September 27, 2011

So, What Does It Mean To “Hook Up”?

Across college campuses, more students are hooking up, a vaguely defined set of sexual practices that typically occur outside of dating or a relationship.

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Check out the Kinsey Institute’s “What Do You Consider Sex?” — an Indiana University Welcome Week 2011 short video that asks college students how they define “sex.”  After the short intro of student after student who begin their answers with a short pause and a long “uummmmm…,” you see how the students eventually provide varying definitions of sex.  Some say anything involving penetration, typically vaginal-penile intercourse, and a few even include oral sex.  Others give more intimacy-related responses that focus on the relationship between the two people involved rather than the sexual activities that occur.

Defining Sex

Indeed, as research from the Kinsey Institute, as well as from other scholars, has pointed out, the definition of sex is not as straightforward and universal as one might guess.  While penile-vaginal intercourse has remained the dominant definition of sex, shifts and changes throughout history show us that the way we define sex varies across time and space.  For example, oral sex is considered by many to be a form of sex, yet several decades ago the practice was uncommon and classified as a form of sodomy (any practice other than penile-vaginal intercourse that was deemed illegal).

Defining Hooking Up

Today, we are witnesses to another major shift in sexual practices and the way that we define sex.  Across college campuses, more and more students are “hooking up,” a vaguely defined set of sexual practices that typically occur outside of dating or a relationship.  As a new study by two communications researchers, as well as other studies, highlights, there is no universal definition of hooking up among college students.  Some students in their study defined it as just kissing, others as anything “beyond kissing” other than penetrative sex, and a sizable number as any penetrative sex (e.g., anal, oral, or vaginal sex).  While there was no dominant definition offered, the most common way students defined hooking up was vaginal, oral, and/or anal sex that typically follows meeting at a party where one is with one’s friends and drinking alcohol.

Hookup Culture

Many scholars who study hooking up have noted that hooking up has become more common because the norms and attitudes on college campuses have become more favorable towards casual sex.  In the study I mentioned above, the researchers found that almost every student reported talking about hooking up with their friends and reporting hearing others at their school talk about hooking up.  In addition, those students whose friends held more favorable attitudes toward hooking up were more likely to report having hooked up in the past year.  Despite how openly hooking up is discussed, the researchers were surprised to find that 1) students reported hooking up less often than they suspect the average student does and 2) students’ attitudes are somewhat ambivalent about hooking up despite how common the practice is.

The Good And The Bad Of Hooking Up

As I noted in an earlier post, proponents of the sexual revolution in the 1960s might be excited to see college students liberated from the traditional expectations of waiting until marriage to finally have sex for the purposes of procreation only.  And, there is some evidence that there is little reason to worry that hooking up and causal sex are bad or unhealthy.  In fact, some casual sexual encounters develop into lasting, long-term relationships.

However, there may be some cause for concern given the ambiguous nature of hooking up and the contexts in which it typically occurs.  One concern regarding safety stems from the spontaneous, alcohol-influenced, and unscripted nature of hooking up, in which communication about safe sex practices and sexual consent becomes difficult or is skipped altogether.  Beyond safety, some researchers have pointed out that pleasure gained from hooking up is not shared equally because hookups often center around men’s pleasure and orgasm, creating an “orgasm gap” between women and men.

Of course, this is not to say that hooking up is bad or necessarily dangerous; rather, individuals who decide to hookup are strongly encouraged to make sure that they and their friends are making safe, healthy, and enjoyable decisions.