Concert hookup culture in the Bay Area prompts conversation

Names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of students interviewed.

Content Warning: drugs, alcohol, sexual assault

At a tiny party at the end of last summer, a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time told me she’d just had her first kiss. Actually, she’d had multiple. The kisses, she said, occurred at an outdoor concert the previous weekend. They were with boys she had thought were cute, and she was glad she had done it. I was happy for her, especially when I saw a picture of one of the boys and he was cute. “And it wasn’t that sketchy,” she told me, “it wasn’t a ‘do it for the beer’ situation.”

The phrase caught my attention, and then I started hearing it everywhere. Girls I talked to from all over the Bay Area knew about this practice: going to concerts and hooking up with boys—or men—for their alcohol or marijuana. No boys told me of doing the reverse with women, or of doing it with other men.

The people I talked to have had a range of experiences—enjoyable, awkward, terrifying. Jean, a girl who attends a Bay Area high school, told me one concert hook up with a schoolmate led to months of hooking up after.  Jean said she enjoyed her concert hook ups. She told me that it’s usually a “really fun and exciting thing to do, and it enhances the concert experience.”

But Jean also told me of the one hook up she regretted, a time she was too drunk to say no. The boy touched her in a way she remembers as “disgusting and nasty…it definitely wouldn’t have happened if I was sober.” Jean, whose hook ups haven’t been for any sort of gain other than experience, nonetheless ended the conversation by reiterating: “I think a show is a great place to meet new people…especially since both people have similar interests in music.”

It is easy to see how concert hook ups can be fun: young people, good music, and no-strings-attached sexual conduct. But what about when strings do become attached? Some of the teenagers I have talked to claim that unwanted knots are tied usually when a substance is exchanged. Stephanie and Christina, two girls who attend separate Bay Area high schools, told me very similar stories. Both spotted someone with something they wanted. In Christina’s case, it was a boy with marijuana. In Stephanie’s case, it was a man with a wristband that enabled him to buy alcohol. “(I knew) that if I was flirty with him and maybe made out with him for a little I would get some free weed out of it,” said Christina.  Stephanie echoed this, saying that she knew that in order to get the wristband, she would need to kiss and dance on the man. Both girls ended up in bad situations. Stephanie, who eventually ripped the wristband off the man and ran with it, described the man as “a gross kisser” and the situation as “scary, desperate times.” Christina claimed the boy who gave her marijuana wouldn’t let her leave afterwards. “I didn’t think we’d be spending the entire concert together,” she told me. “He became a little obsessed with me after.”

I admit that I only spoke with one boy. (Only one boy presented himself to be interviewed.) He told me that a girl had hooked up with him at a concert after he gave her some marijuana, an action he described as “a kind of thank you.” He also said that watching girls hook up with other guys after they hooked up with him made him feel a little disrespected, but that he thought multiple partner hookups were a little more understandable at concerts. Christina echoed this, saying that she and her friend once played a game to see how many hook ups they could have in one night. She said, “One of my friends wanted to see if combined we could hit double digits. She hit about five, but I had a little too much to drink that night and wasn’t really coherent enough to hook up with some people.”

Having spoken to several students with a range of experiences, I decided to contact one of Urban’s health teachers, Shafia Zaloom, to see what she had to say. She was more than willing to have a conversation, but when we sat down, I told her that some of the kids I had interviewed were Urban students. Unbeknownst to me, this changes everything. If the school knows that its students are engaging in potentially harmful activity, it has a legal responsibility to protect those students. Raina Mast, the journalism teacher, called Child Protective Services and told them what was happening. Charlotte Worsley, Urban’s Assistant Head for Student Life, was brought into the conversation, as was Kaern Kreyling, Urban’s School Counselor. Suddenly I was seeing everything from a teacher’s perspective. What I had been thinking of as a cultural exposé based on interviews with teens who were, for the most part, having a good time, teachers were seeing as evidence of dangers posed to children they had known since age 14.

Urban has now done everything it can do in regards to the law. Since I did not (and in fact was not asked to) give the names of the students I interviewed, administrators and faculty did not focus on any specific individual. But now, they say, obligation is moral. For Zaloom, the question did not seem to be whether hooking up with strangers at concerts in exchange for substance was safe, but of how unsafe it was. Zaloom said that exchanging sexual favors for substances carried both physical and emotional risks. “Whenever we give up or barter our sexuality for something of monetary value or personal gain,” Zaloom said, “if we are talking about adults, we enter into the realm of prostitution. Since we are talking about teenagers, it’s important to recognize the law, which states that anyone who is a minor, under the age of 18, cannot give their consent to sexual activity. AND if the person providing the weed or alcohol is over the age of 18, there are other laws being violated depending on the behavior. What really concerns me, is that teenagers would devalue their sexuality so far and think it worth some weed or a 40 of alcohol.”

I asked Zaloom what advice she would give someone who was planning on going to a concert and hooking up with strangers there. Citing the risks of laced drugs, stalking, and sexual harassment and/or assault, Zaloom said, “If I had to answer this question in a sentence, I would say, don’t do it.” Then elaborating on this, “I understand that people feel they are in control of their situation and using what’s theirs to acquire what they want. However, especially when substances are introduced, they are, in fact, giving up their control. It’s important when making this kind of decision to imagine the potential worst case scenario.”

Obviously Zaloom is not anti-hooking up. Anyone who has taken 10th grade health knows that Zaloom will put a condom in your mailbox upon request, and that the Urban health curriculum encourages all sorts of healthy and positive sexual experiences. It’s just that Zaloom sees hooking up with older men in exchange for some sort of substance as a potentially unsafe sexual experience.

School counselor Kaern Kreyling added, “I would just want to ask people what they’re up to,” she said. “It’s like anything, it’s like smoking weed. What are you up to? Are you sad, do you want to feel happy? Are you up to other things when you’re hooking up? I am looking to help students become more self-aware about their thoughts, feelings and actions; why are they doing what they’re doing and what are the effects?  My telling someone to stop some behavior is not a useful or effective help strategy. I feel like one of the main reasons people go to parties is to make connections with other people: friend, romance and sexual connections. These are vulnerable ventures and often kids and adults make contact in awkward or foolish or dangerous or disrespectful ways. Safety has more to do with someone’s capacity for discernment, to grasp the reality of a situation. I try to help build skills of discernment when kids come consult with me.”
Both Zaloom and Kreyling expressed concern for their students’ safety. Zaloom said, “On a more personal note, as an adult here at Urban who cares about her students, I want to invite any student who is engaging in this practice to come talk to me, or Kaern or Charlotte, or one of the deans. I am always concerned about the well-being of my students, and I worry that engaging in the exchange of sexual behavior for drugs and alcohol compromises that.”

What does this mean for you? For Urban? Essentially, it’s not my place to say. The quest for the story behind “Do it for the Beer” has balanced me precariously between two worlds. How do I tell the story with respect for both the students and the adults? How do I maintain anonymity while securing safety? What’s the difference between learning how to grow up and putting yourself at risk? What should I do? Because that’s really what it comes down to in the end, the personal decision. “The person making the decision,” said Zaloom, “needs to think about whether or not they are OK with (those potential dangers) or how they are going to get out of (them).” She finished with, “I encourage them to engage in some introspection.”