An Honest Conversation About Hookup Culture

In recent years casual sexual encounters, also known as hookup culture, has gained vast popularity in the United States. With the sudden emergence of this new cultural trend, one demographic appeared to be implementing it most: college students. 

   Recent data shows that between 60 percent and 80 percent of North American college students have experienced a “hook-up” in some capacity. An article written by Justin Garcia and colleagues aimed to explain why college students were the most accepting of this phenomenon. The results concluded that the reason young adults resort to hookup culture is because the average ages of marriage and reproduction have been dramatically pushed back, while the age of puberty dropped. This creates an awkward gap in which young adults are physiologically able to reproduce, but are not mature enough to “settle down” and start a family. Subsequently, this presents an opportunity for people to engage in sexual acts for their sole benefit, often without a desire or expectation of a romantic relationship. Additionally, the easy accessibility of dating apps plays a significant role in the popularization of hookup culture; platforms such as Tinder or Bumble grant almost instant access to potential sexual partners by being free of charge and readily available to users. 

   One may start to wonder what the moral implications of this new cultural shift are. Does the societal acceptance of hook-up culture represent an era of destigmatizing uncommitted sex, or does it normalize taking advantage of others in the pursuit of sexual intimacy? Moreover, is it even possible for one to set healthy boundaries during an encounter that is meant to be ‘no strings attached? 

   Tulane University’s Lisa Wade, Ph.D, argues that hookup culture is destroying people’s ideas and perceptions of emotionally fulfilling sex, healthy expectations, and boundary setting. Upon conducting multiple surveys and writing a novel on the topic, Wade found that approximately one third of the students she surveyed reported their casual sexual relationships being traumatic or very difficult to handle. Most participants reported their encounters to be very disappointing, while one in ten reported that they have been sexually coerced or assaulted by their sexual partner in the past year. Her study concluded that only about a quarter of students thrive in hookup culture, at least at first.

   “Notably, my research suggests that hookup culture is a problem not because it promotes casual sex, but because it makes a destructive form of casual sexual engagement feel compulsory. Students who don’t hook up can end up being socially isolated, while students who do engage in this way are forced to operate by a dysfunctional set of rules. Hookup culture encourages a punishing emotional landscape, where caring for others or even simple courtesy seem inappropriate, while carelessness and even cruelty are allowed,” she quotes. 

Aside from emphasizing that hookup culture is unnatural to our primal instinct of caring for others, Wade shines light on the fact that today’s young people are more permissive, disclosing, and more willing to accept new and diverse principles than any generation before. This, she highlights, is reflected in the rather abrupt normalization of this phenomenon, especially within the demographic. 

   Her proposed solution is for institutions to take action by offering substantial resources in creating a narrative shift which will promote casual sexual encounters being built on the ethic of care and boundaries, and not on benefiting at the expense of others.

    “Colleges also need to change the institutional arrangements that give too much power to subsets of students who are most enthusiastic about hookup culture and who benefit from it at the expense of their peers…”, explaining that in a historical and modern context, the organizations responsible for this have been fraternities and sororities. “Doing this may mean disbanding them [fraternities and sororities]…” 

   Regardless of its nature, an essential component to any healthy dynamic is emotional maturity and willingness to have open and honest conversations. While sex means different things to different people, many find that their sexuality represents a raw and vulnerable aspect of their lives. Despite its fluidity, years of research on sex and hookups have taught us the necessity of being respectful towards others and enforcing boundaries, because the moment the dynamic shifts into something that is a power trip, or using another person for what they are offering, the situation can quickly turn into a slippery slope of cruelty and abuse. 

   The bottom line is not to engage in situations one feels hold the potential to be a toxic or disappointing experience for themselves or another person. If one chooses to pursue casual sex, it is important to be mindful of the intentions leading up to the decision and not engaging in the act with ulterior motives. Because sexual intimacy holds the potential to be the most empowering or destructive experience one can engage in, it is critical that we remain aware of how our actions impact ourselves and others, internalizing the importance of always treating others with respect and enforcing boundaries. With these positive qualities prioritized, casual sex can very well prove to be an emotionally fulfilling, safe and positive experience for those involved.