‘Hookup culture is not liberation’: Dr. Wade rebrands casual sex

Dr. Lisa Wade published her book “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus” in 2017. Her research states that the average graduating senior hooked up eight times over the span of four years while one third of students do not hook up at all, according to The New York Times. KALI HOFFMAN Photo Editor

Lisa Wade, Occidental College sociology professor, researched the experiences of 101 students to uncover the effects of hookup culture

Written by Mitali Shukla

Published on 11/10/2019

On Beckman’s fourth floor, over 150 students filled the seats at Dr. Lisa Wade’s event on Nov. 4 that discussed American hookup culture on college campuses. Although many psychology and sociology students were required by their respective classes to attend the event, the energy in the room exuded excitement and curiosity. Hookup culture puts less emphasis on communication and caring about partners, according to Wade. Students who hook up with their peers follow the unspoken rule of the culture: emotional distance.

“If you’re not supposed to be particularly attentive to the other person, it makes tending to their desires and their safety something that’s difficult to do,” Wade, an Occidental College sociology professor, told The Panther. “We know communication is necessary, but why is it so hard? It’s so hard because we’ve decided that communication is not something we are to be attentive to.”

Wade’s book, “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus,” proselytizes the idea that hookup culture exacerbates sexual assault, unequal pleasures, bias in favor of emotional distance, excluding minorities, and emotional distress. She credits the competitive nature of hookup culture and the emotional distance required to participate in it. Her research included the journals of 101 students at Occidental College, 45 of which were students of color, 22 were working class and 19 were questioning their sexual orientation or were not heterosexual. She also read over 300 American college newspaper articles to get a sense of what was happening on university campuses across the country. College students engage in drunk hookups to remove themselves from any sort of emotional intimacy with that person.

“I was teaching sexuality classes and I was also paying attention to the cultural conversation in the media about hookup culture and I noticed a couple glaring problems,” Wade said. “One was that it was mostly centered on one kind of student: a particularly sexually active female, and usually white. What I was noticing among my students who are very diverse was that the whole picture wasn’t being painted.”

In what she describes as the “erotic marketplace,” Wade presented several factors that can determine who performs the best in a romance game that has made up hookup culture: socioeconomic class, race, status and sexual identity to name a few. The risks of playing the game, according to Wade, can be a sexually transmitted infections (STI) or diseases (STD).

“We’ve also found that because hooking up often happens within college institutions, those people tend to be quick to assume that people who are like them do not carry sexually transmitted infections,” Wade said. “They’re less likely to use protection; there’s a false sense of safety in hookup culture because the people you’re hooking up with go to your school.”

If you’re wondering about the recipe for how hookups progress, Wade said, the ingredients include alcohol, emotional distance and limiting the number of hookups with the same person – in that order of events. Hookup culture becomes competitive when students are looking to win through personal satisfaction: pleasure, status and achievement.

“The relationship is that drinking has become part of the very definition of hooking up. What I found was that sober sexual activity was seen as symbolically meaningful rather than drunk sexual activity,” Wade said. “Drunken sexual activity was seen as by definition for fun. Having alcohol around is absolutely central to having a hookup culture.”

While students want their interactions with partners not to mean anything serious, casual sex is an instrument of sexual liberation for women who often receive judgement from others based on their sexual activity, Wade said during her presentation. The quest for female sexual liberation cannot be boiled down to simply being sexually active, according to Wade, who called for a rebranding of what constitutes female sexual liberation.

“Hookup culture is not liberation. Saying ‘Yes’ to sex is not liberation,” Wade said. “Liberation is being able to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ for any reason without any sense that you’re doing anything right or wrong.”

When it comes to dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, the dynamic in which hookups occur reinforces the script that hookups require emotional distance and that they have no serious repercussions, according to Wade’s research.

“The apps are in a way a technological manifestation of the logic of hooking up,” Wade said. “Technology urges people to make snap judgements of people’s appearance and that’s getting back to that idea that you’re looking for status when hooking up.”

Sexual liberation, Wade said, needs its cultural definition to be updated so it can adapt to the changing landscape that college campuses are enveloped in. In the 1950s, women initiated the idea of “going steady,” whereas now, much of hookup culture thrives through parties or dating apps. The culture of sex on college campuses is heavily influenced by that of hookup culture in America. Wade encouraged students to do what feels right for them; that is, as long as they’re not hurting anyone.

“We misunderstand being sexually active as sexual liberation. In particular, being sexually active with no reservations. But, it’s OK to have reservations,” Wade laughed. “It’s OK to have preferences. It’s OK to have boundaries. It should be a part of what liberation looks like.”

In terms of what Chapman students can do to reverse the negative effects of hookup culture, Wade said that once students figure out what they want from Chapman – which can include funding for programs on sexual education – students have all the leverage they need to get the administration to provide better sexual health programs outside of Healthy Panther, a sexual education seminar hosted for first-year students during orientation.

“You all need to start talking to each other, telling the truth about what you’d like to see change and building alliances with one another based on the changes you’d like to see,” Wade said. “People don’t need to try and fit themselves into anybody else’s box.”