Harvard Educational Review
  1. American Hookup

    The New Culture of Sex on Campus

    Lisa Wade

    New York: W. W. Norton, 2017. 304 pp. $26.95 (hardcover)

    In American Hookup, sociologist Lisa Wade explores a topic on which many opine but on which the research literature is less often invoked: the sex lives of undergraduate students. College students, op-ed columnists, and members of the general public have written essays alternately celebrating, condemning, and lamenting the rise of a supposedly carefree and attachment-light mode of sexual interaction that has come to be known in popular discourse as the “hookup culture.” Wade joins this ongoing discussion and brings to it a wealth of data, a keen eye and intellect, and an obvious respect and fondness for the students with whose stories she has been entrusted. The result is a compelling narrative that is at times heartbreaking and at other times nothing short of hilarious. 

    Wade sets the scene by summarizing some of the discussion of sex on campus that has occurred in the popular and academic presses in recent years, noting that “the idea that college students are having a lot of sex is certainly an enthralling myth” (p. 17). In Wade’s view, however, the problem is not actually hookups themselves, as the average student simply isn’t engaging in anything close to the nonstop whirlwind of sexual activity that is often imagined to be the norm on college campuses. Instead, the problem is the hookup culture, a set of shared understandings and norms about whether and how to hook up that pervades most American college campuses. It is worth noting that although Wade’s argument that the hookup culture is pervasive is compelling, her framing of who it affects is really limited to traditional-aged students on residential college campuses that function as total institutions—that is to say, enclosed spaces in which students’ lives are formally directed and where students live and work isolated from the broader society. By contrast, the two commuter campuses Wade visited were less thoroughly in the grip of the hookup culture. For the bulk of the book, however, traditional-aged students on four-year residential campuses are treated as the normal college student, a framing that some might find out of step with changing demographics of students in higher education.

    In the first chapter, Wade draws on her students’ stories to offer the uninitiated a richly descriptive how-to guide for hooking up, taking readers inside the experiences of pregaming, grinding, hooking up, and post-hookup impression management around which so much of the social and party lives of undergraduates revolve. From there, Wade moves to offer some historical context for “how sex became fun.” Tracing ideas about sex through the twentieth century, including the feminist movement and sexual revolution, Wade interestingly argues that “fun” has become linked to “freedom,” making sex a way for young people to assert and confirm their liberation. Fun isn’t just about sex, though; in the next chapter, Wade continues to pull on the thread of fun, discussing how fun is essential to the marketing of the college experience. I left this chapter with questions about whether this reading of the role of fun in college overestimates the importance of culture and downplays the structural realities that drive students to go to college and whether the narrative emphasizing fun speaks primarily to young, white, middle-class students or is inclusive of students of a wider set of backgrounds. 

    In chapters 4 and 5 Wade discusses two different orientations to the hookup culture: those who opt out and those who opt in. The attention to students who opt out of active participation in the hookup culture is a needed antidote to handwringing—both on the part of students and columnists—about the idea that everyone is doing it. Even within the population of students who do opt in, Wade thoughtfully teases out the nuances among groups she calls “utilitarians,” “experimentalists,” “enthusiasts,” and “strivers.” While many students participate in the hookup culture, they do so with various levels of excitement and a myriad of rationales.

    In the next few chapters, Wade explores the emotional impacts of the hookup culture. In chapter 6 she cracks the veneer of carelessness that characterizes hookups and, to borrow her temperature metaphor, gets at how students actively work to keep their sex lives hot and their hearts cold. Wade further explores gender asymmetries in engagement in the hookup culture, finding that in heterosexual hookups, male pleasure is centered and female pleasure is often an afterthought at best and shamed and denigrated at worst. Wade, citing student conversations, shows how hooking up is related to status and how men strategically prioritize their pleasure as a way to stay on top of the social hierarchy. 

    In chapter 8, in one of the most touching chapters of the book, Wade discusses students’ fundamentally human need to be desired. Here again she draws out important findings about the gender asymmetries (e.g., men want, whereas women are wanted) and how the pressure to be desirable and maintain an elevated position in the social hierarchy takes a significant toll on undergraduate women. Wade’s use of a reality television show, Battle of the Bods, to connect college women’s struggles to larger societal ills is especially effective here, as it implicates society as a whole in the construction of impossible and unattainable ideals that set women up to feel like failures.

    Chapter 9 is by far the most harrowing part of the book. In it Wade tackles one of the very worst consequences not just of the hookup culture but of society’s acceptance of gendered abuse and violence: sexual assault on college campuses. Those who are survivors or simply faint of heart may want to exercise care when approaching this chapter. I found it upsetting to read the gut-wrenching stories students shared of violations ranging from lack of enthusiastic, affirmative consent to brutal rape. Wade thoughtfully discusses these difficult stories, interrogating how the hookup culture protects and enables abusers and diplomatically offering that, in addition to the “true predators” (p. 213), the hookup culture creates space in which “men that seem good, men that are good, sometimes rape” (p. 223). While I personally object to that statement—if “good” people rape, then I’m not sure how useful a category “good people” is anymore—I deeply appreciate Wade’s sociological care not to demonize individuals but to attend to how cultural and structural forces shape individuals’ actions. In a time when Title IX–informed guidance on how universities should handle sexual assault is being rescinded, Wade’s research highlights just how urgent and in need of intervention the issue of campus sexual assault truly is.

    In the final chapter Wade shares the results of her follow-up interviews with some of her original participants, most of whom had since graduated. She traces how members of the different groups—enthusiasts, dabblers, and abstainers—approached the hookup culture through the rest of their undergraduate careers. And then, moving beyond the hazy “drunkworld” of the college hookup culture, Wade shows how these young adults navigate the equally confusing terrain of adult dating. In this discussion of dating in the real world, Wade drives home that the hookup culture isn’t a phenomenon limited to college campuses; both in the introduction and in the final chapter, she briefly links it to trends that continue outside of the campus gates, bringing us full circle. Wade concludes by asking difficult questions. How do we maintain the space for pleasure on college campuses while reducing the danger that currently accompanies the hookup culture? How do we leave room for casual sexual encounters while also promoting an ethic of greater care? How do we transform sex on college campuses, and in society as a whole, to include safer, more fulfilling experiences for people of all genders, races, classes, sexualities, and persuasions?

    I suspect Wade is correct when she concludes that “if we want to fix hookup culture, we have to fix American culture” (p. 248). The kind of misogyny that makes the campus “orgasm gap” possible is endemic to American society. Fixing American culture is no easy feat, but Wade remains optimistic that, due to college campuses’ status as total institutions, meaningful change is possible, and perhaps quicker than we might imagine. I wish American Hookup included a robust discussion of what sorts of structural and cultural changes Wade thinks might ameliorate the current campus sex culture, but perhaps that is the work of a future volume.

    Given the wide array of sources drawn on to complete this work, I, as a reader and a researcher-in-training, wish this text included a methodological appendix. The data come from four distinct sources: students in two classes at two liberal arts colleges who submitted journals and consented to their use in the study; students who engaged with Wade during campus visits during her book tour; academic and popular press and campus newspaper articles about the hookup culture; and public Online College Social Life Survey data. At times it was difficult to keep track of how much of the narrative was based on the journals and interviews of students in Wade’s study, how much on the data gathering she conducted while taking her research on the road, and how much on publicly available narratives shared in campus newspapers or online outlets, for which full context may have been missing. Wade also notes early in the book that, consistent with qualitative research practices, names and identifying details have been changed, but she also notes that “while I stay true to the stories their lives tell us . . . other details have been changed and sometimes dramatized” (p. 21). Given the impressive array of sources drawn on, and the sheer number of colleges visited (p. 24) and mentioned in the book, a discussion of how Wade analyzed and made sense of all those narratives, and what it means for details to be “dramatized,” would have been useful context for all readers and of great interest to other researchers.

    On the whole, though, American Hookup is compellingly wrought. Wade draws on a staggering breadth of resources to bolster her argument, often attending to marginalized groups in discussions of queerness on campus, how participation in the hookup culture is different for some racial minorities, and other factors that leave some students on the fringes of the dominant culture. There were, however, points at which I found myself wishing for more analysis of how race and class shape engagement in the hookup culture, given that the descriptions of parties as being primarily about sex and alcohol resonated with my understanding of the dominant party culture but felt less accurate for minority spaces that operate on campus and are often an important part of the college party scene. The most robust discussion of how expressions of sexuality on campus are racialized was in the chapter on opting out, which left me wondering about how race impacted participation in the hookup culture for those who opted in. 

    Despite these moments when I thought there was room for further investigation, and the occasional claim I thought merited deeper interrogation or stronger substantiation, for the most part I was convinced by Wade’s analysis of the hookup culture, its pervasiveness, and the intricacies of its inner workings. And equally important, I was thoroughly enthralled and drawn into the world Wade presents. American Hookup is a book that should be of broad public interest and appeal, whether one is a sociologist of culture, a higher education researcher, an administrator on a college campus, or simply an interested citizen. In exploring the sex lives of undergraduates and the culture surrounding their intimate habits, Wade holds up a mirror to American society and to our own innermost desires to have fun, be safe, and be free.

    nadirah farah foley

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    Book Notes

    Youth in Postwar Guatemala
    Michelle J. Bellino

    American Hookup
    Lisa Wade