Lisa Wade, Ph.D., a Sociology professor at Occidental College, studies the role of sex, sexuality, and gender in society. She will be speaking at Harvard’s inaugural Sex Week, which starts March 25. FM recently chatted with Wade about hooking up, sexual dissatisfaction, and “liberated sex.”
1. Fifteen Minutes: What do you find interesting about studying sex and gender?
Lisa Wade: Of all the social inequalities that we have in the United States, sex and gender [inequality] is unique in requiring people who are positioned differently to be intimate. We push men and women together, whereas when you look at race and class, for example, we actually actively separate groups through residential and occupational segregation. That makes for an interesting dynamic in looking at how gender inequality works.
2. FM: Sex is in the news, in the movies, and in our conversations; it’s a big part of our lives. Why are we so obsessed with sex?
LW: Sex is a natural drive, like hunger and the need for comfort. It’s one of the things that a capitalist society, driven by a market, is inevitably going to fixate on. Think about how much of our advertising is driven around food. Today we have become so good at producing so much more than we need, and one of the ways we convince people to buy particular products is by sexualizing [them].
3. FM: You have said that the average college student has somewhere between four and seven hook-ups during their college career. Most people, however, seem to have the impression that the number is much higher. Why?
LW: This is a phenomenon that psychologists call “pluralistic ignorance,” where the majority of people misunderstand what is going on. We see it in lots of different arenas—we certainly see it in how much college students think other people are drinking and doing drugs. The key is understanding the difference between a college campus on which there is hooking up and a college campus that is characterized by a hook-up culture.
4. FM: What role do you think that television and the media’s very casual attitude toward sex has played in shaping society’s views on sex?
LW: It certainly contributes to the pluralistic ignorance and the idea that college is going to be constant sex with attractive people and that that’s how you have fun in college. We get the idea that someone who is cool and interesting and exciting is someone who is doing it and doing it with whoever, whenever, however.... The media seems to be saying that students who don’t participate are just irrelevant and off the social map altogether, and that’s a pretty harsh punishment to someone who objects to what’s going on or wishes it were different.
5. FM: You have said that college students typically want to feel pleasure, meaningfulness, and empowerment from their sexual experiences, but are not getting this from casual hook-ups. What are ways in which people can find these elements in sexual relationships?
LW: Students have difficulty getting what they want out of sexual encounters because these encounters are shaped by a lot of things in our society that are bad: sexism, heterosexism, racism, and this relentless pressure to be really hot and sexy. All these things shape hook-ups so they tend to be less rewarding. But all of these things also shape relationships. So what we need to fix isn’t the way in which people are sexual with one another but the context in which sex is happening. We like to say that hook-up culture is a problem unique to college, but there’s nothing that’s happening on college campuses that doesn’t also reflect our wider society.
6. FM: In your lecture on hook-up culture on MTV’s Canada “Impact,” you also mentioned that about 30 percent of college students opt out of sex altogether. Are these students missing out on important sexual experiences in any way?
LW: A lot of students that do not like hook-up culture say that even the bad experiences they’ve had have taught them a lot. They learn what kind of relationship does feel good to them, and how they reach their boundaries when they’re alone with someone, and how it feels to be empowered enough to make their feelings about what they do and don’t want to do matter.
7. FM: Is the hook-up culture as prevalent in the gay community?
LW: Hook-up culture is predominantly something that white, middle and upper-class, heterosexual people do. Heterosexual people do it more than homosexual people, although I suspect that this varies quite tremendously by what kind of campus we’re talking about. On campuses where gay people can be openly out and find each other more easily without threat, I suspect that there is more hooking up.