Hookup Culture: The Unspoken Rules Of Sex On College Campuses

Feb 13, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 2:39 pm

Few topics send the media into a panic like the idea of hookup culture on college campuses. But are college students actually having more sex than their parents did a generation ago? Research suggests the answer is no.

Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental College, says something has changed, though: In today's hookup culture, developing an emotional attachment to a casual sex partner is one of the biggest breaches of social norms.

For her new book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Wade spent 5 years investigating hookup culture on American colleges and universities. In this culture, she says, there's a dichotomy between meaningless and meaningful sex, and students have to go out of their way to "perform meaninglessness." They have to prove that they're not emotionally attached to their sex partners, and in fact that they care less than the other person.

This leads to seemingly contradictory situations, such as people who only have sex with partners they're not interested in, and friends being meaner to each other after developing a sexual relationship.

This Valentine's Day, Lisa Wade talks with us about hookup culture and investigates the complex social rules surrounding casual sex on American college campuses.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This episode explores explicit themes. If you're listening with small kids, you may want to save this for later.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Parties were huge, hookups were huge. Everyone just seemed to be doing everything with each other. And yet I always kind of felt like I wasn't doing it right.

VEDANTAM: There are certain ideas that send the media into a panic. One of them is hookup culture.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: College students are quote, unquote, "hooking up."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Hookup.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hookup.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hookup.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hookup.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Hookup culture.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Where people can just be sitting in a cafe and find someone to hook up with. Are you buying this? Kids are more sexual than ever.

VEDANTAM: Stories about casual sex on college campuses have long been a staple of cable news. But the truth is more nuanced. College students are actually not having more sex than their parents did a generation ago. But something has changed, not just in what students do or what they don't do but in how they think.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I have students who have had sex many times drunk but have never held someone's hand.

VEDANTAM: If casual sex was taboo a generation ago, emotional intimacy has become taboo today. It's something to be explored in secret, maybe even something to be ashamed about.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: I think it feels bad to be used. But I think the alternative is that nobody wants to use you. And I think that that's worse.

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VEDANTAM: Lisa Wade is a sociologist at Occidental College. In her book "American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus," Lisa interviews college students and finds that hookup culture has a complex set of social rules. She says these rules threaten the emotional well-being of students, those who embrace the culture and those who want nothing to do with it. Lisa, thanks for joining me on Hidden Brain today.

LISA WADE: Thank you so much for having me.

VEDANTAM: We spoke with several students in your book, Lisa, and we're going to hear from them in this conversation. One of the things that kept coming up was that there's no one definition of what hooking up actually is. It can mean a variety of things, from making out to having sex. But for all the ambiguity, there does seem to be a clear set of guidelines when it comes to how students should hookup.

WADE: You know, it's funny because the ideology around hookups is that they're supposed to be spontaneous. And the fact is that there's a pretty rigid set of rules for how hookups happen. Many of them, probably most of them, start at parties where there's drinking. And the way to initiate it is through dancing. And so usually in these heterosexual encounters, women will initiate the dancing by going into the middle of the dance floor and then in a very sort of gender traditional way, hope that someone picks her and comes up along behind her.

Sometimes the woman doesn't even know who is behind her, which creates a conundrum because part of hooking up is trying to hook up with people that your friends approve of and think are, like, a good catch. And so often she's dancing, someone comes up behind her and then what she'll do is she'll look across the circle to one of her girlfriends and try to get some indication as to whether or not she should continue.

VEDANTAM: Let's talk some more about this idea that hookups are a way to win the approval of your friends. You're saying that some hookups move you up the social pecking order and others move you down?

WADE: Hookups are decidedly not about finding any sort of romantic connection and suggesting that it should be or that one is doing it for that reason is tantamount to breaking a social rule. They're often not so much about pleasure in particular for women. They're very much about status. So the idea is to be able to brag about or having sort of gotten someone who other people might also wish they could have gotten.

So it's all about being able to say, I got that guy over there or that person that everyone's looking for, I managed to be the one who hooked up with him tonight.

VEDANTAM: One of the unspoken rules you talk about in "Hookup Culture" is that it's really important that the hookup be meaningless. One of the young men we spoke with described a situation that almost seems Kafkaesque.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We really liked each other, but she would not have sex with me. But I also knew that she was hooking up with someone. And this was such a confusing concept, which is that people will have sex with people that they don't like but won't have sex with people that they do like.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, what this young man is saying, he can't understand why this young woman who likes him and that he likes is having sex with someone else whom she doesn't like but won't have sex with him.

WADE: What the students are confronted with is this artificial binary between careless and careful sex. On the one hand, we have this idea that when we get into romantic relationships, we're supposed to be loving and kind. And the sex that happens in those kinds of relationships is very committed. And on the other hand, we have this concept of casual sex, which is the opposite of that. And that means that all of the kindnesses that go along with romantic relationships are considered off script once casual sex is on the table. So if two students are going to hook up together and they want it to be meaningless, then they have to do some work to make sure that both they and everyone else understands that we're over in this meaningless camp and not this powerfully meaningful one.

And so to sort of convince themselves and other people or to show themselves and other people that it was meaningless, they have to find a way to perform meaningless. It's not automatic. And they do that by, for example, making sure that they're drunk or they appear to be drunk when they hook up. So my students actually speak in pretty hushed tones about sober sex. Sober sex is very serious. But if the students have been drinking, then that helps send the message that it's meaningless. Another way is to make sure that they don't hook up with the same person very many times. So if they really don't like the person in a romantic way, just hook up once, maybe twice and then cut it off.

And then the third thing they have to do to try to establish this meaninglessness is to sort of give that person a demotion in their lives afterward. The idea that it's meaningless means that we're also not supposed to care about that person at all and in any way.

VEDANTAM: You talk in the book about how even though, you know, talk about hookups is ubiquitous on college campuses, that doesn't necessarily reflect how much of it is actually going on.

WADE: So there's a lot of consternation about the students' sexual activity. But it turns out that they are no more sexually active by most measures than their parents were at their age. The average graduating senior has hooked up eight times in four years. So that's once a semester. And half of those hookups are with someone they've hooked up with before. And in fact, about a third of students won't hook up even a single time their entire college career. But that doesn't mean that they're not surrounded by these really powerful ideas about what they should be doing.

And it doesn't mean that they can change how their peers interact with them or the way in which higher education works.

VEDANTAM: So even though campus hookup culture might actually be something that is endorsed by a relatively small number of people who are enthusiasts, one of the points you make is that these are people who often come from groups who have traditionally had a lot of power and privilege in society.

WADE: About 15 percent of students really, really, truly enjoy hookup culture. It gives them exactly what they want out of college. And studies show that if you ask those students - and they're the students that are hooking up the most - if you ask them if they're having a good time, they say, yes. And I believe them. About a third of students are completely opted out. The rest of the students are somewhere in the middle, and they're ambivalent about the idea of casual sex.

But if you look at the students who enjoy hookup culture the most, those students are disproportionately going to be heterosexual, white, come from an upper middle class or wealthy background. They're going to be male, they're going to be able-bodied, conventionally attractive.

VEDANTAM: And how is this different for racial minorities or people from the LGBT community?

WADE: Racial minorities face all kinds of complicated problems that white students don't. And it depends a lot kind of on what particular intersection we're looking at. So some racial minorities are embraced by white students more than others. So African-American men and Asian women are usually considered hot and exotic, whereas Asian men and African-American women are considered less so. So it very much depends kind of on what intersection of race and gender and class, too, that students are sitting in. But overall, we see lower rates of hooking up among racial minorities for both push and pull reasons.

So part of it is they're pushed out because of racism and an erotic hierarchy that privileges whiteness. But they also tend to get pulled out because racial minorities are more likely to be religious. They drink less alcohol. They maybe had to be more squeaky clean to get into college to begin with. So racial minorities aren't as welcome in hookup culture. And they also don't find it as attractive.

VEDANTAM: And what about the LGBT community?

WADE: For students who don't identify as heterosexual, and we actually still need to do more research on this, but what it seems to - what seems to be happening is that on small campuses or campuses where people aren't very out, there's not an alternative hookup scene for students who don't identify as heterosexual or bisexual. And the hookup scene that does exist is hyper-heterosexualized. And in those cases, students participate at their own risk, risking homophobia in either behavior or attitude, or they go off campus.

And that is why Grindr hit college campuses way earlier than Tinder did because a lot of students who identified as non-heterosexual were using it to find hookups off campus.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, I'm going to ask Lisa about the effects of hookup culture on the emotional lives of young people. Stay with us.

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VEDANTAM: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. One argument that some make, and this includes feminists on the left and libertarians on the right, is that hookups can be liberating. People have a chance to experiment, try new things. They're empowered to discover their preferences. But one of the students we spoke with, Lisa, said that what sometimes starts out sounding like empowerment often becomes something else.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I did have experiences where the expectations once the hookup had already started would start to come out, and they wouldn't come out kindly. You know, it's not a - it wasn't a conversation of, hey, are you willing to try this? Or, hey, you know, I really like it when my partner does this to me. It would be a little bit more of you're going to do this now.

VEDANTAM: So, Lisa, does hookup culture have anything to do with what some people would call rape culture?

WADE: Yes, I would argue that hookup culture is a rape culture in that it facilitates and excuses behaviors that translate into sexual assault.

VEDANTAM: Can you expand on that? I mean, there are enthusiasts who would basically say, you know, we're just exercising, you know, our free choice, we're not constrained by the norms that might have hindered a prior generation. What's wrong with people experimenting, trying new things, figuring out who they really are?

WADE: So part of the reason we see hookup culture on college campuses can be traced back to the sexual revolution and the women's movement. And the women's movement wanted two things for women, both sexually and otherwise. They wanted women to have the opportunity to do the things that men do and to embody masculine traits and interests. And they wanted everyone to sit up and notice that the things women had been doing all along and the traits and interests that they were believed to have were also valuable.

And we really only got half of that. So the feminists succeeded in convincing America, for the most part, that women should be allowed to do what men do and even have masculine traits. But we never really got around to valuing the things that we define as feminine. So a young woman who's growing up in America today is going to - she's going to be told by most - not all parents are like this. But most parents are going to encourage their daughters to mix in masculine traits and interests into her personality.

And they're even going to encourage her to do so and perhaps reward her more so when she does that than when she incorporates feminine personality traits. So we're excited when she likes to play with engineering toys when she's a kid. And we're excited when she chooses sports over cheerleading. And we're excited that she decides to major in physics instead of education. And so women have been getting this message. If they're paying any attention at all it's very clear that, as they say, well-behaved women rarely make history.

We reward you, we think it's great when you act like we think a stereotypical man does. So then when they get to campus, that's what they try to do. And it should surprise none of us that many women on campus decide to approach sexuality the same way they've been rewarded for approaching everything else in their lives, with this idea of the thing to do, the way to be liberated is to act in the way I think a stereotypical man might.

VEDANTAM: So, you know, while there are lots of people who do say that hookups can be liberating, one of the young women we spoke with said she actually feels a little trapped.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: I think girls know when they're being used. And I think it feels bad to be used. But I think the alternative is that nobody wants to use you. And that means that you're not hooking up with anybody. And I think that that's worse.

VEDANTAM: So there's something heartbreaking about that question, Lisa, because it sounds like what this young woman is saying is that she recognizes that she feels she is being used, but she feels she doesn't have a choice but to be used.

WADE: There are not a lot of good options for women in hookup culture that don't truly enjoy casual sex. And there are some that do. But for the rest of them, they're kind of faced with two options. One is that they don't participate in any sexual activity at all, which also means never getting into any sort of romantic relationship with someone. And the other is passing through this period with a person, the hookup period, with the hopes of coming out the other end as that person's girlfriend. And there's something different about the double standard on college campuses.

It used to be - right? - that men would have the power to kind of put women into one of two categories, the good girl or the bad girl. And if women just, quote, unquote, "behaved herself," she could probably stay in the good girl camp, although there's no guarantee. But today, men still have this power to put women into one of these groups. But they put basically all women into the bad girl group, all women they're hooking up with anyway, and then have the power at some point to decide, oh, I've been hooking up with you for a while, now I'm going to decide that I like you.

And now I'm going to treat you with respect and as an equal. If a woman wants a relationship where at some point she'll be treated with respect and as an equal, then she has to go through this period where she's not those things. So women's options are either opt out of hookup culture altogether or expose herself to this period where she's treated disrespectfully in the hopes that it translates into something better on the other end.

VEDANTAM: One of the women we talked with actually describes a situation very much like this but also describes a dilemma which she faced, which is even when she likes someone that she's hooked up with, the rules of hookup culture prevent her from telling the other person what she actually wants.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Or like, oh, that kind of guy that hooks up with a girl and doesn't let go. Like, that's not really a thing people talk about versus the, like, the girl who hooks up once and just - and falls in love with you and never leaves you alone. That's - yeah, that crazy girl. Yeah, that's a thing. And we so desperately don't want to look like that. So when, you know, you hook up with someone that you actually really liked and you really wanted to be with them and then they don't text you back and so it's over.

VEDANTAM: That sounds like a terrible place to be in because you're going through hookup culture to try and find a relationship, but the rules demand that you can't actually ask for one.

WADE: Yeah, yeah. She used the word desperately, which is interesting. I argue in the book that the worst thing a student can be called these days isn't slut and it's not even prude, although that one's a big one, it's desperate. So if the rule is that we're supposed to be having meaningless sex and we're enacting all the things that enable us to keep that illusion going, even when that's not how people actually feel, then it's against the rules for them to say, I actually quite like you. And this is gendered in that to be disinterested in a hookup partner is less believable than men's, even when they're actually quite good at this.

And so men tend to assume that all women are interested in having a relationship with them, whether they are or not, which makes men even more sort of standoffish after a hookup than they otherwise would be 'cause they're assuming the girl just wants to get with them. And it puts women in the position of trying to prove that they aren't the kind of person who wants to get with the guy she just hooked up with. And so then she's even more standoffish than she would be otherwise. And because the rule is to care less than the other person, then this creates this downward spiral.

VEDANTAM: We've talked a little bit, Lisa, about how hookup culture might not be serving women very well on campus. But I also get the sense from your book that it might not be serving men very well.

WADE: It's not. (Laughter) Men are human beings and so are women. And they have all kinds of different needs that are not served by hookup culture. Hookup culture serves a stereotypical idea of a man. There are some guys and some women that are like that, that really do thrive in that. But most students want a different mix of opportunities. And when you ask, actually, men are more likely than women by a few percentage points to say that they wish they could be in a relationship.

Having meaningful relationships, having meaningful sexual experiences that are kind - that's something that everyone wants, certainly not just women.

VEDANTAM: So you write in the book that hookup culture demands carelessness, rewards callousness and punishes kindness. Both men and women are free to have sex, but neither is entirely free to love. That sounds pretty depressing.

WADE: Yeah (laughter). Yeah, it's heartbreaking. It was one of the saddest realizations for me when I was writing the book just how powerfully hookup culture has convinced students that they should be embarrassed for having feelings and feel weak for wanting connection. And I - I mean, I'm very, very impressed by the students. They're really smart, they're very insightful, they're earnest, they're wonderful people. But the culture is very toxic.

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VEDANTAM: Lisa Wade is a sociologist at Occidental College and the author of the book "American Hookup: The New Culture Of Sex On Campus." Lisa, thanks for joining me on Hidden Brain today.

WADE: It was my pleasure.

VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Renee Klahr and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Maggie Penman, Jenny Schmidt, Raina Cohen (ph) and Chloe Connelly. Our unsung hero this week is Alan Feldenkris. Alan's a regular listener to this podcast and until recently, was a member of NPR's marketing team. Alan really got what HIDDEN BRAIN is all about and his enthusiasm came through in his efforts to connect new listeners to the show. His team developed the logo for HIDDEN BRAIN.

You may have seen it on social media or on the T-shirts that are available at the NPR gift shop. Many thanks, Alan, and bon voyage. If HIDDEN BRAIN has been a part of your adventures or road trips, thank you for bringing us along. If your friends or family embarking on travels in 2017, please suggest our show as listening material during their journeys. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.