4/13/2018 Katie E. Machen

American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus

In her 2017 book, “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus,” Lisa Wade explores “hookup culture,” which is prevalent on college and university campuses across the country. She brought the conversation to Franklin & Marshall College April 12 at Common Hour, a community discussion conducted every Thursday classes are in session.

Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, surveyed 101 students nationwide of varying races, gender identities, and sexual orientations. She visited more than 70 colleges and universities, and studied the accounts of hookup culture in student newspapers. From her findings, she learned that on most college campuses today, hookup culture dictates the trend toward staying casual about sex, namely in keeping feelings out of the picture.

Hookup culture stems from organizational structures and privileges that create a competitive approach to casual sex rather than cooperative. 

  • Hookup culture stems from organizational structures and privileges that create a competitive approach to casual sex rather than cooperative. “It’s thinking about sex as a zero-sum game,” Wade said. Hookup culture stems from organizational structures and privileges that create a competitive approach to casual sex rather than cooperative. “It’s thinking about sex as a zero-sum game,” Wade said. Image Credit: Deb Grove

“It’s thinking about sex as a zero-sum game,” she said. “This is not actually easy, and you have to work really hard to make it happen.”

Wade said that to “do” casual, sex remains emotionless, but humans are inherently emotional, as is sex. She also said that for a hookup to occur, two people have to choose each other. “That threatens the idea that this doesn’t mean anything,” she said.

“Of course,” said Wade, “students break these rules all the time.”

Wade then listed four strategies many students use to enforce hookup culture: be drunk; be hot, but not warm; keep cool or aloof; and don’t hook up too many times with the same person or risk entering relationship territory.

“If sex is supposed to mean nothing, then everything else has more meaning,” said Wade, noting how hand-holding or even not having sex could be more meaningful than having it.

“All of this is gendered,” she said. “Whenever women perform casualness, they’re somehow less believable than men. Men assume women are extra into them, so they have a stiff arm, and women don’t want to seem that way, so they develop a stiff upper lip.”

Despite efforts to be casual, Wade said her research showed 75 percent of college students actually want to be in relationships. She said hookup culture plays a part in sexual assaults on campuses -- consent can be thought of as caring too much. Hookup culture also relies greatly on popularity, and creates biases against race and sexual orientation, causing problems of exclusion.

Ultimately, Wade argued, there is a need for institutional change. She called for party spaces other than fraternity houses that put men and women on an even playing field.

“You need to start telling people what you really want,” Wade said. “There is a menu of options for how to be sexual. The ideas are already in you; you have to open your mouth and collectively make it real.” 

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