A sociologist’s new book charts the state of sex on campus
In the opening chapter of sociologist Lisa Wade’s American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, we meet Owen, a Californian freshman who admits that his first semester was one of the most “interesting, exciting, and strangest times of my life.” Unaccustomed to sexual experimentation at his high school of 60 students, outside of one secret fling, the tall, good-looking guy was now faced with an endless stream of meaningless hookups, “a paradise full of girls I’m attracted to.” And what’s more, they were willing to sleep with him.
So he dove in — but Owen soon realized the act of finding a girl to take home for a night was full of mind games, shallow attraction, and girls who sometimes only wanted him for his weed. They’d act indifferent or uninterested at the next run-in, and he’d find himself hurt or embarrassed that he remembered nothing about the girl in question except the color of her underwear. There would be gossip, awkwardness, and hurt feelings. A year later, he’d opted out of casual sex altogether. “My heart might break,” he said of the experience.
American Hookup is full of such tales of college experimentation and ensuing regret, from not just women — who, it’s been widely speculated bear the brunt of the pervasive hookup culture — but men too, who readers may be surprised to learn find it difficult to engage in the meaningless, competitive game of sleeping around that seems baked into the modern college experience. Wade defines hookup culture as a state of mind on any campus where there’s an expectation or even an imperative to get it on.
“Students who are in a hookup culture often feel like hooking up is what they are supposed to be doing, not just something they could do,” Wade told me by phone. “Hookup culture is that idea that college students should be hooking up and that other ways of engaging sexually are somehow deficient: uncool, regressive, repressed, overly emotional. There’s also a set of rules for interaction that facilitate hooking up and an institutional context that specifically enables hookups, but doesn’t support other kinds of sexual interactions.” Those rules include feigning indifference after the act, even to the point of cruelty sometimes, and making sure that whatever you do, keep it hot, fun, drunk and meaningless.
MEL spoke to Wade about her book, which incorporates a slew of research — her own, collected from dating reports written by 100 first-year freshmen in an Introduction to Sociology course at two schools, as well as reports from freshmen in sexuality-themed writing courses at schools across the country. She also did follow-ups on students who participated in her course after they graduated. And she toured 24 colleges to present her research and question students about it to compare notes.
Wade also talked to college employees and grad students in sexuality research, and consulted existing research on hookup culture, including surveys of 24,000 college students’ sexual behavior from 2005 to 2011 by sociologist Paula England.
The results of that deep dive allowed Wade to obliterate two pervasive, relentless myths about college students and meaningless sex: That everyone is hooking up, and that everyone likes it. But perhaps more importantly, she reveals that men aren’t the only ones damaged from the experience.
So much has been made of how shitty hookup culture is for women — issues of consent, plus they’re treated badly and have fewer orgasms — but you demonstrate through your research that it’s bad for men, too. Did that surprise you?
I think I sensed that it had to be the case that it was bad for men, too. I’m looking at students in the classroom teaching them gender and sexuality for years, so I know that the men in my classes are all unique and different and not all caricatures of male sexuality. I wasn’t too surprised. There were some stories from men, though, where I was really grateful for how open they were, and a few that taught me things.
Let’s talk about some of these stories from men in the book.
So, broadly, some men on campus don’t feel comfortable with the competitive or disconnected relationship to sexuality that’s part of hookup culture. You might have, for example, my student Emory. He was this very — he called himself a romantic — a very sweet person and he did not take well the rules that men must be sort of hard and unfeeling in casual sex. He told me, “I just cannot behave that way.” He only wanted to have sex in the context of genuine, real connection with another human being. Another student, Burke, was like that too — a very relationship-oriented young man, and they both found hookup culture unsuited to them.
There were male students who were deeply religious and who did not think what was happening was moral, and one changed his mind about that. The other, Arman, he ended up participating in hookup culture, but because he was kind of a deer in headlights — an international student — and didn’t have the wherewithal to stay out of the way of hookup culture, he ended up feeling racked with guilt because it was not what he thought was right.
There was Javier, who was Latino and a little chubby, who felt like no one would have him. He felt really excluded from and intimidated by hookup culture, so he opted out because he felt it was hopeless to participate, and he wanted to save his feelings about it. Later he said he was glad he did, because he ended up becoming friends with women and it was a really important developmental stage in his life. In his culture, machismo was really valued, and he’d never been taught to see women as people. Through this experience, he grew up and realized women were people, and made great female friends and thrived in that sense.
Then there was Corey, who was invested in hookup culture. He was a nice-looking guy and had everything going for him in that way — a privileged white guy who could play the game if he wanted to. But he called hookup culture a hostile environment because it was such a competitive game between men. He found it really intimidating to satisfy his male friends’ demands on him, which were to somehow manage the contradictory imperative of hookup culture — to hook up all the time, but only with women your guy friends won’t make fun of you for hooking up with. That was impossible, and his friend Simon was up against that as well.
I found that even men who were interested in hookup culture, and who could play it well, still found it demanding and not the way they would choose to engage otherwise — even if they could do it, and do it reasonably well.
And you have men like Hiro, who is bisexual and absolutely thrived in hookup culture. He loved hookup culture and thought it was the best thing that happened to him. You get such a contrast from the portrayal we typically get of men. The stereotype of male sexuality is something that some men and women find themselves striving to be, certainly. But it’s not a real thing. It’s just an idea that both men and women find themselves held captive by sometimes. It doesn’t fit men any better than it fits women.
You had that story of a couple, Tiq and Farah, who had hooked up and were pretty shitty to each other afterward, ignoring and hurting each other. They eventually meet up in person again at his request, and Tiq is actually trying to find out if she really likes him, so they can date, but he gets burned.
Tiq is so brave to be the one to say that — even by Farah’s own account she was meaner to him than he was to her. She played the hookup game as it hard as she could, and he was still so brave to say something about it, and I so admired him for that. He wasn’t one of my students, so I didn’t know what he was feeling, but it seemed like he really liked her, but she couldn’t transition to something more meaningful. He must have been heartbroken. I don’t know if he ever hooked up again. I did a follow-up with her, and she didn’t. After graduation she was still having an incredibly difficult time opening up to men. She said she was still trying to stop being afraid of holding hands. So it’s like, men are human beings, what do you know?
It seems like the worst of hookup culture is what you’d guess — frats.
I think there is a slice of men on campus, it’s probably around 20 percent or fewer, who are basically situated in such a way as to benefit from hookup culture the most. They carry a lot of privilege, they are structurally positioned in frat houses or de facto frat houses — usually some sort of group of men who have control over a space where a lot of parties happen. They theoretically have the least to lose in hookup culture. So I think that’s true. If you come from wealth and can afford to party and not get that great of grades and still be okay when you graduate, and you’re already at the top of a hierarchy and have a lot of women who want to hook up with you because you can bring status to them, it can feel pretty good. Yet, a lot of them still don’t love it.
One student said blowjobs were pleasurable “in a way” but still left him feeling empty. Even some of those men — and over all I feel like a lot of men didn’t like it — but their dislike of hookup culture was less extreme. If those men were distressed or disappointed about it, women by comparison were disgusted, pissed off and traumatized. It was a matter of degree.
Even those who are best suited to it, who find it the most easy to perform the stereotype, who take to it the most naturally, even they are more complex than that stereotype could ever capture. And the guys who actually feels completely whole and fulfilled solely by that enactment of sexuality alone are few and far between.
So what about follow-ups with men post-graduation, and how they were managing relationships?
That was one of the most interesting things I found. Men were a minority in the sample, but one of the interesting stories came from Burke, who had been relationship-oriented all along. Whereas after graduation many of the women were feeling completely at a loss for how to manage relationships — they felt the hookup script and dating script were simultaneously in play, and never knew which one to follow — Burke felt completely in control of his relationships. In college, he said, it was much harder to ask a girl on a date, than it was to make out with her. After college he had money, a car, and could call up a girl and say, “I’m picking you up at 7 and I’m taking you to dinner.” Because we give men the power over dating — and have since the 1920s, really — that was something he could do, so he felt better off. He got to decide which script was being used, but women didn’t.
So you mention in the book that men typically report wanting a relationship more than women do in college, too.
More men proportionally than women report wanting a relationship in college. There’s two statistics I quote in the book — one is that 73 percent of men and 70 percent of women say they would like a relationship in college. Another study found that 71 percent of men and 67 percent of women wished there were more opportunities to find a boyfriend or girlfriend. So men are at least as likely if not slightly more likely to be interested in relationships.
Another big thing in the book is that people are not hooking up anywhere near as much as we think they are.
Men are reporting more hookups than women, but it’s important to remember there’s not that much hooking up going on to begin with. The average number of hookups men and women report for all four years of college is eight. That’s one per semester. In that average, a third of students reported zero. If you look at the top 10 percent, they are hooking up more than anyone else and their number starts at 10 for the average. So someone in the 90th percentile, hooking up with more people than 90 percent of students, hooked up 10 times in four years. The vast majority of students aren’t hooking up at all, or between one and 10 times.
So it’s not pervasive, but it’s still unsettling.
That’s why I make the case that’s what making the unhappiness around sex and dating can’t be the hookup — they’re not doing it enough. What’s causing the frustration and malaise is the culture, which creates a context for sexual identity and thinking and choices, and it forces a lot of men and women to opt out when they’d rather opt in. Most students who said they hooked up zero in college said they would’ve liked to have had sex, but they couldn’t because they were too averse to the way the hookup culture allows them to do it. It makes the few experiences they have so unpleasant that when they do, that’s enough to turn them off the experience.
The men who slept with low-status women but treated them badly — what was that about?
Right, so the contradiction is you have to hook up all the time, but only with high-status women your friends won’t make fun of you for. That’s not possible, so the men would sleep with low-status women but treat them like shit, and say, “Yeah, I fucked her, but you should see how bad I treated her,” as a way of saving face. Sometimes those men hook up with women intent on playing the hookup game as hard as they can too, and the women act as callously as they can, and the guys don’t enjoy that either. In one couple in the book, Farah was playing that game so hard and Tiq was like, “This is miserable.” How many times do you get your heart crushed before you say, “You know what? I’m not doing that anymore.”
We have to talk about the orgasm gap, though — which is that in spite of all this, women are walking away less satisfied in these hookups right?
I think we should be a little careful not to oversimplify. Yes, men on average men have three times as many orgasms in first-time hookups. But that doesn’t mean men are having an orgasm every time. A lot — a third of first-time hookups are just making out. That doesn’t usually include an orgasm, maybe just getting horizontal, kissing, not taking clothes off, even kissing on the dance floor. The other thing to think about is that sometimes it’s just the guy laying back and then they follow the script where he gets an orgasm and it’s super easy. But sometimes that is not an enjoyable experience for men either.
I’ve talked to male students who would say sometimes it’s a little creepy how quickly women will do that. Particularly in a blowjob setting. They are aware they are benefiting from this sexual script, and women feel like this is what they have to do. On the surface it’s very pleasurable, but the men still didn’t feel good about it.
So we shouldn’t be too quick to say because men are getting blowjobs that they feel completely good about everything that’s happening or feel completely satisfied. I think some men do recognize that they are benefiting from a system that is simultaneously disadvantaging women and don’t feel good about it even if they accept the blowjob being offered.
But later in college, men and women both tended to focus on studies and want to pair off.
Owen, who opens the book, is a good example. On the surface he’s being successful — women are hooking up with him; there’s no reason you’d worry about him. He’s a good-looking white guy who is not going to suffer racism, he’s able-bodied, and a perfect candidate of who would thrive in this hookup culture — and yet, it’s not pleasant. He decides, “I would rather not do this at all than be the recipient of a blow job every once in a while.”
So it’s hopeful in the end, but still seems like a pretty bleak modern college experience.
But I think that’s true for men and women. They were all being sold this narrative of what sex should look like, particularly in college. It’s being sold to them by television and movies, being sold to them by alcohol corporations, telling stories about what college is supposed to be like, which is drunk and sexy. Colleges themselves — the ad materials 50 percent of the time don’t include a single picture of a student studying, so this narrative is also sold by the institutions themselves.
A lot of students say okay, and they give it the old college try, and it turns out it suits a minority of them, and the rest of them figure it out pretty quickly. In Owen’s case it took him a year. In a lot of students’ cases, it takes less time than that. But they are smart and figure out that this story they’ve been sold isn’t accurate or fair.
I don’t say it in the book, but Corey, the one who talks about the hostile environment and contradictory imperatives, was thinking about joining a frat and decides not to specifically because of these reasons in his first year. He comes in thinking about adopting the frat lifestyle and decides no, this is not for me.
So what can we do for men, then, given what you’ve discovered here? Do they need a separate preparation for this experience?
I don’t think they need a separate preparation — neither men nor women are getting the info and treatment they need. I think both men and women need to be exposed to the idea that these are not real portrayals of what humans are like in all their complexity and diversity. Statistically speaking, most college students, male and female, want something more meaningful than just random sexual encounters that have no tenderness. I think a lot of what students need is just an acknowledgment that the stereotype is partial, and largely fails to capture human life. If students are brave enough to say what they want, they will encounter other people who feel similarly.
They also grossly overestimate how much their peers are drinking and doing drugs, and underestimate how much they are studying. Michael Kimmel asked guys in a study I mention how much they thought other guys were having sex on campus any given weekend. They overestimated it by 50 times. Helping men and women both would involve destroying this mythology that everyone is doing this, and everyone is liking it.