Dating & Relationships, Psychology

Who is Hookup Culture Helping, and Who is It Hurting?

November 22, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller

College hookup culture serves the interests of some, but not others. So who is it helping, and who is it hurting?

To explore this question, I interviewed Dr. Lisa Wade for the Sex and Psychology Podcast. Lisa is an associate professor of sociology and gender and sexuality studies at Tulane University. She is also author of the book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, which is based on findings from more than 100 college students who kept a weekly sex journal for an entire semester.

In this episode, Lisa and I discussed the past and present of college hookup culture, as well as how to make navigating hookup culture easier and how to have healthy casual sex. Below is an excerpt from our conversation (you can listen to it in full in this podcast). Note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Justin Lehmiller: Something you discussed in your book was how college students can opt out of hooking up, but they can’t really opt out of hookup culture. This culture really only serves a minority of students—specifically, those who have the most power and privilege. Those who don’t have that power and privilege are disenfranchised. So can you tell us a little bit more about who hookup culture is helping and who it’s hurting?

Lisa Wade: There’s nothing wrong with hookup culture on college campuses today that’s not wrong with American culture more broadly. So, I’m sure your listeners could just apply what they know about the injustices of our world, and they’d get pretty close to what hookup culture is like and how it privileges certain students over others.

Generally speaking, if you’re White, if you’re able-bodied, if you are otherwise light-skinned, and if you’re conventionally attractive, then you are more likely to be seen as highly erotically valuable. And if you’re seen as highly erotically valuable, then you have more options to hook up with other people who are the same, and then your status goes up. That is a very rewarding thing for those students to do, and so they’re more likely to be eager to participate. But if you are seen as erotically unvaluable, or even erotically stigmatized, then you are seen as someone who is unsexy—and then people don’t want to hook up with you.

There’s a great phrase from Erving Goffman called courtesy stigma, and it’s this idea that if you’re associated with someone who is stigmatized, that stigma rubs off on you—so others will then ostracize you. And so whether you’re at the bottom of this erotic hierarchy or somewhere near, or perhaps even in the middle, then your position is much more fraught.

We also know that people who have lower status are less likely to be given pleasure in sexual encounters and are at higher risk of sexual violence and harm. High-status people can get away with more borderline behavior in terms of sexual violence than lower-status people can. So even if a lower-status person engages in the exact same behavior as a higher-status person, they’re more likely to get in trouble for that. So, it’s definitely not a safe and free playground for everyone.

Justin Lehmiller: Something related to this that I’ve heard you talk about before is the intersection of hookup culture with race and ethnicity. The impact of hookup culture is different for people of different racial backgrounds, but that also intersects with gender and other factors. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and the intersectionality of hookup culture?

Lisa Wade: We do something very strange in America where we gender race and we racialize gender. In this country, people stereotypically believe that Black people are more masculine than White people. People also tend to view them as more athletic, as more prone to crime, as louder and bigger, and as hypersexual. Those are all stereotypes of men that we’ve applied to Black people, men and women alike.

Conversely, Americans tend to feminize Asian people. We tend to think that Asian people are quieter, more docile, less sexual. So, we’re applying these stereotypes of femininity to Asian people, both men and women. What that means is for Black men and Asian women, these particular intersections make is such that Black men seem especially masculine and Asian women seem especially feminine. So racial stereotypes resonate with the gender stereotypes.

For Black women and Asian men, it does the opposite; they interfere. So Black women tend to be seen as insufficiently feminine and, therefore, less sexually desirable, while Asian men tend to be seen as insufficiently masculine and therefore, less sexually desirable. That positions them in this erotic hierarchy in really different ways. You might think, well, that sounds great for Black men and Asian women, but it’s a really double-edged sword.

We all want to be seen as sexy by other people, but it’s a whole other thing when you’re being fetishized because of the intersection of your race and gender, or people are assuming you have certain sexual characteristics because of the identities you hold. It also puts people at higher risk. For example, the stereotype that Black men are hypersexual might make them seem like stallions in bed or something like that, but it also makes accusations of sexual violence stick more when applied to them.

Justin Lehmiller: I see a lot of these same racial stereotypes creeping into the fantasies that people have. And, in some cases, there seems to be this internalization of the negative stereotypes about one’s group identities. For instance, in my research on the sexual fantasies of Americans, among White individuals I see that about 85% are predominantly fantasizing about other White people. But if you look at Asian Americans, you see almost the exact same number of them fantasizing about Whites—for the most part, they’re not fantasizing about other Asian Americans. So you’ve got this seeming outgroup preference there.

I suspect this pattern is fueled by a lot of the negative cultural stereotypes about Asian men, in particular, who are often stereotyped as being asexual. So, I think that’s some compelling evidence for how certain racial stereotypes within a culture can potentially get embedded in our sexual attractions and in our sexual fantasies in ways that we might not consciously realize.

Something else that supports this idea is that I’ve also conducted some cross-cultural research on sexual fantasies. When I’ve studied Asian people who live in Asian cultures, they predominantly fantasize about other Asian partners. So, it seems this is really a uniquely Western thing where we see this internalization of those particular stereotypes. It’s all fascinating to study, and I think this is why we need more work in this area.

Listen to my full conversation with Lisa in this podcast.

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Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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