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The Problem with Hooking Up

An expert says the trend toward hooking up rather than dating may spell trouble for women.

Photo by Ryan Timpe

We all know the song “Breaking up is hard to do,” and many of us may be aware of an increasing trend among today’s teens and college students to avoid the pain of that experience: they hook up, in a commitment-free, no-strings-attached relationship that often involves sex. Many health experts argue that hookups can do more harm than good. They worry that hooking up can do a disservice to young women by negating their emotional needs, putting them at increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and leaving them unprepared for lasting relationships. The phenomenon has been the subject of recent books, such as Unhooked by journalist Laura Sessions Stepp. In an interview with BU Today, Beth Grampetro, health and wellness educator at Boston University’s Office of Residence Life, talks about the trend and its implications.

BU Today: How have the ways young women relate intimately to young men and the way they think about intimacy changed?

Grampetro: I would say that in general the way people relate to each other in a dating or courtship kind of situation is very different from even five or six years ago, particularly for college students. A lot of communication is happening via Facebook, text messages, and the like, rather than in person or even on the phone. In terms of a difference for women specifically, the rules are different from what they once were. Society and popular culture have encouraged women to take the lead in dating situations, whereas in former generations a woman would never call a man and ask him on a date.

In terms of intimacy, it has also become more normal in our culture for women to enjoy being single and even to revel in it, because it presents an opportunity to date multiple people, and for some women, to be intimate with multiple people. Traditionally, men were the ones for whom it was normal to have multiple partners or to be something of a player; if a woman did so, she was labeled with much more negative terms, and she still would be, to a degree.
What appeals to young women about hooking up? Why is it so powerful?

Hooking up has been getting a lot of attention in the mass media lately, but it’s not true that all college women, or men, are hooking up. Much of the attention comes from the recent publication of books examining the trend, such as Unhooked by Laura Sessions Stepp and Hooking Up by Amber Madison. There are plenty of college students who choose not to engage in sexual activity at all and plenty of others who do so within the parameters of a committed relationship. But there are some who do choose to have “friends with benefits” rather than date exclusively, and the reasons vary. For many, it’s about time; they feel that college is about focusing on their career preparation, having fun with friends, and so forth. The time it takes to maintain a relationship is something a lot of college students say they don’t have.

What makes hooking up more appealing than dating?

In addition to the time factor, we’re living in a culture that promotes instant gratification and tells us that if we don’t like what we’ve got, we can always upgrade. For some, hooking up means you don’t have to wonder what you might be missing out on if you were “stuck” in a committed relationship. Others would argue that those who are hooking up are the ones missing out, because their transient hookups lack the emotional intimacy of a relationship.

Is fear of commitment part of the appeal of just hooking up?

Every person’s reasons are different. One is divorce. While marriage might not be on the minds of many college students as something they’ll be doing soon, the fact remains that 50 percent of them have divorced parents, and the other 50 percent are likely to date someone with divorced parents. It affects everyone.

Are females and males affected differently by the trend?

It’s hard to generalize, but anecdotally, the students I’ve talked to are affected slightly differently. The men are mostly confused because in their parents’ time, their dads knew exactly what their role was when dating a woman — ask her out, pick her up, pay for dinner, drive her home. Now, those rules don’t apply anymore, but no one has told them what the new rules are.

Women are confused as well, but in a different way. While they’ve been encouraged to take the lead in dating and not to be afraid to call a guy up or ask him out, many of them are afraid to ask for what they want because it will make them seem needy. They’re being told that today’s woman is strong and doesn’t need a man, and they’re taking that to mean that their feelings don’t matter and will, in fact, make them seem weak.

In addition, both sexes are surrounded by all this media attention to the hookup culture, and many of them probably don’t want to engage in it and wish they knew someone else who felt the same way. When we perceive that our peers are all behaving a certain way, it’s hard to speak up and dissent and say, “I’d like to be in a relationship.”

What’s dangerous about hooking up?

Hooking up can be risky because the relationship is not typically monogamous, and when it’s labeled as a friends with benefits relationship or other similar pseudo-commitment, it can lead to a false sense of security that might make people be less cautious. If students are choosing to engage in sexual behavior, doing so safely is always important, even if they think or know that their partner is trustworthy. Unfortunately, a lot of students think they can tell if people are clean, or disease-free, just by looking at them, by the way they dress, and by the people they associate with. Unfortunately, that isn’t true.

Emotionally, the situation can be dangerous for both men and women. Often one person in a hookup will expect different things than the other person and will leave the situation disappointed, or worse. In addition, some people may engage in these behaviors because they feel it’s what they can get or because they think that it’s expecting too much to ask the other party to put in the effort and have a committed relationship.

What’s the solution?

What students need to realize is that it’s perfectly OK to ask for a commitment if you want it. We all have needs and expressing them is part of a healthy relationship, not a weakness. There are probably a small percentage of people out there who can make a casual relationship like this work for them, or a limited number of situations in which both parties mutually agree that they’ll just be physical with each other and that’s it. And for those people, it may be a positive experience. But too often, one or both parties in a hookup ends up feeling confused and disappointed.

Meghan Noé can be reached at mdorney@bu.edu.