It is a bestial rubbing of genitals reminiscent of mating zebras.” That’s how one of the women in Lisa Wade’s new book, American Hookup, describes the atmosphere at college parties. “Guys were coming up behind women on the dance floor and placing their hands on their hips like two wayward lobster claws, clamping on and pulling them close.” The lobsters and zebras are hardly the only animal comparisons in the book, which will make many of us rethink why we are trying to save up to send our kids to college at all.
Wade, a sociologist at Occidental College, is not the first to describe the bizarre sexual atmosphere on campus. But she competently covers the terrain. From the “pregaming”—during which everyone has to become drunk before even leaving their dorm rooms—to the “grinding” to the anonymous couplings (which may or may not involve intercourse), Wade takes readers on a detailed tour of the mating rituals of 19-year-olds.
One of her most interesting contributions to this research is describing the actual relationship between the people having sexual contact. “Even not having sex seems more intimate than sex,” she writes. “In this topsy-turvy world, you have sex with the people you don’t like and don’t have sex with the people you do.”
After a hookup, the men and women seem to engage in a contest over who cares less about the encounter. They ignore each other, insult each other, and speak badly about each other to friends. As Wade notes, the worst thing a girl can be is “desperate” or “clingy.” Even if a girl is not either of those things, just the mere accusation is enough to make her a pariah.
Wade’s other useful contribution is to note that a significant percentage of kids on campus these days are not hooking up at all. According to large surveys, “today’s students boast no more sexual partners than their parents did at their age.” Which is not as comforting as you might think. Casual sex has been a staple of college life for some time now. But the real problem is not the number of sexual partners each student has or how frequently students are having sex. The problem is that social life on college revolves around the “hookup culture”—an indulgent and reckless set of attitudes and social rituals that take their toll on students’ emotional health.
It is no surprise that in an environment where the weekend (starting Thursday, really) involves getting falling-down drunk and disrobing with people you don’t particularly care for (and must pretend to care for even less), young adults are not particularly happy. According to a survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, more than a third of college students reported that they experienced some level of depression in 2013.
Wade argues that it’s not just the women who don’t like this environment; it’s also the men. Even the ones who are enthusiastic about casual sex when they first arrive on campus seem to sour on it after a while. And it’s easy to understand why. If they have a sexual encounter with any female friend, the friendship is over. No one goes on dates. Almost no one wants a real relationship. And everything is fueled by alcohol.
Setting her insights aside, there are enormous flaws in Wade’s work. While she gets the current situation correct, she has little to no understanding of history or biology. Wade argues that today’s campus culture is a result not of the free love of the ’60s, the feminism of the ’80s, or even the postponement of marriage by millennials. It’s the result, she argues, of gender stereotyping that happened during . . . the Industrial Revolution. That’s when women and men became “opposite sexes.” On farms, she says, “families worked as a team.” But when men left the home for work, women were relegated to a separate sphere.
The notion that the differences between men and women popped up in the 19th century is absurd, but Wade has a habit of swallowing whole the academic gobbledygook of her discipline. She claims—all without providing a single footnote—that a quarter of women in college in the 1920s were engaged in homosexual activity, that the reason men reach sexual climax more frequently than women is social and not biological, and that more than a fifth of college women in 1957 were victims of rape or attempted rape.
Wade insists, with a startling naiveté, that we can simply fix the hookup culture by continuing to encourage students to engage in lots of casual sex—even more of it than they do now—they just need it to be “with multiple partners who are loving toward them.” As if love is not built on exclusivity and commitment but is rather a free-floating sentiment to be snatched from the air when needed.
Wade still has no sense that the hookup culture is the result of decades of authority figures telling women that they should aspire to be as unattached as men and that only religious prudes think there is anything special about sexual intercourse. And she fails to understand how decades of lectures on the importance of total sexual liberation (by sociologists, among others) has led people to treat each other as tools to satisfy their sexual urges. Just like animals.