Hook-up culture refers to a culture built on the approved practice of engaging in hook-ups, or sexual encounters between two or more individuals where it is understood that commitment, relationships, and emotional feelings are not expected outcomes. Defining a hook-up is ambiguous because it can have a variety of meanings ranging from casual Kissing to foreplay and oral sex, or in some cases, it can mean participating in sexual intercourse. Hook-ups typically only last a short time and those involved are typically only interested in experiencing sexual intimacy and pleasure. Not all hook-ups can be classified as "one-night stands", however, since some people believe they can eventually lead to dating or more personal connections. While people have engaged in casual sex for many years, the act of "hooking-up" has become increasingly popular on college and university campuses in the United States over the last decade. Hooking up has become common for many college students, and the practice has replaced more traditional 20th century ideas about dating. Furthermore, social media sites like Facebook or Match, and phone applications like Grindr and Tinder have given users an opportunity to form connections with other people who have similar sexual interests or desires. Studying hook-up culture focuses on its influences on the formation and management of friendships and romantic relationships. The growth of hook-up culture is also shaping gender roles, specifically in regards to sexual behavior. Aside from these aspects of hook-ups, taking part in uncommitted sex can lead to potential negative physical and emotional impacts.
The idea of hook-up culture is not a new concept. The growing popularity of hook-ups stems from the 1960s, a time when both sexual liberation and feminism were growing, and birth control options were becoming more readily available. It was at this point in time when hooking up began to shift views on romantic interactions and replaced more traditional dating practices.
Support for sexual freedom became increasingly popular as new ideas and beliefs evolved about the positive and negative aspects of engaging in sexual intercourse. It became more widely accepted that having sex was not necessarily always intended for reproduction, but rather had more emphasis on physical pleasure. This new outlook was influenced by several factors, including the eradication of 1930s censorship laws regarding sexually explicit content in media, and also a growing accessibility to birth control pills, condoms, and other forms of contraception. Before the 1960s, unmarried women were usually denied access to birth control since it was traditional for men and women to refrain from having sex until after marriage.
Feminism grew substantially in the 1960s, with supporters arguing that a woman should have complete control over her own body. Supporters of the feminist movement also argued that women should be able to "pursue" men in the same way men traditionally approached women, and made efforts to change the negative attitudes usually associated with women that decided to have sex before marriage.
Kathleen Bogle has stated that the growing acceptance of casual sex in the 1960s could also be attributed to a sharp rise in female student enrollment at colleges and universities. The number of women attending college in the United States in 1972 was three times larger than the number in 1960. With a greater number of females on campuses compared to males, women had to adjust to the sexual scripts outlined by men, which are based more on engaging in uncommitted sex rather than on developing relationships.
While both men and women participate in hook-ups, Bogle notes that males and females often choose casual sex for different reasons. Researchers suggest men and women have distinct sexual scripts, or ways in which cultural influences can affect an individual's sexual behaviors. Furthermore, society judges the sexual behaviors of men and women in a completely different manner. For men, sex is characterized as "central to male identity", and research suggests men tend to "prefer nonrelational sex". In contrast, women are viewed as "sexual objects" and are normally "sexually passive compared to men." Society typically admires or glorifies men who frequently engage in casual sex, but women are scrutinized or admonished for those same behaviors. For this reason, a woman's sexual script has more focus on finding some type of commitment or relationship. Additionally, women pursue relationships to "protect their reputation" while in college, but men have more sexual freedom without the fear of reproach. Females risk being called "sluts" or being accused of "getting around too much," since society has historically identified this as inappropriate behavior for females. Men are not held to the same standards, particularly in high school and college. Men who engage in regular sexual activity are seen as successful individuals who are "players". In fact, men are rarely reprimanded for their sexual behavior unless they are practicing abstinence, in which case their peers might say they cannot "get any".
Researcher Donna Freitas challenges society's perceptions of the male sexual script. Through conversations and interviews with men on college campuses, she says they expressed a need to "fit in" with other males to be successful. Men claim to hook up more due to peer expectations rather than to meet their own desires. Men also say they cannot express disapproval for hook-up culture in the same way women can without facing criticism from their peers. To summarize, women face several risks by participating in hook-up culture, but Freitas says "men risk gaining a reputation by not being a part of it."
Stereotypes suggest most people believe gay men are the most likely to engage in casual or uncommitted sex on a regular basis. Studies conclude gay men participated in more frequent casual sex than individuals "across all genders, sexes, and sexual orientations comparison groups." Overall, hook-up culture is understood to be most prominent within the gay community. Biologically speaking, sexual behavior is closely connected to someone's birth sex. Under this assumption, women are considered a "limiting factor in sexual encounters." Gay men do not have to question the sexual desires of other men like they would if a female was involved in the scenario.
Additionally, society's early negative perspectives on homosexuality along with a lack of "regulation" in gay relationships can explain the higher rate of casual sex encounters among gay men. Certain perceptions of gay men like prejudice and homophobia adversely affected the overall mental health of gay men, and they were often forced to explore their sexual needs and desires in a discreet fashion.
Recent advances in technology such as dating websites and mobile apps, have also contributed to the current hook-up tendencies observed in gay men. Apps like Grindr have further advanced the sexual scripts of homosexual men. Other apps, like Tinder or Bumble, have been created to follow a similar script for heterosexual individuals. Nevertheless, because casual hook-ups and anonymous sexual encounters have been classified as more prominent in homosexuals, apps like Tinder and Bumble still maintain a broader focus on more long-term goals like dating or relationships, especially when compared to apps like Grindr.
Most people choose to take part in hook-ups to experience physical intimacy and sexual pleasure, but this type of behavior can result in a variety of negative outcomes, too. These impacts can range from "emotional and psychological injury, sexual violence, Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and/or unintended pregnancy." Despite these known potential effects, many college students are either unaware or unbothered by these sexual risks. According to a survey focused on how students perceive the risk of contracting sexual diseases, only half of a group of 71 students reported having concerns about STI contraction while engaging in sexual intercourse. Further analysis of this survey determined that many students claimed to trust their sexual partners and communities too much, and that they were misinformed about sexual risks in general. Research suggests frequent drug or alcohol use can also lead to lower perceptions of these health risks.
Engaging in hook-ups can have negative effects on a person's mental health as well, including feelings of anxiety or discomfort. One study suggests nearly 35% of surveyed students described feeling regretful or disappointed after a hook-up. Experts have used qualitative analyses to gauge both the type and level of regret a student might have after uncommitted sex. Many reported having feelings of embarrassment, emotional issues, and an overall lack of respect from their peers.
The majority of academic research about hook-up culture focuses on the psychological, biological, and societal influences on an individual's inclination to engage in uncommitted sex, but some scholars have examined theories of communication and how they relate to hook-up culture.
The premise behind John Bowlby's attachment theory is to "describe the behaviors that humans use to relate to one another." Attachment theory suggests people develop an attachment style during childhood and then carry it into adulthood, where it can have impacts on the relationships they form. Researcher Mary Ainsworth identified different attachment styles, and suggested they can influence someone's relational and sexual behavior. In one analysis, these attachment styles were applied to explain how homosexual men behave sexually. For example, gay men with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style (an individual made uncomfortable by "close emotional relationships, but will desperately try to seek out reassurance from another person") might be more reluctant to use condoms during sexual intercourse because they believe this will make them feel more wanted by their partner. Meanwhile a gay man with an anxious-avoidant attachment style (an individual who does not like to get close to others) will most likely try to remain disconnected from his partner for fear of becoming too close or intimate.
The way cultural norms affects someone's sexual habits and behavior is defined as sexual script theory. Researchers John Gagnon and William Simon originally developed the concept and suggested these scripts serve as "guides for behavior." The scripts can help individuals determine what is and is not appropriate based on surrounding cultural influences. In the United States, this script includes "kissing, then sexual touching, and ultimately culminates in sexual intercourse (i.e., the 'bases')." These sexual scripts also help define gender roles and explain the actions both males and females take in hook-ups and uncommitted sexual encounters.
The concept of cultivation theory suggests "media influence people indirectly." Researchers suggest the ways media portrays sexual activity of different age groups is disproportionate to reality. Someone who consumes a variety of media will demonstrate these influences when confronted with hook-ups or uncommitted sexual scenarios.
Most research regarding hook-up culture has been reliant on conducting interviews and surveys with sexually active individuals, particularly those at a high school or college level. Each investigator's set of questions, however, has served a different purpose in the overall analysis of hook-up culture.
Scholars have expressed the difficulty of defining a "hook-up" since it has different meanings based on cultural norms and personal preferences. Researchers like Kathleen Bogle and Donna Freitas have interviewed males and females, both separately and together, to gain a better understanding of the hook-up culture on campuses in the United States. Their studies have focused on how the growing hook-up culture has shaped the trajectory of dating and forming relationships, and have also aimed to gain a better understanding of the difference in sexual scripts between men and women. They have also used this data to help further explain what specific actions and behaviors constitute a hook-up.
Another avenue of research has studied the influences of dating websites and mobile dating apps on hook-up culture. Scholar Carey Noland suggests the advent of finding hook-ups or dates through the Internet has made talking about sex easier because you "skip the small talk" and do not have to worry about the normal "barriers" of saving face when talking to someone online. Additional research has analyzed hook-up patterns to see how mobile app developers have catered to their potential users. For example, the creators of Grindr capitalized on the increased sexual desires among gay men to base its app on locational awareness. This paved the way for apps where users can find connections and meet up with people who are often right around the corner.
Research conducted on hook-up culture has also been applied to scientific studies about sexually-transmitted infections. Knowing more information about a man or woman's behavior during casual sex has increased the understanding of how STIs are contracted, whether it is through oral sex or sexual intercourse, and how frequently or infrequently individuals take steps to prevent them. By interviewing individuals who engage in hook-ups, scholars have been able to better explain health risk perceptions or the lack thereof; researchers have also been able to apply their findings to study the potential psychological effects of hook-ups, including feelings of depression or regret.
Many ideas and beliefs about the growing hook-up culture suggest the act of engaging in uncommitted sex is primarily found among teenagers or college students. While teenagers and college students may be sexually active, it is important to understand that other age and social groups are taking part in casual sex, too. One of the reasons for this disconnect is the misrepresentation of sexual activity among certain age groups in media. In television, teens are most commonly shown to be sexually active and it is rare to see any kind of sexual activity portrayed for individuals aged 65 or older. Further research shows, however, that this is opposite of the actual sexual activity reported among these age groups.
The stereotypes and different sexual scripts of males and females in hook-ups have also been influenced greatly by different media, like movies, television, and pornography. Frequently in media, women are depicted as "sexual objects" and men are portrayed as "there to objectify them." Furthermore, media promotes the "boys will be boys" mentality. These stereotypes have shaped current hook-up culture by implying that this is how men and women are "supposed to act."
On another note, scholars suggest the reality of emotional risks associated with hooking-up can be linked to a lack of conversation or discussion about them. When discussing sex with adolescents, both parents and sex education programs tend to focus on the health risks, like STIs and pregnancy, but these exchanges rarely highlight the "emotions that occur from sexual experiences." These conversations seldom present information about motives for engaging in sex aside from reproduction, and rarely acknowledge the positive emotions associated with this type of activity, like physical pleasure. This imbalance of information regarding sexual behavior and activity has also contributed to the sexual scripts we see in hook-up culture today.
Experts have suggested several areas for future research, including additional studies about how members of the LGBTQ community are impacted by hook-up culture, and how perceptions of the LGBTQ community have been affected by the hook-up culture. Researcher Kathleen Bogle highlights another area of study; she says a new focus should be on individuals who choose not to participate in hook-ups and how they are "affected by the dominant hookup culture that surrounds them." Finally, a third avenue for future research could include an analytical view of individuals who use apps like Grindr or Tinder with hopes of finding connections or developing relationships, rather than using them for the more common casual hook-ups.