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The Surprising Truth About Modern Hook-Ups

New research disproves a range of myths about sex.

Anton Zabielskyi/Shutterstock
Source: Anton Zabielskyi/Shutterstock

Over the past decade, the media have published breathless—and often ominous—reports of young adults engaging in “hook-ups,” a supposedly new type of casual hyper-sex in quickie, promiscuous relationships. To read some of the coverage in Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, and the New York Times, one might think that hook-up apps propel every 18-to-30-year-old into bed with someone new almost every night.

In fact, hooking up represents only a minor variation on what used to be called dating. I've reviewed the now-substantial research literature on hook-ups and discovered that the more the media (and some researchers) say that young adult sex has changed, the more it’s actually remained pretty much the same.

Is Hooking Up New and Different?

The media did not use the term “hook-up” in a sexual/relationship context until the late 1990s, and it did not spread widely until 2006.

Which raises a question: Did something change in young American sexuality during the first decade of the current century? To investigate, University of Portland researchers (Monto & Carey, 2014) analyzed data from the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS, funded by the National Science Foundation since 1973, is the only in-depth, ongoing, national interview-based survey of American beliefs and behavior. The researchers compared GSS data from two periods:

  • 1988-1996, before the Internet, Tinder, and smartphones—and before “hooking-up” had entered the lexicon.
  • 2004-2012, when app-based hooking up became the rage.

Total Number of Sex Partners Among U.S. Young Adults Since Age 18

1988-96 2004-12

  • 0: 10% 15%
  • 1: 23% 23%
  • 2: 16% 13%
  • 3-5: 23% 24%
  • 6-12: 20% 17%
  • 13-20: 5% 5%
  • 21+: 4% 3%

The only significant difference is that a larger proportion of today’s young adults are celibate (then 10%, now 15%). Otherwise, things are pretty much the same. The term "hook-up" may be new, but as far as getting it on is concerned, bed-hopping appears almost identical. Today’s twenty-somethings are doing what today’s 45-year-olds did 20 years ago, and, as far as this 66-year-old can recall, what today’s retirees did 40 years ago.

How Sexual Are Hook-Ups?

Media reports imply that hook-ups involve intercourse. This is understandable for two reasons:

  • The term conjures a hook-and-eye lock, with the hook inserted into the eye, or fishing with the hook penetrating the fish’s mouth. It’s only a small step from those images to another type of insertion.
  • People tend to overestimate how much sex everyone else has. So again, it’s not much of a leap to assume that people engaged in this “new” form of casual sex are enjoying frequent intercourse.

In fact, recent studies (Fielder & Carey, 2010; Reiber & Garcia, 2010) show that hook-ups are less sexual than the media imply:

Activities During Most Recent Hook-Up:

  • Kissing: 98%
  • Fondling the woman’s breasts: 58%
  • Hands on genitals: 53%
  • Oral sex (provided and/or received): 36%
  • Intercourse: 34%

Only half of hook-ups involved any genital play, and only one-third included intercourse. “Hooking up” has more to do with the casual nature of the relationship than how far things go. A study of Northeastern University students found similar results: 78% of students reported hook-ups, but only about a third of encounters included intercourse. These figures remind me of what I recall from my own casual relationships four decades ago.

How Do Hook-Up Partners Meet?

From the 1970s through the 1990s, young adults interested in casual sex—or meeting long-term mates—often met at parties or singles bars. Canadian researchers (Herold & Mewhinney, 1993) confirmed this in a study of college students more than 20 years ago:

How They Met, 1993

  • Party: 70%
  • Bar: 56%
  • Vacation: 43%
  • Dance: 28%
  • Business trip: 7%
  • Blind Date: 5%

Here’s what New Jersey researchers (Paul & Hayes, 2002) found more recently in a survey of college student hook-ups:

How They Met, 2002

  • Party: 67%
  • Semi-public location (dorm, frat house): 57%
  • Homes or apartments: 35%
  • Bars: 10%
  • Cars: 4%

The two studies had different parameters, but it appears not much has changed.

Meanwhile, for college students, spring break remains a prime time for hook-ups. Canadian researchers (Maticka-Tyndale et al., 1998) surveyed college students to identify those who hoped to have sex during the break. Afterward, a second survey showed that a majority said, "Mission accomplished": 61% of the men and 34% of the women said they’d had intercourse within one day of meeting their spring break hook-up partner. This may sound hasty, but, then, spring break is brief; vacationing students are horny and outgoing, and alcohol is abundant.

The Alcohol Connection

Katy Perry’s 2010 hit Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) captures the spirit—and potential perils—of hooking-up:

There’s a stranger in my bed.
There’s a pounding in my head.
I smell like a minibar.
DJ’s passed out in the yard.
Is this a hickey or a bruise?

Alcohol has always played a major role in casual sex and it continues to be key to hook-ups today. A University of Illinois survey found that 49% of college men and 38% of women reported having sex as a direct result of drinking.

Canadian researchers (Fisher, 2012) asked college students about alcohol and hook-ups.

At My Last Hook-Up, I Was…

  • Sober: 27%
  • Mildly intoxicated: 27%
  • Very intoxicated: 35%
  • Passing-out drunk: 9%

Alcohol and lust are a dangerous combination. As I’ve discussed previously [7.1.14], alcohol is a major factor in collegiate and military sexual assaults. Compared with sober lovers, those who are drunk are substantially less likely to use contraception. (Not to mention that as intoxication increases, erotic pleasure usually decreases.)

Incidentally, alcohol lubricates not just young adult hook-ups but also a great deal of sex among lovers of all ages.

Do Hook-Ups Exploit Women?

Older adults uncomfortable with hook-ups assert that they reflect young men’s fantasies of porn-style, free-for-all sex, while denying young women’s preference for committed relationships. They charge that hook-ups hurt and exploit women.

Do they?

Any romantic/sexual coupling can generate feelings of hurt and regret, but a study at Syracuse University suggests that, far from feeling victimized, women who hook up are typically assertive actors. The researchers (Fielder & Carey, 2010) asked 118 women undergraduates why they’d hooked up:

  • I wanted to have sex: 80%
  • It was an impulsive decision: 58%
  • I felt attracted to the guy: 56%
  • I was drunk: 51%
  • The guy really wanted it: 33%
  • I wanted to feel desirable: 29%

(Respondents could cite more than one reason.)

While more young men than women revel in casual sex, men are not the only young adults interested in what my generation called one-night stands. Some women feel used during hook-ups—some men do, too. But according to this study, plenty of young women participate not because they feel exploited, but because they want to.

After Hook-Ups: Contentment? Or Regret?

Those who fear that hook-ups threaten young adults’ well-being often assume that soon after, many—particularly women—feel regret. Several studies have documented post-hook-up regret:

  • When researchers at the University of Northern Iowa (Eshbaugh & Gute, 2008) asked 152 female undergraduates to what extent they regretted casual sex, 23% said they had no regrets while 74% did.
  • In a survey of hook-ups among 200 Canadian college students, 78% of the women expressed regret (Fisher et al., 2012).

However, both of these studies asked only about regret, ignoring other possible reactions. I’ve been happily coupled for 45 years, but I have some regrets about my relationship. Who doesn’t? So studies that assess only regret provide little insight into hook-ups’ actual emotional impact.

Other studies have investigated not just regret but a full range of possible emotional reactions. And they show that most young people feel fine about their hook-ups:

  • At the College of New Jersey, researchers surveyed 187 students’ reactions to hook-ups (Paul & Hayes, 2002), and found that while 17% experienced "predominantly regret," 65% claimed "predominantly enjoyment."
  • Researchers at SUNY Binghamton (Garcia & Reiber, 2008) asked 311 students who'd experienced hook-ups if they felt happy with their most recent encounter—57% of women said they did, along with 82% of men.

These studies also show that hook-up regret is most likely in one specific circumstance—intercourse when very drunk. As previously mentioned, about a third of hook-ups involve intercourse, and the participants are very drunk in around half of those. This suggests that, post-hook-up, around 16% of young adults should primarily feel regret, while 84% probably feel differently.

Young adulthood is a time of sexual experimentation, and unfortunately, many experiments fail. As I came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had a few flings I later regretted. That’s life. That’s also how young people learn to negotiate relationships. But I experienced no lasting scars and the same appears to be true for today’s hook-ups.

Do Hook-Ups Threaten or Preclude Committed Relationships?

Critics of casual sex consider hook-ups proof that young adults disdain committed relationships. On the contrary. When University of Louisville researchers (Owen & Fincham, 2011) asked 500 hook-up-experienced undergraduates how they felt about commitment, 65% of the women and 45% of the men said they hoped their hook-ups would lead to long-term relationships. In addition, 51% of the women and 42% of the men said that during hook-ups, they’d discussed the possibility of proceeding to greater commitment.

From Pregnant Puritans to Dating to Hook-Ups

Every generation comes of age in a burst of sexual exuberance that includes casual sex their elders find unsettling. Today’s hook-up culture is simply the latest iteration of this centuries-old truth:

  • In colonial New England, the brides were already pregnant at an estimated one-third of weddings. The Puritans frowned on pre-marital sex but tolerated it—if the newly pregnant couple married.
  • From the Civil War to the early 20th century, proper courtship took place in young woman’s homes. Male suitors visited and the couple spent chaste time together under the watchful eye of the young woman’s older relatives. But many courting couples also figured out ways to meet privately—for example in the barn—which led to the expression “a roll in the hay.”
  • After World War I, flapper fashions bared women’s arms and legs for the first time, scandalizing matrons. Courtship also increasingly involved automobiles, which removed young couples from the women’s homes altogether. This was the dawn of dating. The Roaring Twenties also saw the founding of Planned Parenthood, as diaphragms and condoms separated intercourse from procreation as never before—and enabled casual sex.
  • By World War II, dating was well established. Many dating couples “necked” (or more) at the movies. Young men reveled in “wine, women, and song.” And many young women saw it as their patriotic duty to send their boys off to war with an erotic night to remember.
  • After the war, Alfred Kinsey surveyed 11,000 adults, most of them age 18 to 35, meaning that they were born from 1918 to 1930, and found that two-thirds of the men and half of the women admitted to having pre-marital sex. At the time, pre-marital sex was heavily stigmatized, so the actual proportions were undoubtedly greater.
  • The Baby Boom generation came of age just as the Pill finalized the separation of sex from pregnancy risk. As "wine, women, and song” became “sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll,” older critics decried hippie promiscuity.

So today, it’s hook-ups, friends with benefits, and booty calls orchestrated by Tinder (launched in 2012). Why all the new vocabulary? In part because young adults delight in differentiating themselves from previous generations. And compared to previous generations, today’s young adults spend more time single. In 1940, the median age at first marriage for men was 24, and for women, 21. Today, it’s 27 and 25. During those three or four extra years of singlehood, there are a lot a Friday and Saturday nights, and plenty of time to explore casual liaisons—whatever they’re called and however sexual they become.

Bottom line:

  • Hooking up is nothing new.
  • Most young adult sex is reasonably responsible—unless the partners drink too much.
  • It’s a normal part of growing up and it rarely causes psychological damage.
  • Intercourse is the exception, not the rule.
  • Most young women are not victims but active participants.
  • Most young people feel fine about hooking up.
  • Those who hook up are interested in committed relationships.

Older folks may worry about youthful sexual enthusiasm, but it's simply today’s way of reaching sexual adulthood. As The Who once sang, “The kids are all right.”


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