Shag Week 2022: A Chance to Re-Think College Sex Culture?

Image Credit: Deon Black via Pexels

Eve Moore looks back on SHAG Week at UCD, and discusses contemporary sex culture across college campuses and its potential issues with sexual health advocate Robbie Lawlor

From events like clay boob sculpting, rodeo penis riding, sexy pub quizzes, and BDSM workshops, to live panel discussions and plays on consent, SHAG (Sexual Health Awareness & Guidance) Week 2022 at UCD proved itself to be yet another successful year.

UCDSU Entertainments Officer Ciara Moroney stated that the focus of this year’s event was about “Having open conversations about consent, STI’s, and pleasure… We wanted to go out with a bang (no pun intended) and have activities that would appeal to all but also have an informative aspect. We filled the week with silly and entertaining events because we need to break down the stigma and fear around discussing these things.

We’re very aware that the standard of sex education in Irish secondary schools is low, so hopefully this gave students a boost of sexual health knowledge. We’ve also started a good conversation about where we need to go with SexEd in schools in Ireland at our panel discussion. As always, the UCDSU is here for every student if they have any questions”.

Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed a rise in positive efforts to promote sex education- be it Simon Harris implementing consent awareness workshops, advocative organisations like Active Consent and the recent roll-out of free home STI testing nationwide. With this ongoing shift in what was a previously neglected sexual awareness, it might seem as if we’ve finally ‘cracked the code’ with our progressive attitudes when it comes to addressing contemporary sex culture. But are we shying away from some often under-talked about realities of college hookup culture?

Ridiculous right? It’s not like our parents ever had such empowering initiatives like SHAG week, endless supplies of free condoms or free testing. But it’s also not like our parents ever had a plethora of dating apps, porn websites and a wave of media and culturally driven sexual norms. 

This being said, whilst the term ‘hookup’ only emerged in the 90s, casual sex culture isn’t new. The 60s and 70s laid the foundations for a major sexual revolution in Ireland leading to the national legalization of contraception in 1985 and the adoption of more open attitudes towards sex which could be seen through changes to media regulations and the Broadcasting Authority Act.

The university milieu has become a playground for sexual exploration today. With this comes great adventure, freedom and (obvious) pleasures. But it equally comes with some potentially sticky emotional and social consequences. Much of this stickiness comes down to expectations related to casual sex norms- expectations about what, when and how we should feel when we engage in the culture.

Ten years ago, terms like ‘ghosting’, ‘catching feels’ and many more didn’t exist. Language is a driver and mirror of cultural change. These terms represent contemporary norms and attitude shifts around casual sex and dating culture. They also represent a certain de-signification and de-sensitivity toward the concept of sex. Without a doubt, this shift has brought about many benefits and encouraged liberty in sexual pride. However, the potential cause for damage is in denying the vulnerability and intimacy around sex and brushing off potential psychological impacts of hookup culture.

Robbie Lawlor, a well-known national and international HIV advocate and co-founder of Access to Medicines Ireland says that the physical side is just one element of overall sexual wellbeing and points us toward the WHO’s comprehensive definition of positive sexual health- “Sexual Health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality”. When asked about modern college hookup culture, he explained that “Social media has accelerated and intensified the liberalisation of sex” and that “Adding drugs and alcohol into the mix during the college years can make things really messy”. 

“We’re now playing catch up with all of these societal shifts by education including de-stigmatization efforts in the socialisation process and by amplifying the inner dialogue about the sex we have. Consent is obviously an important part of this catching-up, but equally is the broader conversation related to positive sex practices”.

Lawlor’s advice for young students experimenting with casual sex today is simple, yet nonetheless impactful- “Ask yourself beforehand- why and do I really want this? During it- am I enjoying this? And afterwards, did I like that? Constantly communicate with your sexual partner and remember that whilst casual hookup culture paints this so-called ‘no strings attached’ narrative, there are always strings attached. When dealing with a human being, there will always be a connection, sense of intimacy and a commitment and this should always be respected”. He concludes his powerful guidance by illustrating that “All students need to make a vulnerable, personal and non-linear sexual journey; generally with the aim of leaving university better than when they came in- and sexual health is an important part of this”.

In 2017 Netflix released the documentary Liberated: A Sexual Revolution which delved further into some of the darker realities of the hookup culture generation and examines pop culture’s influence on gender scripts and its damaging repercussions on our behaviours and expectations around sex. The opening features a young spring break student nonchalantly stating that “sex is a commodity” whereas the ending takes a bleak turn revealing the sentencing of two male college students for sexual assault charges. “This is not an easy film to watch, nor is it for everyone. But it’s a necessary film to hold a mirror to our culture”, says Timothy Winterstein of Newport Beach Film Festival.

Today, the negative or commonly referred to ‘toxic’ behaviours and norms related to hookup culture have become normalised in pop culture by memes, TikToks and more. Yes, there is an actual playlist on Spotify titled ‘Hookup Culture Made Me a Bitch’. Not identifying with nor benefitting from certain aspects of hookup culture shouldn’t isolate nor should it marginalise anyone.

The built-up narrative of hookup college culture in the media encourages a sort of generational ‘FOMO’ when it comes to sexual experimentation during these years, but we need to remember that everyone is different and should be able to make individual, well-reflected choices. We need to ask ourselves some personal yet challenging questions like “Do I really find this liberalising?” or “Is the reality of this sexual encounter I’m engaging with really matching the expectations of hookup culture?”. Progress is without a doubt being made in Ireland for positive sex practices, yet we’re still faced with a consent crisis across third level institutions and this is arguably and scarily indicative of some abnormal, normalised sexual norms linked to heavy alcohol consumption.

By and large, hookup culture has led to some positive societal changes in progressive attitudes and new opportunities for sexual exploration and this isn’t something to be scorned or written off. What is to be challenged rather, is the prescription and acceptance of associated ‘toxic’ or abnormal norms and forgetting about the basic, yet vital, aspects of positive sexual health.