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.

May 17th, 2010

Conflict Over Hook-Up Culture

What exactly is it? What is the perception of the frequency? What is the reality?



What is a hook up?

As a not-that-old, not-that-out-of-touch college professor who teaches classes on the sociology of marriage, family and gender, this is one of my favorite questions to ask a class of undergraduates for three reasons: It wakes ’em up; everyone is interested in the answer; and it stirs up quite a debate.

But in the three years I’ve been asking this question, there’s never been a class consensus. Some students tell me it’s sexual intercourse, with a zero-to-sex pick-up speed, within hours (and many beers) of a first meeting. Others tell me hooking up means making out or kissing, and might not happen until two people have hung out together in a group of friends for a while.

So a few months back, I put it to you: How do you define a hook up?

Defining the hook up: Survey results

As always, Busted Halo readers were more than willing to share thoughts and responses. More than 250 of you filled out the online survey, and the results are fascinating.

Amanda, 26: “If a friend or sibling used this phrase… I always asked for clarification. You never know what it means!”

Who took this survey? The average age of respondents is 26. Of those who took the survey online, 57% are single, 25% are in a relationship or engaged, and 16% are married. Two-thirds of the respondents are female, and half are college students.

What does a hook up mean? More than a third of respondents said a hook up means sex. Here’s a chart with the breakdown of possible definitions.


But… when you run the numbers on college students, the definitions change a bit: Only 28% of college students (compared with 34% of all respondents) said that if a friend told them they’d hooked up the night before, they’d assume that meant sex. Among college students, the most popular answer — for 30% of respondents — was that hooking up meant kissing and touching with clothes on.

Elizabeth, 29, commented, “Before I was married I did a lot of ‘random make-outs’, as my friends and I called them or sometimes called them hooking-up. But hooking-up usually meant that there was little more than making-out happening. I always said that I didn’t care if he called but when it came down to it, I always hoped that he would. Most of the time he did not unless he was looking for another random hook-up. I think my girlfriends would say the same. It was a hard habit to break when I decided I wanted ‘real relationships’ as opposed to random hook-ups and make-outs.”

Chris, a 20-year-old single guy, said he’s been confused by the term for a while. “I always assumed it meant intercourse, but one time a friend told me about a hook-up he had where he simply kissed a girl that he liked.”

Katie, 22: “I know it does happen, and I would assume that it often entails sex, though that doesn’t really pressure me. As a young Catholic, I don’t really care about being ‘socially normal,’ and I believe as Christians we are called in many ways to be counter cultural.”

Says Amanda, 26: “If a friend or sibling used this phrase in college or now (it’s less common now that I’ve been out a few years), I always asked for clarification. You never know what it means! Hook-ups are often sex, and I have friends with more than a dozen one-time partners because of it. I’ve done it once myself. And in most cases, the woman either feels embarrassed and regrets the event, or desperately wants the man to express more commitment than he will, watching her phone for calls or texts. To quote Erica Jong, ‘It’s desperation and depression masquerading as freedom.'”

And does this definition issue even matter? “We’re just getting wrapped up in the terminology,” says Katie, 22. “I know it does happen, and I would assume that it often entails sex, though that doesn’t really pressure me. As a young Catholic, I don’t really care about being ‘socially normal,’ and I believe as Christians we are called in many ways to be counter cultural. However, I do see the importance of speaking to those who do feel pressure from the world, and could be negatively influenced by it.”

When does a hook up happen? Among Busted Halo respondents, 46% say two people are most likely to hook up immediately upon meeting, while 39% say the hook up will usually happen after hanging out in a group setting for a while. Only about 9% of respondents even think that hooking up can wait until the first few weeks of dating. (Although, perhaps then you wouldn’t call it a hook up? If not, what would you call it?)

“My experience is it is significantly more common when alcohol is involved,” said Christina, 23, who defined a hook up as including oral sex. “Unfortunately, this can ruin an otherwise promising relationship because it sets a starts with the wrong focus.”

But timing and circumstances matter, argues Kate, 24. “If it’s a random guy you meet at a party while drunk who you’ve never met before that will probably not lead to anything. If it’s someone you know and have spent time with in a social setting that has more potential to turn into something more meaningful.”

What happens after the hook up? To me, this is where it gets really depressing. According to respondents, 47.5% say a woman should expect nothing from a hook up — no call, no date, no relationship, nada. And the man shouldn’t expect anything either. It was just casual. Only 15% of respondents say the woman should expect a call from the guy. Check out this un-romantic chart. The chart for what guys should expect looks pretty similar.


One respondent suggested that there should be rules and time limits to hook ups — physical contact for a set period of time — to manage expectations. Others described a hook up as a way to “test the waters” to see if there should be future contact. Not romantic stuff.

“I do believe the definition has shifted from ‘make-out’ to more intense physical connection,” mused Samantha, 30. And as for what happens next, “If you expect nothing except physical pleasure than you won’t be disappointed by the short-term.”

Says J, a 22-year-old single guy, said in one of his hook ups, “I walked a girl-friend home, we hooked up passionately on the street, texted and so on since, went out once, but it was awkward so we’re just friendly acquaintances now…”

(I think the key word there is “awkward.”)

Kathleen, 19, raises a great point: “The less practicing Catholics are as likely to hook up as anyone else. Those Catholics regularly involved in campus ministry programs are much LESS likely to hook up.” Studies back this up, and that’s of some comfort to those in the Church who are horrified by such casual sexual behavior.

Should a hook up be emotionally meaningful? The majority of respondents want a hook up to be emotionally meaningful. I asked whether people agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Hooking up is just fun, and doesn’t have to be emotionally meaningful.” Some 59% of respondents disagree. Which is really nice, except… how does that add up with the previous chart about the low expectations of post-hook-up interactions? Romance isn’t dead, but it seems most young adults are shielding their hearts and preparing for the worst after these interactions.

“As long as the hook-up doesn’t evolve into meaningless sex, it’s harmless and fun for both parties,” says Tara, 17.

But Patrick, 27, who defined a hook up as meaning sexual intercourse, disagreed: The whole “hook-up culture is a shame,” he said. “Too many men and women have come to look upon the human body as a tool for pleasure. It’s also a shame that the popular idea of sex is void of a deeper meaning.”

Do young-adult Catholics act differently? You don’t think so: 68% of respondents say young-adult Catholics are just as likely to hook up as non-Catholics. Gallup poll research suggests this is probably true. Catholic attitudes and behaviors tend to track with the general population, for better or for worse.


Yet Kathleen, 19, raises a great point: “The less practicing Catholics are as likely to hook up as anyone else. Those Catholics regularly involved in campus ministry programs are much LESS likely to hook up.” Studies back this up, and that’s of some comfort to those in the Church who are horrified by such casual sexual behavior.

Are hook ups equal-opportunity pleasure? Stanford sociologist Paula England has shown that there’s an “orgasm gap” in college hook ups. Men are getting pleasure from these encounters at much higher rates than women. And respondents seemed to agree (presumably without knowing about this research): Some 57% report that they think women don’t get as much pleasure from hook ups as men. “It’s very degrading towards men and women,” says Tori, 18. “Men walk away with a sense of success and callous towards women. While most women walk away hoping they’ll hear from the guy soon.”

Is everyone else gettin’ more than you are? Due largely to media messages in our generally oversexed culture, we think everyone is constantly doin’ it more than we are. But here’s some news to make you feel good about not going on a drunken hook up spree: Two-thirds of respondents say they’ve hooked up somewhere between 0 and 5 times total. This fits with other national research, too. However, three-quarters think that the average college student has hooked up significantly more than they have.


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.

That’s right, says CMC, 22, “I just graduated and I am constantly astounded by the actual statistics about people’s sexual experiences versus what I have heard. It does sound like “everyone is doing it” but this is generally not the case, at least, people aren’t having sex (“hooking up”) with just anyone. I think the people who actually are doing that are just more vocal than the rest of us because they are looking for acceptance of their actions.”

So where do we go from here? Let’s get a discussion going and shake it up a bit. You must have thoughts on this — so share them here in the comments section. And if you haven’t taken our survey on defining the hook-up culture, it’s still open, so please take it now. I’ll update the results and bring in your thoughts in my follow-up column.

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.
  • hooking up

    Hi, Neat post. There is an issue together with your web site in internet explorer, would test this? IE still is the market leader and a good portion of people will pass over your magnificent writing because of this problem.

  • Joseph

    I want to express my very honest worry and discomfort with this article. This is another article about intercourse addressed in seemingly passive yet analytic ways. It is absolutely disturbing, I reiterate, *absolutely disturbing to go through an article about premarital sex on a Catholic website and nowhere find mention of Church Teaching or mortal sin. The word “mortal sin” appears nowhere on this document. I am shocked and scared by this. We cannot approach such vital issues with empty liberalism or relativism to Church teaching.

  • Kealey

    I always find these sort of polls and discussions interesting. As a 27 year old male who got married less than a year ago I would like to be able to say my only sexual partner ever was my now wife, however this is not the fact. I went through a “rebellious” stage in my life if you will in which there was a copious use of drugs and alcohol as well as more sexual activity then one would like to admit.

    What I find bothersome in this article however is the idea put forth that men don’t really expect much and because of that women should not get their hopes up. It gives the false impression that men gain far more pleasure out of these “hook-ups” than women. Just because a man reaches an orgasm does not mean they walk away from the encounter feeling “a sense of success and callous towards women.”

    I can honestly tell you that most of my encounters left me feeling empty and shallow and longing for something much deeper. Many times I hoped that I would receive a phone call or a text message asking to go for a date or even coffee. Much to my (then) disappointment these calls never came. Why should this expectation of further contact fall primarily on the male? Why can’t the female take the initiative to pick up the phone or send an email? We are living in a world where we all expect equal rights correct? Then why don’t both sides need to put in an equal effort?

    On top of this concern comes the another point. I don’t honestly believe that sexuality is running any more rampant then it was in previous generations. After all lets just look at the increase of children being born after World War II. Do you honestly believe these children were all conceived within the confines of marriage? If you do then you are far more naive than I would have expected. I think the difference is with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms being introduced in the mid 80’s in Canada as well as the rights finally being enforced in the U.S.A. we saw freedom of speech run rampant. The media was finally allowed to report on what they wanted rather than what the governments dictated they could. As well with the equal rights movements women were now free to express themselves any way they felt necessary, in many cases this meant wearing more revealing clothing.

    I can tell you that my parents had sex before they were married (I only in the last couple of years found this out) and my wife’s parents did as well. I also know for a fact many of my friend’s parents had premarital sex as well. The reality is we are aloud to speak about it in public forums now and that is what gives us the impression it is happening more frequently.

    Certain polls done here in Alberta (Canada) would actually tell you quite the opposite. Teenagers and young adults now are less likely to have sex (of any kind) then their parents or grand-parents. I also don’t honestly believe that a devout Christian, whether Catholic or other is honestly any less likely to “hook-up”. I have personally seen in many cases that these so called devout Christians are far more likely to misinterpret “God’s message”. I have had many devout Christian friends tell me that they prayed about it first either on their own or with the other individual involved and that God told them it was “O.K.” How crazy is that.

    The reality is when all is stripped away and we are exposed as fragile and weak human beings we very seldom make the right decisions. We quite often give in to pleasure and our own desires. After all Adam and Eve did it in the Garden of Eden… what makes us think we are any better than they were?

    P.S. Roscoe – Thank you for mentioning birth control!!! Don’t be stupid people, if you’re gonna have premarital sex then use it. Sometimes the teachings in the Catechism are a little antiquated and archaic. The reality is without using these items you expose yourself to far too many dangers. God gave you a brain for a reason other then holding your ears apart.

  • Roscoe

    What is a hook-up: Contact with someone that involves lip contact and other courtship activities and with whom the person does not have an established courting or romantic relationship. This may or may not lead to intercourse.

    I have had only one sexual partner in my life, my Fiancé. I have had courtship type contact with only one other person. I have kissed many of my friends, but in jest, imitating courtship like activity.

    I think that sex is very significant in our lives and in the relationships of people around us. As such, we pay attention to information about sex, and the media gives us a lot of information regarding who is sexually involved with who (often fictional characters) because we pay attention. This can lead to distorted views about the world.

    How should people conduct themselves sexually? First and foremost, there are dangers involved with sex. Broken hearts, unwanted pregnancies, STDs, legal action, and damaged relationships with friends and co-workers can all result from careless sexual conduct. So, be cautious! You can have as much kinky sex as you want (and are able to lawfully get) as long as you are careful to avoid problems. When having sex with a person you don’t know well, or not sure of the potential for them to have STDs, use a condom. If you do not want children from the encounter, use one or more methods of birth control. If you are not sure if sex with your intended partner is legal, find out first!

  • adam

    I think one of the biggest issues with this is just our culture around sexuality. Not many people are comfortable talking about sex, and most of us show implicit support for the “oversexed” music, tv, and movies we have. Whether you are morally ok with casual sex, ignore that question entirely, or find it demeaning, few other people actually know because it’s usually taboo to actually discuss it. A lot of the time, our lack of understanding of one another‚Äôs actual thoughts on sex and the hookup culture leads to the media image being reinforced. I‚Äôm really glad that you‚Äôre doing articles like this, and I think little things such as this can help make a healthier world for young adults, whether they are sexually active or not, catholic or not. Thanks!

  • Kim

    This is my definition of a “hook-up”: A sexual encounter between two people who find each other sexually attractive and want to explore those desires immediately. It happens most often when inhibitions are lowered by alcohol or a celebratory atmosphere (new years, graduation, vacation, etc.). The sexual encounter ranges anywhere from flirting to intercourse. A healthy relationship rarely follows.

  • zach

    if a hook up involves only passion and no intimacy, then of course, the flame between people will die out quick. But if a relationship between two people is very intimate and saves passion for the higher commitment of marriage, I truly believe that the relationship will be strengthened by a sense of trust and fortitude. I’ve always defined “hook up” to mean make out, and really nothing more. I’m a 21 year old college male and the first time I kissed my current girlfriend I asked her “can I kiss you?” super awkward. super cheesy. but i meant it, I wanted to know if she was willing and comfortable with me. I’d hardly call it a hook up, we went on dates for almost 3 weeks before it haha. Im not gonna lie, i really enjoyed how cute it was.

powered by the Paulists