michael S. Barton, and Matthew A. Valasik[1] from the Department of Sociology in Louisiana State University. They too wanted to investigate the relationship between hookup culture and the epidemic of rape across college campuses. They conducted research with 422 undergraduate students at a U.S. southern flagship university. Out of the 422 undergrads, 299 were women and 123 were men. They asked these students various questions that would help them assess the extent to which these students believe in rape myths, their endorsement of hookup culture and how the two correlate. Their results were scary.

A common belief among these students was that hookups were harmless, and this belief was often associated with higher levels of rape myth acceptance among them. What was even more alarming was that this correlation and set of beliefs were not specific to one gender, it was widely shared by both men and women. The researchers made a thought-provoking observation about these findings. While sex without strings attached may seem very liberating, hooking up still had deep ties within oppressive patriarchal structures. The researchers explained that “this aspect of hookup culture probably best captures the gender inequity embedded in mainstream sexual scripts/norms.” There was a mutual understanding between the men and women of the study that men’s social status elevated after hooking up, while women faced a negative mark against their status. As the researchers themselves pointed out, “ hookup culture largely reinforces sexism… rather than challenging inequality…It benefits men more than women.” While this study focused more on the gendered aspect of the correlation between hookup culture and rape myths, I believe it’s important to consider the way other power dynamics are at play here. It’s safe to assume that racial, heteronormative, and ableist structures may also dictate who benefits- and who doesn’t benefit- from hooking up. It may be that our status in society as a whole tends to determine our status if we were to participate in hookup culture.

While I do support all genders who choose to participate in the hookup culture, it’s important to recognize the way in which it reproduces unequal structures. The fear of saying “no” is often carried by people who are disadvantaged in the power dynamic present in that current situation. A reality some of us know all too well is the fear of saying “no” when we feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation. The power dynamics at play within patriarchal structures, tend to make us feel as though we can’t say “no”; so we manifest our denial in different ways. Perhaps we vocalize that uncertainty through an “I’m not sure” or an “I don’t know,” and if that’s been the case for you then you aren’t alone. Looking back at my own experience I wonder, “Did I ever consent?” or “Why didn’t I stop it?” The line of consent is so obscured and it’s important that we know that, as survivors, it isn’t our fault. The lack of clarity in the line of consent is so poorly acknowledged that it leaves room for uncertainty and “bad experiences,” as opposed to communication and better sexual encounters. Consent should be taught and learned more concisely. The more we learn to pay attention to whether or not someone has consented, the better we’ll be at understanding boundaries. Consent should be so air tight that it doesn’t leave sexual assault survivors wondering where they went wrong.

I often think about my own experience and how confused I was about what truly happened; to this day I struggle with the possibility that I was raped. It’s important that we all begin to unlearn the rape myths that lead to and reflect rape culture. It’s important that we begin to challenge the structures that allow for the line of consent to be as foggy as it is for many. Ideally, hooking up can be liberating; but as long as it—and our beliefs and judgement about men’s and women’s sexuality—is ingrained in patriarchal norms, it can never be free from harm.

[1] Timothy T. Reling, Sarah Becker, Michael S. Barton, and Matthew A. Valasik (2017). Rape Myths and Hookup Culture: An Exploratory Study of U.S. College Students’ Perceptions. Sex Roles.

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