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Allison Sawyer (CC 17): Seeking the True Face of “Hookup Culture” with Professor Lisa Wade

Allison Sawyer (CC 17): Seeking the True Face of “Hookup Culture” with Professor Lisa Wade

Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, has identified a phenomenon that she believes to be unique in the history of sex: she labels it “hookup culture,” and what is new is not that young people are having casual sex, but that this sex has become the norm and the expectation on college campuses. Professor Wade came to Columbia to discuss her research and insights on this topic in a February 7, 2017 talk entitled “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.”

I appreciated Professor Wade’s commitment to not succumbing to the generalizations or moralistic pronouncements that often pervade discussions of this topic. By presenting the fraction of students who, according to her research, love hookup culture, choose not to partake in it, or feel ambivalently about it, she sought to complicate the generalized surface-level view of this phenomenon and expose the complex system of actual relationships people have to it. She made the critical distinction between “hookup culture” and actually “hooking up”; while one can “opt out” of the latter, if one wishes, there is no avoiding the cultural expectations and pressures that surround it. It was refreshing to hear the often relatable, incredibly personal student accounts that she had gathered and to see myself and my peers reflected in different aspects of this multi- faceted college student portrait. While I think Columbia has its own particularities, such as the extreme amount of academic stress many students are under and the relatively limited free time this leaves for romantic and sexual exploits, many of her observations resonate strongly here as well, and thus presumably generalize well on a national scale.

Another of Wade’s points that I found particularly interesting is the idea that women are encouraged to embody stereotypically “masculine” behaviors their whole lives—within the strict limitations of gender norms, of course—and thus when they get to college, they naturally gravitate toward a more “masculine” way of having sex. I recognized this to be true in my own life: I was always encouraged to play sports and pursue math and was always praised more for these behaviors than for my activities in the more “feminine” realms of dance and visual arts. Today, when I tell people I am majoring in computer science, it is not rare to get nods of approval and comments to the effect of “That’s such a great field for women to get into.” I have observed this expectation that women embody the “masculine” in other realms as well, and it has bothered me by its double standards and impossibility to navigate. For example, women in politics are expected to exhibit the “masculine” virtues of strength and conviction, yet they are not freed from expectations of “feminine” qualities like being nurturing and smiling liberally. Although “tech culture” varies greatly by company, it seems to often exhibit a related paradox whereby women are encouraged to participate in company culture in the abstract, but then frequently stigmatized for—if not outright blocked from—participating in “masculine” activities like discussing video games and playing flag football. Wade did not claim that women are categorically disadvantaged by participating in hookup culture, but she did point to the ways in which women, as usual, need to tread a finer line of socially expected gender fluidity: in hookup culture, “desperate” is the worst thing you can be, a label that is stereotypically feminine and much more readily applied to women. Thus women must again navigate a thin range of “acceptable” behavior within which they must completely avoid certain aspects of “traditional” feminine sexual behavior while retaining others (since clearly, the gender binary is not being demolished here), a challenge that some women find liberating and others find anxiety-inducing, plus a whole range of emotions in between.

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