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The Sociology Of Casual Sexual Encounters: Lisa Wade’s American Hookup

*First published at Huffington Post Books, February 2017.*

What do the Industrial Revolution, the Roaring Twenties, the advent of the college fraternity, and the gay liberation movement have in common? According to sociologist Lisa Wade the link is the pervasive hookup culture that dominates the modern university experience in her fascinating new study examining the roots and realities of the phenomenon, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. Wade culls together academic research, quantitative data, and accounts from college students all over America, unpacking the history and complex nuances of the hookup and the resulting hookup culture. American Hookup offers readers valuable insight into the positives and negatives this particular culture has to offer not only college students, but in new modes of imagining more diverse, compassionate, and inclusive demonstrations of human sexuality.

Along with her concise detailing of what hookup culture is, Wade also dispels a number of myths about it, including the one that everyone on a college campus is having loads of sex, all the time, with multiple partners. In her introduction Wade writes:

“In fact, today’s students boast no more sexual partners than their parents did at their age. Scholars using the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey have shown that they actually report slightly fewer sexual partners than Gen-Xers did. Millennials look more similar to the baby boomer generation than they do to the wild sexual cohort that they are frequently imagined to be.”

So why then this widespread myth that college students are having sex more than they are going to class? For one, Wade sees the media playing a huge role in this misperception. She also notes that just because people aren’t themselves hooking up, it doesn’t mean they still aren’t unwilling participants in the entire culture of hookups. Hookup culture has a ripple-out and trickle-down effect — and a mostly negative one — even on those individuals who have opted out.

Wade says:

“The fog [of hookup culture], in other words, isn’t just on college campuses; it’s everywhere. It has infiltrated our lives, obscuring our ability to envision better alternatives: sexualities that are more authentic, kinder, safer, more pleasurable, and less warped by prejudice, consumerism, status, and superficiality. We need to understand what’s happening on college campuses because what’s happening there is happening everywhere.”

American Hookup breaks the hookup into eight distinct stages, all of which involve troubling amounts of alcohol, and with an end game of proving to everyone that the encounter was meaningless. Wade asks, “How do two people establish that an intimate moment between them wasn’t meaningful?” In three ways: by being or pretending to have been inebriated, only hooking up with someone once, and the most destructive way, by creating emotional distance through cold bordering-on-cruel behavior towards the other person.

And how did the hookup come to dominate not just college campuses, but also America at large? Wade credits the Industrial Revolution as the foundation for hookup culture as we find it today. She describes how as people moved from a rural lifestyle in which men and women both equally helped run a household, urbanization created the false dichotomy of “separate spheres” that men were fit for the workforce and that women should tend the home. These social conditions set the stage for the eventual Roaring Twenties during which the concept of the date was invented. Next came the economic devastation of the Great Depression, and the loss of a huge chunk of the American male population after World War II. The male shortage after the war prompted the notion of “going steady” that was the go-to method for sexual relations until the 1960s and 1970s free love ideology came into play. The gay liberation of the 1970s provided the exact framework for the hookup culture we have today.

Further, until the late 1800s, the college experience was anything but fun. Academic learning was rigorous and often harsh, curfews were strictly enforced as well as dress and behavior codes. Students who didn’t comply were expelled. Enter the fraternity. Wade explains:

“Infused with a rebelliousness that was their birthright, fraternities incubated a lifestyle that revolved around recklessness and irresponsibility. … Before the 1900s, fraternity men had sex mostly with prostitutes, poor women, and women they enslaved. …The women they had sex with weren’t their social equals, so they had little power to negotiate sexual terms. Since men needed no skill to get access to women’s bodies, there was little basis for masculine rivalry. … Once recreational, it became increasingly competitive. Extracting sexual favors from women who weren’t supposed to give them out became the primary way that frat boys earned the admiration and respect of their brothers.”

And as fraternities power grew from campus to campus, how frat boys do college is now the gold standard for how everyone does college, which is problematic on so many levels — elitism, institutionalized misogyny, and white privilege being only three examples.

The notion of fun suddenly became synonymous with that all-American notion of freedom. Add into the mix the booming alcohol industry, and college went from being a place with an academic focus to a place where fun was the ultimate goal. And the ultimate fun was the hookup.

There are many feminists who see hookup culture as empowering and liberating for women, allowing them to be sexually free while also being independent, ambitious, and career-oriented. After all, the hookup has a built-in relationship-proofing mechanism. However, Wade’s and many other social scientists’ research demonstrates that in terms of actual pleasure gained from a hookup, the terms benefit men far more disproportionately than women. They call this the “orgasm gap.” A hookup appears to be designed and policed for the central positioning of male pleasure to the detriment of women. Because maintaining emotional distance is one of the key stages of a hookup, the focus on male pleasure can lead to verbal abuse, coercion, and rape when a woman wants to set her own boundaries.

Disturbingly, hookup culture also effectively allows sexual predators to hide in plain sight since their criminal activity might be indistinguishable from some of hookup culture’s ugly but acceptable behaviors. Through Wade’s students’ anecdotes, they identified at least one sexual predator who was making his way across campus.

We’ve come a long way, baby?

It’s a huge stretch to see how actively participating in a culture with its roots in fraternity hierarchy, toxic masculinity, exclusionism, misogyny, and white privilege often leading to the degradation and sexual objectification of women could ever be a feminist act. It seems to me that opting out of hookup culture would be the more powerful and rebellious political statement a person could make.

That said, not everyone is welcome to opt in to hookup culture even if they want to. From Wade’s research and her students’ anecdotes, hookup-worthy hotness is determined by a specific white male frat boy gaze that comes with its own racial hierarchy to boot. Blonde, skinny women are the pinnacle, Asian women are sexually fetished, and black women and the disabled are wholly excluded from the dynamic. Even the female participants of hookup culture tend to follow this hierarchy, making exceptions for black or other minority partners when the individual comes with their own social cachet, like being star athlete.

Unfortunately, hookup culture is inherently racist. And even though hookup culture was inspired by gay culture, its current iteration is also oppressively homophobic unless we’re talking about two women kissing for the benefit of that white male gaze.

One of the equally unsettling aspects of the culture is its complete lack of basic human kindness and compassion as a rule. Worse, according to Wade’s research hookup culture has co-opted the manner in which young people form relationships. The emotional and psychological trauma of hookup culture has long-term consequences once the students have left their insulated college campuses.

American Hookup is an insightful and compassionate study that is written with academic rigor, but is also accessible to a layperson. One of my favorite features of American Hookup is its bright and bold cover that features no highly sexualized imagery. In a hookup culture that thrives itself on sex selling, it’s refreshing to see a publisher not capitalize on that tired old trope.

For educators pressed with time constraints, the book’s conclusion is one of the most concise and marvelous pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It hits every important point Wade makes in the book and packages it into eight easily-teachable pages that will surely inspire students to not only consider their place and role in hookup culture, but also to read the whole book with gusto even on their own time.

Beautifully written, timely, and ever so important, American Hookup not only deconstructs hookup culture into its strange parts, but also offers up solutions moving forward on how we can integrate the best parts of hookup culture — namely, the freedom to explore one’s sexuality with others — with the best parts of being human, including kindness, compassion, and mutual respect.