People have various preferences for the characteristics they want in a partner. They also differ in their goals for a relationship. Individuals have different reasons for having sex, too. Nevertheless, they attempt to get what they want through one of two basic strategies—long-term mating (e.g. committed relationships, marriage) or short-term mating (e.g. flings, friends-with-benefits).
In older times, there was often a greater distinction in the dating behaviors that led down one relationship path or the other, such as courtship or going steady. At present, though, the picture has become more blurry. Specifically, many people wonder whether hooking up and getting sexual with someone they are just getting to know is the only modern dating option — even when they may want a long-term partner, rather than just non-committal sex.
Nevertheless, this modern sex-before-relationship approach may not be right for everyone. So, should you hook up? Will you be happy with the choice? Will it get you the type of relationship you desire? Let's look at what the research has to say.
Research on Hookups and Hookup Motivations
An article by Vrangalova (2014) investigated whether casual sex harmed well-being in a college student population. The study surveyed 527 undergraduate students over the course of an academic year, exploring whether their choices to experience or not experience casual genital hookups led to changes in their levels of self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms. Furthermore, Vrangalova (2014) looked at the various motivations each participant had for hooking up, if they had chosen to do so, according to the following categories:
- Autonomous: The individual was interested in the possibility of enjoyment, learning about their sexuality, and considered it a positive experience for them.
- Controlled: They wanted to improve their self-esteem (e.g. feel more desirable) and avoid unpleasant feelings, they felt obligated to hook up to please a partner or fit in with their friends, and/or they were seeking a favor or trying to get revenge.
- Amotivational: The individual was tricked, coerced, or intoxicated and unable to make a decision—and did not want to hook up.
- Relational: They were hoping the hookup would lead to a long-term relationship.
Over the year of study, 37% of participants reported hooking up, stating autonomous motivations as the most prevalent reason for the choice. Nevertheless, results indicated that individuals who hooked up due to non-autonomous reasons (controlled, amotivational, or relational reasons) had decreased well-being when compared to those who did not hook up — and compared to those who did hook up motivated by a personal and positive desire. Given those results, it appears that the choice of whether or not to engage in casual sexual behavior should best be made by listening to one's own internal motivations and preferences. Those who are intrinsically and genuinely motivated to have casual hookup experiences do not seem to have negative effects. In contrast, those who are not naturally and intrinsically inclined to casual sexual activity, but hook up anyway (because they feel externally pressured, coerced, motivated to reduce negative feelings, or expect a later relationship to occur), may experience decreased well-being from such activity.
Differences in Willingness to Have Uncommitted Sex
How can an individual tell whether they are truly willing and interested in hooking up then? According to a measure developed by Simpson and Gangestad (1991) individual willingness to engage in such uncommitted sexual relationships, called Sociosexuality, can be evaluated along a single dimension. On one hand, individuals can be Sociosexually Unrestricted, indicating a personal inclination toward more uncommitted sex and more sexual partners—or they fall more toward being Sociosexually Restricted, with an inclination toward committed sex with fewer partners.
This distinction was further elaborated by Penke and Asendorpf (2008), who noted three components of Sociosexuality:
- Behavior: Whether individuals had a smaller number of historical sex partners in committed relationships (restricted) or a larger number of partners in uncommitted sexual interactions (unrestricted).
- Attitudes: Whether an individual desired emotional closeness before having sex and held morals preferring commitment (restricted), or felt comfortable with more casual sexual behavior (unrestricted).
- Desire: Whether an individual's sexual interest, arousal, and fantasies were primarily focused on more long-term and committed partner interactions (restricted) or on short-term and non-committed sexual interactions (unrestricted).
Penke and Asendorpf (2008) also noted a number of differences, based on those sociosexual domains. Males were generally less restricted in sociosexual attitudes and desires compared to females, although overall behavior was equal. Less restricted sociosexuality was related to having a higher number of prior sex partners, having short-term mating interests, being thrill-seeking, being unfaithful, and perceiving that they were a more valuable mate. Those with less restricted sociosexuality were also more flirtatious, more likely to be single, more likely to end a relationship and find a new partner, and had more sex partners over a one year period.
Overall, likely because of these differences in relationship styles, partners tended to be similar in their level of sociosexuality, especially in the attitude component. By and large, then, restricted individuals tended to form long-term and committed relationships together — while unrestricted individuals hooked up together in shorter-term and uncommitted flings.
Much like other sexual orientations, sociosexuality appears to have a genetic and biological component as well. In a twin-study by Bailey, Kirk, Zhu, Dunne, and Martin (2000), the authors found a significant genetic contribution determining sociosexual behavior, over and above situational influences. As noted above, this may be why individuals who are externally influenced toward hooking up, against their intrinsic and internally-motivated interests, experience negative reactions too.
Should You Hook Up?
Given the above, the choice to have uncommitted sex or not will mostly depend on your innate and personal sociosexual orientation, as well as whether you have short-term or long-term relationship goals for your future love life. For individuals who are inclined toward hookups as exciting, desire greater variety in their sexual partners, and want sex for a variety of reasons, short-term and less committed interactions may be satisfying. In contrast, those who require emotional closeness and prefer long-term relationships are often better served by finding partners willing to commit and then enjoying sex after such commitment.
Beyond those two options, feeling pressured toward something you do not like, or trying to switch from one strategy to another, appears to be less satisfying. Despite what it may look like on TV, movies, and the internet, everyone is not hooking up — and you will not miss out on a relationship if you wait for a commitment. In fact, as noted in the results above, people tend to largely match up on whether they want long-term or short-term relationships. Therefore, by picking a long-term or short-term strategy and sticking with it, you will be more likely to get the type of relationship you want.
Overall, if you are not genuinely interested in having casual sexual interactions, then do not feel obligated to hookup and hope it turns into a relationship. Instead, look for someone interested in committing, build a connection and trust with them, and then have things get sexual when you are ready. However, if you prefer more casual sexual interactions and decide that is how you would like to spend your love life, then enjoy those shorter-term relationships instead.
© 2019 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Bailey, J. M., Kirk, K. M., Zhu, G., Dunne, M. P., & Martin, N. G. (2000). Do individual differences in sociosexuality represent genetic or environmentally contingent strategies? Evidence from the Australian twin registry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(3), 537.
Penke, L., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2008). Beyond global sociosexual orientations: a more differentiated look at sociosexuality and its effects on courtship and romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1113-1135.
Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(6), 870-883.
Vrangalova, Z. (2015). Does casual sex harm college students’ well-being? A longitudinal investigation of the role of motivation. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(4), 945-959.