Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

Click this banner to see the entire section.

November 9th, 2009

Defining the Hook-Up Culture

What exactly does it mean and how is it affecting young adults' behavior



As a young professor at a big university, I’m able to talk to my students about rather personal issues like hooking up, relationships and sex. In one class, I asked students to diagram, on a large whiteboard, the evolution of a relationship — from first meeting to marriage. This was a fascinating exercise, and highlighted one key challenge in the dating game for young adults: “Hook-ups” are very common, but no group of college students can agree on exactly what the term means.

Studies tell us that more than half of college relationships begin with a hook-up. Translation: Before two college students have a dinner date, a meaningful conversation or even exchange phone numbers, there’s a good chance of a hook-up.

But what is a hook-up?

Does hooking up mean smooching? Some intense making-out? Maybe some hands wandering? Or does it mean sex? And what are the emotional expectations surrounding a hook-up?

Back in my day (I graduated from college in 1999, so a while ago, but not eons in social change terms), if a friend told me she’d hooked up with a cute guy the night before, I’d have assumed they made-out, maybe a bit more, but certainly not had sexual intercourse. Today, some of my students tell me that hooking up usually means sex — or “at least” oral sex — while others say just kissing can be considered a “hook-up” as well.

And it’s this ambiguity that causes problems.

False information

If you hear tales of many friends “hooking up” and you assume that it’s sex, then you would also assume that everyone else is having a lot more sex than you are. Then, when you’re in an intimate situation, you might go farther sexually than you might otherwise feel comfortable doing, because you think that “everyone’s doing it.”

But everyone isn’t doing “it”: Repeated surveys of college students find that the average undergrad has one or fewer sexual partners in a year.

Think of it this way: If the reality is that hook-ups are more innocent — passionate kissing, for example — then you’ve just been given some false information. That false information gives you a skewed idea of what other people are doing, and it’s dangerous, because it impacts what you might do, too.


What is a hook-up?

When does a hook-up happen in the evolution of a relationship?

What is expected after a hook-up?

Take the Hook-Up Culture survey here and share your opinions and insights. In a future column I’ll post the results.

As young adult Catholics, often we struggle to figure out how to both follow the Church’s teachings, and be socially “normal” when it seems like everyone else is having sex all the time. It’s hard enough to try to live out these teachings with support — but with lots of misinformation and social pressure, it often seems impossible.

So let’s define our terms and help clarify things. You tell me:

What is a hook-up?

When does a hook-up happen in the evolution of a relationship?

What is expected after a hook-up?

Take the Hook-Up Culture survey here and share your opinions and insights. I’ll share your opinions and insights in future columns.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
See more articles by (214).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Delly

    Unbleivbeale how well-written and informative this was.

  • Matt

    As someone a bit older than the writer, but not by that much, I think I may shed some light on the question, because I’m pretty sure I witnessed the dawn of the concept of “hooking up”, even though its meaning may have changed.

    A “hook up” is what our parents and grandparents would have called a “date”. Our generation just changed the wording because “dating” had come to mean a relationship with at least a minimal degree of stability. That is, one explicitly initiated by mutual consent of both parties and presumed to be both continuing and exclusive until explicitly terminated by one or both parties.

    Going on a “date” thus implied one had a steady girlfriend, and if the “date” was with anyone else, then you, your girlfriend, and your community of friends would all describe the behavior as a form of cheating. This was simply what the words had come to mean.

    What then were we to call the process of going out with different people casually in an effort to find one that fits, in advance of declaring even temporary exclusivity to any of them? Well, “hooking up” fit the bill, and we started using it.

    In the sort of community where, for a male and a female, both heterosexual, of similar age, and not connected by a purely “work” relationship, to spend an evening in each other’s company socially necessarily implies they’ll immediately spend the night having sexual intercourse, “hooking up” implied sex. Just like “dating” did. Whereas in communities with even very slightly more restrained sexual norms, “hooking up” with its defining absence of even temporary commitment, necessarily excluded getting naked together. (In other words, if two people described themselves as “dating”, unless they were really outspoken Christians, you assumed they were having sex. But “hooking up” just meant going to dinner or lunch or something, where people could get to know each other.)

    In other words, “hooking up” was something one did with someone else one barely knows, but thinks one might possibly like to know better. A person to whom “hooking up” implies sex has standards regarding sexual intimacy which are rather shocking even to those of us formed in the remarkably-loose 1990s.

    It clearly doesn’t always mean that anymore. Except, of course, when it does.

  • Yvette

    I’m speechless and crushed as I read everyone‚Äôs insightful comments. I graduated ’95 and the ‘hook’up’ term meant to get-together to study, go to the mall, pick up a burger, cruise to downtown. As years passed, the term “hook-up” somehow turned its meaning into something I thought of as a ‘one night stands’, casual sex, or friends with benefits. I guess it’s like love. Everyone has its own definition.
    I truly understand you, Amanda. I drifted away from church when I was in a sexual relationship with my boyfriend. I always felt pastors, priests, or even lay people had no place to judge my actions, and that what I did was between me and God.
    Ten years of ‘hooking-up’ have not taking me anywhere good. I felt sad, displaced, lost. I decided to renew my spiritual life about two years ago. It has been a difficult experience because the more I learn about how the root of SIN got a hold of me, it is through prayer that I must remain strong and not fall into the scheme of the so called ‘hooking up’ culture. I’ve become more self aware of my actions and realize that being in that state of mind and given into its culture will block my view to understand and make be rebel against the Church teachings. It‚Äôs so easy to make excuses because deep deep deep inside my heart I long to find that merciful God.
    I cannot say that I’ve left that life behind. It‚Äôs around me. All my friends, male and females, are still hooking up. Sadly, even married friends hook-up on the side. There are times when I‚Äôm out and I am tempted to give in into ‚Äòhooking-up‚Äù with someone. I have a busy life that an adventure at the end of the day or party sounds just so fitting. But I must remain strong. I can proudly say that I made a promise to myself to not give in into the “hook-up” culture. I’ve learned to value me more as a child of God. I have not let pastors, priests, or lay people doubt in my walk with the Lord. I‚Äôve taken only the positive from them and embrace it. I also agree that with more compassion, guidance, love, a person is more open to receive and understand the teachings of the Church without being rebellious. We must remain in constant prayer for all those confused souls, like me, to help discern and not fall into this society full of temptations and pressure.

    And to answer your three questions; I think that the term ‘hook-up’ is more often used as a “post” effect rather than a forthcoming encounter.

    1) a hook-up is to meet up with anyone and go with the flow. No self-control.

    2)the hook-up is usually a try-out at the beginning of the relationship.

    3)nothing is expected.

  • Mary Lauer

    Amanda, with all respect, you allowed your “strong orthodox faith” to be taken away by errant priests, your faith wasn’t as strong as you thought it was. Churches are places where people profess worship and service to God, not the other way around. God and his church aren’t here to entertain you, you can’t attend mass on an iPod. You can choose to direct “natural desires” toward creating life which God intended, and be happy, rather than using others for your selfish pleasure. God wants a better life for you than one you’d choose for yourself, if you obey his commandments. He’s not restricting your freedom because you have free will. Lambs have left the Catholic flock for many reasons, including scandals, dilution of the gospel message, socialism in the church, and heretic preaching. Catholic churches that are orthodox have the highest attendance–I recently left my own church which had gotten too casual, too Protestantized, for a more traditional one and found it fulfilling. As for compassion, you’ll find God ministers to you in Holy Confession! Pator Todd, I’m with you. I’ve been faithful to my spouse for 25 years. I lived through the sexual revolution and took the path less chosen, and it has made all the difference. What these young people don’t realize is that the “hooking up” (sexual intercourse) they do now will prevent them from being faithful in future marriage, or block any future marriage altogether.

  • John

    Its not just people in college who do hook ups. I’m 60 y.o., since my divorce ten years ago I’ve had more hook ups than anything remotely resembling a dating relationship. I could be wrong but I don’t think most single people over the age of 45 are looking for marriage or a long term relationship, for a variety of reasons. We’ve already had children and are still very much a part of the families we raised, adding a new person to the mix only makes things more complicated.

  • Matt

    Amen Amanda

  • Amanda

    Pastor Todd – Sure, you’re right and expressing what the Church defines as sin, and the likely feelings of Christ (as the Church defines Him) about the usefulness of defining a “hook-up.”

    However, I count myself among many young persons whose strong, orthodox faith was so torn apart by attempts to build relationships within the Catholic framework that we chose to give it up entirely. My faith is dead, and strict refusal of clergy and other church leaders to discuss sex with me is probably a large reason why.

    The Church was made for humanity, not humanity for the Church. The Church needs to be more responsive to the concerns and needs of its people, not simply writing off their most natural desires and actions as SIN (the all-caps were a nice, merciful touch) without any further discussion.

    You will, I assure you, lose many lambs in your flock if you lead your congregation this way. There are ways to teach Truth with more compassion.

  • Pastor Todd

    Let me pipe in here with the truth. Sex outside the bounds of marriage IS SIN. As a matter of fact, Christ elevated the standard when He said that if you lust, you’ve already “done it” in your heart. He defined that as SIN.

    So how is a clear definition of “the hook up” going to help? Passionate kissing – sin. Petting/roaming hands – sin. Oral sex – sin. And intercourse – sin.

    Shouldn’t you adult, older/wiser, more stable folks (especially the original author presented here as an authority) be warning against sin? I read here that sin is bad, but not the end of the world. Doesn’t sin damn people to Hell? Wasn’t is because of sin that Christ died. I think He was serious about sin.

    I don’t think Christ desires for you to define “hook up” more clearly. I think he would say, “Be holy, for I am holy. Abstain from the very appearance of sin. Be imitators of God as beloved children, and don’t let sexual immorality even be talked about among you (Eph 5).”

  • Mnatsi

    I am also about the same age as the writer but I live in Zimbabwe(yes the land of one Robert Mugabe). Here the picture is surprisingly similar. No one can give the defining moment of a hook up or what actually happens but the sex is going on big time. Teenage pregnancies are up and HIV/AIDS prevalence, though declining, is highest in the 15 to 30 age group. Sex is used like a social currency; approval is shown in sex and rejection by its withholding.
    Stan* is 19, Roman Catholic and has just started his first year of university. He doesn’t think a hook up is ‘solid’ before sex. “Look there’s no way she can like you and not let you have it, (if she won’t have sex with you) she’s probably using you”.
    Tendai says “I just had to have him and wanted to marry him some day, when he wanted it I let him have it”. She is a 24 year old accountant and single mother.
    Both had a very similar reaction to the question “isn’t premarital sex a sin”? Stan said “I think it’s bad if you don’t plan to marry her”. Tendai’s reaction wasn’t much further away, “when you do it it’s not like you want to find another guy to do it with after that but I guess that’s how it ends up”.
    The situation is dire given the ever present threat of HIV and the fact that the youth just aren’t well versed in their religious mores. I went through over fifty replies similar to Stan and Tendai’s to realize this.
    Ironically this need for sexual gratification can eventually undo the relationships. Tendai and her ‘mate’? “He left me for some new chick from Bulawayo; her friends said she had some serious skills”
    *Names withheld for the usual reasons.

  • Christine

    Thanks, Catholic, for your great comments–and you are absolutely right! Alcohol is a HUGE part of the hook-up culture. Great point.

  • Catholic

    and to answer your questions:

    1. what is a hook up?
    it’s more than a kiss but less than sex. it typically lasts an hour or more, and sometimes involves staying the night w/ the other person. (too drunk to leave!)

    2. when does a hook-up happen in the evolution of a relationship?
    i’d say pretty much never if you define a relationship as a healthy relationship involving monogamy and commitment. hook-ups are either one-time events or bizarre escapades between men + women who are incapable of forming a healthy relationship w/ one another.

    3. what is expected after a hook-up?
    a physical and emotional hangover. guilt. remorse. drama. not hearing from the other person highly likely. or running into them in the future and feeling embarrassed or wondering if a hook-up is going to happen again if they linger around them long enough.

  • Catholic

    I’m about the same age as the author, so I definitely have a share of memories about ‘hooking-up’ culture in my college days. Been there!

    As more of a ‘grown up’ now, I look back on hook-up culture and it makes me rather sad. Hooking-up is, on the whole, not the ‘way in’ to a relationship. It’s generally viewed as a one-time thing, no expectations. At “best” it may lead to future hook-ups which might eventually meander into a relationship, but again the expectations and likelihood are pretty slim-to-none. Hook-ups take people emotionally beyond the realm of healthy, which helps explain those dreary dramatic after-effects.

    But there’s something critical missing from this article. It is the very real fact that hooking up is 99.99% in conjunction with alcohol. The feelings one gets while ‘tipsy’ or even worse drunk, give the illusion that certain feelings or attractions exist that in reality do not. (ie we give it names like “liquid courage,” “beer goggles,” etc.) This is why people wake up feeling not only physically horrible, but emotionally drained to realize they’ve acted out on feelings that are either untrue, overdramatized, and in the case of hook-ups conveyed attraction that either isn’t ‘really’ there in the first place, or regret of having mixed oneself up with someone they wish they hadn’t.

    Social pressure is a factor in hook-ups, and again it’s almost always in the context of alcohol – parties, bars, spring break, post-game “after parties” and the like. Looking back, I think the majority of my friends (women and men alike) almost always felt embarrassed, awkward and remorseful after hooking up. And equally so with the #of drinks they had, which is used to blame or excuse them from the event.

powered by the Paulists