Friends with benefits?

Recently, I came upon a tweet that stuck with me longer than the three seconds it took to read. It said, "High School: How long do we have to date before we can have sex? College: How long do we have to have sex before we can date?"

At first, I chuckled and thought to myself, "So true." But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn’t just a minor joke created for entertainment purposes or retweets. It was indicative of the ways in which our culture is (and has been) changing.

It’s no secret that we’re living in a college “hookup culture” and that the previous generations disapprove. Rather than making a judgment and deciding whether or not our ever-changing culture is correct or incorrect, I began to speculate. How are our sex lives and relationships changing? How has the overlap between sex and dating shifted? Why is it that the dynamics of sex and relationships shift so dramatically the moment we enter college?

Granted, the hookup culture is gradually trickling down toward high school kids, but it’s curious to me that we’re expected to adjust to the general college lifestyle a few months after graduating high school. I’m not implying that everyone suddenly becomes completely “DTF.” However, there’s no denying the shift in students' attitudes toward sex.

Perhaps this widespread increase in acceptance of unhindered sexual activity is due to the fact that we acquire a renewed sense of anonymity upon entering college. In high school, there’s a limited number of people and while you may begin as a freshman that nobody knows, by the time you’re a senior you’ve had the opportunity to develop a reputation.

All of this changes when you enter a university with, say, 20,000 students. Although you may still have to face your friends if you do something sexually wild, you don't have to face the entire school. Even if you did, most people wouldn't care because they have no personal connection with you and because they've probably already heard of something “worse.”

Another factor may be that we feel we’re adults and that hooking up is what adults do. TV shows such as “Jersey Shore” and “The Real World” frequently depict young adults getting hammered and hooking up. An active sex life with people you may or may not know begins to seem normal. Adults have sex and we’re adults. The logic isn’t hard to follow.

Terms such as "friends with benefits" have increased, and instead of defining the terms, we allow them to define us. Do we allow popular culture to influence our behavior and mentality? Why is it that magazines such as Cosmopolitan have articles about an acronym that addresses a pending relationship status (DTR = Define The Relationship)?

There used to be either “single” or “taken.” Now, many of us exist in this relationship purgatory where we’re neither someone's significant other nor free to pursue another individual for romantic or sexual purposes. Sometimes we struggle to administer a “label,” but other times we insist that labels aren't necessary. If we’re “talking'” to someone or “have a thing” with another person, we aren't supposed to hook up with anyone else, but if we do, it still isn't considered cheating because we “weren’t really together anyway.”

We aren't allowed to express a little healthy jealousy without seeming uncool, as though we don't understand the concept of an “open relationship.” Are we then denying ourselves the freedom to feel? Is this healthy?

On the other hand, these lightweight relationships have provided a gateway to admitting we care for someone without feeling too much pressure. We have a trial period where we can test the waters without entirely breaking someone's hell-bent heart. Of course, mixing sex into the equation is a potential recipe for confusion and miscommunication.

We attach different meanings to sex based on who we are and how we feel about it. It seems silly that we have people sitting around wondering whether or not they’re in a relationship based on their sexual partners, but it’s a reality that we face.

Situations like these force us to examine our own lives and form our own ideas about what constitutes a relationship and how we will choose to conduct our own romantic and sexual lives.

Although we face the possibility of ending up in relationship purgatory, we’re also presented an opportunity to learn and make decisions about where our boundaries lie and how we will live our lives. Perhaps it’s also a chance to improve our communication skills as well as learn to recognize our emotions rather than deny them simply because they don’t fit a social construction of what one should feel and when. Emotions are, after all, what keep us human.

Chloe Donnelly is a junior justice studies and sociology double major. Contact Chloe at donnelcn@dukes.jmu.edu.