Sarah Whitton Ph.D.

Today’s Couples and Families:

Marriage

Does the Hook-Up Culture Signal the End of Marriage?

Our study says no.

Posted Apr 18, 2019

Kamil Macniak/Shutterstock
Source: Kamil Macniak/Shutterstock

Today’s young adults are often described as living within a “hook-up culture.” No-strings-attached sexual activity is very common, particularly on college campuses where the majority of students report having hooked up in the past year. In fact, some studies show that hookups are twice as common as first dates (Bradshaw et al. 2010).

Concerns have been raised that the rise of the hook-up culture among young adults means that today’s youth no longer value committed relationships, including marriage later in life. Popular media has warned of the “dating apocalypse” (Sales, 2015) and suggested that, by engaging in hookups, young adults are showing that they have no interest in eventually committing to one person, marrying, or settling down. These ideas can be concerning, given the clear health and mental health benefits of marriage (and marriage-like long-term relationships) for adults and for their children. So we decided to explore whether they might be true.

In a study led by Neslihan James-Kangal, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Cincinnati, and published in Sexuality and Culture, we asked 248 college students who were 18-20 years old to report on the number of different people they had hooked up with in the past 10 weeks. We also measured whether they expected to be in an exclusive, committed relationship (which could be, but did not have to be, marriage) in 5 years and at age 30, and how likely they thought it was that they would get married someday. 

On average, the young adults in this sample had hooked up with two different partners in the last 10 weeks, though this ranged from 0-10 partners. So, this was a group of college students in which hooking up was fairly common.  

Interestingly, 71 percent of these young adults expected to be in a committed relationship or married within 5 years, and nearly all of them (94.4 percent) expected to do so by age 30. And, on average, participants believed they were “very likely” to marry someday.

We next looked at whether the level of engagement in the hook-up culture predicted the young adults’ expectations for future relationships. It did not. The number of different hook-up partners participants had in the past 10 weeks showed no association with whether they expected to be in a committed relationship or marriage in 5 years or at age 30 and no association with how likely they thought it was that they would eventually marry.

These findings suggest that the rise of the hook-up culture does not signal the demise of marriage. Rather, they are in line with theories of emerging adulthood (Arnett 2000), which define this developmental period (approximately ages 18-25) as a time of identity exploration, personal freedom, and self-growth. Many people use their emerging adult years to explore different life options and to pursue personal and professional goals. That is, many emerging adults de-prioritize committed relationships temporarily while pursuing their education and establishing a productive career. Then, only after self-focused goals have been accomplished, they begin to seek committed relationships.

The vast majority of today’s young adults do still consider marriage to be an important goal for the future—they just view it as relatively less important than their personal and professional goals for the time being. So in the meantime, it makes sense for them to keep their relationships casual.

References

Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties.

American Psychologist, 55(5), 469–480. https ://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.5.469.

Bradshaw, C., Kahn, A. S., & Saville, B. K. (2010). To hook up or date: Which gender benefits? Sex

Roles, 62(9–10), 661–669.

Sales, N. J. (2015, August 31). Tinder and the dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse”. Vanity Fair. Retrieved

from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/08/Tinder-hook-up-culture-end-of-dating.