Why People Hook Up
Our study says it depends on gender . . . to a point.
Posted Aug 24, 2018
My last post, about what happens between two people after they hook up, generated quite a few comments about how men and women hook up with very different hopes and intentions. So, I decided to write this post to share some data we have on that topic.
As several readers pointed out, there is good reason to think that men and women differ in what they ideally want from their hookups. According to evolutionary theories, casual sex is more advantageous for men than for women in terms of reproduction and genetic dissemination. Also, in our current society, there are socialization pressures for women to value emotional intimacy over sexual pleasure, and for men to prize sex over intimacy. Similarly, there are sexual double-standards, in which women are shamed for having casual sex, but men are praised for it.
Based on these theories, men may be more likely than women to hook up hoping that it will be a one-time encounter, with no further contact with the partner. And men may more often hope the hookup leads to continued sexual involvement only (i.e., repeated hookups, but no emotional ties with the partner). In contrast, women may be more likely than men to hook up with the hopes that it will eventually lead to a romantic relationship with the partner.
To explore the validity of these ideas, Eliza Weitbrecht and I examined what young men and young women say they ideally want from their hookups — Is it no further contact with the partner? Continued sexual encounters only? Friendship? A romantic relationship? As part of a larger study published in Personal Relationships, we asked male and female college students to report on what outcomes they viewed as ideal for their hookups in general, as well as for their most recent hookup in particular.
In the results, many of the predicted gender differences held true. Thirty-eight percent of young men indicated that continued sexual involvement was the ideal outcome of their hookups in general, compared to only 16 percent of young women. This difference was even more striking when asked about the ideal outcome of their most recent hookup: 63 percent of men, but only 11 percent of women said they hoped that hookup would lead to continued sexual encounters only. More young men (19 percent) than young women (10 percent) also ideally wanted their hookups to lead to no further contact with the partner.
In contrast, a much higher proportion of women (64.5 percent) than men (35 percent) ideally wanted their hookups in general to lead to romantic involvement. Again, the gender difference was even more pronounced when they were asked about their most recent hookup: 60 percent of women versus 13 percent of men said a romantic relationship was the ideal outcome of that sexual encounter.
Together, these findings suggest that there are strong gender differences in what young adults want from their hookups. Those differences are in line with evolutionary and socialization-based theories, as well as many laypeople’s expectations that men generally just want sex, while women want to form a relationship. As such, they highlight how young women as a whole may be disadvantaged by the current culture surrounding hookups on college campuses. The many women who hope their hookups will evolve into a relationship are unlikely to have those hopes realized, especially since it is unlikely that the young man they hook up with has the same desires.
At the same time, however, these findings should not be misconstrued to say that all men just want sex. While about two-thirds of men did hope that they’d only have continued sexual involvement with their most recent hookup partner, this number was considerably smaller — around one-third — when they were reporting on their hookups in general. In fact, just as many men (again, about one-third) said they ideally wanted their hookups in general to lead to a romantic relationship with the partner.
Similarly, not all women are looking for relationships to evolve out of their hookups. Whether asked about their hookups in general or about their most recent hookup specifically, around 35-40 percent of young women said that the ideal outcome was something other than a romantic relationship — either no further contact with the partner, friendship only, or continued sexual encounters only.
So, while we can say that many (or even most) young men hook up looking for sex only, and many (or even most) young women hook up hoping that it will lead to “something more,” this is not always the case. Rather, our data suggest that about a third of young men hook up hoping for a relationship with the hookup partner, and a third of young women do not want their hookup to lead to something more.
An implication of these findings is that there is a chance for women (or men) who want to start a relationship to find a hookup partner who is hoping for the same thing. In fact, other research suggests that many of the committed romantic relationships between young adults today began as hookups. Perhaps this is what keeps many young people, especially women, who don’t really want casual sex hooking up — hopeful that one of the hookups will lead to a relationship. Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against these young women, since there is a bigger chance that the guy they hook up with will not want anything more than sex.