What makes a successful hookup?
As much sexual attraction as possible — and very little eye contact.
It should be limited to a few encounters, stir up no romantic or emotional connection. And it’s usually followed by a vague and brief depression.
Sounds awful. So why does pop culture make it seem like college students all over the country are doing it at every turn?
They’re really not, according to Lisa Wade, author of a new book, “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus,” and an assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Fifty percent of her students were virgins when they got to college, she said. And 25 percent still were when they left. Almost all yearned to feel safe and cared for.
Wade, 42, was teaching classes about human sexuality and noticed that their class discussions were very different from the research she had studied.
“My students had much more depth and diversity than the media was giving them credit for,” she said. “We were having conversations in class that weren’t reflected in the material that I was seeing and the political debates about hookup culture.”
Yes, students were pushing boundaries sexually, she said, “But a lot of students weren’t having sex at all. I respected their ability to think about it, process it and learn from it.”
Their stories were all over the map: Women felt free to do what they wanted, but vexed by body issues and competition. Men had the upper hand, but felt pressured by their friends to rack up their sexual conquests.
Wade asked her students to keep diaries and submit an entry a week for a full semester. She then asked them to be part of a study.
“The statistics suggested a reality that was so surprising,” Wade said.
The average graduating senior reported eight hookups during college – one per semester. Half of those were someone they had hooked up with before.
They had intercourse only 40 percent of the time. And they only had one new sexual partner per year, on average.
One third of the students never hooked up at all.
“The main reason most students aren’t hooking up at all or a little is because the opportunity to do it comes with so much displeasure,” she said. “They’re not standing on some high moral ground.
“The vast majority was like, ‘I’d like to do it, but the way people do it is so unpleasant.’”
They didn’t want to do it by going to a party, getting drunk and having some guy approach them from behind, which how Wade’s students described some encounters.
“You can’t turn around and look at who it is, because that elevates the hookup,” she said. “Some students didn’t want to follow that script. Tenderness is seen as weakness, and students don’t want to be weak.”
Wade looked at the data and asked her students how they were feeling. Ambivalent, they told her. Disappointed. Distressed.
“They often want an emotional connection because they’re human beings,” she said. “So the ‘rules’ of hookups, well, students are breaking them all the time. You’re not supposed to like the person you’re hooking up with. Sometimes they’re friends, sometimes they’re more than friends.
“But a lot of students feel that they should be able to not feel attached,” she said. “Students believe they can regulate their emotions. They feel bad when they have feelings. So they set themselves up to fail at this game.”
Wade thinks some readers – namely, parents – think their kids would be better off in a monogamous, loving relationship. They want them to avoid casual sex.
But that’s problematic, Wade said. Monogamy does not protect students from abuse.
“There is nothing about being in that type of relationship that is protective,” she said.
No matter who students are having sex with, no matter the relationship, Wade said, students should be sure they are treated with respect and care.
“I want them to be safe and happy,” she said. “They have hearts, too. When you ask them what they want, it’s connection. They’re just in a culture that is really toxic.”