From 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays.
You can read all the essays in this series here.
I have suggested in a previous blog that many teenagers feel under greater academic pressure and this has contributed to more instrumental orientations and actions. For instance, many students display a greater concern with grades.
This move toward instrumentalism has not only affected the academic areas of school life, however. There has also been a decline in notions of romance. Dating—in the sense of one person expressing a romantic interest in another by asking them out to a specific event—is less common than in the past. Instead, mixed gender groups hang out together, which may or may not include going to a specific event together. Instead of formal dating, couples “hook up.”
A fieldworker reports:
I asked Ashley about the dating culture, and she said that there was not a whole lot of serious relationships at the high school. She said this was certainly the case within her own group, and thought it applied to most groups at the school as well. Ashley said most of the dating culture at the school consisted of “pretty casual hook ups.”
The term “hook up” does not necessarily mean sexual intercourse per se, but usually implies some kind of sexual behavior. National survey data report that 18 percent of male and 13 percent of female high school students report that they have had sex with four or more people. Nearly 50 percent of 15–19 year olds report that they have had oral sex with an opposite sex partner. Sociologist Danielle Currier refers to the use of this term “hook up” as deliberate “strategic ambiguity.” It offers more sexual freedom, but the ambiguity of the term helps protects the participants from negative labels (e.g., “slut,” “ho,” “user,” “SOB,” “predator”).
Sexual relationships have become more a matter of explicit exchange rather than implicit exchange; more of a short-term contract and less of a covenant. This is reflected not only in the relationships themselves, but also in the ideology and language used to describe them. And, of course, the degree to which this shift has taken place can vary significantly.
It is important not to see hooking up as necessarily a cultural decline from a superior morality or to see “dating” as “natural.” Cultures and periods have varied significantly in what they considered the appropriate and legitimate way to organize erotic relationships. In most pre-modern agrarian societies, parents and other adult members of the family played central roles in arranging marriages and liaisons. Young people might or might not be consulted. Often marriage was a form of alliance and entered into for economic or political purposes.
In Consuming the Romantic Utopia, Eva Illouz has shown that “dating” was once a new social form that replaced “calling upon” a young woman at the family home. The shift to dating was closely linked to increasing levels of disposable income, the commercialization of entertainment, new forms of physical mobility such as the automobile, higher levels of individualism, and, more generally, to the rise of consumer capitalism. Similarly, there are technological, social, and cultural sources of “hooking up.” It is closely linked to a variety of ideologies such as gender equality, the legitimacy of pleasure, and freedom of choice. These notions, especially the latter one, are closely associated with the taken-for-granted legitimacy of the market as the core institution of capitalist societies and the ideologies that defend this assumption.
To point out that there have been alternative ways of forming and maintaining intimacy is not to lapse into a complete relativism. The key empirical point, however, is that the ideology of what is considered as the “normal” intimate relationship for teenagers (and many young adults) has shifted away from romanticism and toward a more explicit instrumentalism.
Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.