Thesis Spotlight: Annika Nygren ’16 Explores “Hook-up Culture”

Annika Nygren ’16 was inspired to write her senior thesis on romance and intimacy on college campuses after studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. She often refers to her thesis as an exploration of “hookup culture” and its complex effects. I had the fortunate opportunity to sit down with Nygren and discuss her fascinating research and writing.

Q: How would you describe your thesis?
A: My thesis is a collection of short stories and essays that explore romance and intimacy, or the lack thereof, on college campuses today, in relation to my experience studying abroad in Madrid. The pieces delve into the nitty-gritty of “hookup culture” and touch upon the growth of technology, dating applications, parental relationships and influences, rape culture and sexual assault as well as the impact of former relationships today. It is a smorgasbord of genres and styles, but overall a creative space to discuss something that has shaped a great deal of my time at home and abroad during my four years here at Amherst.

Q: How did you come up with your thesis topic originally?
A: On the morning of my first day of classes while studying abroad in Madrid, a scene unfolded on the metro in front of me and baffled me. There I was, frantically double checking my map and consulting with my host sister about which stop to use to get off for school, when I looked up to see two grandparent-aged people hardcore making-out right in front of me. Initially, I was grossed out, confused and immediately looked away. This was just the first of many experiences I had with public displays of affection (PDA) by people of all ages while in Spain. These experiences were ultimately the spark that lit the start of my liberal arts education fire: “Why does the sight of people kissing make me feel weird?”, “Why am I so averse to this?”, “Where is this discomfort stemming from?” and finally, “Through how many lenses can I observe this discomfort?”
My time in Madrid opened my eyes to different approaches and possibilities within the world of romance outside of Amherst College’s dreary hookup culture. In Spain, sexuality seemed so much more fluid, open and publicly normalized; people seemed to accept their bodies and their sexual selves more freely. This fascinated me, and I wanted to learn more. After pondering my own previous romantic experiences, some of them extremely damaging, and reflecting upon countless stories similar to my own I had heard from friends over the years, I realized that these conversations are important and well worth devoting a year to prioritizing and examining.

Q: How has your thesis changed (or not) throughout the year?
A: What a ride it has been! If you had talked to me in August, I had no idea what I was going to study. If you had talked to me in September, I was comparing female roles and domesticity in Spain and the United States. Come October I was writing a novel, and by the end of January I had written three short stories based upon my research in hookup culture. Now I have written some fiction, some short stories, some academic essays, some memoirs, some “Mean Girls” quotes, a lot of profanity and a healthy dose of #hashtags. I am happy with the transformations and grateful that I had a year to ruminate over this topic and express it in the forms I deemed most fitting.

Q: Do you think you entered your thesis with an intention? If so what? Did this intention change?
A: Yes, I did. My initial intention was to try and validate the experiences of other people, especially women, who feel hurt, confused, anxious, disgusted and even fascinated by today’s hookup culture. I am tired of watching my peers, especially women, at this school be deeply affected by their negative experiences with “romance,” and the way our society tells them to move on so quickly, which, as a result, silences an important voice to this (di)stress.
I recognize that my status as a white, financially stable, American, heterosexual, cisgender female on a small campus grants me certain privileges and experiences that not everyone else shares, but I aim to start a conversation with this thesis about a cultural phenomenon where most are not treated kindly or as an equal and, as a result, hearts and emotions are played with far too carelessly.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your project?
A: There have been two major challenges with this project. The first was challenge was my inability to stay focused in my research. From psych studies to novels, television shows, Buzzfeed articles, slam poetry, Facebook pages, movies, documentaries, dating websites, blogs, twitter accounts, New York Times “Modern Love” column articles, analytical texts, history textbooks, slam poetry and podcasts, I have been overwhelmed by the resources at my disposal.
The second major challenge for me was accepting the fact that I was not going to be able to write about everything I wanted to this year. There is still so much for me to learn about in the realms of the male perspective, those with religious upbringings, the queer community, students of color and beyond. I, unfortunately, did not feel confident enough in my knowledge of these areas to speak eloquently nor truthfully about worlds with which I do not personally have much experience.

Q: How do you feel about people’s responses to your project?
A: For the most part, I feel really good. People are interested and full of opinions/and experiences in relation to this topic. [But] overall, I am sad that talk of sex, sexuality, intimacy and hookup culture is shoved into whispered shadows and has become so taboo. I am also sad that my damaging experiences have happened to so many others in similar ways. But, above all, I am sad that I don’t have all the answers for how to “solve” this epidemic … I’m still looking for them myself! However, cheers to trying, making myself vulnerable and hypothesizing for a future full of love and empathy.

Q: Where do you hope to see this project go?
A: There are definitely parts of my thesis that I hope to expand on and publish in the future — on a blog, online publication, newspaper article or somewhere else. More importantly, this project has introduced me to many, many incredible sexual educators and women’s rights activists and has solidified my passion for work in this field. I am devoted to continuing this conversation, hearing people’s stories and making college and adolescence a safe space for all people to explore their sexuality. The question I keep asking myself now is: what am I doing with my life if I’m not smashing the patriarchy every day?

Q: What is your main goal in this project?
A: My main goal with this project is to validate my readers. Whether you have been involved in hookup culture yourself, watched a friend suffer through it or have a child in college, I think many can relate to the sentiments and themes expressed in the works. This topic is important as it touches most, if not all, of us and I hope my ideas of increased sexual education (both in the home and at schools) combined with greater willingness to make oneself vulnerable and not be embarrassed to care about another person, as well as being more present in the moment and less distracted will help people. Sex is not something to be treated like a text message, written in the midst of distractions with little forethought, but resulting in a lot of afterthought. In conclusion, we could make fucking awesome if we just appreciated how fucking awesome everyone is!