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American Hookup

by Alessia Palanti, Italian, PhD candidate and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow

Lisa Wade, Associate Professor of Sociology at Occidental College, delivered a magnetic lecture to a packed lecture hall on February 7th on her book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.

Wade’s research incorporated first-hand experiences shared by students from several college campuses via in-person interviews and in writing. Wade’s book seeks to detangle the social codes and practices of “hookup culture” and circumvents a moralizing stance. Her research yielded some surprising data: according to Wade, approximately only eight students “hook up” throughout their college years, a figure that does not reflect the so-called epidemic of “hooking up” on campus.  According to Wade, therefore, the problem is not the behavior, it is the culture.

Wade clarified the meaning of “hooking up” as a casual sexual encounter with no interest in the pursuit of a more committed relationship. While not unique to the 21st century, what distinguishes casual sex practice today is that, in her view, it has become an expectation and/or obligation on the college campus; one should be having casual sex, and the institution in itself is set up to systematically endorse this kind of culture.

Wade discovered a set of specific “do’s and don’ts” to properly hooking up. For example, casual sex with a friend is dangerous, better to hook up with stranger or someone you actively dislike; alcohol is the social signifier for a hookup: it is best to be inebriated because sober sex implies intention and meaning. Students articulated the differences between a “hot” hookup, which is spontaneous and entirely commitment-free, and a “warm” hookup, which implies elements of affection and tenderness in a sexual encounter; it is protocol for a period of aloofness, or acting “cold” and unkind, or to even mistreat a partner after the hookup to minimize any assumption of an emotional connection. Sex itself—a tremendously intimate exchange—Wade warns, is understood and prized to be as meaningless as possible, whereas any small gesture, like holding hands, kissing, caressing are extremely meaningful.

Wade describes college as an erotic marketplace where the status of the people one hooks up with will directly influence one’s own status. Overall, Wade asserts that all disadvantaged social groups in American society (outside the college scene) are reproduced in hookup culture, where intersections of privilege tend to have more successful hookups. Wade discussed heterosexual men’s experiences with hookup culture as a form of initiation into male relationships, a means to navigate the world of masculinity and learn to make negotiations.

Wade took a number of questions from the audience, ranging from the cultural demands placed on men and homosocial bonding, to the rise of online dating and dating apps, the role of pornography and media representations of sexuality and sexual acts, issues of consent, the racialized experienced of hookup cultures, and, more pragmatically, how can this be changed? Ultimately, Wade argues that if we want to “fix” hookup culture, we must improve American culture.

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