Analyzing Hookup Culture From A Multi-Disciplinary Point-Of-View

Having called it a night early, I was in bed that Saturday when I received an unnerving phone call at midnight from someone I had almost entirely erased from my life. There was music blaring on the other end of the line, conjuring an image of a party in my mind, and I thought it might be a drunk dial. I was about to hang up when he started speaking. I could not immediately figure out who it was, but when he said his name, my heart immediately fluttered, to my annoyance. We had not acknowledged each other’s existence for over two months since the last time we had had sexual contact; now here he was asking me out for a drink at a bar near my college campus so we could “catch up”.

What happened between this individual and I prior to our hiatus was a critical experience that subsequently caused me to question and re-evaluate my values and expectations of relationships. My ultimate realization is how predisposed I had been, and possibly still am to some degree, to the hook-up culture that is so pervasive among modern adolescents and young adults in North America, particularly in a college or university setting. The concept of the Hook-Up Culture has taken media by storm and has become an oft-enthused about topic, particularly for popular lifestyle magazines and blogs aimed at persons between the ages of 17 and 25; the ages over which adolescence can range. In all this enthusiasm, Hook-Up Culture is being touted as a new concept because of particular new apps and technology in the recent decade really sparking conversation on the matter, but the emergence of this cultural trend dates back to at least the mid-twentieth century with the rise of feminism and sexual liberation (Garcia, et al. 2013).

Some scientific research refutes the existence of the Hook-Up culture, but for such an issue that, as it will become apparent throughout this paper, is heavily subjective and encompassing of a range of social and biological factors, demographics is a dubious and insufficient explanation, by itself. Hence, for the purposes of this article, the focus will be on research that presumes the existence of this cultural trend among adolescents of North America. Despite being incomplete in anthropologically analyzing this youth culture, the stats are worth noting because they reveal significant trends about how this cultural practice in a particular age group has and will affect the future of our population’s ideology and society.

Before delving further, however, some terminology and meanings will be established for the context of this article. The American Psychological Association has published numerous papers on the emerging Hook-Up Culture, and in one such papers defines a hookup as an “uncommitted sexual encounter,” (Garcia, et al. 2013) including, but not limited to, kissing and different forms of sexual intercourse. Unlike other forms of sexual encounters, hooking up often transpires “without any promise of, or desire for, a more traditional romantic relationship” (Garcia, et al. 2013). With this definition in mind, the deviation from tradition inherent in this emerging culture is already remarked upon.

While this revolutionary cultural trend has strikingly become more apparent among Western society in the last decade or so, the change was already beginning to take place during the 1920s (Bailey, 1988). The invention of the automobile and the development of societal entertainment venues offered a significant amount of freedom in North America for individuals to date in a manner that was independent from parental control. However, censorship in film and widespread media over the next few decades tended to limit the progression of youth sexuality, hence imposing restrictions on the norms of courtship. It wasn’t until the 1960s when a significant sexual shift was able to transpire, particularly with feminism, hippie culture, youth rebellion from parental control, and the development of widespread contraceptive methods, which set the stage for modernizing the culture of dating. However, the progression of this was again slightly stifled by healthcare limiting the dispersal of some contraceptive methods (Bailey, 1988).

What both of these major social movements have in common is the advent of some form of new technology that ultimately allowed more freedom to the young adults of the time. It is technology that would again cause, and has played a main role in, the current state of Hook-Up culture. With the rapid developments that have taken place in communication and electronic technology over the past decade, Western ideology, practices, and lifestyles have changed in a drastic manner that has allowed the developing Hook-Up culture to truly thrive.

Mass media, like films and television programs, has readily picked up on this social emergence and, arguably, not only perpetuates it but even serves to strengthen its tenets. Popular movies like Hooking Up (2009) and No Strings Attached (2011) focus a positive light on sexual relations between young people without the expectations tied to traditional romantic relationships. Financially successful reality shows, such as Jersey Shore (2009-2012) serve to dub hooking up as entertaining, desirable, and above all, a normal expectation of confident, glorified individuals. Many books, blog, and magazine articles have been written on the issue, some debunking its relevance in society, others condemning it for being one of the major problems facing the development of the modern generation. The popular lifestyle news and culture sites, such as ThoughtCatalog and EliteDaily among them, are rife with articles of personal experiences, rants, and stream of consciousness pieces about the modern Hook-Up culture. Even contemporary pop songs either allude to, tell a story of, or glorify hooking up; song such as “The Hook Up” by Britney Spears (2011), or “Don’t” by Ed Sheeran (2014).

With all of these permeating forces consistently pumping out more and more information and updates on hooking up, it’s no wonder that it has become so entrenched and normalized in the culture of modern adolescents. All of these media serve to remind adolescents that not only is hooking up an option, but it is a tantalizingly acceptable trend in the modern Western society.

As mentioned, the existence of this non-traditional, relatively liberal, style of sexuality is not as new as it seems, and many studies have been conducted in the past regarding non-committal sexual encounters, particularly in America. Recent studies indicate that 60 to 80% of North American college students have participated in some form of a sexual hook-up (Bogle, 2008), clearly establishing the normalcy, defined as something the majority of a population exhibits, of hook-up encounters among adolescents or young adults. Even among younger adolescents and teenagers, aged 12-21, who are sexually active, 70% of them have testified to having had sexual encounters while not being in a traditional romantic relationship (Grello, Welsh, Harper, & Dickson, 2003). When such a striking majority of youth are displaying this behavior, it can be reasonably argued that this really has become the socially acceptable contemporary form of courtship, at least among this age group.

Unfortunately, research is limited from cultures in other parts of the world, making it difficult to use a comparative analysis of trends seen in North America to other countries. Still, it is notable that the establishment of this culture shift is not an isolated event in the history of Western society. Specifically, it has emerged almost in parallel to the technological revolution. What tends to happen with the advent and subsequent ubiquitous marketing of tools that increase our access to a wider range of options, is liberalization.

Anthropologist Leslie White theorized that culture develops in a Layer-Cake Model (Erickson & Murphy 2013). In her model, technology and economy lie at the bottom layer, with socio-political organization above that, and ultimately ideology at the very top. The way cultural change occurs, according to this model, is by starting at the bottom and working its way to the top; ideology in this case is synonymous with culture. The invention of the smartphone and associated apps has changed the way individuals are able to interact with one another, particularly changing the way we economize our time and efforts. It is no longer necessary to go to troublesome lengths to contact one another, to receive updates about each other’s lives, and to interact in some way. The ideology that ultimately gets reinforced by this is the expectation of instant gratification with minimal efforts. At such a critical growth phase, the age of adolescence among university or college students for instance, individuals are exposed to this mentality and they become socialized into it by a society that has normalized this ideological shift. With the increased sense of freedom due to increased accessibility to technology and the increased sense of instant payoff to one’s actions in a virtual or online social networking world, people are expecting the same of their real lives, including their sexual experiences (Anderson & Raine 2012).

From this perspective, it becomes a lot more sensible to satisfy one’s sexual desires by means of a casual encounter which requires little to none of the emotional expenditures of traditional romance. Furthermore, the popularization of dating sites and apps has gradually evolved to favoring those that are most conducive to being used for hook-up purposes, such as the infamous Tinder and Grindr in which appearance of a potential partner is almost exclusively the only available information, rather than those that require more emotional and time investments, such as eHarmony or other websites on which prospective partners are weeded out by questionnaires and personality matching. What this has arguably led to is an increasingly superficial approach to evaluations of potential partners so that the only role such a partner can fill is sexual and often not emotional, because consideration of personality is usually lacking.

Evolutionary research and theory actually indicates that “uncommitted sex has most often been interpreted in evolutionary terms as a fitness-enhancing short-term mating strategy” (Garcia, et al. 2013). This means there is essentially a biologically relevant sensibility in the establishment of Hook-Up culture. For males, it is most beneficial, for the propagation of the human population, to engage in sexual intercourse with as many females as possible in order to ensure viable offspring. Females, however, tend to prefer long-term sexual relations in order to extract more resources from males of higher fitness, such as financial support of offspring. Another issue is indicated by these studies of the innate drives for particular sexual behaviors; males and females differ in their attitudes toward casual sex, with men being far more permissive of it than females (Garcia, et al. 2013). However, despite the attitude difference, the majority of both genders still engage in and approve of casual sexual encounters. Ultimately, this issue is significantly complicated by societal norms and levels of cognizance that go beyond biological needs.

The desire of sex by both genders is innate and undeniable, but it should be noted that typically evolution is about reproduction and propagation of the species. In modern industrialized societies, however, “pleasurable sexual behaviors can be divorced from reproduction and used for other purposes, including social standing and simple enjoyment” (Garcia, et al. 2013), particularly among contemporary adolescents for whom it is assumed that reproduction is an immediate goal. This assumption is based on the increasing age at reproduction of the modern generation, and the increasing use of contraceptive methods. It is true, however, that a modern trend of having children at an increasingly older age should not be enough to overwrite eras of evolution hardwired in the human genome. It is this natural evolution that continues to govern the choosiness of both genders when it comes to even short-term sexual encounters; one still seeks fitness (Buss, 1998). This is another aspect that has been influenced by the technological revolution; as an individual grows accustomed to instant information, they seek that in all aspects of their lives, including the evaluation of a potential mate. The quickest way to infer fitness tends to be physical, hence adolescent culture shifts to a heightened value of aesthetics when it comes to choosing partners.

A more convincing, and encompassing, theory for explaining Hook-Up culture is the performance of sexual scripts by men and women, which dictates that our social behavior is in line with a series of “scripts” defined by societal conventions (Simon & Gagnon, 1986). By the media, men are portrayed as “active sexual agents” while the women are “submissive… sexual objects” (Garcia, et al. 2013). Women, however, must balance their image to be wholesome and virginal while simultaneously sexually experienced and empowered. While a man’s reputation is readily improved by sexual promiscuity, a woman’s is cast in doubt. It can be concluded that, in many ways, “media scripts are contradictory” (Garcia, et al. 2013) and often difficult to apply directly. However, it should be noted, the media tends to glorify shallow aspects of sexual encounters, such as aesthetics, immediate pleasure, and the ability to boast of one’s general attractiveness. Actual people, on the other hand, have emotional and psychological requirements that need to be fulfilled by sexual interactions, and it is these which the media ignores. It is no wonder, then, that there is more to Hook-Up culture than is immediately perceivable.

The majority of adolescents express that they have alternative, non-sexual motives for engaging in Hook-Up behaviors (Owen & Fincham, 2011). I mentioned at the beginning that I, too, am victim to this modern Hook-Up culture; the majority, if not all, of my personal sexual encounters would conventionally be categorized as hook-ups in the sense that they have been uncommitted and with men with whom I was not in a traditional romantic relationship. However, in most of these encounters, I had the intention or desire to foster a traditional romantic relationship. As it turns out, numerous studies report that the majority of men and women engaging in hook-ups “hoped their encounter would become a committed relationship” (Garcia, et al. 2013). The only real explanation to this inherent contradiction of Hook-Up culture is that there simply is no all-encompassing explanation. There are so many variant factors that feed into this establishment; sexual desire, emotional fulfillment, psychological and ideological tendencies developed by association with technology, revolutions in freedom, and the ever-present influence of mass media. It becomes almost impossible to pinpoint the true source of this cultural trend.

To make matters worse, adolescents is such a variable time in an individual’s life and is experienced different, in a psychological sense, by each individual. This also serves to make adolescence the ideal age group in which a trend like the Hook-Up culture can thrive. At such a confusing time of searching for one’s identity, engaging in new behaviors and situations, and developing one’s perspective on the world, Hook-Up culture is particularly enticing. It is enticing from the rebellious stand-point whereby it is certainly a trend that older generations of traditional values disapprove of and discourage. Engaging in hook-ups gives a youth the impression that they are exercising a new-found form of freedom and inherent in this freedom is the perceived strength in being free from emotional restraints or emotional baggage when apathetically engaging with multiple mates. It is truly a time of confusion, though, as the majority of adolescents admit that they would rather have an emotional satisfying partnership, yet they continue to engage in hook-ups because it has become the new ‘it’ thing to prove one’s attractiveness and sexual prowess.

Hook-Up culture is a manifestation of a lack of self-awareness and self-identity during adolescence. Modern Western society is so unique in its impositions of contradictory messages to youth, leaving adolescents stranded with no discernible direction in which to focus their efforts, hence they end up flitting between partners and being unable to commit because they don’t know what they are ultimately seeking.

With two partners I’ve had in the past, including the one that prompted the beginning of this paper, I had no clear direction or desire for the relationship, making it ultimately a series of hook-ups, and each hook-up left me more confused than the last. Commitment at the adolescent age has become taboo; in my experience, I can certainly testify to there being a significant sense of empowerment in gaining sexual experiences, as though it is directly linked to a gain of wisdom. But this sense is, in most instances, false, because the issue with hook-ups is that they tend to begin and end with the same amount of self-knowledge; “one instance [may have] involved sexual coercion and regret while other hookup experiences before and/or after were consenting and more enjoyable” (Garcia, et al. 2013), thus just perpetuating the confusion.

Hook-ups, by definition, do not involve getting to know one’s partner to a level that would enlighten one as to what it is that they seek for in a partner. Traditionally, the purpose of dating is two-fold; one is able to learn more about their partner and get a deeper sense of their fitness beyond physical appearance, while simultaneously one is able to learn more about oneself through one’s emotional divestment and reactions to another individual. With both of these removed, hook-ups do not allow for any self-development, and often lead to cycles of stasis where a person will continue to engage in them in hopes of eventually fulfilling the satisfaction they seek, despite the chances of that being unlikely.

Hook-Up culture is tied to various other aspects of the culture of adolescence, including acts of risk-taking, alcohol and drug use, and the discourse of rape. Over 50% of hook-up encounters in North America occur while individuals are intoxicated, and among young adults the overwhelming majority of hook-ups occur at university or college parties and other settings where alcohol and drugs are usually available (Garcia & Reiber, 2008). In many ways, it makes logical sense; alcohol is proven to incite sexual arousal while impairing one’s ability to make sound judgements, hence individuals engage in carnal acts, such as uncommitted sexual behaviors. I need look no further than my own experiences to be able to vouch for this, but hook-ups are additionally risky behaviors as they can lead to sexual diseases, unwanted pregnancy in females, and even emotional self-harm to depression. What it almost certainly leads to is waking up next to someone whose name you hardly recall, being equally unable to recall what happened or how you came to be there, and often being flooded with feelings of regret. This is another complicated, almost contradictory, aspect of hook-ups; their position in rape discourse is entirely undefined and being discussed more and more in modern interpretations of rape. It has been noted in numerous studies that “not all hookup encounters are necessarily wanted on consensual” and most college students note that the “majority of their unwanted sex occurred in the context of a hook-up” (Peterson & Muehlenhard, 2007). While it is more likely that these unwanted, and even non-consensual though less common, sexual encounters are happening in the added context of alcohol abuse, it definitely brings the Hook-Up phenomenon in the realm of rape matters.

Hook-Up culture is rife with gender differences and biases which tend to be socially normalized and stereotyped. Studies show that there exists a significant difference between men and women in their feelings after a hook-up; women display “more negative reactions than men” and “show higher rates of mental distress” than men after such an encounter (Garcia, et al. 2013). Perhaps women, especially younger females, are pressured to engage in hook-ups by a society that tells them that to deny sex is prudish, but simultaneously that they are valued for their purity. In these throes of confusion, it is no wonder that women are expressing the most dissatisfaction with this cultural trend.

And perhaps it is in part attributable to the patriarchy of Western society that Hook-Up culture has gained so much ground; it establishes more power for men by indirectly granting them more access to sexual fulfillment and simultaneously empowering them. Additionally, some theorists have shown that after most hook-ups “men had stronger feelings of “being sorry because they felt they used another person” whereas women had stronger feelings of “regret because they felt used”… with women more negatively impacted” (Garcia, et al. 2013). The normalization of Hook-Up culture in our society almost inherently necessitates the parallel acceptance and internalization of these gender-specific reactions and effects.

After a culmination of experiences that I had initially thought of as “dates”, with the person of whom this paper began, led to nothing but an abrupt two-month silence, I came to the realization that it had been no more than a glorified one-night-stand; a cycle of hook-ups without any actual romantic progression. This Hook-Up culture is so pervasive and persistent that it becomes difficult for adolescents to distinguish between their perception of their own sexual encounters and the reality. The influences of Hook-Up culture can even be seen in the changing language of youth. Using the word “dating” to describe the state of two people’s relationship to one another has become as taboo as a fully committed relationship. It is far more common among contemporary youth to, instead, use vague terminology like “dealing with”, “hanging out with”, “seeing” or “speaking to” another individual; these terms bind the speaker to no commitment because they are, by definition, meant to allude to some form of vague, undefined, loose intimacy between two individuals.

By permitting engagement in such undefined and open-ended encounters, society is fostering a generation of adolescents that are passively apathetic to decision-making. Hook-Up culture suggests to youth that tethering one, emotionally or otherwise, to another individual is unnecessary and even unfavorable, and there are indeed many conceivable benefits to remaining aloof in emotionally-intense situations, otherwise this cultural trend would have no basis on which to exist whatsoever. But when applied to the long term, it can arguably do a lot more harm than good. If these impressionable youth develop ideologies heavily tainted by the persistent culture of hooking-up, it is inevitable that such ideologies will leak into other aspects of their lives. Passive apathy will be transferred to all decision-making processes by these individuals, ultimately leading to confusion and an inability to focus oneself on a particular goal. It’s needless to point out the importance of focus in life, but what should be noted is that lack of focus and increased confusion ultimately leads to many psychological problems, including depression and other affective disorders. In fact, statistics are consistent with these outcomes; depression and mental health disorder rates have increased drastically among North American youth over the recent decade. While causality is highly debatable between the emergence of Hook-Up culture, rapid technological revolution, and increasing numbers of youth with depression, the parallelism of these events is certainly notable.

What does this mean for the future of our society, as it is the current adolescent generation that will be the adults of tomorrow? Are we reading too deeply into a trend that can be passed off as simply a phase that has been present for centuries in adolescent development? Hook-Up culture truly muddles the waters of an already murky pool of a field of research that is at the same time too subjective to yield universal theories and so permissive that there must be some underlying rationality to it all. The fact that adolescence is in itself a fairly modern concept that is still mysterious to anthropology, makes it that much more difficult to study trends associated with this age group. Biological or evolutionary perspectives are simply not enough to explain the complex psyche surrounding issues that serve to define one’s self-identity, but a purely psychological or social analysis cannot explain why adolescents are so readily responsive physically to the trend. Future research should be defined by a “biopsychosocial” (Garcia, et al. 2013) perspective in order to account for such complexities. The widespread awareness of flare-up of dialogue throughout scientific and pop media is probably a positive step, particularly for establishing more on which research can draw; however, it can also serve to perpetuate misconceptions, since the issue is by nature so ill-defined. The need for understanding of such a dominant effector of adolescent development is crucial in promoting healthy sexuality, establishing life skills like decision-making, and preventing depression and other associated mental disorders. Cross-culturally, it’s been shown by anthropological research that “men and women will go to extreme lengths for love and sex” (Garcia, et al. 2013). This cultural shift of uncommitted sex has hooked adolescents, our society’s most susceptible and willing risk-takers, by feeding them a line that promises adventure and freedom, which they are naturally predisposed to crave, but ultimately threatens to sink, or at the very least alter, the values of our society as we know it. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


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