Hooking up ain't a Thing, but Hookup Culture Sure Is

BTRtoday sat down with Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College and author of “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex On Campus,” to get the what’s-what about college hookup culture. We learned that it’s not at all like the movies say, like your mom says, like your sex-negative congressman says it is, or even like other college students are claiming it is.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited below. The entire interview can be heard on Juicy Bits, the podcast.

BTRtoday (BTR): You say in the book that the entire debate surrounding college hookups is wrong. What do you mean by that?

Lisa Wade (LW): Most of the debate is about whether or not students should be having casual sexual contact with each other and who it’s good for, if anyone. What the data shows is that a third of students aren’t having any sexual contact with their peers at all. The average number of college hookups for a college senior is just eight, and half of those are with someone they hooked up with before. So students aren’t having nearly as much sex as journalists think or parents fear or even students believe. And if they’re not having that much sex then that can’t possibly be the source of either good or bad things on campus.

BTR: So you’re not advocating a pro or con stance on hookup culture but just saying it exists and not in the way that we think?

LW: My argument is that the problem on campus isn’t the hookups but hookup culture. I don’t take a pro or con stance on casual sex, that’s for sure. But there are some features of hookup culture that are pretty toxic and are making students unhappy.

BTR: I know you use your own students’ narratives in your work–what was it like introducing the idea to them and then getting them to share with you? Some of it is obviously pretty personal.

LW: There’s a lot of data in the book but the spirit of it comes from these 101 students who submitted weekly diaries for a semester of their freshman year. I introduced the project to them on the first day of class and I admit that many of them were pretty skeptical. Of course they had the choice to opt in or out of the study but I found that a lot of students were very eager to share their stories. Which is typical of research of any kind; people like to be asked “what is your life like? What are your experiences like?”

As for the ones who were skeptical, they often came around over time and that has just been because they got in the habit of writing the notes and started to enjoy it. It might also be because they learned to trust me over time. A lot of times, the most harrowing stories aren’t the first ones they tell but they tell them later on in the notes.

BTR: Why first years in particular?

LW: I picked first year students because it’s in the first year that hookup culture has the greatest hold over students. It’s in the first year that many of them are living in residence halls. Their whole lives are encompassed by this campus experience and so hookup culture tends to be stronger for that reason.

It also tends to be stronger because students are bringing in their own preconceived notions about what college is like, which tend to align with a lot of hookup culture’s ideas. So they haven’t quite figured out that real life on campus isn’t quite like it is in the movies.

BTR: They come on with ideas of “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds” and by sophomore year figure out it’s not like that?

LW: Exactly. So we also see that students hook up more in their first year, their first semester, and sometimes even their first week or weeks of college than they will the whole rest of the time. The same numbers show up for sexual assault. So it’s a critical moment.

BTR: Why do you think society is always so interested in how and why and if young people are having sex?

LW: [Laughs]. It’s a perennial interest. I think what we forget is that sex is the pin that holds together so many arenas of life that are about power. Theoretically, sex can destroy racial distinctions. Sex makes babies and if we have sex with some people and not others, we could destroy an entire system of racial inequality. Sex is the way we pass money down and keep it hoarded in elite communities. Sex is the way in which we bring families together and start to share resources. Sex holds together a lot of power and so controlling sexuality has been central to American culture, or human culture, ever since we started hoarding wealth and power with private property. So I think it’s a historical legacy. It’s not just a simple thing about free choice, not when we live in a society that’s about power and inequality.