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From spooning to hooking up (Apr. 95)

The amorous activities of Yale students have gone by many different names over the years, from “spooning” to “petting” to “necking” to “making out.” The latest variation on this age-old theme is “hooking up,” a term which, in current collegiate parlance, can mean anything from an occasional kiss, to a one-night stand, to a prolonged sexual relationship. It is the very ambiguity of the term, in fact, that makes it so useful to college students: Its elastic definition suits the amorphous nature of their relationships. “Hook-up” gives a name to affiliations that stubbornly resist classification. The expression is a verbal shrug, a dismissal of the expectations and conventions that attend more traditional words like “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” or “going out.”

The term “hook-up” aptly describes the casual nature of most Yalies’ sexual trysts, which are usually no more profound or permanent than hooking up a computer or a stereo. The cool, almost clinical tone of the words suggests the impersonality of such encounters; “hooking up” has none of the illicit eroticism of “necking” or the exuberant carnality of “making out.” A hook-up is just that—a momentary connection, a flowing of sexual energies along a briefly opened circuit. No sticky intimacies, no tangled embraces, just a flick of the sexual switch (commitment not included). Call it a hook-up and run.

For all its putative nonchalance, however, the modern-day hook-up isn’t quite so heartless as it seems. Yalies, who pride themselves on their careful skepticism and sense of irony, simply have trouble checking their cynicism at the bedroom door. They cast a wary eye on the excesses of passion, and are universally allergic to sentimentality. In a perplexing reversal of traditional mores, sex at Yale is a highly acceptable topic of conversation, talked about openly and freely, while romance is a taboo subject, not discussed in polite company. Not for nothing is Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” one of the more popular songs on the Naples jukebox. But there’s a wistfulness beneath such bravado, a longing for attachment and connection. Hook-ups provide that contact, if only for a night.

That the joy of hook-ups has its limitations is revealed by the language used to describe the amorous activities of couples (of which there are several at Yale, campus lore to the contrary notwithstanding). What they do behind closed doors is never called hooking up. They may cuddle, kiss, even have sex—but please, don’t call it “making love.” Somebody might get the wrong idea.

Filed under dating, 1990s
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