Carnal Knowledge

As you send your beloved offspring to college this fall you know that alcohol-fueled hookups are as much a part of campus life as football games and dorm rooms. In fact, you probably have your own fond memories of hookups, but according to one sociologist and expert in human sexuality, dating culture has been completely usurped by the culture of casual sex. Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, looks at this phenomenon without judgment in “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus” — she highlights the good aspects of a more sex-positive environment — while dissecting the emotional and social impacts through student interviews and examination of who most benefits from this no-strings-attached setup. It is a fun, but messy and sometimes tragic picture Wade paints through her findings.

For me, the quote from her book that most encapsulates the reality of the changing relationship dynamics on campus is from a male student: “It’s harder to ask someone out than it is to ask someone to go back to your room.”

Her message to readers is not to ask “How can we go back?” but “Where do we go from here?”


Q: I know you’re a professor in Los Angeles, so why do you call New Orleans home?
A: I’m officially bi-coastal, but I bought a house in New Orleans and consider it my true home. I think everything about life that is good is much, much better here. And what’s bad in life is worse here, but when you really love someone you want to be there for the tragedy as well as the good and I’m in love with New Orleans.

Q: So what is hookup culture and why did you decide to write a book about it?
A: The simplest definition of hookup culture is the idea that people should be having casual sex. A more complex definition includes a set of rules for interaction of students that facilitate these hookups within an institutional context.

I started teaching freshman-and senior-level human sexuality classes and noticed that the media coverage and popular culture conversation about hookup culture was oversimplified and didn’t capture how insightful students are about it. As part of the class, my students wrote in diaries and when I collected them I was impressed with what they had to say. They deserved to have their voices out there and I decided the public conversation about the subject needed to have an intervention.

Q: How do you think the university system is set up to encourage hookup culture?
A: Colleges are now marketing themselves as places where people should come to have fun and it’s reiterated in pop culture and the way parents talk about their college experiences. Imagine if colleges sold themselves as rigorous, challenging or mind-achingly difficult. It’s about fun — and a particular kind of fun. We can thank frat brothers for that narrow image of partying to the point of perilousness and sexual conquests. University relationships with fraternities allow men to define what fun is at college.  There are institutional rules such as no drinking allowed in dorms, no parties allowed on sorority row and laws such as no drinking until 21 that encourage students to attend fraternity parties.

Q: It seems like hookup culture is not contained to colleges, it happens in junior highs across America on up to retirement communities. Single adults often downgrade from a dating relationship to a hookup-only relationship with that same person.
A: It’s a cultural phenomenon that’s gained power on college campuses but you’ll see the hookup script escaping to other institutions. If you think of the rules for hooking up as one script, and the rules for dating as another script, you’ll encounter people who are going to use the dating script at first and then move to a hookup script with no notice and that’s now seen as a legitimate thing to do — flip the script. Students accept that the person you’re having sex with doesn’t have to have feelings for you.

Q: Is there anything good about hookup culture?
A: Most students don’t want to go back to a situation where women were considered broken or disgusting if they had sex, and most men agree. Plus, the open acknowledgement that we are sexual, that it’s normal to have sexual feelings, want to connect in that way and that we shouldn’t have to feel guilty about wanting that.

Q: Do you have insights or advice specific to hookup culture for students going off to college for the first time this fall?
A: Yes, two things. One is whatever you feel about what would make you comfortable sexually is the right thing for you. Full stop. And two, no matter what kind of sexual interaction you have, whether it be with a friend, husband, stranger, you always deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.  


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus” By Lisa Wade W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95



Hooking up, a how to (excerpts from the book)

Step 1: Pregame. “When everyone is being their intoxicated self, students collectively bring into existence a thing called ‘drunkworld’.”

Step 2: Grind. “Grinding is the main activity at most college parties. Women who are willing press their backs and backsides against men’s bodies and dance rhythmically.”

Step 3: Initiate a hookup. “’The classic move to establish that you want to hook up with someone,” Miranda’s friend Ruby wrote from a woman’s perspective, “is to turn around to face him, rather than dance with your back pressed against his front.”

Step 4: Do…something. “According to the Online College Social Life Survey, in 40 percent of hookups, Ruby’s ‘it’ means intercourse. Another 12 percent include only what we might call foreplay: nudity and some touching of genitals, while 13 percent proceed to oral sex, mostly performed by women on men, but don’t include intercourse.  A full 35 percent of hookups don’t go any further than open-mouth kissing and groping.”

Step 5: Establish meaninglessness. “The goal is ‘fast, random, no-strings-attached sex.’”

Step 5a: Be (or claim to be) plastered. “Sober sex is interpreted entirely differently from drunk sex. It’s heavy with meaning. ‘A sober hookup indicates one that is more serious,’ explained a student.’”

Step 5b: Cap your hookups. “A second trick for dismissing the significance of hookups is to limit how many times two students hook up together.”

Step 5c: Create emotional distance. “After it’s all over, students confirm that a hookup meant nothing by giving their relationship — whatever it was — a demotion. The rule is to be less close after a hookup than before, at least for a time. If students were good friends, they should act like acquaintances. If they were strangers, they should act like strangers. And if they were strangers, they shouldn’t acknowledge each other’s existence at all.”




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