American Hookup

W.W. Norton & Company, 304 pages

According to sociologist Lisa Wade, students are “hooking up” with drunken abandon at colleges and universities across America. But what is hooking up? It varies. It might be sex with your best guy friend or oral sex with a stranger. Or it could be what used to be referred to by older generations as “heavy petting.” It’s best not to try to pin down a precise definition, though, because in hookup culture that will definitely earn you a reputation as “needy.”

Wade writes that it is mainly the culture around sex and dating on college campuses that has changed in recent years. Though college kids today are not actually having more sex than they were two, three, or even four generations ago, they are enjoying it less while talking about it more. Relationships are out and casual sex is in. In the world that Wade studied in preparation for the book, going out on prearranged dates in order to get to know someone before you sleep with them is a thing of the past. Now, hookups begin on the dance floors of bars, fraternity parties, or school-sponsored events, where “women who are willing press their backs and backsides against men’s bodies and dance rhythmically.” The goal is to get back to a dorm room. After that, the proper protocol is to ignore each other for several days or weeks so as not to appear as if you need or desire anything from the other person. Whoever texts first loses.

For American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Wade consulted numerous studies, surveys, and articles. She conducted primary research on undergraduates enrolled in an introductory sociology course and a sexuality-themed writing intensive between 2010 and 2015 at two liberal arts colleges. Students were required to keep journals about what they observed of hookup culture. They were invited to write as much or as little as they wanted about their own experiences. These firsthand accounts give life to the book’s narrative, which is at times droll. Wade’s research took her to 24 colleges and universities in 18 states. Most of the schools offered Greek life or similarly structured party scenes, and most also had athletic programs. Wade takes a neutral but open-minded tone throughout, saving her moralistic concern for the emotional ramifications of participating in hookup culture, in which people are mean to one another as part of a larger game plan. When the goal is to “get some” from people you don’t really know, treating each other terribly is allowed and even encouraged.

“Once sex is over, the rule is to go from hot to cold,” Wade writes. “As one student explained, ‘The two worst things a boy can say to a girl is that she is fat or that she is clingy.’ Clingy, desperate, and needy are extremely effective insults, invoking all the things that students don’t want to be: weak, insecure, unable to control one’s emotions, and powerless to separate sex from feelings.” In the aftermath of a hookup, “Do not make anything a thing,” says one interview subject. Though young women often get the raw end of the deal when it comes to being treated respectfully — and being sexually satisfied — in hookup culture, Wade reveals coeds to be fully capable of objectifying men. Prospective hookups are discussed purely in terms of social advantage by some women, and young men’s bodies are described pejoratively during the morning-after play-by-play, in which women include the same intimate details that have traditionally been considered locker-room talk among men.

Wade explains that not everyone participates in hookup culture. Some dabble for a bit and lose interest, others don’t desire casual interludes, and still others are loners who don’t party. A handful of her student diarists never felt bereft by hookup culture and enjoyed it without shame or regret, while another segment experienced the worst of it in the form of sexual assault — a topic to which she devotes a chapter. Though students at all but the most religious colleges have some form of hookup culture, not all college party scenes are identical, so though the book is almost ridiculously entertaining, it does have its limitations. It would have been interesting to know if students’ hookup behavior differed by academic major, for instance. Wade does note that students participate in hookup culture more readily in the freshman and sophomore years and become less interested as their involvement in academic life increases.

Wade’s primary concern is the decoupling of relationships and respect. “Students … conclude that non-monogamy involves no kindness at all. …Students see two categories of engagement — hard and easy, caring and careless, emotional and emotionless — and nothing in between. But this isn’t as functional as it might sound. It’s one thing, after all, to have casual sexual encounters with someone with whom you are not in love, but it’s entirely another to do so with someone who may have no positive regard for you at all. In hookup culture, it can be hard to tell the difference.”

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