5 Things You Should Know About Hookup Culture

This article was inspired by, and written in response to, Hidden Brain Episode 61: Just Sex, a conversation with Lisa Wade, author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. While it is not necessary to listen to the podcast or read the book to have full context for this article, I highly recommend them both for a fascinating continuation of the discussion on hookup culture.
Hookup culture -- it brings a few scenarios to mind. Your twenties. Cheap beer. Sweaty humans. Poor decisions. Awkward sex. Even more awkward morning-afters. Cigarettes. Creepy dudes. Always wondering if this is going to be the night you finally get murdered. Clip-in hair extensions. Bodycon dresses. A dependable breakfast spot. I pretty much thought I knew everything there was to know about this phase of our human existence, considering I’d already lived it.
But after listening to a recent episode of Hidden Brain about hookup culture on college campuses, I realized there is a lot I never considered about hookup culture, like how it developed, why it exists, who benefits from its existence, and whether it’s empowering.
Enjoy the most memorable discoveries I drew from Hidden Brain’s discussion with Lisa Wade, PhD, a sociology professor and researcher at Occidental College.

1). Turns out, not many women enjoy hookup culture.
Despite what Bacardi commercials insinuate, most women do not statistically enjoy participating in hookup culture. According to Wade’s research, only about fifteen percent of students really, truly enjoy hookup culture; by and large, these folks are white, male, cis, from an upper-middle class or wealthy background, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive.  One-third of students opt out entirely and the rest are ambivalent. Women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks, with a few exceptions, overwhelmingly do not enjoy hookup culture for a variety of reasons: discrimination, fetishization, one-sided pleasure, and hookup culture’s questionable relationship with consent.
Ultimately, what this reveals is that hookup culture serves a stereotypical idea of “man,” and there are tons of problems and limitations with that.
2.) Hookups are mostly a way to impress friends and improve social standing.
That’s right. We hookup for our friends.“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,” Wade explained. “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. . .” Of course, women’s pleasure always gets the short end of the stick. No pun intended.

3.) Equating hookup culture to women’s sexual liberation is short-sighted.

It’s true that hookup culture can be traced back to the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, but equating the two is a stretch. In the 1960s, Women demanded parity with men in all areas of life, including the bedroom. Women wanted the option to embody supposed masculine traits and interests, like promiscuity. “But we never really got around to valuing the things that we define as feminine. So [for] a young woman who's growing up in America today. . . most parents are going to encourage their daughters to mix in masculine traits and interests into her personality,” Wade explained. According to her findings, women get socially rewarded for acting in the fashion of a stereotypical man -- for taking that science class, or joining the Mathletes, or winning MVP for the soccer team. “. . .[T]he way to be liberated is[, then,] to act in the way I think a stereotypical man might.” Approach sex like a man? Get rewarded.

In other words, women might be having more sex, but they aren’t necessarily free to act exactly the way they feel -- masculine, feminine, in between, or neither -- when only masculinity is rewarded. They’re rewarded for exhibiting stereotypical cis, white, male attributes, not feminine ones. So how liberated can women be, when they still can’t be themselves, especially in sex? It’s worth noting that in no way, shape, or form is promiscuity or casual sex something to be ashamed of or judged for. The question here is whether women are making decisions about sex completely for themselves and their enjoyment, or are women responding to patriarchal rewarding systems some or most, or all of the time. This, at least according to Wade, is the question.

4.) Millennials are not any more sex-crazed than previous generations.

Just as we were getting used to the idea of being harlots, it turns out, we’re not. “So there’s a lot of consternation about the students' sexual activity,” Wade noted. “But, it turns out, they are no more sexually active by most measures than their parents were at their age.” An average, graduating senior “hooks up” eight times over a four-year period, and half of those hookups are with someone they’ve hooked up with before. One-third of students never hook up, not even once, during their college careers.

That was certainly not my takeaway from Van Wilder.

5) Toxic hookup culture convinces us that feelings are embarrassing and wanting connection in a no-no.

According to Wade, one of the most problematic effects of toxic hookup culture is that people aren’t allowed to feel a broad range of authentic feelings about their sexual partners. “There are not a lot of good options for women in hookup culture that don’t truly enjoy casual sex.” For those who don’t enjoy casual sex, she explains, they are faced with essentially two options: opt out of sexual activity at all, which will inevitably prevent many of them from finding romantic relationships; or turn the casual hookup into a romantic relationship.

Under that rationale, many women who don’t enjoy hookup culture are forced to participate if they want to find romantic relationships.”If a woman wants a relationship where, at some point, she’ll be treated with respect and as an equal, then she has to . . . expose herself to this period where she’s treated disrespectfully in the hopes that it translates into something better[.] “

One woman, interviewed by Hidden Brain, reported feeling used, but that “not being wanted” was just as terrible. “I argue in [my] book that the worst thing a student can be called these days isn’t slut, and it’s not even prude. . .It’s desperate,” Wade poses. “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 how people actually feel, then it’s against the rules for them to say: I actually quite like you.”

Combine that with the fact that men tend to assume that “all women are interested in having a relationship with them, whether they are not not.” This puts women in the precarious position of trying to prove disinterest. “[S]o he’s even more standoffish [afterward] than she would be otherwise. And because the rule is to care less than the other person, . . this creates [a] downward spiral.”

So much for liberation.


None of this is to discourage anyone from desiring or participating in consensual, casual sex -- especially women. Sex is not the issue; it’s whether people, other than cis, straight, white men,  are making decisions about sex for reasons that are completely for them. “Hookup culture serves a stereotypical idea of a man,” according to Wade. “There are some guys and some women that. . .like that. . .[, but] most students want a different mix of opportunities.”

Ultimately, Wade believes that hookup culture asks too much, and provides too little. “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.”

by: Brittany Kilpatrick

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