Can Sex Ever Be Casual?

No-strings-attached mating may differ between theory and practice.

Hookups and Friends With Benefits: Is Everyone Really Just Doing It?

New films about normative contractual, raunchy sex abound. Are they for real?

Flipping through television channels and scanning news headlines, one often comes upon the occurrence of random hookups and resulting breakups. Disconcerting is the actual phenomenon of hooking up as a behavior that is being touted as socially normative. Whether it is an episode of Grey's Anatomy, or the intimate lives of politicians, the issue of sexual deviancy is one that simultaneously intrigues audiences and often befuddles researchers and clinicians. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis' latest film, "Friends With Benefits," is certainly a nod to this new "trend," as was Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher's "No Strings Attached".

Hookups are generally defined as casual sexual encounters that may or may not include intercourse and typically occur during a singular occasion between strangers or recently met acquaintances. A unique feature of hookups is that there is no expectation of future romantic commitment. It is closely related to the concept of "friends with benefits" with respect to the element of commitment. Unsurprisingly, many studies of college student hookups have focused on the role of alcohol. Alcohol use has been suggested to covary with college student high-risk sexual behavior, and has also been linked to greater intent to locate sexual partners and higher numbers of sexual partners (Gute & Eshbough, 2008). Further, the greatest factor leading to unwanted sexual intercourse is impaired judgment due to alcohol (Flack et al., 2007).

In 2010, Duke University social scientists conducted one of the largest studies of college student sexual behavior to date, randomly surveying nearly 1500 students in an attempt to better understand the culture of hooking up. Among their findings were that roughly one-third of students were in committed relationships, one-third engaged in hookups, while another third engaged in neither behavior (Booher, 2010). However, other estimates have put the figure of hookups at much higher, with 78% of students engaging in them (Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000), although estimates may vary as a function of the definition of hookups being used by researchers (i.e., kissing vs. intercourse). As many as 23% of women, and 7% of men report hooking up resulting in unwanted intercourse, and 78% of unwanted sexual encounters occurring during a hookup (Flack et al., 2007).

While the mass media often promulgates the message of hookups freeing women from gender role stereotypes in an attempt to liberate them, the emotional toll of such behaviors is rarely explored. We have seen the image many times over. The morning after a one-night stand, many a female awakens glowing and with a perfectly tousled appeal. Yet, some research suggests otherwise. In addition to the higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, or being the victim of sexual assault, for many, an unwanted sexual encounter results in a variety of stress responses, including numbing and avoidance responses and hyperarousal (Flack et al., 2007). As some researchers have put it, "men are rewarded for sexual prowess and experience, whereas women are shamed for these....As a result, hooking up may lead to short-term psychological distress for women" (p. 4, Fielder & Carey, 2010). As for the long-term effects, no studies have been found to explore this.

So what predicts a "hookup"? The jury is still out. Theories range from the individual to sociocultural influences. Social cognitive theories suggest the important role of shaping that takes place on multiple simultaneous levels; for many, a salient intimate relationship is modeled by parents' relationships, whereas a college setting may provide an immediate social context, and messages from the mass media many encompass a larger socially dominant sphere that provide norms on sexual behavior (Fielder & Carey, 2010). When alcohol is added into the equation, a number of factors emerge as predicting high risk sexual behaviors, including sensation seeking, impulsivity, proneness toward social deviance, and the inability toward tolerating boredom (Gute & Eshbaugh, 2008).

While some have suggested hookups to be common among high achieving and career-minded women, who have little time to invest in committed relationships, (as cited in Fielder & Carey, 2010), one wonders about the ultimate consequences of frequent casual sexual behaviors. A new crop of films such as "The Switch," featuring Jennifer Aniston and "The Back-up Plan," featuring Jennifer Lopez show independent women seeking motherhood through insemination procedures, refusing to wait around for the ideal man to appear. The message here appears to be fulfillment through motherhood which many women seek. It is being portrayed positively, depicting women as strong and self-sufficient.

Yet, one also wonders what positive message emerges from the image of the woman seeking sexual liberation above all? For example, in the film "All About Steve," Sandra Bullock, portraying a quirky smart crossword puzzle writer, wastes no time on a first date, disrobing and straddling the man in his car parked in her parent's driveway before the date has even started. Such displays of sexual urgency and desperation have clear implications for young adults and a culture that is coming to normalize hooking up. However, it appears that the problem can in some ways be reduced down to the highly skewed norm being portrayed in the media that is not indicative of society at large.

In a fascinating study on hooking up and pluralistic ignorance, researchers showed that both men and women showed less comfort with the perceived norm of hooking up than they thought was experienced by same-sex peers. Both genders believed the other gender to be more comfortable with hooking up than either gender actually reported (Lambert, Kahn, & Apple, 2003). Thus it appears that ultimately, in the case of hooking up, the media's portrayal is a far cry from reality. Instead, it is promoting harmful messages that are hazardous to the physical and mental well-being of the public.


Booher, B. (2010). Sex, love, and celibacy. Duke Magazine.

Fielder, R.L., & Carey, M.P. (2010). Predictors and consequences of sexual "hookups" among college students: A short prospective study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 1105-1119.

Flack, W.F., Daubman, K.A., Caron, M.L., Asadorian, J.A., D'Aureli, N.R., Gigliotti, S.N., Hall, A.T., Kiser, S., & Stine, E.R. (2007). Risk factors and consequences of unwanted sex among university students: Hooking up, alcohol, and stress response. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22, 139-157.

Gute, G. & Eshbaugh, E.M. (2008). Personality as a predictor of hooking up among college students. Journal of Community Health Nursing, 25, 26-43.

Lambert, T.A., Kahn, A.S., Apple, K.J. (2003). Pluralistic ignorance and hooking up. Journal
of Sex Research, 40, 129-133.

*A portion of this article previously appeared in The Amplifier Spring/Summer 2011 issue