A hookup culture is one that accepts and encourages casual sexual encounters focused on physical pleasure without necessarily including emotional bonding. It is generally associated with Western late adolescent behavior and, in particular, American college culture. The term hookup has an ambiguous definition because it can indicate kissing or any form of physical sexual activity between sexual partners.
Most research on hookups has been focused on American college students, but hookups are not limited to college campuses. Adolescents, emerging adults, men and women engage in hookups for a variety of reasons, which may range from instant physical gratification, to fulfillment of emotional needs, to using it as a means of finding a long-term romantic partner. Media reaction to hookup culture has been dismissed as moral panic.
The rise of hookups, a form of casual sex, has been described by evolutionary biologist Justin Garcia and others as a "cultural revolution" that had its beginnings in the 1920s. Technological advancements such as the automobile and movie theaters brought young couples out of their parents' homes, and out from their watchful eyes, giving them more freedom and more opportunity for sexual activity.
With the loosening sexual morals that came with sexual revolution in the 1960s, sex became uncoupled from relationships and non-marital sex became more socially acceptable. Some scholars, including Garcia, and Freitas, have found that dating, while it has not disappeared, has decreased as hookups have become more common. By the mid-1990s, Freitas has found, hookups were an acceptable form of relating among sexually active adults, especially on college campuses.
This is, according to a review by Garcia, "an unprecedented time in the history of human sexuality." People are marrying and beginning families at ages later than previous generations, while they are becoming sexually mature earlier. As a result, Garcia and others argue, young adults are physiologically able to reproduce but not psychologically or socially ready to 'settle down' and begin a family.
These developmental shifts, Garcia's systematic review of the literature suggests, is one of the factors driving the increase in hookups, a "popular cultural change that has infiltrated the lives of emerging adults throughout the Western world." The review shows that hookups are becoming increasingly normative among young adults and adolescents in North America and have taken root throughout the Western world, which represents a notable shift in how casual sex is perceived and accepted.
Garcia and others have noted that the "past decade has witnessed an explosion in interest in the topic of hookups, both scientifically and in the popular media. Research on hookups is not seated within a singular disciplinary sphere; it sits at the crossroads of theoretical and empirical ideas drawn from a diverse range of fields, including psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology, medicine, and public health." Difficulties in defining the term can lead to different perceptions of its prevalence.
Some North American surveys published in the mid-2000s have shown that upwards of 60% or 70% of sexually active teens reported having had uncommitted sex within the last year. This is more common among boys than girls. Among sexually experienced adolescents, 28% of boys and 16% of girls reported losing their virginity to either someone they have just met, or to a friend who is not a dating partner.
Boys are more likely than girls to have several hookup partners at the same time, and are also more likely to hookup with someone they are not dating. For both genders, hookups are more likely to be with an ex-boyfriend, an ex-girlfriend or a friend than with an acquaintance. The majority of teens (68%) who hook up with a friend or an ex will hookup with them again.
About half of all hookups among adolescents were a one time affair, and this is the same for both boys and girls. Only 6% of teens have had sex with someone they just met, and these encounters are a one time affair 75% of the time. Over all, 25% of those who had sexual experience with a dating partner have also hooked up with someone they were not dating. Additionally, 40% of those who had hooked up with someone they were not dating had also hooked up with a dating partner in the previous 12 months.
For adolescents, sex and relationships have been decoupled.
Journalist Sabrina Weill asserts that "casual teen attitudes toward sex — particularly oral sex — reflect their confusion about what is normal behavior," and adds that they "are facing an intimacy crisis that could haunt them in future relationships. 'When teenagers fool around before they're ready or have a very casual attitude toward sex, they proceed toward adulthood with a lack of understanding about intimacy.'"
Boys in high school are just as likely as girls to want their hookup partner to become someone they date. A friends with benefits relationship is "always a disaster for somebody," according to Drew Pinsky. "We're human beings, we develop feelings, and somebody always gets hurt as a result."
According to one study the vast majority, more than 90%, of American college students say their campus is characterized by a hookup culture, and students believe that about 85% of their classmates have hooked up. Studies show that most students (most recent data suggest between 60% and 80%) do have some sort of casual sex experience. Of those students who have hooked up, between 30% and 50% report that their hookups included sexual intercourse. Nationally, women now outnumber men in college enrollment by 4 to 3, leading some researchers to argue that the gender imbalance fosters a culture of hooking up because men, as the minority, hold more power in the sexual marketplace, and they prefer casual sex to long-term relationships.
However, most students overestimate the amount of hookups in which their peers engage. Only 20% of students regularly hookup. Roughly one half will occasionally hookup, and one-third of students do not hook up at all. The median number of hookups for a graduating senior on a college campus is seven, and the typical college student acquires two new sexual partners during their college career. Half of all hookups are repeats, and 25% of students will graduate from college a virgin.
One study has found that the strongest predictor of hookup behavior was previous experience hooking up. Those who have engaged in hookups that involve penetrative sex are 600% more likely to hookup again during the same semester.
Subculture can affect gender roles and sexuality, and youth subcultures are particularly susceptible to peer pressure. Self-esteem is also an indicator: men with high self-esteem and women with low self-esteem are more likely to have multiple sexual partners, but hookups are less likely among both genders when they have high self-esteem. Most predictors among males and females rarely differ.
One third of gay and bisexual college men have met an anonymous sexual partner in a public place such as a park, bookstore, or restroom. Other venues such as public cruising areas, Internet cruising networks, and bathhouses are popular for gay men, but not for lesbians or heterosexual couples.
At colleges, hookups are common between students at parties, in dormitories and fraternity houses, at surrounding bars and clubs, and at popular student vacation destinations. For example, a study of Canadian college students who planned to hookup while on spring break showed that 61% of men and 34% of women had sex within a day of meeting their partner.
In a hookup culture, young people often have little experience with dating and developing romantic relationships. Students often feel that hookups are the only option, and that their peers do not date, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as fewer students date because they believe their classmates do not believe in dating. Freitas' study has found that students on these campuses generally feel that the decision about whether or not to be in a relationship is out of their control and that "hookup culture dictated for them that there would be no dating, and that they simply had to endure this reality."
Kimmel believes that while sexual promiscuity once existed on college campuses alongside more traditional forms of dating, hooking up is now "the alpha and omega of young adult romance." Wade, on the other hand, says that college students are merely engaging in a different form of courtship that often results in monogamous relationships. This view is echoed by Armstrong, Hamilton, and England, who state that college students have not abandoned dating. Some students claim that hook ups fit their busy personal and professional schedules better than traditional dating does and is thus liberating. Freitas counters that living in the hookup culture is not at all liberating if what students want is to actually go on dates.
Freitas has opined that a "hookup is a sexual act that thwarts meaning, purpose, and relationship." However, most students do want to be in a romantic relationship. One study has found that 63% of college-aged men and 83% of college-aged women would prefer a traditional romantic relationship at their current stage in life to casual sex. Additionally, 95% of women and 77% of men say they prefer dating to hooking up. "Without exception," sex counselor Ian Kerner has says, students "discuss a long-term monogamous relationship as their desired end goal."
Freitas believes the lessons imparted by hookup culture have "set back" these students, however, who often have little experience dating, and few skills in asking a romantic partner out as a result. There has been such a decline in dating culture on college campuses that most students have had more hookups than first dates. On some campuses, dating is so rare that many students do not have the skills to know how to ask someone out. Boston College even offers a course on how to plan and execute a date.
While more than half of students of both genders say they would like a hook up to develop into a romantic relationship, only 6.5% (4.4% of men and 8.2% of women) expect that one will. Half of women, 51%, and 42% of men, have tried discussing the possibility of beginning a romantic relationship with a hookup partner. "Today" Kimmel has quipped, "campus culture is no longer about dating to find an appropriate mate. Now it's more about mating to find an appropriate date!"
More than half of college relationships begin with a hookup, Bogle's research has found. Freitas's study shows that when a relationship is born of a hookup, it is usually after months of engaging is a serial hookup. Relationships that begin as a hookup, or as a "friends with benefits" situation, report lower levels of satisfaction. Garcia says that hookup culture can lead to a lower incidence of dating among youth, but as people get a bit older they outgrow their desire for hookups and settle into traditional dating.
Garcia's review has found that hookups can result in emotional and psychological injury, sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections, and/or unintended pregnancy. Most students report with not concerning themselves with or being concerned about the health risks that come with hookups, however, especially if their partner was a member of their own community, such as a student on the same college campus.
"A number of studies" have found that students, both men and women, overwhelmingly regret their hookups. In one, 77% of students regretted their hookups, and in another 78% of women and 72% of men who had uncommitted vaginal, anal, and/or oral sex regretted the experience. Intercourse that occurred less than 24 hours after meeting, and those that took place only one time are the most likely to be regretted. Men were more likely to be sorry for having used another person, and women regretted the experience because they felt they had been used. While women usually feel worse after a hook up than men do, 39% of men expressed extreme regret, shame, and frustration with themselves about their hookup experiences.
Hookup culture has "profound" emotional effects on the students who live in it. Despite the "popular myth" that hookups are sex without emotional entanglements, Paul found a "striking disconnect" between this perception and the emotionally complex aftermath that students actually experience. "At its root," Freitas says, hookup culture silences, shames, isolates, and disempowers students, quashing their ethics, desires, and differences, their need for respect and connection, and their need to be treated with bodily dignity, to express emotion, and to experience pleasure. Discrepancies between behaviors (i.e. emotionally void hookups) and desires (i.e. love, companionship, and a relationship) have "dramatic implications for physical and mental health."
Students who reported to Freitas that they were profoundly upset about hooking up say the encounters made them feel, among other things, used, miserable, disgusted, and duped. In order to avoid becoming a victim, experts believe "that the first step is to acknowledge the dangers inherent in the free-and-easy hookup approach to dating and sex." In one qualitative study, only 2% felt desirable or wanted after a hookup. More than a third, on the other hand, felt regretful or disappointed, and others reported feeling nervous or uncomfortable as well.
Hookup culture has taught, or tries to teach, students to repress their natural romantic feelings for others, particularly after a sexual encounter. Because of this, hookups have been likened to "masturbating with another person present." The problem, according to Freitas, is that "the sheer amount of repression and suppression of emotion required" is too great, and "most students fail at this goal, walking away with feelings for their partner."
Drugs and alcohol
Some studies have made a connection between hookup culture and substance use. A majority of students said that their hookups occurred after drinking alcohol. Frietas has said that in her study the relationship between drinking and the party scene, and between alcohol and hookup culture, was "impossible to miss." Hookups "almost always" occur when at least one participant is drunk according to Kimmel. On average, men have five drinks when they hookup, and women 3. Students who reported using marijuana or cocaine in the past year were also more likely than their peers to have hooked up during that period.
About a third of the students who reported engaging in vaginal, anal, or oral sex during a hookup reported being very intoxicated and another third reported being mildly intoxicated. Alcohol can act as a cue regarding sexual availability, as a disinhibitor, and as a rationalization or excuse for their behavior, poor sexual performance, premature ejaculation, and other sexual dysfunctions. It also is the "liquid courage" that allows them to make a sexual advance in the first place.
Studies suggest that the degree of alcoholic intoxication directly correlates with the level of risky behavior. In one study, 33% of those who had hooked up indicated that it was "unintentional," and likely due to the influence of alcohol or other drugs. In a survey of first-year students, women said that 64% of their hookups came after drinking alcohol. These results were similar to another study which found that 61% of all undergraduates reported drinking alcohol before their last hookup.
Studies have generally shown that greater alcohol use is associated with more sexual activity in the course of a hookup. The students who reported the least amount of alcohol consumption were also the least likely to hook up. At the other end of the spectrum, the greatest alcohol consumption was associated with penetrative sex, and less alcohol consumption with nonpenatrative hookups. Of those who took part in a hook up that included vaginal, anal, or oral sex, 35% were very intoxicated, 27% were mildly intoxicated, 27% were sober and 9% were extremely intoxicated.
For both men and women, the emotional cost of hooking up is high, and Freitas believes students use alcohol "to brick up all of that vacancy inside." She adds that most students "are terrible at shutting out the emotional dimensions of sexual intimacy," despite what they may tell their friends, and they learn to self-medicate using alcohol to handle the pain. Pinsky has said that after speaking to young women "by the thousands," he has found that for them to "tolerate" having casual sex they "have to get loaded. This whole hooking up culture is making them unhappy and anxious. It requires them to find ways to manage these very intense situations, namely drugs and alcohol." "Women’s self-esteem at that age," Ludwig explains, "is tied into how they are experienced by men, and part of dealing with that social anxiety is to drink it away or drug it away.”
Hookup culture on college campuses is intertwined with a broader society. On the other hand, some sociologists have argued that hookup culture is a characteristic of the American college environment and does not reflect broader American youth culture, just as many college graduates stop engaging in hookups when they leave college preferring instead dating or other sexual arrangements. Others, including Michael Kimmel, have said that "the hookup culture can extend for years" beyond college, "well into their thirties and even their forties." Baby Boomer fears of hookup culture have been termed a "moral panic". Until recently, those who studied the rise of hookup culture had generally assumed that it was driven by men, and that women were reluctant participants, more interested in romance than in casual sexual encounters. But there is an increasing realization that young women are propelling it, too.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has argued that media representations of sexuality may influence teen sexual behavior, and this view is supported by a number of studies.[unbalanced opinion] Some studies suggest that teens who watch movies with more sexual content tend to become sexually active at an earlier age, and engage in riskier sexual behaviors. The idea is that the media may serve as a "super peer" for youth, who then seek to develop a sexual identity that is in line with popular portrayals. On the other side, conservatives taking a stand against hookup culture have sparked controversy and come under criticism.
As the cost of personal computers dropped and online access has increased, Heldman and Wade, along with others, argue that internet pornography has "emerged as a primary influence on young people’s, especially men’s, attitudes towards sex and their own sexuality." Heldman and Wade believe that that the increase of access to pornography via the internet is what "spurred" hookup culture, in part by challenging the idea that "good sex" takes place in a monogamous relationship. Pornography expert Gail Dines has opined that pornography is "a cultural force that is shaping the sexual attitudes of an entire generation" and a "major form of sex ed today for boys." The "ubiquitous of pornography," Freitas argues, has changed "their expectations for their partners, and their understanding of desire, gender identity, and how one enters into various types of sexual intimacy."
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