Alumna’s New Book Reveals The Cold World of College Sex

By George Thurlow '73


Like several decades of UC Santa Barbara students, Lisa Wade ’97 awoke to the world of human sexuality in the legendary class taught by John and Janice Baldwin.

More than 500 Gauchos jammed Campbell Hall for almost 20 years to hear the Baldwins explain sexuality in frank, open and scientific terms. For Wade it was the beginning of an intellectual journey into the sometimes romantic but often cold world of college sex. Her newly published book, "American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus" details the world of college sex.

Although she spent plenty of time in Isla Vista, the book does not focus on UCSB and instead culls its data from 24,000 student surveys taken on 21 different U.S. campuses. It also used the anonymous journals of 101 students at two different schools who detailed their sexual activity as college students.

The results are troubling. Despite all the hoopla about sexual freedom in America, Wade concluded, “We have replaced the idea of [sexual] equality with the idea of freedom. But freedom outside of equality is not fair.” The result of more sexual freedom is sex that still is largely controlled by a male culture on most college campuses that elevates the sexual experience while devaluing emotional intimacy.

She argued in the book that it is not the sexual freedom that is the problem today, it is the sexual culture within which it exists. That culture seems to enable casual sex without promoting deeper connections among individuals. Engaging in sex that includes intimate communication and feelings “is considered prudish and old fashioned” in this new sexual culture, she said.

Wade travels all over the country talking about sex on college campuses. She traces her eagerness to educate to her time in the Baldwin’s class. “I loved that class,” she recalled recently in an interview on her patio in Eagle Rock, California. “It was not so much about sexuality but I loved knowing things that other people didn’t know, that I could tell them.”

The Baldwins’ Sociology 154A was groundbreaking when it was introduced in the 1980s. It covered topics from birth control to infertility to orgasm. The couple went on to write a textbook for the course entitled “Discovering Human Sexuality.” It is now in its fourth printing. After graduation with a degree in philosophy Wade worked on the AIDS Quilt Project in the Bay Area and then returned to the academic world as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin. For the past 12 years she has been a professor at Occidental College. She is proud both of the fact she is a fifth generation Californian and a first generation college graduate.

Her research into college sex culture has led to some strong opinions. She is among a growing chorus of academics who believe the Greek system on college campuses is a major source of sexual assaults and promotes a culture of male privilege. “Fraternity men are given the power” in the current college party scene to set the standards of behavior and participation, she said. They control the parties, the alcohol, the invitees and the behavior the occurs inside the parties.

She noted that this culture can be found on Del Playa on many Saturday nights in Isla Vista. It is a culture in which women must pay to play and their safety is not in their own hands. “For a fraternity to be safe and employ common sense would defy everything they have stood for over 200 years,” she asserted. Her remedy would be multi-faceted. The current sex culture must work to include the idea that sex should be fun but that it should also come with some minimal emotional attachment and caring.

Institutionally, our society needs to have a level playing field where men and women receive equal satisfaction from “hook ups.” Men need to give up their control over the culture.

Engaging in sex that includes intimate communication and feelings "is considered prudish and old fashioned" in this new sexual culture.

More information needs to be provided to today’s students about sex and relationships, but more important information about what their peers in relationships need and want. Our young people need to be more open and feel safe in their candor about their feelings. The culture needs to be one in which college students can be “casual but also caring” in their sexual relationships. “For the 12 minutes you are engaged you can be nice to a person and not just cold and callous,” she said.

Finally, there needs to be spaces where those outside the traditional heterosexual hookup culture, including those who want to abstain, can feel comfortable and safe. “The hookup culture is so hyper heterosexual,” Wade said, that those who are not part of that scene feel shunned. The culture is changing rapidly, she noted. Ten years ago, she concluded, dating sites on the Internet had participants “who at least pretended to be interested in a relationship.” The new sites now promote the opposite of relationships.

But much can be accomplished simply by better communication between two people engaged in the “hookup.” While it is “so scary” to be honest in these situations it would be great if two people simply said to each other, “I would like something from you.” It would be, Wade concluded, “an important skill for the rest of their lives.”