As a longtime fan of Lisa Wade’s blog, Sociological Images, I would have gladly read pretty much any book she wrote. But, as it happens, the first book by Wade—who teaches sociology at California’s Occidental College—addresses one of the most widely misunderstood concepts of the past few decades: The college hookup. Vilified, tsk-tsked, and blamed for everything from the death of chivalry to the epidemic of campus rape, the hookup and its gendered dimensions has become an obsession of mainstream media .
American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus uses data, reporting, and journal entries from students of various races, classes, and religions to put together a compelling, and often depressing, picture of a culture in which feelings are discouraged, orgasm ratios are skewed, and young people aren’t induling in the kind of orgiastic ecstasy conjured by the overheated imaginations of their moral guardians. It considers what happens when “fun” becomes narrowly defined and when theories about gender equality don’t match a reality in which sexual double standards still reign. “Students are less happy and healthy than in previous generations,” writes Wade, and American Hookup—out tomorrow from W.W. Norton—is her effort to find out why hookup culture might play a part in that.
So much has been written about hooking up and hookup culture in the past decade since it’s been diagnosed as a cultural “problem.” When did you start to become interested in a different, less moralistic way of looking at hooking up?
It’s easy to be moralistic in the abstract, but students are real people to me. When I teach sociology of sexuality, which I’ve done for a decade, I have in-depth discussions with them about sex on campus. Nothing about these conversations is ever simple, and certainly not morally so. The students themselves are diverse. They bring many different ethical perspectives and points of view. They’re able to think about their experiences intellectually. Often they’re learning by trial and error, but they are learning, processing information in sophisticated ways. And they’re making all kinds of different choices and responding in all sorts of different ways to a complex set of pressures. The media coverage just doesn’t do them justice.
I love the way you use the idea of “fun” as a frame for hookup culture, because it exposes how contrived “fun” can be—and, in the case of hookups, how things we associate with fun, like spontaneity and unself-consciousness, are absent in crucial ways. Can you talk a little about that frame?
It was a magical day when I came across sociologist Clare Hollowell’s dissertation about fun. Here is this word we all use more or less constantly, and yet how often have we been reflective about it? Why is fun so important to us? And who gets to define what counts as fun?
I scoured the journals written by the 101 students who contributed to the book—more than a million words—and I found it everywhere. Students spent a lot of time worrying about whether they were having enough fun, if they were fun people, and if the fun they were having was the “right” kind of fun: raucous, drunken, sexy, and just a tad perilous. Hooking up is the pinnacle of this. It’s more than just casual, it’s careless. It’s a way of throwing cares to the wind, letting alcohol bring on a freer state of mind, and just doing whatever—and to hell with the consequences. And to be that careless about sex, of all things, can seem especially bold.
That’s the ideal, anyway. In practice, sex without care is tricky to pull off. Because everyone knows sex is meaningful, so establishing that any particular interaction is meaningless is a difficult interpersonal task. So, students actually have a pretty elaborate and arguably brutal set of rules for how to perform meaninglessness. Those rules work, often all too well.
The gendered aspects of hooking up—and the gendered emotions ascribed to hookup participants—perpetuate a lot of double standards about sexual behavior. Is there anything you discovered in writing the book that contradicts the conventional wisdom of hookups as “guys wanting them all the time” vs. “girls just kind of going along with them”?
In 2015, a set of scientists mathematically compiled over 20,000 studies of 386 possible gender differences representing over 12 million people. Evidence for anything but the smallest of gender differences on a minority of traits is vanishingly small, even given the powerful socialization we experience. Men and women really aren’t very different on the inside.
Both men and women were represented among students who expressed enthusiasm for casual sex. And both men and women seek connection with each other. In fact, 71 and 67 percent, respectively, say they wish they had more opportunities to find a long-term partner.
We do see gender differences in behavior, but that’s because the balance of risk and benefits is in men’s favor. Women are more likely than men to be labeled as slutty or desperate, they’re more likely to encounter degradation or coercion, and they’re less likely to be given an orgasm. These differences in actual experiences translate into different tolerances for hooking up.
There’s a strong race and class analysis in the book with respect to what hookups look like. Can you say a little about how hookup culture is part of shaping a larger white culture that prioritizes not only leisure but a sort of idyllic “college experience”?
The idea of the idyllic college experience, sometimes described intimidatingly as “the best years of your life,” is new. Colonial college life was rigid and the curriculum was dry. At the time, most students were middle class men who wanted to be ministers. During the 1700s, though, wealthy families started to send their sons to college to attain degrees and justify their hoarding of wealth and power. These men were much less amenable to tedium and they expressed their discontent with 100 years of riots. They shot out the windows of faculty homes, set fire to academic buildings, and generally wreaked mayhem. Local militias were brought in to tamp down their rebellions, and they sometimes failed. People died.
These groups of elite, entitled, mischief-inclined men eventually became fraternity men and, by the 1920s, they dominated the social life on campuses, so much so that their way of doing college became the way of doing college. Contemporary college culture, then, has its roots in frat culture and frat culture has always been a way for rich white men to exert control over both higher education and their peers.
So yes, hookup culture is a racialized, classed, and heterocentric culture as well as a gendered one. All things being equal, white, class privileged, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, conventionally attractive men hook up more than anyone else on campus. Students who carry devalued or stigmatized identities often find hookup culture hostile or indifferent to them, or they recognize that participation carries more risks for them than it does for others, and they are more likely to have personal standards that are incompatible with the norms of behavior hookup culture rewards.
You connect a lot of dots in this book between history and economics and sexual mores, and you write “It’s not the hookup itself, but hookup culture” that needs to change. Are there optimistic steps that you see actual students taking to change this equation?
I am. I trust students. They’re thoughtful about the world and hopeful about the future. Given the right resources—knowledge, networks, and institutional support—I’m confident they could change the cultures on their campuses. That’s the thing about culture; it only exists with our consent. As soon as a critical mass of students decide they will no longer obey it, it ceases to exist.
But they will need institutional support. Hookup culture’s routines are embedded in the rhythms and architecture of higher education. Campuses need to take a good hard look at how their organization facilitates the more toxic and dangerous features of hookup culture and put substantial resources behind ending that support and enabling alternatives.
With students and administrators working together, I can imagine a campus culture changing—and fast. And once shifted, students may simply socialize new students into this new campus life, hopefully one supportive of many different ways of engaging sexually, giving students options and requiring them to be thoughtful about what they want and communicate that to each other. That’s my hope—that American Hookup will not only inform students, parents, and administrators about the state of sex on campus, giving them tools for managing it—but give them information and inspiration to help them change it for the better.
American Hookup is available wherever books are sold, but, as ever, we recommend buying from your local independent bookseller.