The lightbulb moment could have been when a guy he just met did cocaine off his arm at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. Or it may have been a few hours later, at sunrise, when he realized he was fucking a stranger from Grindr while a handful of other college students were passed out next to them in the living room. Or maybe it was the lethal hangover besieging his body when he rushed, sleepless, to his 9 a.m. class, only to be admonished by his professor for not trying hard enough.
But ultimately, Dillon Johnson says, his wake-up call was a sobering family meeting. He was in the middle of sophomore year at Arizona State University when his grandparents, who had been paying for his living expenses and tuition, began to have financial problems. Up until that point, he’d been doing “what you’re supposed to do” at ASU—partying three or four nights a week, having enough casual sex that his friends playfully called him “Slutty Dillon.” Now it was dawning on him that he’d have to pay his own way through college. Suddenly, drunken hookups seemed like cash down the drain.
“I started to think of every single class as something that costs money,” he says. After that night, he thought, “Let me not fuck up my education.”
The fantasy of being a college student in America is that your parents will send you off to a capsule of academia, where you'll spend your days learning and your nights partying—which, of course, leads to sex. ASU, a fixture on top party school lists in Playboy and the Princeton Review, is exactly the kind of university that typifies the “hookup culture” middle-aged journalists are so concerned about. For the school’s 23% of out-of-state students who can afford the nearly $24,000 tuition, it’s a place not only to get a degree, but to embrace their newfound freedom by going out and making out.
Then there’s the half of ASU’s student body who rely on need-based financial aid to afford the $9,500 in-state price tag. These students have more important things to worry about than boozy sex. They’re hyper-aware of every dollar they’re putting toward credits or trying to hold onto their scholarships. Some of them are working full time. Some of them are living at home to save the more than $10,000 ASU charges for room and board. And to the hundreds of thousands of students attending Maricopa County’s community colleges, “campus life” isn’t even a thing; they go to class, take notes, and head home. They may take four or six or 10 years to complete their degree because, for these students, life tends to get in the way.
“The media narrative of hookup culture is all centered around unlimited time and money and activities that require independence from family,” says Rachel Allison, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who led a study on this topic. It’s not that working-class students don’t have sex at all, they’re just having a lot fewer of the alcohol-soaked, no-strings-attached rendezvous that take place in a hedonistic, privileged campus bubble. “Hookup culture is also party culture,” Allison says, and “the logistics alone” of being a low-income student—of commuting, of working—“are a really big barrier to their social lives.”
Technically, love and sex don’t cost a thing. But on a bacchanalian campus like ASU, it’s hard to overstate the cockblocking power of a working-class life.
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ASU is the land of sex and parties lol,” a 21-year-old blond Californian Tinder match named Austen assures me. He then lists the bars to go to on Tempe’s Mill Avenue, a Bourbon Street-like strip that Dillon and several other people describe as “raunchy”: Whiskey Row, El Hefe, Gringo Star Street Bar, each with a douchier name than the last. On a recent Saturday night, Gringo Star is full of college students sipping oversized drinks and bumping to top 40, while Iggy Azalea rubs her butt against J. Lo’s on a flat-screen TV. The uniform is plaid collared shirts for guys, jean cutoff shorts and wedges for ladies. Several people I meet there confirm what Austen said: If you want to get some ass, you go to Mill Avenue.
“It’s kind of a meat market,” admits Sydney*, who's wearing a huge, gauzy hat after just having won second place at a Kentucky Derby costume contest. She semi-fondly remembers her first frat party during freshmen orientation, where she was handcuffed by several brothers. They plunged the key down a bottle of champagne, demanding she drink it all. (She now admits that was “a little sexist.”)
Sydney estimates that a typical night out in Tempe costs her $60 or $70, including a $30 surge-price Uber at the end of the night—“and that’s for a girl,” she adds. “Most girls get the stray free drink or two, or a free shot.”
A couple of hours earlier, about 20 miles away, Jessica Salas was spending a quiet night at her family’s house in Tolleson, Arizona, a small working-class suburb that’s 80% Hispanic. On my drive from downtown Phoenix to Tolleson, chain-store sprawl gives way to dusty land ribboned with lush green patches and then to rows of modest houses. Mariachi music and Spanish hip-hop float out of cars and backyards. Jessica’s doorbell is nestled in a tiny gold cross.
Jessica has lived in Tolleson since she was nine years old, when her family moved from California’s San Fernando Valley after her dad lost his job and heard about an opportunity in tile manufacturing. She went to a magnet high school and worked her ass off in AP classes and a student club that helped raise funds for developing countries. She didn’t apply to out-of-state schools because she didn’t think her family could afford the application fees, let alone the costs of living out of state. (And she didn’t get much guidance when it came to scholarships or grants.)
So when Jessica got into three state schools, she chose ASU because it was close to home and it offered to pay for two-thirds of her tuition. Now 19, she just completed her first year of college while living under the strict rules of her Catholic parents.
“It’s not like I wouldn’t want to live in the dorms,” she says. “I would have more autonomy that way, not be locked up here on the weekends. Just can’t afford it.”
To Mill Avenue’s mainstays, Jessica’s daily routine is unrecognizable: She’s up at 7:30 a.m. every day and doesn’t return from campus until 7 or 8 at night. She doesn’t have a car, so she takes an hour-long bus ride from her parents’ house to ASU’s downtown campus. She doesn’t go out on the weekends because she has chores to do at home and volunteers with a grassroots environmental group called Chispa. She has school friends she made through TRIO, a federal program that supports low-income students, but she doesn’t talk to anyone in her classes because “I don’t really have much in common with them.”
As for hookups, Jessica doesn’t have them. She wasn’t allowed to date until recently, and she just had her first relationship this year with a guy she knew from high school. But it never really got physical. The whole thing makes her nervous.
“It’s not my priority,” she says. “I would like to have intimate connections with people, but not right now.”
Jessica is surely more chaste than most—even though there’s evidence that students of color hook up less than white students, they still do it two or three times during their college years, according to Lisa Wade, author of the forthcoming book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. (That may sound like a low number, Wade says, but the entire conversation around “hooking up” is outsized; it’s really just a small proportion of students having lots of casual sex, presumably the ones with the most time and resources on their hands.)
Still, Jessica represents how alienated many working-class students can feel in colleges with wealthier students. Unlike Dillon, who saw firsthand how ASU’s party culture threatened his education, Jessica avoids campus social life altogether. And that hurts her academically. If you’re isolated, Wade says, “you don’t know which teachers are good, which teachers grade easily, what awards you might be able to apply to. There are lot of opportunities that you miss.”
By forgoing the party scene, Jessica also misses out on gaining what Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton call “erotic status” in their book Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Partying hard while looking hot keeps a woman on the social radar, and a strong network of people with social capital means better jobs and internships. Students who, say, join Greek life (another cost-prohibitive activity) have a ready-made career pipeline when they graduate.
On the other hand, Jessica is right to be wary of this scene. If you’re upper-to-middle class, chances are you’ll end up fine even if you skip a few classes, waste time on Tinder, or spend weekends partying til dawn and nursing your hangovers. But for low-income students whose parents aren’t footing the bill, every misstep is money out of their pockets.
“If you’re a working-class student that’s pulled into the party scene, your grades suffer, which wouldn’t matter if your mom is going to make sure you get a good job afterwards,” Wade says. “You kind of have to be squeaky clean to get through college if you’re coming out of an adverse circumstance.”
The stakes are simply far higher if, like Jessica, you’re a first-generation college student and that degree may be the only way you’ll improve your lot in life. Working-class, risk-averse students—Armstrong and Hamilton call them the “strivers”—are a lot less likely to throw it all away for a series of one-night Tinder flings.
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Jessica is reminded every day of the social life she’s missing out on. But there’s a whole other group of students who are even less connected to campus life. There are around 10 million students enrolled in community colleges in the United States, more than one-third of the country’s undergrads, who only set foot on campus to attend class. For them, college isn’t a social or sexual hub; the hooking up that does happen is usually with people they know from their jobs or high schools or neighborhood.
On a recent Friday evening, I meet three of these students in a sparsely furnished ranch-style house in a northwest Phoenix neighborhood. The house belongs to Pedro Lopez, who I’ve known for years. When I met him in 2010, he was a teenager fighting against Arizona’s anti-immigration law SB 1070. Now 23, he’s still an activist and a budding politician, but his education is on hold at the moment. He completed three semesters at Glendale Community College before he had two kids in quick succession and had to focus on making a living.
When I asked him to introduce me to other community college students in Arizona, he connected me with Rocio Castruita and Kendra Pastrano, both young parents who have similarly erratic college trajectories. They consider themselves “active students,” in that they take a few classes for a semester, work for a while to save up for tuition, then rinse and repeat. This staggered experience is pretty typical for working-class undergrads. Unlike the students you'd find within the bubble of Tempe’s campus, college for people like Pedro, Rocio, and Kendra is something to work at whenever there’s time, not an immersive experience concentrated into four years.
That night, we all sit on a gigantic sectional couch with glasses of water while their kids play outside in the yard. Both Pedro and Rocio had their children mid-college, in that accidentally-on-purpose way—“Whatever happens, happens,” Pedro remembers thinking when he and his girlfriend forwent protection. It’s an approach most ASU party kids wouldn’t even fathom.
Kendra, on the other hand, enrolled in college at 20 to give her daughter a better life. She’s been chipping away at her education for the last six years at Estrella Mountain Community College, squeezing in classes at night while working 40 hours a week, first as a caretaker and then as a health technician. She hasn’t been back since the fall, but is planning to re-enroll soon.
“I did go on dates and met people from around, but never from school,” she says. Her fellow students are “all like me—they work all day, they’re older…they didn’t want to get out of classes and hang out. We all had lives.”
For most of the last six years she lived at home with her mom, her stepdad, her two younger siblings, and her daughter. The full house put a crimp in her social life.
“I wasn’t going to take a person home where my family was, because that’s kind of creepy,” she says. To her, “hookup culture” means “a random person who I just met at a party and now we’re in a bedroom somewhere sleeping together.” She’s never done that. The few casual sex partners she’s had are all people she knows through mutual friends. The father of her child was never around consistently, and died three years ago.
Rocio, 29, is also raising her child pretty much on her own. She got her associates’ degree after six years at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, then started taking online classes here and there through Northern Arizona University. She wound up putting those classes on hold a few years ago because it was “too pricey”—nearly $3,000 per class. (She was undocumented, and it was before DACA allowed students like her to pay in-state tuition.) “I got to the point where I was discouraged…my bachelor’s was just going to have to wait for a while,” she says. As for her dating life, it “wasn’t that great. I did date here and there but it was mostly guys I knew from the past.” For a while she was off and on with her son’s father, but he was struggling with drug addiction and got deported back to Mexico for a few years. Even now, he only sees their kid every other weekend.
Rocio remembers feeling acute envy when she had to decline other students’ invites to go to the Flagstaff bars, or when she drove through NAU’s bustling terracotta campus on her way to Coconino. “I was very, very annoyed with other college students,” she says. “I had a lot of resentment for these privileged kids. I felt like we couldn’t connect. I thought, ‘You guys are probably getting your parents paying for your school, and here I am alone with my baby.’”
Both Rocio and Kendra estimate that they’ve had casual sex with maybe three or four people in the last several years. “I work a lot, I help my son with school,” Rocio says. “I really don’t have the time.” Eventually Kendra did get her own apartment and brought a few lovers home, but afterwards she thought, “‘Oh my god, what the heck, what’s wrong with me? What was I thinking?’ I kind of felt ashamed.” She blames it on “Latinos being conservative about that type of thing.”
Latina students living at home tend to be subjected to extra moral scrutiny compared to their male counterparts. Pedro didn’t have that problem. Before he had his kids, he had some casual sex and didn’t feel bad about it. (He also felt like he partied a good amount in high school, a sentiment echoed by Rocio and Kendra; some of their parents worked nights, after all.)
But even though Pedro had more freedom, hooking up wasn’t so much a lifestyle as a rare respite from the grind. Mostly he kept his head down, balancing college, work at a pharmaceutical delivery company, and political organizing. He was sleeping three or four hours a night and didn’t have time for an active social life. “I was an old person trapped into a 19-year-old body,” Pedro says. He knew two girls from high school who had moved out of town—one in Los Angeles, one in the border town of Mexicali—and would steal away for intense weekends of sex and partying. But then it was back to his grownup problems at his dad’s house, where he helped pay the rent.
“I wanted to go to the dorms and be away from the house,” he says. But “Glendale didn’t have that opportunity and ASU was so expensive that I would rather save the money and put it somewhere else.”
And he did—into his burgeoning family. Once his now-wife Alessandra got pregnant and they decided to keep the baby, school was on hold. He had to concentrate on being a breadwinner. Weekend trysts and house parties now seem a million miles away.
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When I met with Dillon at ASU, he was days from graduating and in reflection mode. He told me that after he “woke up” from a life of hooking up and partying, he started working 50 hours a week at two jobs—as a graphic designer on campus for $11 an hour and at the help desk of a payment processing center for $15 an hour. He went from going out a few times a week to a few times a month. He made a new set of friends who were more serious about their studies.
By the time his senior year rolled around, Dillon was hooking up with people occasionally, mostly through Grindr, but didn’t have much energy to devote to it and didn’t have much time for a relationship, either. “There were some times I tried to make [a relationship] work, but they would say, ‘You’re too involved with school, you don’t have time for me,’” he says.
He’s glad he finally buckled down and made friends who motivated him to do well in class. And most of these new friends were also paying their way through school, so they could relate. But he still had a few wealthier kids in his crew whose parents covered all their bills, who seemed just a little more carefree stumbling down Mill Avenue.
“Those friends get to have more of a crazier time,” he says, both at the bars and in the bedroom. He adds, a bit wistfully: “I was like that, too.”
*declined to give her real name due to the debaucherous nature of her frat party memory.