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  • Setting the record straight on students’ sex lives
  • Setting the record straight on students’ sex lives
    Yelp Inc., Creative Commons (2016) ©

Is ‘hook-up culture’ as bad as it sounds?

The internet has transformed sex beyond recognition, but whether this change is for the better or worse is still open to discussion. We sit down with Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology and author of American Hookup, to explore the behaviours attached to hook-up culture.

Location United States

“We are in uncharted territory,” says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, in that article from Vanity Fair that condemned Tinder, hook-up culture, and the ‘dating apocalypse’ that they’ve caused. “There have been two major transitions in heterosexual mating in the last four million years. The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution. And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet.” [1]

It’s true that the internet – and more specifically, apps – have changed the way we form these relationships. Tinderhas racked up more than 50 million users, who swipe as many as 1.4 billion times a day – it’s an unparalleled force to be reckoned with. [2] But the phenomenon of hook-up culture hasn’t exactly been portrayed positively in the media; it’s become an integral seam in the fabric of a narrative that depicts today’s youth as tech-obsessed, indecisive and incapable of commitment.

I didn’t feel like the media was being fair to students. These portrayals of their sex lives are oversimplified

Lisa Wade, pHd, associate professor of Sociology and author of American Hookup

But dating apps like Tinder, claims Lisa Wade, PhD, have simply made hooking up available to people who would otherwise have a hard time finding casual partners. “Tinder hasn’t driven hook-up culture,” she says. “It’s hooking up for people who aren’t living in a hook-up culture.” Wade is an associate professor of Sociology who conducted a study of hook-up culture in colleges across the US, which culminated in her book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. [3]

Wade’s book was born from a desire to repair the disconnect between what she saw among the students in her classrooms and what was being reported in the media – with an angle to exploring, but also removing some of the stigma attached to, this freshly highlighted hook-up culture. “I didn’t feel like the media was being fair to students,” she says. “These portrayals of their sex lives are oversimplified.” Her research involved visiting 24 colleges across 18 states, collecting diaries from 101 students, reading hundreds of first-hand accounts of hook-up culture in college newspapers, and the data from a survey of over 24,000 students. [3We sit down with Wade to explore the behaviours attached to hook-up culture. Is it really as bad as it sounds? Or is it a natural fit for a generation who are rejecting institutions and are focused on getting ahead?


What is hook-up culture?
To understand hook-up culture, it’s important to understand what defines a culture. “It’s a set of ideas,” says Wade, "about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, normal or abnormal; a set of rules for interaction – guidelines for how people would interact together; and an institutional context that facilitates hooking up.” [3]

So where does this leave us with hook-up culture? “The core idea is that students should want to engage in casual sex that has no emotional significance,” explains Wade. “To participate, students have to perform disinterest in an effort to demonstrate to their sexual partners and the wider community that they aren't emotionally invested. They also have to monitor their own emotions to make sure that they’re obeying these cultural expectations.” [3]

Emotionless sex is – literally speaking – an impossibility. “To say that we can have sex without feelings is like saying we can have sex without bodies,” says Wade. “It’s just not possible. I’m not saying that those feelings have to be love. Those feelings are both positive and negative. They are both weak and strong. There’s a whole constellation, a universe of feelings that we have that come up during different sexual encounters.” [3]

The idea is that students should want to engage in casual sex that has no emotional significance. To participate, students have to perform disinterest in an effort to demonstrate to their sexual partners and friends that they aren't emotionally invested

Lisa Wade, pHd, associate professor of Sociology and author of American Hookup

And this is where we begin to see how hook-up culture has gained a bad rap – because it’s part of a broader popularisation of the idea that emotions are something to be ashamed of. The phrase ‘catching feelings’ has become commonplace in meme copy, suggesting that emotions are as unwanted and inconvenient as the common cold.

So in order to fit in, the students Wade studied were often feigning disinterest. In other words, hook-up culture requires a certain emotional repression. And with this in mind, perhaps it’s no wonder that the internet has become an outlet via which these students can embrace – and even celebrate – their full spectrum of emotions, via sad girl culture, nihilist memes and the resurgence of agony aunts in a digital form. Perhaps it’s also no wonder that Drake album Views – which was notable in its emotion-heavy lyrics – was the most popular album of 2016, collectively earning 4.14 million streams, downloads and physical sales. [4]

But it doesn’t necessarily mean these students are in a perpetual state of emotionally gruelling orgy. Wade’s research shows that 34% of students abstained from hook-up culture in their first year altogether, while she classified 45% as ‘dabblers’ – people who weren’t overly enamoured with casual sex, but gave into temptation on occasion. [5] In fact, studies suggest that young Gen Yers are twice as likely to be virgins than Gen Xers were at the same age, and will have less sexual partners in a lifetime than Boomers. [6][7]

Is sex ever truly without strings? Is sex ever truly without strings?
PROMerlijn Hoek, Creative Commons (2016) ©

Hooking up without Tinder
There are numerous reasons that young people might feel more avoidant of casual sex, with hook-up culture’s emotion shaming potentially among them. "This is a generation that has grown up with an awareness of HIV/AIDS," theorises Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor at Clark University and author of Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood. "When the Boomers were in their heyday, that didn’t exist and it seemed like free love was a good idea." [7] 

But the fact that older generations were less cautious is important when considering Tinder’s role in the proliferation of hook-up culture. “Tinder hasn’t driven hook-up culture,“ says Wade. “College campuses, and especially residential college campuses, are hook-up cultures because there’s this concentration of people in one place, and a culture can evolve because they’re all sharing the same set of ideas, rules for interaction and institutional context. Tinder is for people who aren’t living in college campuses.” [3] 

College students today aren’t using Tinder. They’re using Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and all of the other social media platforms to massage hook-ups out of one another

Lisa Wade, pHd, associate professor of Sociology and author of American Hookup

In other words, Tinder has driven the popularisation of hook-up culture among anyone but students – though it’s certainly used to support hook-up cultures where they already exist. And with an average user age of 26 – far older than standard university age – this makes sense. Hinge, Bumble and Coffee Meets Bagel also have respective average ages of 27, 26 and 30, suggesting that a lot of people who are using these apps aren’t actually students. [8] 

“College students today aren’t using Tinder,” confirms Wade. “They’re using Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and all of the other social media platforms to massage hook-ups out of one another.” [3] And in a society that’s as obsessed with sex and dating as ever – as demonstrated by the rampant popularity of The Bachelor after 21 seasons – it makes sense college students and older adults alike can find romantic connection on any of the ever-expanding number of social channels available to them. [9] While Uber drivers have noted an increase in the number of riders using Uber Pool as a means for roulette-style flirtations, back in 2012, Zynga – the company behind mobile game Words With Friends – claimed that 10% of users had said playing the game "has directly led to a hook-up." [10]

College students don’t need hook-up apps College students don’t need hook-up apps
Joe St.Pierre, Creative Commons (2015) ©

An uncertain world
In the context of the hook-up cultures Wade has researched, the prospect of an emotion-free sex life – even one that’s repressed – might seem, at the very least, to be a simple existence. But Wade begs to differ. “One of the students I interviewed after she graduated from college said that she felt like there was ‘no ground beneath her feet’,” says Wade, “because she never knew which script was being used by her partner, or when the script might flip.” Wade uses the term ‘script’ to refer to the sets of behaviours and rules that are followed by the participants in any culture. “When you have both a dating app like OKCupid and a hook-up app like Tinder, you’re dealing with two competing scripts,” she explains as an example, ”These are scripts about what people are expected to be doing without one another.” [3]

The average internet user has more than five social media accounts. [11] And if every channel via which people interact involves a different ‘script’ or set of behavioural rules, it makes sense that, both on campus and off, there’s a growing sense of confusion and uncertainty around how people are supposed to interact with each other – romantically, and otherwise. “How do you self-regulate your emotions when there’s two competing scripts at play?” asks Wade. “What emotions are appropriate? It’s impossible to know. It’s very confusing.” 

Perhaps this could help to explain the 40 million American adults who suffer with some kind of anxiety disorder. [12] Because, as a species, humans don’t do particularly well with uncertainty – especially not in a post-internet world. “There aren’t supposed to be any mysteries in the digital age,” confirms journalist Scott Mayerowitz. [13] It’s why the disappearance of those Malaysian Airlines flights freaked everyone out and it’s why Donald Trump’s presence in the White House is consistently newsworthy. Uncertainty makes us worry. "Worry is anticipation of threat," says Michelle Newman, professor of psychiatry and psychology at Penn State University. "Usually it's about the future. And we often do it to prepare for the worst possible outcome or to motivate ourselves.” [14] And what’s more uncertain than other people?

Emotional repression is the name of the game Emotional repression is the name of the game
Jameziecakes, Creative Commons (2015) ©

Getting your priorities right
Ultimately, hook-up culture is born from a place of self-preservation. “Often ‘no emotion’ in sexual relations is the safest option in terms of protecting yourself from getting hurt,” says Wade. [3] But it’s also a way of preserving the future, which is fitting for a generation who are studying more and partying less as they nurse a fierce motivation to get ahead."You'd think they'd be focused on sleeping around, but really what they’re focused on is getting ahead," confirms Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who’s Chief Scientific Advisor for Match. [7]

“It’s a strong individualism that hook-up culture represents,” agrees Wade. “The attitude attached to it very much says, ‘this is just about me, and intertwining myself with other people is a threat to my individuality and my personal trajectory’.” And it’s true that the past century has seen global culture shift towards individualism. With many students saying they prefer casual sex because relationships would be a distraction or even derail their education, perhaps hook-up culture isn’t such a bad thing, but simply a sign of the times, emblematic of a generation that wants to get shit done. [3]

Having grown up amid media-driven threats of terrorism and economic crises, Generation Z is already a collective bag of nerves; 72% worry about terrorism, 64% are concerned about climate change, and 72% are already agonising over the debts they’ll face in the future. [15] And it’s true that this generation has to work harder if they’re going to succeed – they’re set to graduate into an ever-changing job market that’s as uncertain as their current sex lives. [16] “They’re not wrong to think that they need to work hard,” confirms Wade. [3]

Could kindness ever be sexy? Could kindness ever be sexy?
Yelp Inc., Creative Commons (2016) ©

Insights and opportunities
While over a third of Wade’s respondents actively opted not to participate, and many struggled with following through on promises of ‘emotionless sex’, not all of Wade’s findings are damning. “Hook-up culture reflects some of the best things that have changed in the last 100 years,” she says. “The idea that sex isn't sinful but part of human nature, even for women and people with same-sex desires, is a positive change. The young women in my study, for example, did not want to go back – even if they didn’t enjoy hook-up culture.” [3]

It’s a natural progression for Gen Zers and young Gen Yers who celebrate human rights, equality and freedom in equal measure; 82% of Gen Zers say they don’t care about sexual orientation and Gen Yers in the US are more likely to say homosexuality is morally acceptable than casual sex. [15][17] “Hook-up cultures are often also much more open to homosexual experimentation and same-sex sex,” says Wade. “Not always, but sometimes. That is definitely an improvement over what we’ve seen in the past. The notion that we should be able to engage with sexuality in a way that is light-hearted is a really positive development.”

Of course, hook-up culture does have its downsides – and Wade hopes to see those downsides addressed, and minimised in turn. “Hook-up culture camouflages sexual predators,” she says. “It allows them to make their behaviours look ‘normal’ It’s a camouflage but it’s also a catalyst. It’s telling students to enact a particular aggressive version of male sexuality than if not itself criminal is right up against the line of criminality.” [3] With 23% of female undergraduates in the US and 5.4% of male undergraduates having experienced rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation, it’s a problem that requires constant attention. [18]

The narrative in hook-up culture is that sex should be hot. But there’s a lack of warmth. Tenderness and kindness are the symbols of that, but these things are seen as signs of committed relationships, rather than signs of being sexually attentive

Lisa Wade, pHd, associate professor of Sociology and author of American Hookup

But there are ways in which it can be used positively, to help people of all ages, genders and sexual orientations experience sexual freedom and fluidity in a way that previous generations may not have. And in this sense, there’s a chance that, in contemporary society, hook-up culture could be a more natural take on dating. At a time when young people are rejecting institutions – Church weddings dropped by 40% between 2000 and 2012 and just 40% of Gen Yers consider Christmas a primarily religious holiday – the institution of relationships as we know them is shifting, too, as people spend more time focusing on themselves. [19][20]

This could well be the case. But Wade believes there’s still work to be done for hook-up culture to be a universally positive force. “If brands are going to try to make their products sexy, what I would like to see is a modeling of hooking up that’s both hot and warm,” she says. “Right now, the narrative in hook-up culture is that sex should be hot. But there’s a lack of warmth. Tenderness and kindness are the symbols of that – gentle kisses and prolonged eye contact – but these things are seen as signs of committed relationships, rather than signs of being sexually attentive. I would love to see brands experimenting with a new kind of sexual script.” [3]

Lore Oxford is cultural editor at Canvas8. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. When she’s not analysing human behaviour, she can be found defending anything from selfie culture to the Kardashians from contemporary culture snobs.

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1. ‘Tinder and the dawn of the ‘dating apocalypse’’, Vanity Fair (September 2015)
2. ‘Tinder TV: swiping as a spectator sport’, Canvas8 (January 2017)
3. Interview with Lisa Wade conducted by author
4. ‘Drake’s Views is Nielsen Music’s top album of 2016 in the US’, Billboard (January 2017)
5. 'Sex on campus isn't what you think: what 101 student journals taught me', The Guardian (August 2016)
6. ‘Millennials are having way less sex than their parents’, Time (August 2016)
7. ‘Why Millennials might be having less sex than their parents’, Time (May 2015)
8. ‘The most popular dating apps among different age groups’, Bustle (April 2016)
9. ‘Social comparison drives The Bachelor popularity', Collegiate Times (March 2017)
10. ‘Ridesharing apps are being used for dating’, Canvas8 (February 2016)
11. ’Internet users have average of 5.54 social media accounts’, Global Web Index (January 2015)
12. ‘Understanding the facts of anxiety disorders is the first step’, ADAA (2017)
13. ‘Missing jet creates legion of armchair sleuths’, The San Diego Union-Tribune (March 2014)
14. ‘In times of change, how to deal with the daily wave of worry’, WBUR (March 2017)
15. ‘A Generational Snapshot of Gen Z’, Canvas8 (June 2016)
16. ‘The Generation Z effect’, The Globe and Mail (October 2015)
17. ‘Study: Millennials more accepting of homosexuality than casual sex’, USA Today (April 2015)
18. ‘Campus sexual violence: statistics’, RAINN (2017)
19. ‘The spiritual significance of a traditional church wedding’, The Atlantic (July 2014)
20. ‘How are Christmas traditions changing?’, Canvas8 (December 2016)