Can Sex Be Casual? Searching for Connection on Campus

A new book on the hookup culture describes its harms in great detail. But the author fails to understand the implications of her own data, ignoring the fact that we’re in the middle of a cultural sexual crisis that exists because we’ve told ourselves that sex can be casual.

For today’s college students, the hookup culture is a very real part of their experience on campus. So what constitutes a hookup? Typically fueled by alcohol, hookups are sexual encounters between individuals who have no expectations of commitment either before or after the exchange.

Hookup culture has been gaining traction on college campuses for the past several decades, and it isn’t making students happy. Having spent the last several years of my career at the Love and Fidelity Network working to expose the many harms that have resulted from college students’ casual attitudes towards sex and relationships, I have witnessed firsthand the disappointment, hurt, anxiety, and anger that always seem to go hand-in-hand with hookup culture.

I’m not the only person to observe this. In her new book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Lisa Wade sets out to show her readers why the hookup culture is making so many college students unhappy (if not plain miserable). A professor at Occidental College, Wade compiles student accounts detailing their personal experiences with sex on campus. With testimonies from more than 100 students, her well-researched book makes a compelling case against the hookup culture. Her conclusion, however, is much less convincing. Although she very successfully establishes the problematic nature of sex on campus, Wade has a much harder time following the natural outcomes of her own data and delivering a cohesive sexual ethic to correct the issue.

The Harms of Hooking Up

When it comes to the hookup culture, Wade very adeptly points out its shortcomings. Using her own research, including those student accounts, she draws out the inherently harmful characteristics of campus hookup culture: a lack of care for one’s partner, an unequal emphasis on male pleasure, unhealthy body image issues, and an increased risk of sexual violence. She also accurately confirms a data point that has been getting more traction lately in mainstream media: while hookup culture is rampant on college campuses, the idea that the majority of college students are having sex every weekend is a myth. Students are certainly having sex, just not as much as we—or they—think. There’s a disconnect between how much sex students are having and how much they think their peers are having. It’s a strange incoherence and one that significantly helps propagate campus hookup culture.

There’s a mentality on campus that, in order to get the full college experience, students need to take advantage of their newfound “freedom” by having copious amounts of casual sex. Wade cites the following examples:

Hookups are “part of our collegiate culture,” writes a representative of the American South in the University of Florida’s Alligator. If you don’t hook up, warns a woman at the University of Georgia, then you’re “failing at the college experience.” A woman at Tulane puts is succinctly: “Hookup culture,” she says, “it’s college.”

While surveys have shown that many students do hook up several times a year, they’re not doing it every weekend, as many suppose. College students seem to be unaware of this disconnect, possibly because they think they’re supposed to be having casual sex, Wade says.

The hookup culture is not in itself new. It’s been around for a very long time, at least as long as college has been around… In none of these decades did students think they were supposed to be having casual sex. The imperative is the critical difference. “Casual sex was happening before in college,” says Indiana University psychologist Debby Herbenick, “but there wasn’t the sense that it’s what you should be doing. It is now.” It’s the elevation of the hookup over all other ways of engaging sexually that has transformed campuses from places where there is hooking up to places with a hookup culture.

Wade concludes that students can opt out of hooking up, but they cannot opt out of hookup culture. Wade’s book is full of story after story of both men and women feeling intensely dissatisfied or upset by their casual sexual encounters, but they continue to participate because they’ve somehow become indoctrinated by the idea that college is supposed to be fun, and fun means having copious amounts of casual sex.

The Data Are Clear. Her Conclusion Is Not.

Wade’s book is overflowing with content detailing the harms of the hookup culture, including the dangerous mentality of “whoever cares less wins.” The driving force behind casual sex is this idea that students can and should participate without “catching feelings.” In order for sex to be “casual,” it has to be completely devoid of any emotion. Surprisingly (given the conclusion she reaches at the end of the book), Wade explicitly says this is problematic: “Saying we can have sex without emotions is like saying we can have sex without bodies. There simply is no such emotion-free human state.” Students are deceiving themselves by believing that there won’t be any emotional aftershocks from their sexual encounters.

Yet, even after demonstrating the myriad dangers of hookup culture, Wade attempts to claim there’s a difference between casual sex and hookup culture. This distinction renders her conclusion insufficient and unsatisfying.

Wade admits that “Hookup Enthusiasts”—students who feel positive about the hookup culture after their participation—are a minority. But she believes their experiences demonstrate that casual sex can, in fact, be fulfilling and affirming. She expounds on this thinking in another section when she says casual sex “doesn’t have to be cold. If partners are invested in mutual consent and pleasure and are gracious and friendly afterward,” she writes, then casual sex can be pleasant. But is this true? Is this even consistent with Wade’s own data?

Given that her book spends several hundred pages describing the harms of hookup culture—a culture where students treat both sex and each other casually—Wade’s distinction between casual sex and hookup culture sex seems arbitrary. In the very first chapter, for example, she explains the so called “rules” of hookup culture. Rule number five is to establish the meaninglessness of a hookup. Wade immediately points out that this is the “trickiest,” asking “how do two people establish that an intimate moment between them wasn’t meaningful?” Clearly, Wade believes that sex is intimate and naturally full of meaning. A casual interaction, by definition, is careless and unconcerned. If Wade believes sex is full of meaning, how can she support casual sex and view it as something that can exist entirely separate from hookup culture?

Boxed in by a False Feminist Narrative

Perhaps it’s because Wade is stuck in the false feminist narrative that says casual sex is ultimately good for women, even though her evidence strongly shows that it isn’t good for anyone, man or woman. Because she is not willing to challenge her own presuppositions, her conclusion is that while the hookup culture is worthless, there must be a better way to do casual sex, even though there’s very little evidence that this “better way” exists. She attempts to use the Hookup Enthusiasts as evidence, but even she admits that they’re outliers.

She writes, “We need to say yes to the opportunity for casual sexual encounters, but no to the absence of care, unfair distribution of pleasure, unrelenting pressure to be hot, and risk of sexual violence.” Wade rightly rejects all these as characteristics of the hookup culture, which she tries in vain to distinguish from casual sex. Unfortunately, the harms that exist in hookup culture will always be risks in casual sex encounters.

Let’s Bring It Home

Hookup culture is casual sex, and it’s proof that casual sex doesn’t work. We tried it, and it’s failing. Even though she’s armed with the data to back this conclusion up, Wade somehow can’t quite bring herself to make this connection. Instead, she circles back in support of the thinking that led us to the hookup culture mess in the first place. The idea that casual sex should be good for everyone is a theory that gained significant traction in the 1960s. The hookup culture is the practical application of that theory, and Wade proves that it’s a failure. Logically, she should throw out the original theory and champion a different one.

The only way to reverse the harms of hookup culture is to return sex to its natural place—committed, loving relationships: marriage. Care, mutual pleasure, bodily acceptance, and physical safety all exist between two people who love and are committed to each other. These things can’t be manufactured in a casual sexual interaction, because they come with time and knowledge of one’s partner.

We’re in the middle of a cultural sexual crisis that exists because we’ve told ourselves that sex can be casual. For the sake of the hundreds of thousands of women who have said “me too,” we need to understand that sex will only ever be kind and caring when it’s committed and loving. Sex will only ever be safe when we know our partner, and it will only ever be intimate when we trust the person who’s seeing us naked.

It would be wonderful if everyone were kinder and more caring towards each other; I can’t blame Wade for wanting a culture where this treatment is the norm. What I can and do criticize her for is failing to follow the natural conclusion of her own data. Casual sex, by its very nature, has to be uncaring and unconcerned. Hookup culture is proof of this. It wasn’t created out of nowhere. It’s the natural result of removing something as intimate and meaningful as sex from its rightful context. If we want kinder and more caring sex, let’s return it to where it belongs.

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