College hookups are becoming less emotional and more dangerous, says an expert

We spoke to Dr Lisa Wade, the author of American Hookup

Seven years ago, Dr Lisa Wade, a sociology professor, decided the media wasn’t fairly depicting college hookup culture.

“I really felt strongly that there was a lot missing in the picture,” she told The Tab, “I thought that between my students’ stories and insight and my access to the literature, we could really intervene in the discussion in a productive way.”

So after extensive research, she compiled American Hookup, a careful portrait of the postmodern college hookup scene. I sat down with Dr Wade to learn more about her findings and the emerging dangers of what she calls a “careless” culture.

Dr Lisa Wade

What surprised you most in your research for American Hookup?

How powerful the idea is that people not just can, but should be able to have sex without any emotion other than lust getting in the way. How powerfully students have accepted that as a potential reality, a goal for themselves. It’s really amazing. It’s only because, as I argue in this book, I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to expect ourselves to do anything without emotion. We have emotions at breakfast! We have emotions when we get in the shower and it feels nice! We are bags of chemistry, that’s what we are. So it was impressive to me how powerful this idea had become. That “emotionless sex” was possible and so idealized. And then the extent to which students blamed themselves for having feeling – any kind of feeling, positive and negative. It was really disconcerting; it was really disturbing. And then the way in which that allowed them to mistreat each other.

Some of the greatest dangers facing college students in hookup culture include rape, unnecessary STD transmission via stealthing, and revenge porn – would you attribute these dangers to this lack of emotion, or to other factors entirely?

Sex is supposed to be “carefree” – it’s supposed to be spontaneous and lovely and uncomplicated. So “carefree” is also “careless.” So then there’s no caring, and caring isn’t just something you don’t have to do, it’s something you’re not supposed to do. It’s ironic, it’s supposed to be “carefree,” except there are incredibly rigid rules about what you’re allowed to care about, and you’re not allowed to care about the person you’re being sexual with. Suddenly, this freedom is actually really constrained. So now you have a situation where everyone is actively performing not caring about the other person, and once you’ve gone there, then you open up the door for all the other careless things you can do, like not protect yourself or your partner from STDs, or not caring about whether or not they’re truly consenting to sexual activity, or not caring about whether they want to use a condom at all.

What do you think incited these trends? Is the concept of consent changing, or just being newly ignored?

I’m not convinced that it’s worse today, that young people are less responsible about consent than they were in the past. I think it’s been a problem for a very, very long time. I think that the newer issue is that – in the 80s and 90s, if somebody wanted to have sex, they often pretended like they wanted to have a relationship. And maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But the overarching frame of what was happening was that we’re exploring the possibility of a relationship, right? People lie in every generation. But the lie they tell in this generation is just different from the lie they told a few decades ago. At least back then we could hold people accountable. We could say, “Hey, you said you cared about me, and then you did x, y, or z.” But now we don’t have that. We don’t have that at all. So the ability to call people out for being cruel is gone, which means that we have a harder time calling them out for any bad behavior at all.

It can actually be quite difficult to parse the difference between “what this person did to me was cruel” and “what this person did to me was criminal.” In practice, when things are so confusing, and there’s so much psychological manipulation, and everyone’s drinking, and nobody wants to get anyone else in trouble necessarily, it can be really difficult to tell the difference between cruel and criminal, and certainly the way we organize sexuality today makes it even more difficult than it would be otherwise.

What are colleges doing now to prevent sexual assault, and what should we do, especially when these crimes are being perpetrated in places like the bedroom and online?

Colleges are trying to reduce the rate of sexual assault on their campuses and they’re doing it by addressing consent, and addressing sexual assault, and I support that. But what we need to do is address the culture at large. I mean, when you think about it, the lesson we’re telling people when we tell them to get consent is just absurdly simple and basic. We need to look at what is creating conditions that make consent so confusing. What I believe is that we’re not going to be able to make meaningful progress in ending sexual assault crises on college campuses or elsewhere unless we address the culture itself.

Let’s do a dream program, alright? Let’s buy every single incoming freshman a copy of my book, and let’s have me come out and give a talk to the whole freshman class. Let’s give every single department and club and institute on campus five grand to bring someone out that year to give a talk on sexuality. And do that for three or four years in a row. It’s still going to cost less than a single lawsuit. And all you need to do because colleges and universities – at least residential colleges and universities – are what they call total institutions, they are little tiny bubbles, sometimes really big bubbles, but they’re bubbles. So we actually have a lot of power. It’s hard to change American culture, but can you change the culture at a college that has 5,000 students? Much, much more easily. I think it’s a matter of deciding to prioritize it.

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