“Sex is the only thing we call ‘making love,’ yet to students in college participating in hookup culture, sex is the most meaningless act — even more meaningless than the act of holding hands,” Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, said on Monday night during a talk about her upcoming book American Hookup: the New Culture of Sex on Campus at the USC Rossier School of Education.
“There’s a contradiction when it comes to sexual activity on college campuses: Most students are not having as much sex as they would like, but also they are choosing not to have casual sex because they don’t like the way it is happening,” Wade said. “So I wanted to find out, how is it that this thing that students aren’t doing is making them so unhappy?”
Wade began her talk by defining “hooking up,” and contrasted the act of hooking up from the culture of hookups. Wade described hookups as sexual encounters without the intent of it advancing onto anything romantic.
Wade explained the naturality associated with hookups and that it “should not be looked down upon.” However, she said that hookup culture is different.
“A campus has a hookup culture when hooking up is seen as the only or best way to be sexual with each other,” Wade said. “Other ways of being sexual with one another are seen as somehow backward or strange. So hookup culture is this dominant idea that hooking up is what students should be doing.”
Within hookup culture, Wade’s research found certain trends college students followed in terms of their perceptions of themselves and of their peers. According to Wade, while being seen as a slut or a prude used to be the worst possible sexual demotion, modern hookup culture tended to see desperation as even worse than the former two.
“In this hookup culture, the most important emotion to avoid is love,” Wade said. “You don’t want to seem desperate because that makes you seem clingy and it implies a desire for someone that is not purely sexual.”
Wade continued on to describe what she called the “emotion rules” of hookup culture — rules that students followed in order to guarantee both parties’ mutual agreement and understanding that the sexual activities were casual.
Within these rules, Wade listed that students opted to have casual sex with people they were definitely repulsed by, that they hooked up when drunk, that during sex students expressed lust but not tenderness or affection and that after hooking up, students tended to distance themselves from their partners in order to assert the meaninglessness of the sexual encounter.
“Most people aren’t not hooking up because they are religiously opposed to it, or that they think it’s hopeless to try,” Wade said. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the idea of bottling up their emotions and having to hide their emotions in such an intimate activity. And functionally, it’s a downward spiral because you don’t just have to not care, you have to care less than the other person. And so everyone’s being meaner and meaner to each other, hurting each other in the long run.”