Hooking up as a core requirement: Casual sex in college isn't optional anymore, "it's an imperative"

Salon talks to the author of "American Hookup" about drinking, casual sex, sexual assault and campus culture

Published February 11, 2017 10:30PM (EST)

 (W. W. Norton & Company/Getty/CasarsaGuru)
(W. W. Norton & Company/Getty/CasarsaGuru)

In the first chapter of her new book, "American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus," Lisa Wade describes the event around which, she argues, much of contemporary college life orbits: the hookup.

It is “a drunken sexual encounter with ambiguous content that is supposed to mean nothing, and happen just once,” she writes. “It’s a scrappy little sex act, a wayward Cupid. Armed with dark of night and blur of intoxication, its aim is a fun, harmless romp, a supposedly free expression of one’s sexuality, but within oddly strict parameters. It’s spontaneous, but scripted; order out of disorder; an unruly routine. It is, in short, a feat of social engineering.”

Elsewhere in the book, the Occidental College sociology professor notes that college students today aren’t necessarily having more sex than previous generations. But they are talking about it, thinking about it, posting on social media about it, scheduling their lives around it, and being affected by it more intensely than ever before. That hookup culture she writes, “is an occupying fog, coercive and omnipresent” on campuses across the U.S. She quotes one student from Tulane University who says simply, “Hookup culture — it’s college.”

And Wade would know. She has drawn on an enormous pool of information for the book, including written testimony from more than a hundred of her own students, scholarly articles, visits to dozens of schools, reporting from mainstream media outlets, data on thousands of students from the Online College Social Life Survey, and “hundreds of firsthand accounts of sex on campus written for student newspapers and other media outlets.”

Her book is, on one hand, hyper-specific. In one chapter she tracks the steps of an average hookup from the pregame drinking to dance-floor grinding to after-the-fact efforts to “establish meaninglessness” and “create emotional distance.” But it also places hookup culture in the wider context of American sexual, educational and social history, and examines the phenomenon through lenses of race, class and gender. In one chapter, she reports, “Women in college, like American women more generally, have fewer orgasms than their male counterparts.” In another, she says, “In some ways hookup culture is a white thing.” By book’s end, you not only feel as if you have peered inside the minds (and bedrooms) of countless collegians, but also learned something essential about contemporary American sexual mores.

Salon caught up with Wade recently via phone to help explain what’s going on inside that “occupying fog.” The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

For folks who haven’t read the book, what is the two-minute definition of “hookup culture”?

There has always been casual sex on campuses. That has been true since the minute there were campuses. But a hookup culture is one in which everyone is expected to be participating in some sort of casual sexual engagement. So it’s not just an option, it’s an imperative.

And like all cultures, hookup culture manifests at the level of ideas -- how people are thinking about what they should be doing -- and then the rules for interaction, how people interact with one another. And it also becomes institutionalized. So there are ways in which the rhythms and architecture of the colleges themselves facilitate hookup culture.

One of the concepts you discuss is a phrase you borrow from Ohio University sociology professor Thomas Vander Ven, “drunkworld,” that almost seems to be a necessary ingredient for hookup culture. What is “drunkworld,” and how does that relate to the hookup culture you just described?

It is an interesting question how it came to be that we decided as a society that college is supposed to be fun. But now that we have decided that, there is a particular kind of fun that students come to expect that they should be having on college campuses, and that is what Vander Ven means by “drunkworld.” I think at some point, he calls it a “temporary insanity.” There’s this effort to sort of collectively bring into existence this space where many of the rules of social interaction are lifted and there’s a whole new set of expectations where it’s normal to be slurring one’s words and barely able to walk. And the goal is to create a kind of collective effervescence that is just a bit perilous. Partying to the point right up to the rim of danger is this idea [of] what a really good raucous college party is supposed to be like. Thinking about [“drunkworld”] as an alternative reality -- that’s what Vander Ven is really trying to get at with that term.

Another a big part of that culture  you describe in the book are these conversations where people -- generally of the same sex -- are recapping what happened the night before. What is really going on there? What do you think those conversations are really about?

Sexuality is exciting, especially when it’s new, and the people that we might be having contact with are new. So there's just this buzz and excitement around sexuality on campus. And even if people aren’t hooking up, or didn’t hook up the night before, there’s a lot of just high-energy discussion around who did, and who you might have wanted to hook up with, or who you almost hooked up with, or who your friends hooked up with or tried to to avoid hooking up with. So there’s a heck of a lot of conversation about it that is going on sort of as a recap in the days after the Thursday-Friday-Saturday party period, and then as anticipation over the course of that next week. And so even though hooking up itself is not happening all the time, the conversation is omnipresent, and it’s omnipresent, too, online. There’s this constant sexual energy being traded very publicly in social media spaces.

I get asked a lot about hookup apps, and if students are using hookup apps to hook up, and my answer to that is, “They’re using every, every platform to hook up.” They may be using Tinder, but just as much they’re using Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat. They are all highly sexualized spaces on college campuses. So if you are paying attention as a student, you can’t help but feel enveloped by this conversation about who may or may not be hooking up with who.

You include kind of a poignant chapter in which you discuss the people opting out, and you very evocatively describe the experience of being sober in a dorm room and hearing the clack of heels and the screams outside. What is this like -- and maybe it’s the clearest way to see hookup culture -- for the students who, in your words, “opt out?”

A lot of them feel incredibly isolated and like they’re missing out on a really fundamental life experience. It’s almost a cliché to tell young people that “college is going to be the best years of your lives.” And that’s a lot of pressure. A lot of students come to college really thinking that that’s true and that if they don’t take advantage of the particular . . . fun that college has to offer, that they’re missing out on something that they’re going to maybe regret forever. But if they really don’t enjoy it, then they often don’t participate.

So instead they often feel just lonely and isolated from their peers. You know, in “drunkworld” -- and Vander Ven makes this point really wonderfully -- part of what happens at those crazy parties is that friendships are cemented. Something about being drunk together, but also escaping peril together, is really bonding. You know, you can be friends with someone, but once you’ve held her hair back while she pukes, you’re really friends now. So there are a lot of friendships that get cemented in these crazy times. And the students who are opting out of that stuff often feel like they have a hard time making friends at all. And not only that, but by opting out, they feel sometimes judged by their peers who don’t understand why they wouldn’t want to participate, but they also think that their peers feel judged by them. So they have a hard time bonding with them for that reason. In another book called "Paying for the Party," they are described as “isolates,” these students who decide to opt out of these sexy parties. And my students used the word “isolated” independently several times to describe how they felt.

In a way your book isn’t merely about hookup culture; it uses campus hookup culture as a lens for looking at society in general. What do you think your research tells you about our culture today?

Oh, I think everything applies. I really feel like what we’re looking at on college campuses is just American culture in microcosm. I mean, these young people are not getting their ideas about sexuality out of thin air, and they’re not inventing them whole cloth when they get to college. And they certainly don’t apply simply to college. And so I think that what we see on college campuses is almost a concentrated, crystallized, clear demonstration of many of the values that are driving all of our sexualities, that are harming all of our sexualities. And so I do think that anyone of any age, whether they went to college or not, is going to be able to recognize many of those dynamics in their own lives.

One of them is this idea that we should “play it cool” with one another to the point of stripping any potential for connection out of our encounters. On college campuses, the worst thing you can be called is “desperate,” and the idea is that you’re never supposed to need anybody else or want anybody else in any way except sexually. And that means no one’s allowed to actually say they like each other. And I think that that is absolutely a dynamic that is coloring the interactions of so many people in America, both people who are dating and people in relationships. There’s this fear of being too needy, too clingy, that really stunts our ability to be honest and open with each other and actually have deep emotional bonds.

At some point, we ought to talk about the connection between hookup culture and sexual assault. You say it’s pretty strong. What is that connection?

Hookup culture both camouflages sexual assault and catalyzes it. It camouflages it by making the behavior that sexual predators use to gain access to their peers in a criminal way look normal. Having sexual contact with someone who is extremely drunk, pulling them into a dark, private part of the house, and being alone with them is seen as perfectly normal in hookup culture. And if someone is set on exploiting their peers, they can use that.

But it’s also a catalyst because it tells men, in particular, to enact this particular kind of aggressive sexuality, and when young men either embrace or feel pressure to enact that kind of masculinity, they come at risk of assaulting their peers. So even very good, nice men, under the right conditions, can find themselves having a lapse of judgment, or being too conformist with hookup culture’s expectations and crossing the line to sexual assault. If it’s not OK to be nice, then what we’re asking students to do is to figure out where the line is between being an asshole and being a criminal. And that’s hard. That’s a lot to ask of someone . . . especially drunk people.

Say you’re speaking to a group of recently graduated high school seniors in the summer before they go off to college. What advice would you give them?

The first piece of advice I would give is that it might seem like everyone is doing it, and everyone is enjoying it. But if you don’t enjoy it, that is perfectly normal. In fact, yesterday I gave a talk at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and a girl came up to me after the talk to thank me for writing this book, and then absolutely burst into tears and said “I thought there was something wrong with me.” Because she didn’t enjoy it, and she was under the impression that everyone did it and she was the only person. And there’s a lot of bravado on college campuses. There’s a lot of people who are really trying to embrace this sexuality that seems modern and liberated. And not everybody’s cut out for it. And that’s OK.

Then the second piece of advice I would give them -- and this is one I would like parents to hear, too -- is that you deserve to be treated with respect and care always, no matter what kind of sexual encounter you’re having, with who, or under what circumstances, and with any sort of future intention. And if you’re not, there’s something wrong. Because hookup culture tells students that they shouldn’t expect respect and care out of a hookup, because hookups aren’t relationships. And we’ve decided only relationships [are] the place for care. And so that gives students permission to be cruel and careless in hookups, and it tells students that when you are treated badly in hookups, that’s OK. And that’s not OK.

You talk at one point about the way that notions of “fun” and “freedom” are intertwined on campuses. You write, “To your average college student, hooking up isn’t just about a good time; it’s about enacting one of America’s most cherished values.” Does being all-American mean that you must participate in hookup culture? Can you unpack that a bit?

Certainly there’s this notion in American culture that you can only be free if you’re having fun and you can only be having fun if you’re free. So there’s this conflation of letting loose of all these restraints and constrictions, and that that is almost the definition of having fun. And, on the college campuses in hookup culture, that includes letting loose of all of your inhibitions about sexuality, and all of your internalized repression. And the idea is that the truly sexually liberated person only says “yes,” and would never feel inspired to say “no” at all.

And in particular if you’re a woman on a college campus today, being able to shed all of these constraints that have supposedly held women down sexually in our recent past feels like what it means to be modern, what it means to live in a free society. And that is a lot; there is a very strong argument there not just for the opportunity to be casually sexual, but the imperative to do so, as a truly modern, liberated person. So a lot of the women on campus feel like they’re failing if they don’t feel comfortable doing that, that they have somehow internalized their own repression, and they say things like “I really envy the women who can [participate in hookup culture]. I wish I was like them.”

I would really like us to live in a society where we felt free to say “yes” or “no” to any and all sexual opportunities, without any sort of second-guessing ourselves. But we’re not there yet.

Do colleges -- the official institutions, themselves -- participate in, or endorse, or are they complicit in, this culture in any way?

Colleges at first, in the colonial era in America, were very staid, very stodgy. And they were mostly about helping middle-class men become ministers. And they were also very religious. And they evolved over a couple hundred years into spaces where students were supposed to party. And we can trace it back to the college attendance by the sons of rich families who didn’t want to obey their stodgy minister professors, and spent a hundred years of rioting and then another hundred years of organizing into fraternities in order to make sure that they could have fun on campus. And then that got democratized.

We like to point to "Animal House" in 1978, and that movie was really influential. But we had already decided that colleges were a space for young people to go wild starting around the 1920s. And then after "Animal House" the alcohol industry spent millions of dollars to convince us that students in college should be drinking. So this is not a natural evolution or an inevitable evolution, but that’s where we’re at, in terms of partying on campus.

But now that that’s the expectation, there’s a lot of pressure on colleges and universities to provide that to young people. And if you look at their marketing materials, there’s a lot of emphasis on leisure and having a good time. You’ll see a lot of pictures of the swimming pool and the rock-climbing wall and the cafeterias and students having fun on the quad, and very few pictures of students actually studying, in campus advertising materials. Now that they know they have to provide that to students, they use it as a marketing tool. But because the drinking age is still 21, they often can avoid any liability for the “drunkworld” that then gets enacted on campuses. Because if it’s happening off-campus, which includes fraternity houses, colleges can say “Hey, we have nothing to do with any of that.”

And that I think is a mistake. Because then colleges decide to abdicate themselves from any responsibility for the social life that they are exploiting to bring students to campus, and that is the primary source of all kinds of dangerous things. I mean, yes, these big parties are a primary source of sexual assault, but also dangerous binge drinking and alcohol poisonings and accidents including things like falling off a roof and out of windows -- fatal and disabling accidents. These are very, very dangerous spaces. So I think that colleges need to own up to the fact that it’s their responsibility to try to provide a safe space for young people to learn and grow, and I hope that they start taking both sexual assault and these other problems in those spaces much more seriously, and get real about doing more than just protecting their own bottom line.

By Philip Eil

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter at @phileil

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American Hookup: The New Culture Of Sex On Campus Authors Books Hookup Culture Lisa Wade Sex University