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"Hooking Up" – What is it Exactly?

“Hooking up” has become a catch-all phrase in our culture to describe casual romantic or sexual activity. Despite the pervasiveness of the phrase, however, no one (lay people or relationship scientists) has a solid, agreed-upon definition for exactly what it is. What specifically does “hooking up” entail? A recent review article1 sheds light on this question.

Researchers have noted that the term “hookup” is intentionally vague2 so that people can maintain or inflate their reputations. For example, after a potentially embarrassing sexual encounter with a not-so-hot partner, someone might use the vague word “hookup” to downplay the depth or intensity of the experience, rather than reveal exactly what he or she did. Conversely, when someone feels pride after hooking up with a really hot partner, that person might want others to think he/she went further (physically) than they actually did. Thus, people can benefit socially from the vagueness of the term “hookup.” Despite the fact that a majority of young adults surveyed (between 70% and 80% in nearly all studies) report having hooked up at least once in their lives,1 not everyone means the same thing when they talk about their experiences. You may have faced this in your own life; when a friend tells you, “we hooked up,” and you immediately want to know details in order to determine exactly what happened.

Two recent studies3,4 surveyed over 600 college students combined about a past hookup experience. The researchers found that nearly everyone (98%) reported kissing,3 while a majority also reported touching above the waist (58%), or touching below the waist (53%).4 A substantial minority reported oral sex (35%) and intercourse (34%), suggesting that although some people equate hooking up with having sex, the truth is that there is a greater than 60% chance they did not have sex during the hookup.4 Amongst heterosexuals, it’s a lot more common for only the man to receive oral sex (55%) during a hookup than for only the woman (19%) or both (27%) to receive. Simply put, men are happy to receive but more reluctant to perform oral sex with a partner they are not “officially” dating (or perhaps women are simply more generous in these contexts). To put this in perspective, it’s statistically twice as likely for both male and female partners to receive oral sex (52%) in the context of a committed relationship.

In either case, reaching an orgasm is also much less likely to occur during a hookup than a relationship (for men and women); one study found that less than 33% had an orgasm during a hookup, whereas close to 75% said they had one during the last time they had sex with their boyfriend/girlfriend.5 Sex, like most activities, takes practice to do well with any specific partner, and hookups don’t provide much room for learning and mastering one’s technique (the way ongoing relationships do).

Scientists also disagree on how to define “hooking up” in terms of length of time and frequency of romantic/sexual contact. Some equate hooking up with relatively anonymous sexual encounters and one-night stands (with virtually no interaction or friendship before or afterward).2  “Hooking up occurs when two people who are casual acquaintances or who have just met that evening at a bar or party agree to engage in some forms of sexual behavior for which there will likely be no future commitment.”6 But others define hookups more broadly as any sexual behavior in a seemingly uncommitted context…“Hook-ups consist of sexual behaviors between partners in the absence of a traditional romantic relationship and without the promise of other benefits.”5 Theoretically, friends who have known each other for years may decide to hook up, and may do so on more than one occasion. In this light, hooking up could be more similar to a “friends with benefits” dynamic; those involved don’t make their arrangement an “official” relationship (remember the importance of labels). The key feature of a hookup is that whatever romantic encounter takes place, it does so without a commitment as partners or a defined relationship (hence the phrase, “no strings attached”). 

But strings often do become attached, despite people’s best attempts to avoid “catching feelings.” This is a tricky path to navigate, as sex and emotions often overlap. Stay tuned for future posts on this topic. 

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1Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review Of General Psychology, 16(2), 161-176.

2Paul, E. L., Wenzel, A., & Harvey, J. (2008). Hookups: A facilitator or a barrier to relationship initiation and intimacy development? In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 375-390). New York, NY US: Psychology Press.

3Fielder, R. L., & Carey, M. P. (2010a). Prevalence and characteristics of sexual hookups among first-semester female college students. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 36, 346 –359.

4Reiber, C., & Garcia, J. R. (2010). Hooking up: Gender differences, evolution, and pluralistic ignorance. Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 390–404.

5Armstrong, E. A., England, P., & Fogarty, A. C. K. (2009). Orgasm in college hookups and relationships. In B. J. Risman (Ed.), Families as they really are (pp. 362–377). New York, NY: Norton.

6Lambert, T. A., Kahn, A. S., & Apple, K. J. (2003). Pluralistic ignorance and hooking up. Journal Of Sex Research, 40(2), 129-133.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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