- In hookup culture, sex is not viewed as a profound experience.
- Major rules for maintaining casualness in hookup culture are drunkenness, aloofness and avoiding tenderness and repetition.
- Extreme hookup culture may be of some value in specific limited circumstances but not as a guide to sincere intimate behavior.
“You’ll never meet my mom, strings will never be attached. We’ll always get along, because it doesn’t have to last.” —My Darkest Days
Hookup culture celebrates an extreme form of being unserious in intimate experiences. Does such a culture indeed enhance freedom?
"I'm not trying to fall in love on the Jersey Shore. I'm just trying to hook up." —Pauly D
Hooking up—brief, uncommitted sexual encounters among those who are not romantic partners or dating each other—has taken root within the sociocultural milieu of adolescents, emerging adults and men and women throughout the Western world (Garcia, et al., 2012). Hookup culture is a general behavioral framework that includes various specific types of casual sex, such as one-night stands and booty calls. In hookup culture, casualness is a practice suited to the circumstances of being young, having many sexual opportunities and not feeling ready to commit.
Lisa Wade (2017, 2021) indicates four major rules for maintaining casualness in hookup culture: drunkenness, aloofness and avoiding tenderness and repetition. Drunkenness functions symbolically to code sexual activity as non-romantic. Aloofness demonstrates that an encounter does not involve an authentic emotional bond. Avoiding tenderness indicates a lack of care, which is essential in serious romantic relationships, and rejecting the repetition of hookups with the same person ensures that people do not start an intimate relationship.
We should distinguish between this extreme hookup culture and the hookups themselves. Although this extreme culture is common, there are many hookups that are closer to typical casual sex, which involves some degree of intimacy and seriousness. One study that explored the benefits of hooking up among first-year college women found benefits closely related to enhancing their wellbeing, such as sexual satisfaction, general positive emotions, increased confidence and clarification of feelings (Lewis et al., 2013; Shepardson et al., 2016; Vrangalova & Ong, 2014).
The Extreme Nature of Hookup Culture
"I'm only as good as my last word, my last hook, my last bridge.” —Kendrick Lamar
Hookup culture is extreme in its zealousness of being unprofound, contrary to the romantic ideology where love is intended to be profound, committed, authentic, and endure forever (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).
Hookup culture expresses a superficial attitude, an expression of a shallow culture. As in the extreme implementation of “no strings attached” and the ideal of creating emotional distance, there is no commitment whatsoever, not even sending polite messages after the hookup. This leads to establishing, in hookup culture, the common advice of being less close after a hookup than before (Wade, 2017).
As in other extreme beliefs, hookup culture has difficulties in avoiding the “danger” of profound, serious relationships. Being drunk with no use of reasoning is necessary for exercising extreme casualness. As one student said, “not being drunk is unnatural and abnormal.” There are even cases of bullying students who choose not to drink, since being sober involves a real choice, and things are “getting real.”
For most singles, casualness is not a lifetime attitude but a specific attitude toward connecting with a certain person. Thus, a Match survey of singles in the U.S. (2022) shows that 80% of young singles indicate that they would like to find long-term relationships. Casualness for these singles is expressed in the fact that they do not want to give up their sexual freedom for the sake of a significant profound relationship. Hence, alongside their search for profound romantic relationships, singles have diverse, brief experiences, such as dating multiple people simultaneously and openness to threesomes.
Hookup Culture and Freedom
“Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, till you know there is no hook beneath it.” —Thomas Jefferson
Hookup culture celebrates intense romantic superficiality by assuming the gain of extreme romantic freedom. Hookups are celebrated for providing the greatest sexual freedom for those who take part, but this is far from the case. As Wade (2017) cites one student, “many hookups are dictated by how our peers view the potential partner . . . I am unable to separate my opinion from those of my friends.” In this case, attractiveness is in the eyes of the beholders, plural.
Being free is not being able to act on a whim, rather acting in light of your values; the greatest challenge of freedom is to establish a hierarchy of values in light of which we shall exercise our freedom. In this sense, I disagree with the verse from the unforgettable song by Kris Kristofferson (sang by Janis Joplin), ‘Me and Bobby Magee:’ “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” When there is nothing left to lose, your actions are not determined by your own values, but rather by external forces that chaotically push you in various directions. Our autonomy is best expressed when there is no conflict between what we desire to do and what our values prescribe. In fact, it comes into play both when we behave according to our profound values, as well as when we follow transient desires that represent less entrenched values.
Hookup Culture and Romantic Ideology
“Life is too important to be taken seriously.” —Oscar Wilde
Many people yearn to experience the idealized love depicted in many novels, movies, poems and popular songs, all of which help form what may be called "Romantic Ideology." Profundity of love lies at the basis of romantic ideology, expressed in various beliefs, such as the conviction that true love overcomes all obstacles (“There ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to you”); love lasts forever (“Till death us do part”), that love is unique and a lover is irreplaceable (“Only you and you alone), love is all we need to sustain us (“All you need is love”). In this view, profound, ideal love is total, uncompromising and unconditional. While such romantic ideology retains its allure, perfect profound love is extremely hard to achieve and most are satisfied with a good enough relationship and partner (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019; Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).
Extreme hookup culture is precisely the opposite: it attempts to eradicate any aspects of profundity. In this culture, hookups do not overcome real-life obstacles, the encounter lasts for merely minutes or hours, it is not unique at all since the sexual partner must be replaceable, and it fulfills only one superficial need—momentary sexual desire. Extreme hookup culture may be of some value in specific limited circumstances but not as a guide to real intimate behavior. The difference between the extreme form of hookups and traditional casual sex is that in the latter, there is no attitude that forbids development of profound intimate relationships—on the contrary, it is often an initial stage on the road to profound and enduring relationships (Ben-Ze’ev, 2023).
The central criticism against hookup culture does not refer to its advocacy of casual sex, but to its grave advocacy of sexual superficiality, while rejecting any form of caring, endurance and authenticity. Aspiring to be merely at the very top of the profundity scale (as is the case in romantic ideology), or at the very bottom of this scale (as it is in hookup culture), is denying the legitimacy of other points of the scale and is wrong and risky.
The combination of life and love is too complex to hold such extreme views. The main problem of seriously promoting extreme hookup culture is that it takes casual sex too seriously.
This post is based on my recent article, “Is Casual Sex Good for You?”
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2023). Is casual sex good for you? Casualness, seriousness and wellbeing in intimate relationships. Philosophies, 8, 2023, 25.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time. University of Chicago Press.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. and Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press:
Garcia, J. R. et al. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology, 16, 161-176.
Lewis, M.A et al. (2013). What is hooking up. J. Sex Res., 50, 757–766.
Shepardson, R.L. et al., (2016). Benefits of hooking up. Int. J. Sex. Health, 28, 216–220
Vrangalova, Z. and Ong, A.D. (2014). Who benefits from casual sex? The moderating role of sociosexuality. Soc. Psychol. Personal. Sci., 5, 883–891.
Wade, L. (2017). American Hookup. Norton.
Wade, L. (2021). Doing casual sex. Soc. Probl., 68, 185–201.