To promote her new book American Hookup sociologist Lisa Wade has taken to the pages of the Guardian to shine some light on the hookup culture. The book will not appear until January, 2017, but Wade’s thinking is a welcome addition to the debate about the hookup culture.
In particular, Wade debunks the notion, recently promoted, that since only a smallish percentage of students actually hook up-- that is, actually engage in random, anonymous sexual encounters-- the hookup culture is a myth.
She begins by describing a midafternoon hookup in an American dorm room. A student named Cassidy decides to have sex with some man in her room. She shows no consideration for the fact that her roommate is still in the room, within a few feet of the action. She is following a new precept: When the spirit moves you, you take action. Cassidy is an inconsiderate wretch. She thinks that she is cool. In truth, she has made herself a slave to the yearnings in her loins.
She is emulating the behavior of porn stars. She is disrespectful and shameless, but she believes that she is showing off. She does not just want to get off; she wants to set an example of amorally superior behavior.
It’s one thing to do it; it’s quite another to be indiscreet. And it's yet another problem to be proud of one’s indiscretion. With that gesture we are scraping the bottom of the moral barrel.
Students like Cassidy have been hypervisible in news coverage of hookup culture, giving the impression that most college students are sexually adventurous. For years we’ve debated whether this is good or bad, only to discover, much to our surprise, that students aren’t having as much sex as we thought. In fact, they report the same number of sexual partners as their parents did at their age and are even more likely than previous generations to be what one set of scholars grimly refers to as “sexually inactive”.
One conclusion is to think that campus hookup culture is a myth, a tantalizing, panic-inducing, ultimately untrue story. But to think this is to fundamentally misunderstand what hookup culture really is. It can’t be measured in sexual activity – whether high or low – because it’s not a behavior, it’s an ethos, an atmosphere, a milieu. A hookup culture is an environment that idealizes and promotes casual sexual encounters over other kinds, regardless of what students actually want or are doing. And it isn’t a myth at all.
Indeed, Wade is entirely correct. It doesn’t matter how many students are hooking up how often. The hookup culture, in its raw shamelessness, is an ethos within which students are obliged to function. Or not. The unhappy few who hook up maintain the highest status. Everyone else suffers because in the hookup culture dating and courtship and relationships are considered to be an outcast, not part of the in-crowd.
You can refuse to hookup, but you still live in its culture.
In Wade’s words:
These numbers show that students can opt out of hooking up, and many do. But my research makes clear that they can’t opt out of hookup culture. Whatever choice they make, it’s made meaningful in relationship to the culture. To participate gleefully, for example, is to be its standard bearer, even while being a numerical minority. To voluntarily abstain or commit to a monogamous relationship is to accept marginalization, to be seen as socially irrelevant and possibly sexually repressed. And to dabble is a way for students to bargain with hookup culture, accepting its terms in the hopes that it will deliver something they want.
Hookup culture makes dating more difficult. Even if you are involved in something like a relationship, the hookup culture makes you feel inferior. And besides, since no one respects commitments, the chances for cheating abound.
Again, students who hook up have the most prestige on campus. They are the wealthiest and come from families with the most status. They maintain their position, not only by hooking up, but by being especially shameless about it—as though theirs must be the standard for good behavior. If it is going to set the standard, everyone must know about it.
Hookup culture prevails, even though it serves only a minority of students, because cultures don’t reflect what is, but a specific group’s vision of what should be. The students who are most likely to qualify as enthusiasts are also more likely than other kinds of students to be affluent, able-bodied, white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual and male. These students know – whether consciously or not – that they can afford to take risks, protected by everything from social status to their parents’ pocketbooks.
Hookup culture, then, isn’t what the majority of students want, it’s the privileging of the sexual lifestyle most strongly endorsed by those with the most power on campus, the same people we see privileged in every other part of American life. These students, as one Latina observed, “exude dominance”. On the quad, they’re boisterous and engage in loud greetings. They sunbathe and play catch on the green at the first sign of spring. At games, they paint their faces and sing fight songs. They use the campus as their playground. Their bodies – most often slim, athletic and well-dressed – convey an assured calm; they move among their peers with confidence and authority. Online, social media is saturated with their chatter and late night snapshots.
The morning after, college cafeterias ring with a ritual retelling of the night before. Students who have nothing to contribute to these conversations are excluded just by virtue of having nothing to say. They perhaps eat at other tables, but the raised voices that come with excitement carry. At the gym, in classes, and at the library, flirtations lay the groundwork for the coming weekend. Hookup culture reaches into every corner of campus.
Note well that if the conversation revolves around last night’s hookup, those who have abstained are excluded from the conversation. They are treated like pariahs. Their views and their experience are not respected. They have come to think that any kind of relationship commitment labels them as outsiders, hopelessly retrograde.
Obviously, this does not date from yesterday. It helps us to understand why the millennial generation is so widely reputed to be so utterly lacking in good character. Would you trust someone who is willing to have sex in front of her roommate, without even asking permission?