In her new book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, sociology professor and New Orleans resident Lisa Wade explores the sex lives of modern college freshmen. She's especially concerned with the alcohol-soaked, commitment-averse, frat-party-centric “hookup culture” that has contributed to several high-profile sexual assault scandals at prestigious universities across the country. Wade argues that this culture isn’t espoused, or really even enjoyed, by most students. Rather, a small group of privileged students who control the college social scene are the key advocates for this culture, and students of color, queer students and many women often are excluded — or socially penalized for their failure to participate.
There’s a launch party for the book at Octavia Books on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 6 p.m. Wade spoke with Gambit in advance of her appearance about the history of hookup culture and how it pertains to gender, race and sexual orientation.
Gambit: Tell us about where this conception of college (as a nonstop party where all bets are off) came from.
Wade: What ends up happening is there’s this [historical] transition … from higher education mostly being a place where middle-class men go to become ministers, to a place where rich elites go to get a degree that justifies the hoarding of wealth and power.
[Then], by the 1920s, you start to see this democratization of college campuses. More people are going to college in general; women are starting to go to college. That kicks in this sexual competition amongst men, because now they have to work to get women … That’s the moment at which frat culture on campus kind of defines the campus culture. Somehow everybody’s expected to do college the way the frat boys do.
No matter where the parties happen ... no matter where you go, even if it’s not frat boys in charge, even if there’s no frat men on campus at all, these parties are still inspired by the fraternity culture.
So this kind of environment is inspired by male social clubs, and you say it often ends up being men who control the social and sexual dynamics on campus. Why do women students feel like they have to go along with this?
Many women really have internalized and accepted the idea that sexual liberation for women looks like having sex the way a stereotypical man does. This is an unintended consequence of the feminist movement, the women’s movement in the 1970s. They wanted two things: they wanted women to have access to the valued stuff which men kept for themselves and was coded masculine, and they wanted everyone to sit up and notice that the things they had been held responsible for … [are] also valuable. And they only got that first thing.
Women got access to male spaces, personality traits, masculine hobbies, but we still haven’t come around to noticing that the things that are female-dominant and feminine coded are also valuable. We tell our little girls from the time they’re in diapers that being girly is fine, but being boyish is good. … Women are told that when you do things that men do, that’s when you’re really excelling, that’s doing something respectable and exciting.
It should be no surprise that they apply the same logic to sexuality. We think about sexuality and there’s a feminine way to be sexual and a masculine way to be sexual … and so they get on campus, and everyone on campus — men and women alike — is trying to enact the stereotypical male sexuality that is totally stripped of anything that’s coded feminine, including being nice, being thoughtful, caring about consent. All of that is stripped out.
One of the big arguments of your book is how so-called "hookup culture" can be difficult to navigate for students who are, in some way, different — you mention students of color, queer students and non-able-bodied students. Can you tell us about that idea?
So if you look at rates of hooking up, students of color hook up less; non-heterosexual students hook up less. I have not seen data on trans- or non-cisgender students, but I’m willing to bet they hook up less.
Each of those groups has a different story about why they don’t participate as much. A lot of the choices that students are making about who to have casual contact with are status-based. They’re not actually looking for ‘who do I like,’ in fact, they’re often looking for ‘who do I [not] like,’ because they don’t want to 'catch feelings.' The criteria isn’t ‘do I like this person,' it’s 'will other people think this person is hot' … and 'if I hook up with them, their status rubs off on me.'
It intersects with gender in interesting ways, but on the whole students of color are not seen as attractive as white students … our fear of bodies that are different kicks in.
When it comes to sexuality, we’re so committed to this narrative of naturalness, that our sexuality is, like, this thing about us that we’re completely immune to all cultural influence ... and of course that’s not true.
Our sexualities are deeply and viscerally acculturated so all of the biases of our society. They’re in our loins as well as in our brains.
So students who belong to a minority group of some kind often end up being excluded, or deliberately sitting on the sidelines. How does that affect their college experience? Does it end up shielding them, in some ways, from the more potentially damaging effects of this kind of sexual behavior?
It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other, I think. I have a [Latina] student ... [who] is not chosen by men looking to hook up with people. She’s torn about whether that’s a good or a bad thing; she’s ripped up about it. She hates that apparently nobody’s interested in her; she feels lonely and she would love for a guy to want to do that with her. But then again, she doesn’t want to do it.
In my book, a third of the students are abstainers. They are not hooking up at all. Because hookups lead to relationships, they’re also not getting into relationships. A third of students are saying, ‘If this is my only option, I’m not going to do it’ … that's consistent with other data I’ve seen.
The research on [abstainers] shows that they can experience very extreme social isolation; like if you’re a freshman and you live in the dorms, and everyone you know socializes by going to the frat house on the weekend and you don’t want to do that, then you miss out on a lot of the fun social life that’s going on campus. You miss out on the networking, so you’re not making friends, you are not part of the conversations … and that has pretty severe social consequences, and also some academic consequences.
There are a lot of stories floating around in the media these days about college students' concerns about social issues and privilege: their 'wokeness,' if you will. How does that kind of awareness interact with hookup culture, which in some ways seems much more retrograde?
[One of the students in the book], she’s very 'woke,' she’s very politicized. She’s politicized when she gets to campus and she ends up choosing this very liberal school, notoriously left-leaning. She complains that the students in classes are very interested in feminist theory and gender theory, but as soon as they leave the classroom, everything goes out the window.
There’s lots of students on campus that are politicized … but the dominant culture is not … and it makes sense, because the dominant culture is controlled by the students on campus with the most privilege.
And you get students who do identify as feminist, and who do identify as non-heterosexual, attending these very masculinist, very heterocentrist … social parties, because they don’t have other options. First of all, they’ve been told, this is what you do in college.
Why do you think this culture has become so entrenched? Do you see any areas where it could adapt and change?
One of the problems is that you just get this new cohort of freshmen every year. They have no idea what’s going on — all they know is what they see on TV of what college life is like, or how their uncle tells them it was the best years of his life, and then they get to campus and they don’t have an understanding of a lot of the nuances of the terrain.
For students on campus, there’s a lot of room for nurturing alternative cultures, starting to draw attention to alternative methods of engaging with each other’s sexuality, and building communities around that kind of thing.
[But] unless the institutions decide to start to chip away at the elite male student control over social life, then that’s going to be hard to disrupt.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.