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But the pages that immediately follow paint a more lurid picture, giving the distinct impression that college kids are fornicating willy-nilly, like so many bunnies in a hutch. One of the very problems Ms. Wade bemoans throughout her book — how the media peddles “salacious stories” about partying students obsessed with casual sex — is one she unwittingly replicates in her own pages, especially early on.
Chapter 1, which outlines the “anatomy of the hookup,” starts in a dorm, where two women are applying frescoes of makeup to their faces and cantilevering their breasts into skimpy outfits, “going for a classy stripper vibe.” The theme of tonight’s party: burlesque. The women, obviously, are encouraged to dress like harlots. Everyone is encouraged to get wasted. These gatherings often devolve into orgiastic mosh pits of bumping and grinding, with men approaching their quarry from behind, freely given “license to grope.” It’s just a matter of time before the party reaches its “gross stage.”
You really don’t want to be there for the gross stage.
Readers sit for a long time with this information, contemplating it in the same kind of muzzy, Jell-O-shot haze that befuddles the students they’re reading about. What are we to make of this? Is Ms. Wade suggesting that this is what college is like now, everywhere?
Unless readers are acquainted with other books or reporting on this subject, they might also be forgiven for wondering if college students still have romantic relationships. The answer is yes. (Many, in fact. It’s just that most started as hookups.) But Ms. Wade doesn’t say so until Page 145, whereas Kathleen A. Bogle’s “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus” — the best-known book on this topic, published in 2008 — answers this question on Page 1.
Creating such confusion was clearly not Ms. Wade’s intention. She set out to clarify the mating rituals of the modern college campus. Her theory, ultimately, is simple: If sex is causing students anxiety and consternation, the problem is not the hookup itself (a nebulous term, incidentally, which only 40 percent of the time seems to refer to intercourse). It’s the culture surrounding the hookup, which is retro, hetero, blotto and — at moments — worryingly psycho.
Ms. Wade is no prude. She recognizes the positive aspects of the culture she’s studying, seeing it as an outgrowth of many progressive social movements, which collectively gave students “a joyous sense of liberation” when it came to sex. Yet she worries that our own mores haven’t evolved enough to make hookup culture humane or safe. Men still control love and pleasure in this new world, turning women into desperate, anxious rivals. Throw in booze, and you’ve got a recipe for all kinds of selfishness, ugliness and depredation.
These are not exactly original insights. But Ms. Wade’s research, drawn from data she personally collected and a range of supplementary sources, does convey exceptionally well the perverse callousness of hookup culture.
The hookup is predicated on indifference. Betraying any hint of emotion, especially if you’re a woman, could mean you aren’t independent and modern. The minute people hook up, therefore, they distance themselves from each other, so as not to seem clingy, needy. “If students were good friends, they should act like acquaintances,” Ms. Wade explains. “If they were acquaintances, they should act like strangers.”
She tells the story of two students, Farah and Tiq, who can’t admit they have feelings for each other, even though they’ve been sexually intimate a number of times.
“Do you like like me?” Tiq finally screws up the courage to ask.
“No,” Farah lies.
Their drama plays out like “The Remains of the Day,” only in hoodies and with lots of weed.
Yet throughout “American Hookup,” I was dogged by a low-level hum of uncertainty, never quite sure how oppressive the insipid parties are, or how widespread the writhing bacchanals. Is it the same on campuses large and small? And is there really no way to lead a life outside this nonsense?
If there is, Ms. Wade says disappointingly little about it. Considering that one-third of students are “abstainers,” to use her word, you would hope that at least one-sixth of her book would be about them.
But it isn’t. In her one chapter on abstainers, she implies that those who don’t participate in the hookup scene aren’t really opting out; they’re being shoved out because they never truly belonged — they’re people of color, gay or working-class.
It’s important to note that hookup culture can actively exclude minorities. But the culture ignores others, too, and still others surely ignore it — the shy, the nerds, the hobbyists whose passions and enthusiasms might instead guide their lives. Ms. Wade almost never discusses whether there might be thriving alternative cultures for anyone at the margins. If anything, she suggests the opposite — that marginalized kids are so isolated that they don’t even make one another’s acquaintance.
Yet in her penultimate chapter, she mentions that a number of students in her sample started socializing differently once they’d entered sophomore year and made real friends. Or gotten down to the actual business of studying.
She suggests, in other words, that there are other ways on campus to live and to be.
She revisits a woman named Celeste, who, after many unfulfilling encounters, has finally found a boyfriend. “Their hookup didn’t start at a party,” Ms. Wade writes. “It started in the library.”
But is that even a hookup? It sounds suspiciously like something people did before hookups existed at all.Continue reading the main story