Physical Conversations of Different Kinds

American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus
Lisa Wade

As a young social science student  I took a class sure to be easy. A 200-level course, it promised to use popular culture to illustrate major concepts in sociology.

Piece of cake, I thought. I like to read, it’s popular culture. How hard can it be?

Sixteen weeks later I was  dead from the punishing pace of reading 600-page novels, such as Thomas Mann‘s Buddenbrooks, one week, followed by lighter reading, in this case Max Webers The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the next.

I’m about  to resurrect the approach of that course.

Lisa Wade is an American sociologist on the faculty of Occidental College in Los Angeles.  She’s also the founder and principal writer at the Sociological Images blog.  Earlier this year I missed her speaking at Hunter College, where I’ve been teaching this semester, on the subject of this well-footnoted, easy-to-read book, which was just published in January and appeared, a week or so after that missed opportunity, in my local public library.

Lisa Wade, PhD
The American Hookup Tour 2017

Professor Wade is a student of gender and sexuality, an area I have not really delved into. Some might think this belies a certain squeamishness. In reality, it’s actually more a matter of where my interests lie.

At the end of the day, I care about the things people do to preserve position and privilege. Almost inevitably I wind up spending time with data-heavy studies. And even though I’ll borrow liberally from any critical approach that fits the situation at hand, I almost always end up in structural-fuctionalism land.  Since gender is rooted in identity, the studies tend to be qualitative and draw on explanatory frameworks that I just don’t easily cotton to.

There is no denying this book is rooted in qualitative methods. In fact, the primary research method is diary-keeping by college students. I am always a bit suspicious when social science consists of studies and experiments focused on undergraduates–they’re hardly a normative population. In this case, though, it’s the population of interest and though the diary excerpts do at times get explicit they are never sordid nor overly graphic nor gratuitous.

Fellini’s Satyricon, 1969

Dr. Wade is a thorough researcher. Though the diaries are her primary source she supplements them with hard data from both national surveys and surveys of her own and colleagues’ students. The diaries represent a cross-section of campuses including the Ivies. I am not entirely clear if that is a function of Dr. Wade’s academic journeying or whether she managed to distribute the diary request nationwide.

So what’s with this culture? Is that even the right word? Probably, if we abandon the strictly anthropological definition. Like prison, or the army, college–especially life on campus–is a total institution. That means the entire environment is focused on itself and virtually closed to outside influence. While it can be about total control it need not be. Limited interaction with the broader society makes it no less insulated. Importantly, the range of campuses cited demonstrates the breadth of these behaviors and makes the strongest cultural case.

What’s going on at colleges goes a little beyond sowing one’s wild oats. In fact, a majority of students are engaged in hooking up. One shouldn’t mistake this for, say, the serial ‘monogamy’ (punctuated by the occasional one-night stand) that was typical of my undergraduate years. No, this is about getting close to blind drunk and having sex in some form week-in-and-week-out. Boys do it. Girls do it. I’m less certain about Lithuanians and Letts.

Caligula, 1979

How’s that working out for them? Not always terribly well. Women, it seems, outnumber men on campus. Simple sexual economics dictates that puts the boys in control.  And as my mom liked to say, boys will be boys. At the end of the day you can say a lot of things about hook up culture but you can’t get away from the fact that it’s not about intimacy or learning how to be in a relationship.

What it is is purely carnal, and if that sound familiar it should. It’s Erica Jong‘s zipless fuck twisted into an almost unrecognizable form. That’s saying a lot since Jong’s original idea was to be free of entangling emotions and guilt.

In today’s hookup culture the avoidance of emotion is a mandatory component. So much so that there is a litany of prescribed behavior in the aftermath of a hookup that varies in inverse proportion to the level of the original relationship. The best way to lose a close friend, it turns out, is to take it to the next level.

Last Exit to Brooklyn, 1989.

And while that next level is the physical it is pretty much guaranteed to be one-sided. In rather stark language female respondents sketch out the limits of life in this pleasuredome.  And the men concur.

For men it’s a  to-be-counted-on good time with some form of physical release a given. Women are far less likely to reach an orgasm during a hookup and if they repair to a room with a partner they’re unlikely to emerge without some sexual activity having taken place, even if forcible persuasion–and at times outright physical force–are involved.

How did we get here? Wade gives us a history that, for me, filled in gaps and confirmed some suspicions. In this telling, fraternities play a key role in providing a home for the more egregious behaviors. That’s in part because they play an important role.

American Pie, 1999

The key to hooking up is making sure your partner du noir is ‘hot’ and the self-appointed role of fraternities is to identify the BMOCs.  While physical attractiveness plays a part in this calculus, there is no escaping the hierarchical element. Jocks. The most selective  frats. These are the sorting criteria. Is it any wonder we have the society we have?

Fraternities, Wade shows, arose in reaction to the nose-to-the-grindstone manner in which American colleges initially operated. Faculty fought them furiously yet they grew and prospered. Along the way they were aided by broader societal changes and two big wars that played havoc with male/female ratios.

There is, indeed, a clear path from the industrial revolution–when modern gender roles, even in sex, were first established–to the development of dating culture in the Jazz Age, to the Going Steady era of the 1950s to the post-60s, post-Stonewall, post-modern present.

Daytona Beach, Spring Break 2009
This is not a movie.

In Wade’s telling the deal went wrong. Women and men were supposed to be able to share the best part of what had been assigned to each gender long ago. Women were to pursue male professions and careers and be independent and males were supposed to gain love in addition to sex. What the men have gotten, especially on campus, is a lot of sex. The women are merely present.

The professor suggests that redemption is still possible. Perhaps. I’m not one to reflexively embrace identity-based arguments. But the current state of affairs suits both the patriarchy and the economic order. Throw in a skewed male/female ratio and the prospects for reform dim even further.

Somebody should turn on a light.












One thought on “Physical Conversations of Different Kinds

  1. Pingback: Hear Me Roar | An Honest Con

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