Hooking up—that is, casual sexual activity between uncommitted partners—is very common among today’s young adults. The majority of college students (65-80 percent) have hooked up in their lifetimes, and emerging adults have reported nearly two times as many recent hookup partners as first dates (Bradshaw et al. 2010).
Despite how common hookups are, we don’t know much about what happens (if anything) between partners after they hook up. Because, by definition, hookups entail no commitment or obligation for further involvement, it is logical to think that most hookup partners part ways after one encounter and never interact again.
But things may not be that simple. A study in 2008 (England, Shafer, and Fogarty, 2008) found that two-thirds of college students in a committed romantic relationship said they had hooked up with their partner before becoming exclusive. So, some hookups must develop into romantic relationships. But how many? And might some hookup partners become “just friends,” or stay sexually involved, repeatedly hooking up without developing any kind of romantic feelings or commitment?
Eliza Weitbrecht, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Cincinnati (now a postdoctoral fellow at the Palo Alto VA), and I tried to answer some of these questions by exploring the relational outcomes of hookups in a sample of college students. In this study, published in Personal Relationships, male and female college students (all of whom had recently hooked up) completed questionnaires about their most recent hookup. (Note: We also measured other things, but in this post, I’ll focus on the data relevant to what happens between partners after a hookup). We asked participants to give their most recent hookup partner a code name. Then, 10 weeks later, participants were reminded of the specific partner via the codename they had provided. We asked them to reported on what type of interactions or relationship they currently had, if any, with that partner.
The results were quite interesting. In contrast to conceptualizations of hookups as “one-night stands,” only 17 percent of participants reported that they had had no further contact with their hookup partner. The most common outcome was continued sexual involvement, which occurred in a third of cases, followed by friendship, reported by 28 percent of the sample. Somewhat surprisingly, 23 percent of participants reported that they were now romantically involved in some way with the hookup partner: 11 percent were in a casual or undefined romantic relationship, and another 12 percent were in an exclusive, committed relationship.
So, it looks like the actual relational outcomes of college students’ hookups are quite varied—many different things can happen between hookup partners after the actual event. While, consistent with stereotypical notions, some hookups included no further interactions between partners, this was true in less than one-fifth of cases. Further, hookups led to continued sexual involvement only in about a third of cases. That means many hookup partners continue hooking up with each other, but their “relationship” does not develop into anything further.
However, our data suggest that, just as often, hookup partners become friends. And in another one-fifth of cases, they transition into “something more”—some type of romantic relationship. Most notably, for 12 percent of our sample, this “something more” was a committed romantic relationship.
Together, these findings contradict concerns that young adults today live in a “hookup culture,” where traditional, committed romantic relationships are non-existent. It does appear to be true that some hookups are one-time encounters that involve no further contact between partners, and that others may happen repeatedly, but don’t involve anything more than sex. But at the same time, these findings suggest that hookups sometimes are the start of a path that young couples take toward developing a more traditional romantic relationship. For young people interested in starting a relationship, the trick may be to figure out which outcome is most likely if they hook up with that person they find attractive.
Bradshaw, C., Kahn, A. S., & Saville, B. K. (2010). To hook up or date: Which gender benefits? Sex Roles, 62, 661–669. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9765-7