Getting Down About Hooking Up

The days are finally longer. Birds are chirping and green leaves are starting to bud. This can only mean one thing. Spring Break! And with Spring Break comes hook ups.

Some folks are freaking out about this “new phenomenon” of hooking up, but I’d argue it’s hardly new–check the lyrics from those 1975 disco heroes, KC and the Sunshine Band:

baby, babe let’s get together
honey, honey me and you,
and do the things, oh, do the things
that we like to do.

oh, do a little dance, make a little love …
get down tonight…

Translation? Hey, shorty, let’s hook up.

The 1960s had Free Love. The 1980s was about the cazh (as in casual sex). Today we can knock boots, hit it and quit it, find an FWB or a ONS. Call it what you want, it’s still consensual sex outside of a committed relationship. And while the language may change, the moves remain the same.

What is new on the sexual landscape are debates about whether casual sex is all about fun and free will, or if hooking up is linked to sexual assault and women’s objectification.

The fact is that young adults ages 18 to 24 who have casual sex do not appear to be at higher risk for psychological fall-out compared to their partnered peers. In so many words, Score! says Jaclyn Friedman of Yes Means Yes. Research from the University of Minnesota “reveals the truth that neither Hollywood nor the Religious Right want you to know: Casual sex won’t damage you emotionally. Not even if you’re a girl!”

But Occidental College professors Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman might disagree. Their forthcoming article, “Friends with Benefits, Without the Friendship Maybe?” points out that college hook-up culture often involves drinking—a known factor in sexual assault. Young women and men alike say the sex is often unpleasant and meaningful connection is elusive. Many students offer harrowing descriptions of  assault, sexually transmitted infections, emotional trauma and gendered antagonism. Yet hooking up—with its risks, missteps, and possible mistakes–is still a chance to explore sexual boundaries.

Determined to get to the hot-and-bothered heart of the matter, Heather Corinna from is launching a new study on multigenerational experiences with casual sex. Corinna hopes to find “a more diverse, realistic and non-prescriptive picture of people’s sex lives and ideas about sex.”

Yet, according to’s Kate Harding, “the problem that needs solving isn’t hook-up culture, but the intense pressure on girls and women to focus on getting and keeping a guy, rather than on getting and keeping whatever they want.” Documentary filmmaker Therese Shechter of The American Virgin gives a nod to this point:

What’s actually bad for women and girls is treating us like victims who need protecting [and] ignoring that our sexual experiences, good or lousy, can contribute to our growth and development as human beings.

“I’m all for sexual freedom as long as you’re safe,” says Jacob Levy, an 18-year-old student at California State University, Long Beach. “[But] there should be a warning label on hooking up,” adds 20-something Stefaney Gonzalez. “Something like WARNING: proceed with caution.”

As Nancy Schwartzman documents in her gripping film, The Line, there is potential for both pleasure and peril with sex, casual or otherwise. Hooking up doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of crime rates that show one in six women (and one in 33 men) statistically likely to face sexual assault in their lifetime.

Hooking up also has a gendered hue when girls are taught that being sexy is about performing instead of about self-pleasure and expressing what feels good. It’s what philosophers call “illocutionary silencing”—when girls and young women fail to say what they want. As Heldman wrote in Ms. magazine, self-objectification has serious impacts on girls’ political efficacy and sexual pleasure. Getting off becomes tied to seeing oneself through the eyes of someone else, or through the lens of an imaginary porn camera.

The issue isn’t imaginary porn cameras, though; there are lots of items that clutter the sexual imagination. But here’s a thought, and it’s not a new one: Reducing sexual harms like assault, coercion, and slut shaming means maximizing sexual pleasure. Let’s kick forced power disparities and nonconsensual objectification out of our everyday lives in the bed and beyond. That’s when the girls will really go wild. On our own terms.

Photo courtesy of: / CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. As a 2002 high school graduate, hooking up has been the norm ever since I can remember. Perhaps [most likely] my views are different from that of 90% of my peers because I’m a lesbian; but hey, my vote still counts, right? For me, hooking up has always been about being caught up in a moment and having fun, and I don’t think that feeling is gendered. Sometimes it amounts to something more serious, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes one person wants it to amount to something more serious while the other doesn’t, sometimes one person transmits a disease, sometimes you just make a dumb choice and it just doesn’t go your way. Well heck. We should just stop hooking up, right? Like if you get sideswiped on the freeway, you should stop driving on your leisure time?

    As a lover of women [oh god, how gay did that sound?] it makes me sad/angry that women feel they need to “perform” rather than feel pleasure. Listen up: I could be entirely wrong about this due to my incredibly gay bias, but I feel like there are plenty of decent guys out there who want you to feel good, and if you tell him what to do, he’ll do it.

  2. Great post, Shira. Yup, looks like this whole “human attraction” and “sexual drive” thing can be found on Grecian urns, disco songs and college campuses alike.

    I can’t wait to see Caroline Heldman and Lisa Wade’s research, as the Laura Session’s Steppe approach to pseudo-social science while debunked in these circles, still captures the mainstream’s conservative, fear-mongering imagination. Same goes for the findings in Heather’s study.

    While peril certainly factored into the story I outlined in “THE LINE” my sex-outside-relationships or sex-with-strangers experiences following my assault continued to emphasize to me that sexual encounters need only be respectful, consensual and fun – with strangers, hook ups, or otherwise.

    Check out Rachel Simmon’s piece on the topic, too.

  3. I think that you touch on a good point. Hooking up is something that every person should partake in to their comfort level. Unfortunately, our culture is pushing girls to believe that they are nothing but mere pleasure givers to men. I fear that by encouraging girls to be free and enjoy life and experimenting, they will feel obligated to go beyond their comfort level in order to please a boy who is completely influenced in his view of women by MTV and VH1 reality tv.

  4. This is an excellent post that points out the potential complications of hook-up sex. All normative judgments aside, and certainly all nonsecular pontificating aside, the concern over authentic autonomy must be raised against the background of sexual abuse to women in this country. If women are taught that their performance is more important than their own pleasure, can we really say that hooking up is as beneficial for women as it may be for men, who are usually taught that it is all about their pleasure?

  5. Tom – You raise an interesting point in saying men are taught that hooking up is for only their pleasure. My first question would be: why?

    There is so much attention given to young women and the perceived physical and emotional perils of engaging in any kind of non-hetero-matrimonial-whatever sex. If even a fraction of the amount of copy and video generated on that topic were devoted to schooling guys, we’d be way ahead of the game.

    Can you imagine how cool it would be if we could reinforce positive ideas about healthy, mutually pleasurable, consensual sexuality to young men through movies, articles, sex ed, peer conversations? Instead we just keep harassing the gals.

  6. Therese,

    I completely agree. Imagine a nation where the reinforcement of male supremacy simply didn’t exist! In this alternate universe, America would barely be recognizable by current standards. And in such a case, I don’t think hook-up sex would be met with as much concern. As it stands, boys are trained to be men by believing that their desires come first and that women are here to satisfy those desires. What you end up getting are obvious and indefensible double standards.

  7. I want to add to this stream that, while there might be some problems for women (and men) in hooking up, there’s a lot to be said about exploring sexual boundaries and sexual pleasure, risks and all. I’d like to see sexism decreased (eradicated, really) but I don’t know why sexual exploration, hooking up, or consensual ethical sluttiness should have to go down the tubes, too. That puts women in a very problematic purity box.

  8. This was spectacular, Shira. I like this take on hooking up vs some other takes I’ve read. I hate how a lot of people who write about the hook up culture seem to forget that women can be and are autonomous beings. We have the ability to make our own decisions be they right or wrong.
    Right on!

  9. Great post, Dr. Tarrant. Along the line of performing gender (and expanding the conversation beyond heterosexual sexuality), I wonder how much of hook-up culture is connected to constructions of masculinity and femininity (apart from biological sex); to narratives of dominance, submission, who initiates, who calls back, who looks for romantic connections and who wants to stay single. While I agree it is true and generalizable that men are still taught/encouraged to view women as objects of pleasure and power in the realm of sex-outside-of-relationships, what about straight women who utilize a heart-breaking, predatory sexuality as a mode of expressing or achieving power, or men who demonstrate vulnerability as they eschew traditional ‘hook-up culture’ in the gay community in search of Mr. Right vs. Mr. Right Now? I think exploring sexuality and sexual boundaries is not only exploring tastes/preferences/”lines,” but gender expressions as well. In teaching young people how to navigate sexuality, perhaps a more productive/successful route to advocate for everyone is an androgynous path between assertiveness and empathy… one where both parties can initiate, say no, and call back without being feminized.
    Also- a comment on FWB’s… in most of the fwb-couples I’ve known, even if the relationship has been primarily based on physicality, because of the ongoing connection and more or less acknowledged mutuality/reciprocity (even respect?) between the two parties, the couples have been rather egalitarian and fairly compassionate, as opposed to the detached and/or nonexistent relationships between ONS hook-ups.

  10. I have serious concerns about the Minnesota study, which I outlined in a recent blog post:

    Here are the facts:

    The sample size was 1311, 44% male, 56% female.

    The age range was 18-24, with a mean age of 20.5.

    The survey asked about the respondent’s most recent sexual ENCOUNTER, and who it was with:
    Fiancee/spouse/life partner: 55%
    Exclusive dating partner: 25%
    Close but not exclusive: 12%
    Casual acquaintance: 8%

    The researchers evaluated the self-esteem of each of the respondents, considering the bottom two categories as representative of casual sex.

    There were twice as many males as females in the casual groups.

    I’m no scientist, but I have designed surveys and projects. Here are my reservations about the study:

    It makes no sense to include marrieds in a study on the impact of hookup culture. These long-terms monogamists represent over half the sample. The relevant comparison would be between singles hooking up and singles not hooking up.

    The study asks only about the single most recent encounter. In the casual groups, we have no way of knowing if the respondent just had sex with an ex, their first random encounter, a drunken hookup they can’t remember or their best friend. We don’t know if they’ve been hooking up for years with 50 people, or one month with one person.

    The study did not differentiate between the self-esteem levels of males and females. Although the sample was 56% female, the casual groups were only 33% female. It is hardly surprising that males would not suffer a loss of self-esteem after a casual sexual encounter. In fact, they were probably downright elated in their responses!

    The findings were extrapolated from a study on nutrition, not the result of a study designed to ask this question.

    The study has been touted ceaselessly by the sex-positive media, but it clearly does not stand up to scrutiny.

    Susan Walsh,

  11. This is a really interesting post. The one thing that jumped to mind is classifying hooking-up as thing “girls” do. Though here girls are over 18 and in college. When it comes to technological changes, new or risky behaviors the concept of “girls” are often used as a litmus test of safety and acceptance. I’m thinking about the sexting controversy here too. I saw on OkTrends analysis of the OKCupid dating website that it’s actually 25-35 year olds who are most into casual sex.

    I do agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion. We as women need to talk to girls about sexual pleasure and desire when we talk about sex-ed.

  12. I think all you’ve got to do is look around… there are all kinds of desperate housewives, cuckold relationships, hotwives, and open relationships. I found this blog by a woman who has sex outside her marriage with her husband’s blessing. She even gives advice to men who post ads on craigslist:… It might mean the decay of our society, but I think it’s great as long as you don’t have kids and you’re doing it safe.


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