A term coined not so long ago, ‘hookup culture’ is one that accepts and encourages casual sex encounters over bonding, intimate relationships between individuals. First, hookups are defined as sexual encounters between people who deliberately enter brief, uncommitted romantic situations with partners, usually multiple. The culture behind it involves research in sociology, psychology and health consequences. This new culture is not only a human behavior, but also a sexual script containing social norms that govern when, where, how, and with whom sexual activity takes place.
Sociologists generally look into the last hundred years of social shifts that lead to this new concept. Hookups became more frequent in the 1920s, with the upsurge of automobiles and novel entertainment. Places like movie theatres were then places for young adults to explore their sexuality more freely outside the home. By the 1960s, young adults became even more sexually liberated, with the rise of feminism and birth control. Now, sexual behavior outside of traditional committed romantic pair-bonds is socially acceptable specifically in liberated situations like college events and outings. However, it is interesting to note that teens and young adults do not have more sexual partners now than several decades ago.
This article will explore the birth of these norms that stem from media and culture as well as the recent shift in what ‘hookup culture’ has become. With the millennial generation starting to go against the ‘no-strings attached’ style of exploring youth, we look at why and how this change in heart came about.
Reflected into Society
Human behaviour has always been a fascinating subject to dive into. Relationships and interactions, romantically specifically, have also been studied and challenged throughout the years. It is necessary to understand from both a sociological and anthropological perspective how humans survive together. In every society and culture, there are notable differences between groups. With hookup culture, it becomes its own society within a larger one. Mostly Westernized because of the influence of media and Hollywood culture, hookup culture begins but doesn’t end in the Americas. The media have become a source of sex education, filled with often inaccurate portrayals of sexuality. With TV shows and films portraying these subjects of young adults exploring their characters and relationships with others, it takes nothing to have fictionalized worlds become a reality.
Netflix and Streaming
Currently on the streaming platform Netflix, there are multiple teen shows about sex and hookups. “Sex Education” for example became a notable success granting more seasons after its debut in 2019. This one, however, is noted as finally portraying quite
accurate situations along this subject. As a comedy-drama, it focuses on high schoolers questioning everything about sex and relationships, hilariously lead by an romantically inexperienced young teen named Otis. The connection to hookup culture is that through some of the character’s story-lines, there are themes of casual sexual encounters as well as more serious ones. For instance, a casual hookup relationship between one openly gay character and another closeted character is one of the main story-lines. The two secretly ‘hookup’ wherever and whenever they can, but in public are strangers. One of the two ends up developing feelings for the other, causing tension and dislike for the casualness of their relationship.
This makes for an awkward conversation about what dating really means in the present day. The Millennials and Generation Z’ers clash with ideologies and figuring out what one truly wants in romantic scenarios. With the average age of marriage increasing to 30 for men and 28 for women as of 2020, those young adult years become fundamentally important for more than just finding a partner. With women, specifically, the notion of females always looking for commitment over men, is just not true anymore. This is where the Millennial generation turned things around a bit. The focus is not commitment straight out of college education. Long-term boyfriends for women looking to work or continue schooling past an undergrad or no post-secondary school at all are not always possible. Therefore, this switch led to hookup culture becoming the next best thing. With pressures of school and work as a developing individual, casual hookups and sexual encounters are an outlet for some, ultimately creating more time between those developing years and marriage.
This emphasis on causal interactions instead of ‘dating’ life in your twenties becomes now a problem for those actually looking for commitment. Now, with Generation Z’ers inching their way to their twenties, hookup culture has gone too far: it is a complicated mess in the dating world. What if you start a hookup scenario with someone and it leads to another interaction with them. Then another, and another…now you’re together sexually and casually whilst probably getting to know their personality and lifestyle as well. Though most students desire the opportunity to form stronger emotional bonds with their sexual partners, they also overestimate how much their peers enjoy hooking up and underestimate their interest in emotional intimacy and monogamy. This complication is not called ‘dating’ or ‘a relationship’. It’s still hookup culture and it is what many young people are now complaining about.
As technology developed, the birth of easy access applications at the tips of our thumbs did as well. Taking a look at human behaviour and evolution needs to look at the influence of apps and online involvement. We are not the same people dating and interacting as the generations before us. Some think the start of this complicated dating scheme in your twenties this past decade begins
with dating apps. There are many of them out there now, but they are not the same. Some have undedicated values like Tinder for hookups and Bumble for actively seeking a relationship. Then there is Grindr, commonly known for people who participate in the LGBTQ+ community. These are stereotypes of the apps that have developed over time because of course it is possible to date someone you meet from Tinder, for example. Every app has its own ‘community’ of users and oftentimes people who are really trying to find someone to date or hookup with, belong to multiple dating apps.
Hookup culture is Post-Feminist
This characteristic of hookup culture has inspired scholars to describe it as individualistic, competitive, neoliberal, and post-feminist (Wade 2021). Since sex was always lead by masculine values and practices, these past few decades of change in that matter is seen as quite a feminist move. The equality behind romantic relationships gives a new approach to how women are perceived from the male gaze. In Lisa Wade’s new journal article about the topic, she claims, “Hookup culture reflects the “stalled revolution”: the idea that women have embraced traits and activities labelled masculine, but men have not done the inverse.” These are necessary points to note when describing hookup culture as a real adjustment to human behaviors.
Another reason why young people sometimes prefer hooking up rather than dating is because of the easy avoidance of tenderness. In the context of “meaningless” sex, this means that nonsexual gestures could carry more emotional significance than sexual behavior itself. But, that is never the goal. A hookup success story is usually a one time event that is purely physical besides the initial attraction and chatter. If it isn’t through a dating app, it is in person or through friends: the interaction should not include any acts of intimacy to be successful. Although through some studies it is shown that some hookups do lead to relationships, the fact is that most do NOT. How do they keep it so platonic? They avoid any tenderness that sociologists study as forms of empathy and romance.
Teenagers and college students are too busy to deal with ‘feelings’ and choose to avoid them at all costs. So, when two people cuddle after a sexual interaction, that’s considered making love not just sex. If they hold hands or hold eye contact during the act, it isn’t casual anymore. Forehead kisses are too intimate. There are many actions that are considered too intimate for casual hookups. The moment any of these acts are performed by one person in the mix, things change.
What about actual relationships among hookup culture?
True love can strike at any moment, and unfortunately in these cases of the new ‘dating’, that is very much still true. And according to journalistic and popular accounts, dating is dated. So what even makes a relationship a relationship?
While women’s roles have changed slightly in their new found dominance over sexual encounters and communication with men, (dating apps like Bumble have the woman message the man first only) there is still a heavy desire for gender equality in relationships. The dating script has not changed enough over time. Much of this research is proved and spoken about in a journal article by author Rachel Allison from the department of Sociology at Mississippi State University. She claims that “While some scholars have suggested that hooking up allows women sexual agency, it, too, is a deeply gendered script that gives men more power, control, and reward than women and centers men’s sexual pleasure above women’s,” (Allison 2019, 42).
The article also brings up how two people end up simply talking about entering a relationship. One person’s behavior can completely throw off the energy between hanging out casually and calling themselves each other’s partner. Through case studies done of American college students, we can conclude that most current day relationships start quite casual and have no easy timeline before becoming…not so casual. Some students say three to four months of hanging out is the base before exclusivity. Other’s experience a whole year of hookups with the same person before having any sort of conversation about transferring into a relationship with labels. It is referred to as ‘the talk’ that is also known as the most dreadful conversation to ever have when going through a situation involving hookups. Allison also brings up a good point about this: “Several students said that they expected men to pursue women, both relying on and reasserting essentialist constructions of men as “naturally” active in seeking out sexual and romantic experiences and women as responsible for deciding how to receive men’s advances” (Allison 2019, 42). If women want more power in relationships and sexual encounters, but also want men to always pursue and lead the engagement, won’t this become confusing very quickly? Yes, it will, and does.
Romantic relationships can naturally carry complication. When sexual scenarios become involved in both platonic and romantic relationships, complication is the bare minimum of consequences. Having multiple sexual partners back to back can lead to possible sexually transmitted diseases. This as well as the emotional turnover is what the past decade (at least) has brought upon young people in the dating world. The word dating, now dated, clocked out as well as traditional methods to finding a romantic partner. Women seek more dominance as well as the last say in what goes on with possible partners. But, dates still exist, and the man must pay for the meal. Millennials are struggling to separate from this culture and truly settle down with traditional commitment. Through an anthropological and sociological lens, this is how human behaviour within relationships have changed due to media, technology and societal adjustments.
Allison, R. Asking out and Sliding in: Gendered Relationship Pathways in College Hookup Culture. Qual Sociol 42, 361–383 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-019-09430-2
Lisa Wade, Doing Casual Sex: A Sexual Fields Approach to the Emotional Force of Hookup Culture, Social Problems, Volume 68, Issue 1, February 2021, Pages 185–201, https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spz054