We now live in a casual culture. We wear tsinelas to school and jeans to work, texting is almost as common as calling, and hooking up has made traditional dating an endangered activity. In fact, many women, especially those in their early and mid-20s, feel that no-strings-attached relationships are their one and only option.
"Hooking up has replaced dating as the primary form of male-female socializing these days," says Donna Freitas, PhD, author of Sex And The Soul. "So, people feel if they want physical intimacy and affection, they have no choice but to partake—even if what they really want is a committed relationship." Which, it turns out, is exactly what most women are hoping for.
Take, for example, the couple in the aptly titled Friends With Benefits (opening in August), who only think they're escaping the confines of a relationship by adding casual sex to a friendship. A young female headhunter (Mila Kunis) and her potential recruit (Justin Timberlake) decided to "leave emotion out of it" and keep things strictly physical. But can you ever really keep emotions at bay?
Well, we decided to look at what spurred the hook-up craze, the pros and cons of non-exclusive relationships, and what you can do to bring dating back from the dead.
Why Hooking Up Has Taken Hold
The term "hooking up" has been around since the '80s, but a few recent cultural shifts have kicked the practice into high gear. For one, women in their early 20s are focusing more on their jobs than on husband-hunting. Now that it's socially acceptable to marry later, the wedding hysteria that used to consume women fresh out of college no longer exists.
With a large percentage of women, ages 25 and up, dominating the workforce, the chances of pairing off aren't great anyway. "Women feel there are so few men to go around that they can't demand much from them," says Kathleen Bogle, PhD, author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, And Relationships On Campus.
"Guys, on the other hand, feel like kids in a candy store—with so many women to choose from, they're hesitant to settle on just one. Those who want relationships often don't pursue them because they'll get teased by their friends for it."
Adding to this phenomenon are shows like Gossip Girl and Glee, which, according to Beth Paul, PhD, professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey, glamorize casual sex and present it as the norm.
But, what's made hooking up reach the tipping point is technology. "Hooking up existed before cell phones and email, but back then, it required advanced thought—you had to call someone before going out to ensure you'd be able to meet up with them later," says Bogle. But with text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, last-minute plans are possible…not to mention far less awkward.
Is No-Strings Sex A Good Idea?
It may seem like a good idea, having no responsibility to call, or obligation to meet the friends and family. Still, experts warn that the pitfalls of hooking up outweigh the perks. For one, "a double standard still exists," says Bogle. "Women who sleep around get bad reputations, while guys are applauded for it."
But are women really happy after hooking up? In her study, Paul found that while many people engage in hook-up relationships purely for sexual gratification, others report that they do it in the hopes that a physical relationship will turn into something more serious.
And, even those who go in with tempered expectations often grow attached. A study published in the journal Human Nature found that women are more likely to have negative feelings after a one-night stand than men are, suggesting that women haven't fully adapted to casual sex.
"Sexual activity releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and it's very strong in women," says Diana Kirschner, PhD, au thor of Love In 90 Days. "It's easy for a woman to think she's having fun, and then her body takes over and she starts developing feelings for a guy." Thus, hook-ups can end in disappointment, because the woman often winds up wanting more.
Casual sex, for women, is often as unfulfilling sexually as it is emotionally. "Hook-ups prioritize male pleasure," says Paula England, PhD, professor of sociology at Stanford University. Her study of hook-ups found that guys orgasm 44 percent of the time, while women peak only 19 percent of the time. And, when hook-ups involve just oral sex, in 45 percent of the cases, the girl is the only one going down.
Even if you've embraced the hook-up culture in college, it could come back to bite you in the ass in your mid to late 20s, when you finally want to settle down. "There is a hangover effect from years of hooking up. You end up not knowing how to negotiate a relationship—you haven't learned how to compromise and communicate effectively," says Kirschner.
Moving Beyond Hooking Up
Your best defense is a good offense, so avoid guys who party excessively and are always draped over a different girl—these are signs he's a player. Kirschner suggests looking for love where there is already a level of respect (for example, an old friend or a guy on your debate team). And, to set the tone of the relationship, try to wait a while before having sex.
If things—oops!—turn intimate earlier, quickly correct course. Casually suggest something low-key like getting breakfast or going for a jog later. "If you take off the next morning, the guy will think all you want or expect is sex," says Amber Madison, author of Hooking Up. "Hanging out with him the next day sends the message that you're interested in more than hooking up."
If you are already in a non-exclusive relationship and want something deeper, speak up. "Guys are more comfortable being emotionally intimate without eye contact, so broach the subject while you're sitting side by side," says Kirschner.
To further put him at ease, kick off the conversation in a calm, cute way. For example, say, "Hey, we've been having so much fun together that I have zero interest in seeing anyone else. What about you?" If he says he likes you but doesn't want a relationship, take his word for it. Rejection stings, but knowing where you stand will free you up to pursue a more meaningful romance.
How do you know if hooking up is for you? Use this checklist:
Hooking Up Is For You If...
- You like to gamble.
- To you, uncertainty is exciting.
- You're focused on friendships versus romantic unions.
- You just got out of a relationship and want to play the field.
Hooking Up Is Not For You If...
- You're happiest in a committed union.
- You tend to be the jealous type.
- You usually get attached to people you're physically intimate with.