In Conversation with Lisa Wade

Lisa Wade, Associate Professor

For the past six years, Lisa Wade has spent her summers researching and writing in New Orleans. This January, Wade became a full-time resident of the city as a triply appointed associate professor in the School of Liberal Arts Department of Sociology and the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Newcomb Institute. Her latest book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, situates collegiate hookup culture within the history of sexuality, the evolution of higher education, and the unfinished feminist revolution. Her current research focuses on hookup culture during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This spring, Wade discussed the interdisciplinarity of her research and research methods, how outside forces shape who we are and how we think, and why Tulane University is a great fit for her work.

Emily Wilkerson (EW): Your research is focused on sociology and gender and sexuality studies. Tell us a little bit about how these fields intersect.

Lisa Wade (LW): As a sociologist, I specialize in looking at the outside forces that affect individual life pathways, such as our experiences, our emotions, our attitudes, and our behaviors.

Gender is an excellent example of an outside force that strongly shapes our lives. A sociologist is thinking about gender as a phenomenon that sits at the intersection of one’s individual experience of life and the environment they’re in. Whatever feelings we might have about our gender identity and expression are filtered through the categories and possibilities that our social environments allow. The same can be said of sexuality—what sexual urges we develop and how we experience those urges are affected by what our social world tells us is normal, good, or allowable.

Gender and sexuality intersect in the ways we ‘gender’ sexuality. We often see categories of men and women as having fundamentally different sexualities in our contemporary American culture. For example, we tend to think about women as being ‘sexy’ and men as being ‘sexual,’ or women as being objects of sexual desire and men as the subjects of sexual desire.

EW: Your latest book, American Hookup, is a powerful examination of sex culture on college campuses today. The book is also an example of the interdisciplinarity of your work. Can you share more about the variety of research methods you use?

LW: American Hookup is a great example of the breadth of research I do. The heart of the book is diaries written by 101 students, all in their first year of college. They wrote these diaries for a full semester, so they are an in-depth and real-time look at how college students were experiencing sex, love, friendship, and socializing in general.

When I got this first phase of data, I knew I had something really special. But in order to understand what those diaries really mean, I needed other kinds of research, so I also took advantage of a large, quantitative survey—the Online College Social Life Survey—that had sampled more than 24,000 students at 21 different colleges and universities. The third phase of my research was a content analysis of several hundred articles written by students in student newspapers about hookup culture, which really expanded how many colleges and universities were incorporated into the research.

EW: What drew you to Tulane and what are you most excited about in your new position?

LW: I’m most excited about the extremely good fit. I am able to bring my expertise in hookup culture to each of my appointments in sociology, gender and sexuality studies, and the Newcomb Institute. And this is a university with an especially vibrant hookup culture. From the vantage point of my multiple appointments, I have many wonderful resources and colleagues that can help me do the theoretical work I want to do and help both students and administrators understand sexual culture.

EW: You refer to yourself as a public-facing scholar. Tell us what this means to you and your work.

LW: I’m a first-generation college student, so didn’t have much cultural capital when I was starting out in academia. In other words, I didn’t know all of the unwritten rules. Looking back, I think that was a superpower; I took risks without knowing they were risks. For example, after I finished graduate school, I started a teaching-oriented blog where my friends and I could share images that illustrated sociological concepts. It didn’t stay teaching oriented for long, as it turned out lots of people were interested in sociology. Eventually, Sociological Images became the most widely read sociology blog on the internet.

At first, I sat on panels at the American Sociological Association's Annual Meeting where we discussed whether blogging could ruin your career. A few years later, I won the association’s Distinguished Contribution to Teaching Award. I was ahead of the curve, but not because I was savvy. I just didn’t know any better.

Ultimately, through this experience, I became not just invested and active in public sociology, but quite good at it. When it came to American Hookup, I set out to write it for a general audience. Having already written about 3,000 blog posts, I’d gathered some valuable experience for doing that, and I’m so glad I made that decision. The students in the book are so smart, insightful, funny, and lovable. They deserved a bigger platform than academia. And I know that the book has helped a lot of students understand and navigate hookup culture—and that means a lot to me.

I don’t think every scholar needs to be a public facing scholar, but those that are do a great service to their fields and the world. I feel very lucky that I stumbled into this role, because I not only get to share my research with many people, but hopefully help inform policy, help inform people making decisions about their families and children, and also help individuals understand their own lives better.

EW: What do most hope individuals learn from your research and work?

LW:  All too often, people bracket sexuality. They carve it out from other parts of life and assume it operates by a separate set of rules. In fact, sexuality is a window into life more broadly. If we study it, we find liberation, oppression, pleasure, pain, social inertia, and social change. So, documenting the best and the worst things about contemporary collegiate hookup culture is a way to reveal the best and the worst things about America.

Studying college students specifically means studying how this upcoming generation is going to respond to the challenges left to them by the rest of us. Insofar as they are succumbing to, or resisting, erotic hierarchies; thinking about sex as a win-win or a zero-sum game; and accepting rather than organizing to change their sexual cultures, and so on—these are clues as to how they’re going to respond to inequality, individualism, and political contests more generally. So, I see hookup culture as a window into our future, for better and worse.