Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Cover image source: Lisa Wade, Ph.D.

Before I discovered the work of Lisa Wade, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College and author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, I preemptively dismissed all think pieces and books about “hookup culture” as inevitably reductive, likely problematic, and quite possibly puritanical.

Michael Kimmel’s Guyland (2008) offered an entertaining but simplistic topography of the value system of “guys” in America, sometimes insightfully and always cartoonishly portraying that critical time between adolescence and young adulthood. Kimmel’s account simply but aptly assessed hooking up as “guys’ sex.” Kathleen Bogle’s book Hooking Up, also published in 2008, then concluded that hooking up was “the new norm” on American college campuses, arguing specifically that it was dangerous for women. While Kimmel’s analysis of “guyland” sacrificed nuance, Bogle’s overly generalized conclusions evaporated her attempt at anthropological objectivity. This left moralism and anxiety at the center of the hookup culture “debate.”

In 2012, Hanna Rosin piped in and helmed the debate’s other side: the notion that hookup culture is a good thing, especially for women. Rosin’s now-canonized book The End of Men directly addressed the fear of authors like Bogle and Caitlin Flanagan (whose 2012 book, Girl Land, served as the counterpart to Kimmel’s)—those worrying about the departure of hetero dating norms like male chivalry and “going steady.” Rosin went so far as to argue that feminist progress “depends on” hookup culture. In her conception, hookup culture enabled women to focus on their personal ambitions rather than the archaic target of the “Mrs. Degree” and could thus approach sex with a stereotypically masculine attitude: Cool. Calm. Collected.

In 2013, I was tasked with the project of writing a think piece about hookup culture and found myself indebted to the intersectional feminist perspective of Wade, whose research and writing in publications like Time, The Guardian, Slate, The New Republic, and others engaged with questions about gender, race, and class in a more provocative and accessible way. Wade was the first expert I encountered who didn’t refer to men and women in terms of a tidy dichotomy of inherently opposite value systems, attitudes, and behaviors. She recognized that women’s newfound ability to act “like men” was not an inherently empowered position. Her insights point to how arguments like Rosin’s corroborate our societal celebration of patriarchal values and our tendency to equate empowerment with anything coded “masculine.”

Wade’s first book, American Hookup (Norton, January 2017), follows in the footsteps of her previous work. The basic intention of American Hookup is clear: to reframe the cultural conversation about hookup culture by debunking myths and stripping away moralistic analysis, while also providing honest firsthand accounts and synthesizing existent data in original ways. This intention lives up to what I would expect from Wade’s radical feminist perspective and palpable expertise in gender theory and the history of feminism.

Throughout American Hookup, Wade invites us to consider the nuances of hookup culture that have formerly been overlooked or oversimplified, and the result is powerful. She unearths statistics that have existed throughout the long hookup-culture debate, many of which came from the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS), compiled between the years 2005 and 2011 by sociologist Paula England. Despite the pervasive cultural panic that causes parents, teachers, and administrators to imagine college students depraved, emotionally avoidant sex friends, Wade consistently emphasizes cold, hard data to push back against these misconceptions. For instance, 71 percent of men and 67 percent of women hope to find a long-term partner in college rather than participate in hookup culture. Most students report an average of only eight hookups over the course of four years; that’s an average of one hookup per semester.

What makes Wade’s book most unique is her inclusion of narrative vignettes and direct quotations from her research subjects, students from “one of two liberal arts colleges, a secular school in the American Southwest and a religious one in the South.” In the chapter on alcohol, “Sex in Drunkworld,” for examples, Wade introduces us to best friends Mara and Naomi, two young women initially reluctant to join Greek life at Penn State but who eventually “give in,” Wade argues, because of the important role alcohol plays on campus. In this chapter, Wade seamlessly weaves together honest scenes from college nightlife—Naomi inebriated on a fraternity bathroom floor and Mara “hospitably” pressured to sleep over at a young frat brother’s room—to rigorous historical analysis exploring why American college students have come to “expect—with varying levels of inclination and trepidation—to have a really good time in college.” Wade provides a brief genealogy of college as an institution while also tracing the emergence of private clubs on campus (known today as societies, fraternities, sororities, final clubs, eating clubs, and so on—depending on the institution).

In peppering rich and subtle portraits of students like Naomi and Mara (and hundreds of others) throughout the book alongside more academic sociological analysis, Wade enlists the reader to feel empathy amidst criticality; we see and feel the either implicit or explicit malaise and trauma of these students—in their very own voices—as Wade attempts to describe the culture they’re part of and how it came to be that way. No, Wade doesn’t seek to situate the students as complete victims of their circumstances (Mara refers to a recent hookup as “the ultimate douchebag” and even describes her best friend Naomi as embodying “the slutty college girl persona”). But in providing a diverse array of complex college life tableaus, Wade is able to maintain academic distance in her subject matter while also necessarily inciting readers to recognize the emotional implications of a topic that has been moralistically appraised without any subtly, and for far too long. A subtext of Wade’s methodology, perhaps, is that the personal is political. And indeed, Wade’s choice to foreground student voices and stories in what is partially an academic text is a political choice.

Wade renders hundreds of these firsthand accounts with emotional sensitivity and impressive narrative flare, introducing us to a vast cast of characters without ever reducing them to caricatures. We meet young men like Omar, “a light-skinned African American with freckles, naturally red hair, and a comically huge smile” who was both “waiting for love,” but also a self-identified “closet freak.” Wade writes, “[Omar] never perfected the air of nonchalance that made men seemed mysterious” and proceeds to outline his unique sexual awakening, one that emerged when Omar found a way to balance his commitment to Christianity with an interest in exploring his sexuality. We hear Omar’s account of his first kiss, and we trust him. We understand paradoxes of his concurrent interests in God and getting “extremely drunk.” Omar is “a dabbler,” one label Wade uses to describe different students’ unique relationships to hookup culture.

Wade organizes the book’s range of topics—from binge drinking to the orgasm gap to rape culture and beyond—around these labels. Some are altogether “abstainers” while others are tentatively curious “dabblers,” like Omar. While “strivers” try to participate in hookup culture but feel shut out, it is the uncritical gusto of “enthusiasts” that brings them success. These labels certainly function to further debunk the notion of hookup culture as a monolithic and dominant force that consumes all American college students, but their originality pales in comparison to some of Wade’s subtler insights. In choosing to situate the bulk of the book’s content in reference to the contrast between students who “opt out” of hookup culture versus those who “opt in,” Wade forgoes a greater opportunity—to analyze hookup culture in a totally new way, probing how factors like class and racial privilege play into dynamics of relative “success” and “failure” in the white, heterocentric world of hookup culture. It’s worth noting, though, that the chapter on sexual assault is expertly handled, thorough, and sensitive.

At the outset of the book, Wade grounds the emergence of “hookup culture” within a Marxist framework. Rather than start her contribution to the debate by answering whether or not hooking up is “good” or “bad” for women, Wade immediately swaps moralism for historicism. She provides a brief history of “the limiting gender stereotypes that emerged during the Industrial Revolution”—namely, the “fissuring of love and sex that left us thinking that women’s hearts are weak and men’s hearts are hard” and explains how these assumptions around gender have trickled down into hookup culture today. The emergence of factory work encouraged men to focus on “individual and self-promotion at work” while the domestic duties of women became categorically cast as a “labors of love.” The following portions of the book then map out the process of female empowerment in America against the concurrent process of economic progress and ultimately prove that there was an inextricable link between the development of American capitalism and the gender stereotypes that emerged in the realm of romance. Now, Wade informs, several male research subjects she encountered (and heard about) seem to “fabricate the woman’s affection…on the basis of gender stereotypes.” Frustrated by “being seen as that kind of girl, the desperate kind,” these women “pretend not to care at all.” Thus, Wade concludes, “hookup culture isn’t carefree; it’s care-less.” The connections Wade makes between the historically driven second chapter and the psychologically driven sixth (entitled “Careless and Carefree”) are the strongest in the book. Wade’s clear choice to destabilize gender stereotypes in the context of the hookup culture debate is, I’ll argue, her most necessary and impressive contribution to the conversation—and her awareness about gender permeates the entirety of the book.

Unfortunately, the historical-economic framework that Wade clearly seems interested in establishing firmly at the book’s beginning—the Genesis story of hookup culture—vanishes until the conclusion. The vibrancy of the student stories and Wade’s insightful conclusions maintain the book’s momentum, but the absence of a more consistent methodological framework and argument throughout was admittedly disappointing. After all, Wade’s brief history of gender stereotypes as they relate to American capitalism felt like it could be a book in and of itself, one that I would love to read.

That said, the book has undoubtable political and feminist underpinnings. Wade does include a lengthy analysis of racial and sexual diversity in the book’s chapter about “opting out”—those who are excluded from the white-male-supremacist hierarchy of hookup culture. “In some ways, hookup culture is a white thing,” Wade argues, once again braiding together statistics, anecdotal research, and analysis. In the process, Wade also acknowledges the direct correlation between affluence and participation in hookup culture, reasoning that behavioral irresponsibility is less of a risk for upper-middle-class students. LGBTQ students are also considered within the “opting out” category, as Wade and the queer-identified students she speaks to both describe hookup culture as generally “heterocentric,” “gender conformist,” and “hostile.” Some of these observations border on obvious, but Wade’s mode of making connections between different forms of cultural oppression and privilege in the context of hookup culture is a high point of the book as a whole.

In the concluding chapter of American Hookup, Wade reaches a point of clarity and synthesis previously absent in the book at large. “Hookup culture, strongly masculinized, demands carelessness, rewards callousness, and punishes kindness,” Wade resolves. The conclusion then elaborates, in even greater detail than earlier in the book, why participating in hookup culture privileges white, heterosexual men. There’s the connection between masculinity and entitlement, masculinity and stoicism, masculinity and institutional validation—to name just a few. In doing so, Wade considers utopic possibilities for an alternative world, using her wisdom and progressive politics as a person, not as a sociologist, to argue that our dominant patriarchal value system is demoralizing Americans of all ages, in and outside of hookup culture. In a way, Wade’s argument ends up being about hookup culture as a microcosm for the patriarchal, capitalistic values of American society. This aspect of her inquiry holds great potential for future work.

Wade ends American Hookup on a cautionary—yet still optimistic—note, asserting that “the corrosive elements of hookup culture are in all of our lives” from work to politics to the media. Stoicism is celebrated, vulnerability denigrated. Productivity trumps self-care. Meaninglessness takes precedence over emotion. These are values we uphold to maintain the status quo in all facets of life—and that status quo privileges whiteness, wealth, masculinity, and hegemony of all forms. These revelations are perhaps not radical in and of themselves, but Wade’s methodological choice to trade morality for politics in the hookup culture debate is a powerful first step. It’s a pivot, one that encourages the “debate” to become more of a conversation. This strikes me as a productive model not only for talking about hookup culture, but any subject at the nexus of morality and politics.

Charlotte Lieberman

Charlotte Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work often concerns feminism, gender identity, meditation, and mental health. You can read her prose in Cosmopolitan, The Harvard Business Review, i-D, ISSUE, Marie Claire, BOMB, and Refinery 29 and her poetry in The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, and Nat.Brut.

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