10 Things We've Learned About Hookups and Regret
Gender makes a difference, but it's not the only factor.
Posted Sep 26, 2014
How do you react to hookups?
The question has great meaning in American society today, since more than 75 percent of college students report engaging in at least one hookup, 30 percent of which include sex (Paul & Hayes, 2002). The actual overall prevalence of hooking up is likely even higher, since these estimates are limited to college students. Post-college social interactions for individuals in their 20s or 30s present many new opportunities for hooking up, and with no sign of these trends changing, we need to evaluate how hooking up is connected to psychological health and well-being.
Let’s start with a definition of a hookup, since there’s actually quite a bit of debate about it, although common features include a sexual encounter occurring between two people outside of a dating or romantic relationship (anything from kissing and touching to oral, vaginal, or anal sex). The partners could be strangers, friends, casual acquaintances, ex-partners, etc. But the absence of commitment is important to the definition.
People have great hookups and horrible hookups. The variety of behaviors involved, situations in which they can occur, and ways that they can end, creates a challenge for researchers to understand and predict people's emotional reactions. Still, we’ve learned a quite bit about how heterosexual individuals respond to hooking up, especially about their feelings of regret.
Following are some of the findings:
- Men and women have different regrets. Women are more likely to regret a hookup, and their emotional response might include shame or self-blame. Men are more apt to regret their partner choice, lamenting their situation if the partner was sexually permissive or unattractive (Paul & Hayes, 2002).
- Men and women can react positively to hook-ups. New evidence suggests that 70 percent of men and about 50 percent of women have predominantly positive responses to their most recent hookup (Strokoff, Owen, & Fincham, 2014). They fall into two groups—the happy hopefuls and the content realists. The happy hopefuls tend to drink heavily before hooking up, often engage in sex, and anticipate a relationship to potentially emerge from their encounter. The content realists are more comfortable with the one-time encounter, feel desirable and excited, and tend not to expect anything from a hookup.
- Sex or no sex? Women often have fewer regrets when a hookup does not include sexual intercourse. Hookups that include oral sex are not associated with as much regret as those that include intercourse, potentially because women underestimate their health risks, and because oral sex may serve as a compromise between peer-culture pressure to engage in sex and broader societal forces that frown on casual intercourse (Eshbaugh & Gute, 2008; Paul & Hayes, 2002).
- Action vs. inaction. Men expect to regret a missed opportunity for a casual sexual encounter more than women do, and more than they would regret a sexual encounter that did occur (Galperin et al., 2013). Women, on the other hand, anticipate regretting sexual action more intensely than sexual inaction.
- Partner choice matters. People are more likely to regret a hookup if it involved sex with someone they had known for less than 24 hours (Eshbaugh & Gute, 2008).
- Hooking up can leave people confused. Having mixed reactions to a hookup is not uncommon. Evidence suggests that about 25 percent of people felt used and confused about their most recent hookup. Feelings of awkwardness, confusion, and emptiness accompany these hookup experiences. Sure, people might feel adventuresome, but they also may end up feeling disappointed (Strokoff et al., 2014).
- Hookups can be learning experiences. How positively people view hooking up may be linked to increases in their comfort with engaging in sexual behaviors and increases in their interest in romantic relationships (Owen, Quirk, & Fincham, 2013). Hooking up can help people become more attuned to their sexual selves and their confidence as a potential sexual partner.
- More hookups? More chance of regret. As complex as sexual regret is, evidence does support the idea that people who report more hookup partners are more likely to have regretted a decision to engage in sexual activity (Oswalt et al., 2005).
- Emotional state can predict reactions. Individuals who have attachment anxiety (i.e., fears of abandonment and questions of their own self-worth) are more apt to respond negatively to a hook up (Owen et al., 2013). Likewise, individuals who report more loneliness and want their partner’s approval tend to react more negatively. This suggests that one’s general relationship security may color how one experiences a casual sexual encounter.
- Some people have no sexual regrets. In one study, 23 percent of sexually-active college women reported no regrets at all when it came to their sexual decisions (Eshbaugh & Gute, 2008). Other research has found similar rates in samples including both men and women (Oswalt et al., 2005). While most people reflecting on their past tend to experience some regrets, it’s important to recognize that others feel uniformly positive about their sexual history. This suggests that it’s possible for people to navigate hookup culture with no detrimental psychological consequences.
There’s much more to learn about what makes for a positive reaction to a hookup and what produces a negative response. Scholars are also challenged to focus not only on heterosexual hookups, but also on the casual sex behaviors and subsequent emotional responses of gay and lesbian individuals.
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Eshbaugh, E. M., & Gute, G. (2008). Hookups and sexual regret among college women. The Journal of Social Psychology, 148(1), 77-90.
Galperin, A., Haselton, M. G., Frederick, D. A., Poore, J., von Hippel, W., Buss, D. M., & Gonzaga, G. C. (2013). Sexual regret: Evidence for evolved sex differences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(7), 1145-1161.
Owen, J., Quirk, K., & Fincham, F. (2013). Toward a more complete understanding of reactions to hooking up among college women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, (ahead-of-print).
Oswalt, S. B., Cameron, K. A., & Koob, J. J. (2005). Sexual regret in college students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34(6), 663-669.
Paul, E. L., & Hayes, K. A. (2002). The casualties of casual sex: A qualitative exploration of the phenomenology of college students' hookups. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 19(5), 639-661.
Strokoff, J., Owen, J., & Fincham, F. D. (2014). Diverse reactions to hooking up among US university students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1-9.