Debunking the Toxic Myths Around College Hookup Culture
In her new book, "American Hookup," sociology professor Lisa Wade investigates the biggest misconceptions about casual sex on college campuses—and tries to reach an understanding that more accurately reflects realities about gender, race, and class.
The phrase "hookup culture" has been employed in hundreds of think pieces throughout the past decade to illustrate everything from millennial selfishness to the "dating apocalypse" to women's empowerment to women's disempowerment.
Many of these discussions operate off the assumptions that casual sex is ubiquitous and relationships are rare on campuses, and that men drive hookup culture while women acquiesce under pressure. In her new book American Hookup, out this week, Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, challenges these myths and others to paint a more complete picture of sex in college.
Using surveys and interviews with students on campuses around the country, Wade demonstrates how gender, race, and class come into play within hookup culture. Though hookups are often described as a habit of college students in general, she finds that hookup culture is primarily driven by white, wealthy, heterosexual students. And when women get the short end of the stick, that's not because they're always seeking commitment; it's because their pleasure and consent often get discounted.
We spoke with Wade about what she's learned about hookups on campus in the process of writing her book and what does and doesn't need to change. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
BROADLY: People throw around the phrase "hookup culture" to signify a million different things, but I appreciated that your book looks at empirical evidence. What are the biggest misconceptions the public has about hookup culture, according to your findings?
Lisa Wade: I think the mistake people often make when trying to make sense of what's happening is to focus on the behavior itself and not on the context in which the behavior is happening and the specific rules that guide casual sexual encounters.
The reason that's a problem is, for one, a lot of students aren't participating in this thing we call casual sex, and so we miss a huge proportion of students' experience when we focus on the behavior and not the context. And second of all, it sort of traps us into making a judgment call about the behavior itself when, in reality, any sexual encounter can be either good or bad for a person depending on how they're treated.
A lot of parents think that young people would be better off practicing committed relationships, but feminists have been talking for decades about how dangerous and traumatizing marriage can be for women. So it's certainly not that some types of behaviors are good for people and some types of behaviors are bad. It's about how we engage with each other, no matter what types of engagements we're having.
Is the perception that people are having more casual sex in college than they used to even accurate?
There was casual sex on campuses from the minute there were campuses. That's always been true. Today's college students report no more sexual partners than their parents at that age.
Now, it's not just that some people can choose to engage in that. It's that all people feel like they're supposed to engage in that. It's become the dominant and perhaps only way that students are supposed to engage sexually. Other types of doing it have been considered backwards or pathetic or desperate. Students who thrive in this environment may have stayed the same, but now, people are supposed to act as if they do.
It's certainly not that some types of behaviors are good for people and some types of behaviors are bad. It's about how we engage with each other.
Why are we so obsessed with talking about how much college students are hooking up, then?
I think for two reasons. I think one is that we just haven't bothered to look. Both as academics and as journalists, we've been pretty fixated on this behavior, and when we focus on that, we omit the people who aren't doing it. It's not very sexy to talk about college kids not having sex. It's not going to get us any clicks online.
Since that's our frame, we just fail to notice them. But when we did, it just wasn't interesting to us. I hope people do find the kids in American Hookup who don't hook up interesting, because I find them fascinating. They're at least a third of the students on campus at any given time.
What do you find fascinating about them?
One of the things I think is most interesting about them is that they're the rebels. We're used to thinking about people that are sort of sexually forward and assertive and free as the rebels. But on college campuses, it's the students that aren't hooking up that are the rebels.
A few of them have a very clear reason why they don't want to hook up. For example, we have a handful of religious students on campus who are choosing not to have casual sexual encounters because of their faith. We actually don't see a difference between how affiliated and unaffiliated students hook up, but there are students who do have that reason.The vast majority aren't hooking up because they just find it unappealing. They're not into the idea of having sexual contact with someone they don't know very well and have no intention of getting to know very well.
I think it's impressive that students have the wherewithal, especially at 18—brand new college students who have a lot of pressure to fit in and make friends. What happens to them is interesting, just how powerfully isolating it can be to the person who decides not to do that.
The narrative we usually hear about casual sex suggests it's men's idea, while women would prefer to date. Do you think that's wrong?
Yes, and I think that's wrong for a couple reasons. One is the simple observation that men are not all alike and women are not all alike. There are women who are very enthusiastic about casual sex, and there are lots of men who are not at all.
The other reason that it's wrong is that it fails the intersectionality test. What's really going on is that on most campuses, a small slice of men have control over the social party scene, and that small slice of men tends to be very invested in a particular way of engaging casually sexually. There are spaces that are often fraternity houses or athletic groups or all-male friend groups or organizations. That's where hookup culture is cultivated.
In that sense, yes, men have power to set the terms for sexual engagement with their peers, but that's not all men, it's a small slice of men. They tend to be white, have class privilege, be able-bodied, conventionally attractive, you name it. To see it as a man vs. woman problem ignores that power works on more than one dimension.
Where do race and class come in?
Race and class intersect, so we see this group of white students that are also more likely than other students to be class privileged. You have working-class students, and if they're the first person to go to college, then the idea of becoming a doctor, for example, might seem pretty far outside their experience, and they might be focused on getting their college degree.
But if you are a class-privileged person and grow up with a mother who is a doctor and a father who is a lawyer, you have been given and blessed with the ability to imagine going that far. And so what we see is that many of the poor and working-class students who get to campus tend to see the educational trajectory stopping at a Bachelor's or Master's. For those students, settling down and having a family feels closer, so they may be more invested in relationships than students who come from richer backgrounds, who are disproportionately white.
If students would like to participate in casual sexual encounters, it needs to be done in a more kind way.
I also found the chapter on sexual assault interesting. You argued that, contrary to the popular claim that campus rapes are committed by a small number of serial perpetrators, you believe the nice guys rape as well. How do we create an environment that makes that possible?
When I was a child, my father refused to play Monopoly with the family. He said it was because it turns us into little monsters. You greedily take everyone's money until they're poor and homeless and on the street. And I think it's really easy, using that model, to imagine how that's true—because Monopoly sets the rule. It tells you what winning looks like and how to win.
And because we're sociocultural creatures, we have a tendency to accept the rules and try to play by the rules. And just like in Monopoly, if we decide we're not going to play by those rules, then we lose the game and we're not even playing anymore. So, you pay the ultimate price if you decide to break the rules, even if you think it's the right thing to do.
That's how it is in college, and that's how it is in the workplace: You get a set of cultural and institutional rules, and you either follow them to try to win the game, or you break them because you can't stomach them, but then you make great personal sacrifices. There are a lot of men who say "no" to this system because they see it as immoral or distasteful or unappealing, but it's a lot of ask all young men to reject the system, and so a lot of them do participate, or they participate a little bit, or they participate once or twice, or they jump in with both feet and they play that game as hard as they can.
So, you're going to see variety in how aggressively men treat women in part because they're all wrestling with the system. But occasionally, there are going to be men who understand in their gut that this is not right still falling trap to the rules.
Could you imagine such a thing as a healthy hookup culture? What would it look like?
Well, there's two big problems with hookup culture the way I see it, and one is that it has no competitors, and so it's overly dominant on college campuses. There's no room for students that want something different. And then the other problem is that the particular way hookup culture tells us sex would happen has a lot of toxic aspects to it.
If it were up to me, I would want hookup culture to compete with a lot of other types of cultures on campus: maybe polyamorous, where you have a complex network of people in affectionate relationships, or going-steady 1950s relationships. Abstinence, because there's not a lot of room for abstinence on college campuses.
If students would like to participate in casual sexual encounters, it needs to be done in a more kind way. Right now, the rules for sexual engagement are so much about denying any kind of interpersonal connection that students go overboard and they end up being really discourteous, sometimes really rude or cruel, in an effort to perform disinterest. So, we need a healthier hookup culture, and we need many more sexual cultures on campus to compete with it.