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Few topics send the media into a panic like the idea of hookup culture on college campuses. But are college students actually having more sex than their parents did a generation ago? Research suggests the answer is no. Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental College, says something has changed, though: In today's hookup culture, developing an emotional attachment to a casual sex partner is one of the biggest breaches of social norms.

In this culture, she says, there's a dichotomy between meaningless and meaningful sex, and students have to go out of their way to "perform meaninglessness. This le to seemingly contradictory situations, such as people who only have sex with partners they're not interested in, and friends being meaner to each other after developing a sexual relationship.

This Valentine's Day, Lisa Wade talks with us about hookup culture and investigates the complex social rules surrounding casual sex on American college campuses. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

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This episode explores explicit themes. If you're listening with small kids, you may want to save this for later. Everyone just seemed to be doing everything with each other. And yet I always kind of felt like I wasn't doing it right. One of them is hookup culture. Are you buying this? Kids are more sexual than ever.

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But the truth is more nuanced. College students are actually not having more sex than their parents did a generation ago. But something has changed, not just in what students do or what they don't do but in how they think. It's something to be explored in secret, maybe even something to be ashamed about. But I think the alternative is that nobody wants to use you. And I think that that's worse. In her book "American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus," Lisa interviews college students and finds that hookup culture has a complex set of social rules.

She says these rules threaten the emotional well-being of students, those who embrace the culture and those who want nothing to do with it. Lisa, thanks for ing me on Hidden Brain today. One of the things that kept coming up was that there's no one definition of what hooking up actually is.

It can mean a variety of things, from making out to having sex. But for all the ambiguity, there does seem to be a clear set of guidelines when it comes to how students should hookup. WADE: You know, it's funny because the ideology around hookups is that they're supposed to be spontaneous. And the fact is that there's a pretty rigid set of rules for how hookups happen. Many of them, probably most of them, start at parties where there's drinking.

Women wants hot sex Bryant Alabama the way to initiate it is through dancing. And so usually in these heterosexual encounters, women will initiate the dancing by going into the middle of the dance floor and then in a very sort of gender traditional way, hope that someone picks her and comes up along behind her. Sometimes the woman doesn't even know who is behind her, which creates a conundrum because part of hooking up is trying to hook up with people that your friends approve of and think are, like, a good catch.

And so often she's dancing, someone comes up behind her and then what she'll do is she'll look across the circle to one of her girlfriends and try to get some indication as to whether or not she should continue.

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You're saying that some hookups move you up the social pecking order and others move you down? WADE: Hookups are decidedly not about finding any sort of romantic connection and suggesting that it should be or that one is doing it for that reason is tantamount to breaking a social rule. They're often not so much about pleasure in particular for women. They're very much about status.

So the idea is to be able to brag about or having sort of gotten someone who other people might also wish they could have gotten. So it's all about being able to say, I got that guy over there or that person that everyone's looking for, I managed to be the one who hooked up with him tonight. One of the young men we spoke with described a situation that almost seems Kafkaesque. But I also knew that she was hooking up with someone. And this was such a confusing concept, which is that people will have sex with people that they don't like but won't have sex with people that they do like.

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VEDANTAM: And, of course, what this young man is saying, he can't understand why this Women wants hot sex Bryant Alabama woman who likes him and that he likes is having sex with someone else whom she doesn't like but won't have sex with him. WADE: What the students are confronted with is this artificial binary between careless and careful sex.

On the one hand, we have this idea that when we get into romantic relationships, we're supposed to be loving and kind. And the sex that happens in those kinds of relationships is very committed. And on the other hand, we have this concept of casual sex, which is the opposite of that. And that means that all of the kindnesses that go along with romantic relationships are considered off script once casual sex is on the table.

So if two students are going to hook up together and they want it to be meaningless, then they have to do some work to make sure that both they and everyone else understands that we're over in this meaningless camp and not this powerfully meaningful one.

And so Women wants hot sex Bryant Alabama sort of convince themselves and other people or to show themselves and other people that it was meaningless, they have to find a way to perform meaningless. It's not automatic. And they do that by, for example, making sure that they're drunk or they appear to be drunk when they hook up. So my students actually speak in pretty hushed tones about sober sex. Sober sex is very serious. But if the students have been drinking, then that helps send the message that it's meaningless.

Another way is to make sure that they don't hook up with the same person very many times. So if they really don't like the person in a romantic way, just hook up once, maybe twice and then cut it off. And then the third thing they have to do to try to establish this meaninglessness is to sort of give that person a demotion in their lives afterward.

The idea that it's meaningless means that we're also not supposed to care about that person at all and in any way. VEDANTAM: You talk in the book about how even though, you know, talk about hookups is ubiquitous on college campuses, that doesn't necessarily reflect how much of it is actually going on. WADE: So there's a lot of consternation about the students' sexual activity. But it turns out that they are no more sexually active by most measures than their parents were at their age.

The average graduating senior has hooked up eight times in four years. So that's once a semester. And half of those hookups are with someone they've hooked up with before. And in fact, about a third of students won't hook up even a single time their entire college career. But that doesn't mean that they're not surrounded by these really powerful ideas about what they should be doing. And it doesn't mean that they can change how their peers interact with them or the way in which higher education works.

VEDANTAM: So even though campus hookup culture might actually be something that is endorsed by a relatively small of people who are enthusiasts, one of the points you make is that these are people who often come from groups who have traditionally had a lot of power and privilege in society. WADE: About 15 percent of students really, really, truly enjoy hookup culture. It gives them exactly what they want out of college. And studies show that if you ask those students - and they're the students that are hooking up the most - if you ask them if they're having a good time, they say, yes.

And I believe them. About a third of students are completely opted out. The rest of the students are somewhere in the middle, and they're ambivalent about the idea of casual sex. But if you look at the students who enjoy hookup culture the most, those students are disproportionately going to be heterosexual, white, come from an upper middle class or wealthy background.

They're going to be male, they're going to be able-bodied, conventionally attractive. WADE: Racial minorities face all kinds of complicated problems that white students don't. And it depends a lot kind of on what particular intersection we're looking at. So some racial minorities are embraced by white students more than others.

So African-American men and Asian women are usually considered hot and exotic, whereas Asian men and African-American women are considered less so. So it very much depends kind of on what intersection of race and gender and class, too, that students are sitting in. But overall, we see lower rates of hooking up among racial minorities for both push and pull reasons. So part of it is they're pushed out because of racism and an erotic hierarchy that privileges whiteness.

But they also tend to get pulled out because racial minorities are more likely to be religious. They drink less alcohol.

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They maybe had to be more squeaky clean to get into college to begin with. So racial minorities aren't as welcome in hookup culture.

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And they also don't find it as attractive. WADE: For students who don't identify as heterosexual, and we actually still need to do more research on this, but what it seems to - what seems to be happening is that on small campuses or campuses where people aren't very out, there's not an alternative hookup scene for students who don't identify as heterosexual or bisexual. And the hookup scene that does exist is hyper-heterosexualized. And in those cases, students participate at their own risk, risking homophobia in either behavior or attitude, or they go off campus.

And that is why Grindr hit college campuses way earlier than Tinder did because a lot of students who identified as non-heterosexual were using it to find hookups off campus. Stay with us. One argument that some make, and this includes feminists on the left and libertarians on the right, is that hookups can be liberating. People have a chance to experiment, try new things. They're empowered to discover their preferences. But one of the students we spoke with, Lisa, said that what sometimes starts out sounding like empowerment often becomes something else.

You know, it's not a - it wasn't a conversation of, hey, are you willing to try this? Or, hey, you know, I really like it when my partner does this to me. It would be a little bit more of you're going to do this now. WADE: Yes, I would argue that hookup culture is a rape culture in that it facilitates and excuses behaviors that translate into sexual assault.

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Hookup Culture: The Unspoken Rules Of Sex On College Campuses