Hooking Up on Campus

Lisa Wade’s book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus (2017) examines the hookup culture on college campuses. Contrary to myths about how much sex college students are having, Wade quotes recent research finding that “today’s students boast no more sexual partners than their parents did at their age” (17). Despite this, hookup culture itself has significant influence on campus. Wade notes “it’s the elevation of the hookup over all other ways of engaging sexually that has transformed campuses from places where there is hooking up to places with a hookup culture” (49). Wade’s informants describe the very strategic use of alcohol in hooking up; being drunk puts the sex “into the realm of meaninglessness” (45). After a hookup, students report investing significant effort making it clear that the encounter meant nothing, going so far as to treat their hookup partner coldly or being unfriendly so that no one misunderstands or expects the hookup to grow into a relationship. Women, in particular, see the hookup as both liberatory and “a way to protect their ambitious trajectories” (67), envisioning a serious relationship as something that would interfere with or interrupt their future plans.

Wade identifies a typology of students to describe their involvement, or lack thereof, with hookup culture. First there are the “’abstainers,’ students who decide they’d rather have no sex at all than obey the rules of hookup culture (93). Next are the “’dabblers,’ students who hooked up but did so ambivalently” (121). The “enthusiasts” are “motivated almost entirely by fun, excitement, and pleasure” (125). Finally, there are the “’strivers’: ones who opt in but feel shut out” (129). The hookup is also embedded in racial politics with “a hierarchy of sexual desirability” (93) that values some people as more desirable hookup targets than others.

Hookup culture also reverses the trajectory of dating. Rather than dating and then engaging in sex, “dates almost always come after they [students] have been hooking up together for a while. Dates aren’t how today’s college students get to know each other; they’re how the transition from casual sex to a potential monogamous relationship is signified” (145). Wade spends a significant amount of time discussing the gendered “orgasm gap” (15) where “men are more than twice as likely as women to have an orgasm” during a hookup (159). Wade suggests that the hookup culture “doesn’t promote reciprocity” but is “specifically designed for men’s orgasm” (167). Female students complain about being used as an instrument for sex, but also acknowledge that they don’t ask for what would provide pleasure for them. Male students care about giving their relationship partners orgasms, but note that they “feel little need to do their hookup partners the same courtesy” (170). In part, men use talking about with whom and how they hooked up as a way to bond and as a way to jockey for position in their interactions with other men.

Wade questions the idea that women who kiss other women at parties do so to attract male attention. Some women use that performativity as an opportunity to explore or act on their desires for other women, finding that “the assumption of heterosexuality is excellent cover for same-sex eroticism” (182). Although hookup culture is embedded in heteronormative assumptions, it can mask same-sex attraction.

Wade discusses the ways in which hookup culture not only contributes to campus sexual assault but is, itself, “a rape culture, a set of ideas and practices that naturalize, justify, and glorify sexual pressure, coercion, and violence” (206). Alcohol is implicated here as well, and serves as “the rapist’s greatest weapon” (211). Wade cites research that finds men engage in a significant amount of “non-consensual behaviors” at parties and bars, including grabbing and groping women (206-7).

Wade closes with a strong condemnation of the underlying attitudes and behaviors of hookup culture; “Hookup culture, strongly masculinized, demands carelessness, rewards callousness, and punishes kindness” (244). In a review of American Hookup, Jennifer Senior describes it as “retro, hetero, blotto and — at moments — worryingly psycho.” Wade suggests that transforming hookup culture into something more reciprocal is important because “some students will always prefer hookups” (246). It’s not the hookup or casual sex itself that is a problem for Wade, but the unhealthy culture that enables and surrounds it. She hopes for a “diversification” of sexual cultures, and argues that “we need to chip away at hookup culture’s dominance and force it to compete with other, more human sexual cultures that we can envision” (246).

Written by Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D., Director, Women’s and Gender Resource Center
July 5, 2018