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Workplace Harassment Begins With College Hookup Culture

A conversation with sociologist Lisa Wade, the author of ‘American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus’

Men go to college to learn skills that will serve them for the rest of their professional lives. But that skillset often includes a certain kind of alpha maledom that’s an essential component of Western masculinity. And when implemented in the workplace, those alpha males — with their fondness for dominance of all living creatures — leverage their power to breed the kind of harassment culture found at the Weinstein Company.

That, at least, is the theory of Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College and author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. Her belief is that sexual harassment starts long before a man’s first day at work — essentially taking root on college campuses and functioning as a byproduct of the scorekeeping that comes with hookup culture.

What’s your reaction to the Harvey Weinstein allegations?
I’m not surprised by any of this. Our society very, very tightly connects masculinity with power and sex. There’s the old line: Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. The feminist retort to that is: If this were about power, he’d just hit her. Sex is an incredibly efficient way to really hurt somebody. That’s why the word “fuck” has a double-meaning. It’s disturbing that we use such a cruel word to describe sexual interaction. We’ve imbued sex with a power to humiliate and harm. That’s why when men don’t like what a woman says on the internet, some of them send dick pics to her. They’re weaponizing their penises to make women feel bad. It pleases them that their penis is insulting to women.

Like how Weinstein would have women watch him masturbate?
Exactly. And if they were disgusted by it, that pleased him even more.

Is the word “fuck” gendered?
We use it in gendered ways. Men are the ones doing the fucking, and women are the passive recipients getting fucked. When we talk about women doing the fucking, we’re very specifically talking about women “taking on a masculine role in sexuality,” which means not just being active — but taking something away for their benefit.

That’s the starkest example, but we see it everywhere — in our language, in our media. It’s the way we think about sex. We’ve connected sexuality with power for a thousand years. The phrase “you suck” comes from cocksucker. Anyone who puts their mouth on a penis is a piece of shit, because a penis has the power to defile and make someone a lesser person. Men are carrying around this body part that gives them power but also makes them the defiler. So I feel for men.

You identified this phenomenon of masculine domination often occurring at college, right?
Let’s back up a second. The whole hookup script is hyper-competitive and individualistic. It’s about status and who you can “get” and “score” in this “game.” And who does and does not “count.” So when everyone is trying to “score” by getting someone who “counts” to have sex with them, your routine sexual script is already rubbing elbows with sexual assault.

Even in college, there are some men who can stomach this and some who can’t. Those men who like it the most are hooking up more than other men. So if you’re a woman hooking up, you’re going to encounter these kinds of exploitative, predatory men disproportionately to their presence in the population. It doesn’t take all that many encounters with these kinds of men in order to shape a person’s experience in hookup culture.

Similarly, if these kinds of men are rewarded for their behavior and end up in positions of power, they’re likely to bring this attitude into the workplace as well. It only takes one or two guys like this at the office to harm the experiences of 100 percent of the women. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a minority of men harassing everybody.

Why, then, do we consider college campuses to be ground zero for sexual assault?
Sexual assault isn’t more common on college campuses. It might happen in a different way. But I do think college campuses are ground zero for the experiment of what does it look like when everyone in a population thinks they’re supposed to perform a masculine stereotype of sexuality.

We raise our daughters these days to be liberated — she can do anything she wants to do! Unfortunately, what that really means in American culture is you can do anything boys do. In fact, when you do things that boys and men are associated with doing, you are somehow a better woman — a more impressive female — than you would’ve been otherwise.

We raise our daughters from the time they’re little to play with trucks and focus on getting good grades in math as well as English and join sports and pick a major that’s associated with a STEM field. They apply this same logic to sex when they get to college campuses. The way to be cool, the way to be modern and the way to be liberated is to approach sex like a stereotypical guy does. As a result, everybody on college campuses approaches sex in an “I’m gonna get mine” kind of way. Which is why many students find it uncomfortable. Because it’s not about connection; it’s about competition and status.

What’s the role of the “innocent” bystander? Does that role change from college to the workplace?
The bystander who wants to change workplace culture is going to have to make personal sacrifices just as women who want to change workplace culture have to make personal sacrifices. If a man reported another man’s behavior to HR or warned women about it and the other guy found out, he’s likely to face all kinds of repercussions from the minority of men who are invested in dominating women and other men with their sexuality. So maybe they get passed over for a promotion or are ostracized and not given access to important men in their field.

Where does this leave us?
There’s no magic bullet. There’s not a thing someone can say to make this all better. That’s how power works. Changing the system requires serious individual sacrifice, making it genuinely hard for all of us to make those choices and to make them consistently and persistently. Because we suffer every time we do it. That said, I very much agree with Margaret Mead, who once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”