The Legend of the Blue Light: Sunday Mornings and Hookup Culture on a Small Campus

Names have been changed to protect the identities of sources, due to the sensitive nature of this topic.

Fresh out of the orientation class AlcoholEdu, Allison spent an early night at Colby smoking marijuana in a third-floor dorm in Hillside. With no upperclassmen, no course schedules, no friends and high expectations, the first years interrogated one another and bragged as they smoked.

She remembers one boy questioning whether or not the other first years in the hall were virgins. He later claimed that he thought he’d be the first to bring a girl back to his room.

“He hasn’t been that lucky,” Allison said. “My roommate told me she’s hooked up more than he has.”

Sarah, another first years, says “a lot of people come into college just looking to have a good time and hook up with a lot of people. But I think it prevents meaningful relationships and friendships.”

She adds that she can hardly call herself a critic; she’s been keeping a log of guys she’s hooked up with, and seems to keep hooking up with partygoers who don’t even attend Colby.

“Accidentally,” she clarifies, “and I have no idea if that’s normal.”

First years at Colby are only just starting to confront parties and hookups as an aspect of weekend life here. But many of them remain ignorant of a long running fable: The Legend of the Blue Light. Passed down from class to class, at least for several decades, it states that the blue light atop Miller will go off once a virgin graduates. (There’s a punchline to this tale; the light has never gone off).

The legend says something about Colby, and the combined party and hookup culture can make the phenomenon difficult to deconstruct. But, it’s perfectly clear that Colby students are having sex—casual, drunken, and noncommittal sex. And, there are aspects of Colby that make this both normal and easy.

Colby is unique because it is not a larger and less isolated college where parties tend to occur in more spaces and can be more exclusive, particularly at schools that support greek life. Instead, Colby has the “sardine can that is the Alfond Apartments,” comments Cameron, a sophomore. “Because at Colby, due to some sort of state and school regulation, we shut things down at 1 a.m., when everyone is still in the same place. So around 1 a.m., people start sectioning off, because you have your pick of almost anyone on campus.”

There are other eccentricities specific to hookup culture on a small, isolated, and elite campus. When communities are as close as Colby, it can be easy to feel awkward, manipulated, or as though your sexual history can easily become everyone’s business by the next morning.

“There’s an almost emotionally abusive aspect to it,” ponders Jaya, a sophomore. “You can have a compelling conversation with anyone on this campus, and everyone is interesting and smart. Even in a ‘meaningless hookup’ there’s usually some sort of meaningful interaction. But then nothing happens and you’re supposed to ignore the person or they ignore you. And you feel manipulated.”

Jaya takes a little while to compose her thoughts, but manages to name the experience. “It’s a liberal arts hookup,” she says.

There’s a perception that hookup culture is new, or has increased over time, or that, in some way, millennial youths are corrupting sex somehow. But, the liberal arts themselves also have a fair amount to do with hookups. Despite what the apartments on a Saturday night may display, there’s a perception in academia that hookup culture may not even exist, or at least not such an increasingly pervasive way. Students in the 21st century are having no more sex in college than their parents did in the 80s, and may even be having less. While there may have been changes in both sexual behaviors and attitudes in the past few decades, a new paper published by the American Sociological Association found “no evidence that would support the proposition that there is a new or pervasive ‘hookup culture’ among college students.”

Martin Monto and Anna Carey, who co-authored the paper, found that students attending college from 2002 to 2010 weren’t having sex more frequently than students who attended college in the late 80s-early 90s, nor were they changing partners more frequently than before. The younger the students evaluated, the less likely they were to have sex once or more a week. The only thing that seemed to have changed was that students were more likely to have sex with a casual date or friend—the “hookup.”

As Monto and Carey pointed out, the most significant change was in the narrative which surrounded hookup culture. From 2000 to 2006, the researchers wrote, the words “hookup culture” appeared in “only a handful” of publications. But, from 2007 to 2013, hookup culture was named 80 times in articles from six databases of scholarly articles, suggesting that hookup culture hysteria may be fueled by shoddy reporting and scholarship, rather than actual behavior.

It can be a comfort to realize that not everyone engages in hookup culture, or that hookup culture at Colby doesn’t mean young people have lost the fulfilling dating relationships of generations past. But hookups are still pervasive, and still define weekends for many students on campus (whether they participate in those hookups or not).

There are also negative aspects to the hookup culture that deserve mentioning. Unfortunately, it can make partying a more difficult task for women on campus. “Sometimes it can be hard to go out with the intent of having fun and be accosted by masculinity,” says Jay. “Sexual assault doesn’t only happen to women, but we still carry a lot of that burden,” she adds.

It’s not unusual to hear stories of male students disparaging female students at parties, or coming on too strong or in unwelcome ways. Many Colby women tell stories of “rescuing” an inebriated friend from a persistent admirer, attempting to “take care” of them. Even with the best intent among a strong, kind student body replete with Sexual Violence Prevention Educators, a culture that on occasion combines both alcohol and aggressive masculinity can create an unsafe environment, not to mention an exclusive one.

“Because of masculinity, if there are queer hookups [between girls] guys will sexualize it,” adds Jay. She recounts a time she was making out with a girl in a crowd at a party, only to be interrupted by a boy yelling into her ear.

“There are great people at Colby who strive to make sure everyone stays safe. But hookup culture allows people to get away with things that are not okay.”

Even in completely consensual hookups, Colby students often find hooking up with acquaintances difficult for other reasons. “There’s no communication,” says Adam, a junior. “you’re afraid to talk to the person or ask for what you want at all.”

Cameron adds, “If someone says ‘is this okay?’ you tell your friends about it later because it feels so nice, when really that should be normal.”

She continues with a belief heard less than it’s held at Colby: “Honestly? Hookup culture is not for me. I have a lot of feelings.” Her friends laugh, and display at the very least what Colby aims for in its culture; acceptance, regardless of our choices: to go out, to hookup, to keep detailed journals of sexual partners or to take vows of chastity and join the nearest nunnery upon graduation.

And regardless of the general virginity of the Colby campus, one can only hope that the light atop Miller remains blue. How else will first years find the library?