I first thought seriously about hookup culture as a college student, when I read Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt’s 2001 report, Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping For Mr. Right. As a student at a small evangelical Christian college, I did not then find myself in the “fog” of hookup culture that sociologist Lisa Wade describes in her new book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus—but I remember being flabbergasted by what my peers at other colleges were dealing with.
Since then, it’s possible that hookup culture has become more dominant and devious. As Wade reports, one-third of students say that their intimate relationships have been “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle.” One in four female respondents to the Online College Social Life Survey reported being victimized in some way, some more than once. Wade notes that students are less happy and healthy than they were even just 10 or 20 years ago, and surmises that “the sexual environment on college campuses is part of why.” As Wade explains when describing a difference between her research findings and those in Katherine Bogle’s 2008 book, Hooking Up, “It may be that dating culture isn’t as strong as it was almost a decade ago. Things may be changing quickly. We know they sometimes do.”
Yet, as Wade points out, it’s important to remember what this does not mean. Students regularly overestimate the extent to which their peers are participating in hookup culture. In reality, the average graduating senior reports hooking up eight times over the course of four years. In other words, on average, students hook up once a semester, not once a weekend. (Although students tend to hook up most frequently during freshmen year.) Furthermore, almost a third of students will never hook up during their time in college.
In what I think is an important distinction, Wade distinguishes actual hooking up with the pervasive hookup culture. It’s possible to not hook up at all, yet still feel pushed and prodded by the campus sexual culture. It is this culture that Wade sees as the principle “cause of students’ unhappiness.”
To support that thesis, Wade draws from her qualitative research with her own students at a secular school in the American Southwest and a religious one in the South, as well as from meetings and focus groups with students and staff on campuses across the country. The apparent depth of her relationships with students, and the candor and power of the students’ own reflections and observations makes American Hookup an engrossing read.
It also means that the book grapples honestly with both the attractions and problems of hookup culture and avoids some of the ideological blinders that have led others to argue that hook-up culture is necessary for women’s liberation. Wade appears ready for a new synthesis that avoids the trap that says that for women to be free, they must become like men and have meaningless sex like men supposedly can have. She explains, “Hookup culture, strongly masculinized demands carelessness, rewards callousness, and punishes kindness. In this scenario, both men and women have the opportunity to have sex but neither is entirely free to love.”
“Hookup culture, strongly masculinized demands carelessness, rewards callousness, and punishes kindness," writes Lisa Wade.
Wade contributes something else to the conversation missing from previous literature—a look at how minority groups opt out of hookup culture and how it affects them. For example, compared to white students, black students are more likely to opt out of hookup culture. They tend to be more actively religious and have more conservative views about sexuality. And as one black student put it, “If I started hooking up my friends would be saying I’m, like, ‘acting white.’” Poor and working-class students of all races were also more likely to opt out, and those in the LGBTQ community often felt unwelcome in the college party scene. In her students’ accounts, this contributed to the feeling of being an outsider and missing the “whole college experience.”
While it may have been too much ground to cover, I would have liked to see more exploration of why poor and working-class students tend to opt out. In the couple of pages devoted to them, Wade suggests that these students are more risk-averse because they have already gone to great lengths to get to college and may need to study harder to make up for subpar high school education or work to pay their way through school, leaving less time for partying. I think this is part of the story, but wonder if differing cultural values surrounding family, sex, and career may also contribute. In a future post, I hope to explore other possibilities based on my own interviews with young adults and to reflect on the extent to which poor and working-class young adults who do not go to college find themselves in the hookup culture.
Speaking of a different kind of inequality, the chapter “Unequal Pleasures” focuses on the “orgasm gap.” According to the Online College Social Life Survey, men are more than twice as likely as women to have an orgasm in a hookup. This gap shrinks significantly when women have sex within a relationship, but of hookups, women said things like, “the guy kind of expects to get off while the girl doesn’t expect anything.” Others complained that hookup culture is ultimately “about allowing the male to use your body.” Wade faults a culture that prioritizes male orgasm and the assumption that the orgasm gap is biological. She says that the problem is not the hookup itself, but the culture of hookups. In its place, we need casual sex that is kinder, and a more widespread embrace of “the practices that enhance sexual encounters—communication, creativity, tolerance, confidence, and knowledge.”
While I’m all for kindness, I was struck by what was missing from the list: commitment. Research suggests that commitment is one predictor of women’s orgasm and sexual enjoyment—so why doesn’t Wade mention that in her discussion of the orgasm gap? As a college student, I remember attending a book talk of Hanna Rosin’s, during which Rosin commented that she was baffled as to why, but that national surveys showed that married evangelical women reported higher sexual satisfaction than other groups. Rosin wondered aloud if evangelical women just felt pressured to exaggerate their sexual satisfaction, but I think that it’s more likely the case that commitment increases trust, kindness, and the other traits that Wade identifies as “enhancing sexual encounters.” But any discussion of the way commitment may level the power dynamics and create conditions for more mutual pleasures was largely absent from this book.
Which relates to the main critique I have of Wade’s approach to the problems of hookup culture: I am not as optimistic that casual sex can be enshrined as a good without retaining some of the problematic elements of hookup culture, like callousness, indifference, and even cruelty. This is because, as Wade herself points out, the code surrounding the hookup (not looking each other in the eyes, getting sufficiently drunk, ignoring the person after a hookup, and sometimes treating the other contemptuously) developed as a way to mark the hookup as meaningless.
I am not optimistic that casual sex can be enshrined as a good without retaining some of the problematic elements of hookup culture, like callousness, indifference, and even cruelty.
Wade argues that casual sex “doesn’t have to be cold”—but her students have “lost sight of this possibility.” I wonder if that is because students find “kind” casual sex to be messy and difficult. To fail to keep proper emotional distance is to risk actually “catching feelings” for the person you are sleeping with—something probably fairly easy to do given the release of the “love hormone” oxytocin during orgasm. Attachment is to be avoided if sex is to remain casual, and therefore the script of behaviors associated with the hookup exist to prevent such attachments. Changing the dark side of the hookup culture is an urgent goal—but I’m not convinced that widespread casual sex fits well with that goal because it was in part the effort to have “meaningless” sex without attachment that brought us the hookup culture in the first place.
Still, Wade’s research and much of her analysis strike me as fresh and real—fascinating front-line reporting—and I appreciate the way that she comes back repeatedly to the desires and well-being of the students she comes to know. In that vein, Wade argues that an exclusive focus on casual sex misses the point:
The irony is that most college students actually want to be in a caring relationship. Of the students who filled out the Online College Social Life Survey, 71 percent of men and 67 percent of women said that they wished they had more opportunities to find a long-term partner. Despite their claims to be too busy and focused on their careers, students overwhelmingly find the idea of a committed partnership appealing and, in fact, many of them get what they want. Over two-thirds of college seniors report having been in at least one relationship lasting six months or more.
Wade concludes that students “wish they had more options,” including “an easier path toward forming committed, loving relationships.” She recounts stories of seniors who approach her after lectures, confused about how they should act post-graduation. They’ve heard of “this thing…. called a ‘date,’ but they didn’t really have any idea what it was or how to do it.”
The hookup culture monopolizes, but Wade envisions a free marketplace of sexual cultures on campus. “We need a more complex and rich cultural life on campus," she writes. "We need to chip away at hookup culture’s dominance and force it to compete with other, more humane sexual cultures that we can envision, and many more that we haven’t envisioned yet.” She adds,
A campus with lots of healthy competing sexual cultures is full of opportunity. It requires students to really think about what they want for themselves and from one another. It also requires them to talk to one another instead of assuming (often erroneously) that they know what their peers want. Competing cultures would encourage thoughtfulness, communication, tolerance, and introspection, and all of those things are great for sex.
I like the image of chipping away at hookup culture’s dominance and encouraging students who “opt out” to form vocal competing cultures, encouraging thoughtfulness and reflection on matters of sex. But isn’t a free exchange of ideas what we already have—at least theoretically—on campuses? Given our nature as social beings—and the often intense pressure to fit in that adolescents and young adults feel—how can we keep one script from monopolizing the others? As Wade notes, hookup culture is as much about being accepted and admired by one’s peers as it is about sex. In other words, students are likely to look to their peers and follow what they feel the majority culture is doing.
Given this tendency, how might administrations go about creating an environment hospitable to “competing cultures”? For starters, administrations could give already existing student groups that promote alternatives to hookup culture, like the Love and Fidelity Network, a voice at freshmen orientation events, both in terms of giving feedback on how the planned events are likely to affect or marginalize students who are opting out of hookup culture, and in terms of having their own events.
Another way of thinking about this is to recognize that “students need everyone else to change, too.” The larger culture—media and its objectification of women, the way we approach topics like hardcore porn and alcohol abuse—matters and influences what happens on campus. As Wade puts it,
We are all in the fog. We face an onslaught of sexualized messaging designed to make us worry that our sex lives are inadequate. There is an erotic marketplace off campus, too, and it is distorted by prejudice, a fixation on wealth, and a shallow worship of youth and beauty.
Wade’s point is that transforming hookup culture is not just a matter of fixing campus culture, but American culture. And on that matter, I couldn’t agree more.