Truthfully, I’m not sure I’m in the same place right now, but I’ll let you know if things change. Hope you have an awesome summer! See ya.

I couldn’t breathe the moment I got the text. I had never expressed my feelings for someone, let alone for someone I had a physical relationship with. Throughout the duration of this hookup, I convinced myself that I was capable of not developing feelings for someone I was having sex with. When I finally acknowledged my emotions and told him, this is how he responded. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why I felt devastated. But then I realized: I had failed to maintain the emotionless relationship that Penn hookup culture idealizes. 

My introduction to this culture began with my first kiss on a frat dance floor as my hallmates cheered me on. Within two months of moving into the Quad, I was avoiding former “DFMOs” on Locust Walk and swiping on Tinder during my study breaks. Like many other freshmen, I was thrown into this new world with no former experience in physical relationships and with no expectations as to how people should act once involved in these relationships. Since then, I’ve had to navigate this culture of casual and emotionless hookups on my own.

Penn’s hookup culture has always been a source of internal conflict for me. In Catholic school, I was taught that premarital sex and birth control were sins. As a young woman now capable of having sexual relationships, I felt liberated and empowered to be confident in my own body. On the other hand, I also felt that this culture coerced me into fitting an expectation of behavior while having these sexual relationships. Through casual chats with friends and overheard conversations on campus, I got the idea that everyone is expected to either have a consistent hookup or is looking for someone new. Once I began to follow this behavior and started hooking up with people, I learned how to act from the words and actions of my partners. I learned from a hookup’s story of his roommate ghosting a girl to avoid how she felt about him that you shouldn’t express any degree of “feelings.” I was also taught to separate yourself from that hookup unless in the context of sex, something I learned through minimal interaction outside of those “what are you up to” texts.

Over time, I conditioned myself to accept these cultural norms. I began to accept being ignored by hookups by day and patiently waited for effortless late–night texts most weekends. I was so eager to uphold the image of being “chill” that I began to bottle up every emotion that dealt with the people I was hooking up with, even to a point of intense anxiety. I was unable to focus in class, withdrew from social situations, and used sex as a means of coping. I also began to think that whatever happened in your hookup situation was outside of your control, and you had to accept it for what it was. When I finally acknowledged and expressed that I had developed feelings for a partner, the denial I received turned into personal devastation. I thought I had done everything right in denying my emotions, maintaining a casual relationship for a full semester, and enthusiastically replying to every text and invite. How could I end up hurt despite behaving how I thought I was expected to? That final message that said “That’s hard to say in person, I get it…I’m not sure I’m in the same place right now” was more of a reflection of my own failure to fit in with hookup culture’s expectation of emotionless behavior than of unrequited feelings.

I only felt the effects of these emotions when forced to confront them with the arrival of summer. With few distractions, I constantly reevaluated my situation and labeled myself as the cause of my own depression. I convinced myself that it wasn’t valid to feel hurt and that I would have been better off if I hadn’t ever expressed that I had feelings for another person. Something that once made me feel liberated and excited instead left me feeling idiotic and used.

It was through a combination of early morning runs around the Baltimore Harbor, repeated plays of SZA’s Ctrl, and a rejuvenating trip home to California that I was able to come to terms with the culture I found so detrimental. I developed a newfound confidence and called myself “Isaballer” as a means of reminding myself that no one I knew or hooked up with had the power to make myself feel like anything less. Once I returned to campus I reconnected with old friends, reactivated my Tinder account, and created a Spotify playlist called “Passing old hookups on Locust.” This new confidence helped me to perform well in my classes and to even try something new by joining a sorority. As I also re–entered the hookup culture, I thought this confidence helped me to finally fit the standard of being able to have casual hookups and come out feeling nothing. I felt as though I had finally mastered something that used to be so damaging—at least until I began to develop feelings for someone else.

I want to have someone to blame for this toxic culture. I’ve even tried creating a “men ain’t shit” reminder on my phone. In reality, I’m also complicit in this culture. I’ve observed that most people end up hurting others without even realizing they are doing so, which only makes the other feel that their emotions are not valid. It has happened to me multiple times, and I suspect I’ve done the same to others. No one comes to Penn with the intention of using and disrespecting others for the motive of sex. It is something we learn from each other and something we can change through our own actions.

I’ve found that I have to demand the respect I know I deserve, no matter how difficult it is. You have to express what you want, whether it be during a hookup, in defining a relationship, or even in telling someone how much they hurt you. The only reason it’s viewed as weird to be honest and upfront about your emotions is because it’s so uncommon within these norms which we uphold. I am by no means an expert in hookup culture or relationships, but I’ve come to understand that while being honest and direct is terrifying, it can help you to find your confidence and your worth. All of this is not to say that I’ve mastered the culture around me. I still come out of hookups feelings used, I am treated below what I know I deserve, and I have issues that still need to be confronted. But in already coming so far, I know I’ll find someone who will give me their all. Until then, I’m doing pretty baller on my own.

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