Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Hidden Emotional Costs of the “Hook-up Culture”

The media, social scientists, and a majority of young people report that “Hooking Up” has replaced traditional dating relationships on college campuses.

What is “Hooking-Up?”

Hooking up is defined as a sexual encounter – including everything from oral sex to intercourse -between two people who are strangers or only brief acquaintances, without commitment or expectations, and usually lasting no more than one night.

According to a 2013 article, published in the Monitor of the American Psychological Association, from 60-80% of college students in North American report having had a hook-up experience. Research from different authors interviewing college men and women corroborate these numbers; but suggest that the misconception that “everyone else” is doing it, media coverage, alcohol, and fear of being left out of the social scene may actually fuel the trend.

Why Hook-Up?

The reasons for hooking-up and the benefits and risks involved, are a function of who is reporting and whether the disclosures by men and women about hooking-up are public or private.

A recent article by Kate Taylor in The New York Times, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” reports on hooking-up by woman at the University Of Pennsylvania. Both the title and the tenor of the article suggest that women are choosing “hooking up” as a functional choice to find sexual gratification without the hassle or time commitment of being in a relationship. Implied is the message that now women have taken back control of the sexual arena. They, like men, are free to choose uncommitted sex because their goal is a great résumé—not a great relationship. The expectation is that when their career is all set, they will meet the right man.

The other side of hooking up is described by Laura Sessions Stepp in her book, Unhooked, Donna Freitas in her book, The End of Sex, and even by Kate Taylor at the end of her New York Times article. It is the personal and private disclosure by women and men of compliance, regret, discomfort, guilt, and opting out by many after hooking-up.

  • In public young people will describe hooking up as “Immediate Gratification” and “Fast Food.” In private, they describe it as “ No Relationship,”  “Increases Cynicism,” “No Emotional Fulfillment.”
  • Some report wanting a relationship but feeling they had no choice but to hook-up.
  • Some hope hooking-up might bring a relationship, but report feeling used and disappointed.
  • Some men report have little respect for women who want to hook-up. Some report guilt.
  • Sixty-four percent of hook-ups involve alcohol consumption by men and women.
  • Many women report needing to be drunk to tolerate hooking-up with a stranger and as a way to rationalize what happened the next day.
  • Some men report keeping their hesitations to become involved to themselves—particularly as there is social pressure “to score.”
  • Woman report instances of sexual coercion and assault from hooking-up during which they were too drunk to protest and after which they did not feel entitled to protest.
  • Over the course of the last few years and hundreds of interviews, Donna Fritas reports with concern that too many students have become desensitized and uncaring from the hook-up culture.

The Hidden Emotional Costs of Hooking-Up

The liability for coeds who are “ Hooking Up” to be part of the social scene is not one of increased rates of sexual acting out. The research suggests that young people actually are having less sex than their parents had at the same age. The real liability is the required lack of emotional attachment to a casual sex partner.

Lisa Wade, sociologist and author of the book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, reports that hooking up requires no emotional involvement, and sex for sex’s sake–meaningless sexual exchange.  An emotional attachment to a sexual partner is a “breach of social norms.”

College dating could be an opportunity to learn to develop meaningful relationships, express affection, build on friendships, and share intimacy and sexual connection. It could offer the important developmental opportunities that lead to discerning with whom to develop a more permanent bond.

Hooking up is practiced inauthenticity and meaningless sex facilitated by alcohol. Given that it is presented or perceived as the “only way,” it flies in the face of #metoo awareness and real consent. It also often precludes minority and LGBTQ students.

While 15% of college coeds may revel in this culture as an opportunity for sexual freedom, the majority of college students feel that hooking up steals the opportunity to really meet and connect with someone they like.

Can you imagine having hooked up a few times; but never having had the opportunity to hold hands with someone who feels so special?

For a culture of young people who have been encouraged to do it all, know it all, and have it all, the trend of hooking-up gives too little and risks too much of the personal and emotional learning that comes with choice, real connections, and developing intimacy.