By Vanessa Chen || Staff Writer
This past week’s Common Hour talk, titled “The New Culture of Sex on Campus,” was brought to us by Lisa Wade, the Associate Professor of Sociology at Occidental College and the author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.
Coming to college, many students initially find the prospect of sexual exploration and casual hookups exciting, but as time goes on, they start to dislike sex on campus. Wade questions why this happens and finds four reasons that cause the change—sexual assault, unequal pleasure in sexual encounters, bias and exclusion of less attractive students, which are often racially driven, and the emotional distress, trauma, and disappointment that comes with hookups.
After studying 101 journals of students with diverse races and sexualities, visiting 70 universities big and small, collecting more than 300 accounts of hookup culture in college newspapers, and reading hundreds of research studies, Wade found that the problem is not the hookup, it is the hookup culture.
There are three broad characteristics of hookup culture. One is that sex is no longer an option, it is an obligation in order to do college “correctly.” The second is that students view the idea of waiting to have an emotional connection before a hookup as boring and old-fashioned. Students are more likely to be shamed for being “prudes” than being “sluts.” The third is that nobody wants to seem “desperate.” Students do everything they can not to show that they want or need anybody.
In today’s campus, it is widely accepted that college is a place to have fun, with sex as part of the “fun” on campus, and women should have “fun” just as much as men. However, these ideas were not always the norm. When colleges were first established, they were exclusive to men who were studying to become ministers. It was a place of tight schedules and rigorous study, not a place to have fun at all, let alone sexual fun. But in the 1930’s things started to change. Colleges started to open up to more people who were not prospective ministers. A new population formed on campus—a group of rich boys with the means and desire to have fun. These wealthy boys formed private social organizations that were dedicated to having fun. They invented the idea of college fun, and this became the iconic and standard way of “doing college.” These men were the first fraternity brothers.
Frat boys had always had sex in college. They had sex with women in town and with sex workers—women with less power than them. But when colleges became co-ed, affluent, well-educated women with equal social standing began to arrive, and sex became competitive. It became a game among the frat boys to extract sex out of women who were their equals, who were usually sexually conservative, and who had the power to say no. Sex became exploitive and a means to achieve status. Women became the sexual objects that men “take” to gain status among their peers.
This one-sided exploitation began to change in the 1970’s with the second wave of the feminist movement and women’s sexual revolution. Women demanded access to men’s spheres of life and to masculinity. This included the right to enter male-dominated professions like medicine and law, the right to have typically masculine hobbies and personalities—such as being tough, fixing cars, and having casual sex.
Feminists also wanted female spheres of life and feminine qualities to be valued by society. This means that female-dominated professions such as education and nursing are not deemed less valuable, nor will typically feminine characteristics such as being tender, nurturing, and in tune with one’s emotions be deemed as weak and unacceptable. The feminists wanted both, but only got the former. Women feel pressured to be like men. Society encourages women to be leaders and shames them for being housewives. Women wouldn’t feel pressured to be like men if being a woman is valued just the same. The perceived superiority of masculinity is what keeps men and women at different levels of the power hierarchy.
Because of society’s value on masculinity, women think being a strong woman is to be like a man. Thus, they take on the stereotypical male approach to sex. Sexual liberation means doing it the men’s way.
In hookup culture, there is a script to the masculine way of hooking up. The script helps students enact “casualness.” There are four strategies for “doing casual.” First is to be drunk. Drunk sex is symbolically different than sober sex. Drunk sex is fun, sober sex is present and emotional.
The second strategy is to “be hot, not warm.” Hookup sex is supposed to be crazy and hot, but it is not supposed to be tender and sweet. This means no kissing or hand-holding. Neither party wants to lead each other on to thinking that they want something more; neither party wants to seem desperate. Hookup sex is supposed to be completely meaningless. In contrast, anything that is not sex, such as a kiss on the forehead, hand-holding, or even the choice of not having sex seems meaningful by comparison.
The third strategy is “be cool.” After a sexual encounter, both parties will intentionally be aloof, less friendly, even mean. This is to send a clear message that the sex is meaningless and they don’t want anything more. The sexual participants have to suppress both positive and negative emotions towards the sexual encounter because showing emotions means making the sex a bigger deal than it is meant to be. However, it is distressing for both the actor and the receiver of such aloofness, especially if they used to be friendly towards each other. It feels bad to treat coldly and be treated coldly.
The fourth strategy is to “cap your hookups.” You cannot hook up with someone too many times since this implied that you are interested in a relationship.
Since its goal is to avoid emotions, such a script is hard to follow. Human beings are innately emotional creatures, making emotionlessness hard to execute. Moreover, when women perform casualness, it’s less believable than men. Women are always assumed to be wanting a relationship, that’s why they perform extra hard. And since Men assume that women always want to trap them into the relationship, they also perform casualness extra hard. Neither party wants to show that they care more than the other person, so interactions become cooler and cooler, eventually becoming something hurtful and uncomfortable for both.
Because the culture of hookups is competitive, sex becomes a competition at who can extract sexual prowess from the most desirable partner. Everyone wants to tell their friends after a hookup: “you know that guy/girl, yes, the hot and popular one, I scored that.” The nature of such an exploitative, competitive, and status-driven culture leads to assault.
People under the influence of hookup culture are likely to be assaulted or become assaulters themselves. Because sex is about getting something from somebody to benefit oneself, it is not about consent and mutual pleasure. Women often receive unequal pleasure in a hookup. Men are presumed to get an orgasm; women are lucky if they get one. In hookups, caring is off-script, so caring for the other partner’s pleasure is also off-script. This often results in less satisfaction for women.
Since hooking up is also about status, people avoid hooking up with people their friends wouldn’t approve of, which includes those who are not attractive or have low status. This leads to discrimination against black people and other racial minorities, who are often considered less attractive due to America’s racially biased beauty standard.
Wade says that what we need now is a cultural change. First, we need to recognize that feminine aspects of sexuality are also valuable—this includes being more emotional, vulnerable, and tender during sexual encounters. We should think about sex from a cooperative angle instead of a competitive angle. Instead of one person extracting sex out of the other, sex should be status-neutral and cooperative with a focus on mutual pleasure, discovery, and care.
We should also make institutional changes that distribute power more equally on college campuses. In American college, fraternities can host parties with alcohol most easily. Colleges often turn a blind eye towards them because they provide social life and entertainment to students. On the other hand, it is hard for sororities to host parties with alcohol. Additionally, most multicultural organizations don’t have housing, and, if they do, their parties are more closely monitored or more quickly shut down. Since parties are the place where hookups usually happen, and fraternity houses are where the parties are located, fraternity members get to determine how the parties are run and what the hookup culture is. This results in rich, white, heterosexual men having more power than anyone else to influence social and sexual life on campus.
Wade suggests that to change this hookup culture—currently 75% of students report being unsatisfied—we need changes both in our mindsets and in the institutions. Students should be honest about what they want, and more students should be able to influence the culture of hookups.
Junior Vanessa Chen is a Staff Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.