Sept. 21, 2011 -- Hookups have replaced casual sex and even dating on many college campuses over the years, but as is so often the case when sex is discussed, it's not altogether clear what everybody is talking about when they say "hookup." One new study at a large university suggests that most young people are doing it, although not everyone agrees what "it" is.
Researchers at the University of Montana found so many different definitions among the students they studied that they had to come up with a precise definition to be sure everybody was talking about the same thing. But the lead author of their study, published in the journal Health Communications, said in a telephone interview that ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing.
"If you say casual sex, then I know exactly what you are saying," said Amanda Holman, who is now with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Hooking up is strategically ambiguous. It's a way for them [students] to communicate about it but without having to reveal details."
So Holman and her collaborator, Alan Sillars of the University of Montana, came up with their own definition that is anything but ambiguous.
"Hooking up is used to describe a sexual encounter (vaginal, anal, or oral sex) between two people who are not in a dating or serious relationship and do not expect anything further," their study says. It adds that most students "describe hookups as spontaneous sexual encounters fueled by alcohol that usually unfold without communication about sexual health and consent or protection against sexually transmitted infections."
In most cases, they found, hookups begin the same way. It starts at a party, frequently at a frat or sorority house, where there is plenty of booze. As the evening goes on, couples form and eventually move off to do whatever they have in mind -- no commitments, no expectations for the future, no serious thoughts about health or risk, a seemingly carefree adventure fueled by alcohol.
"Alcohol is a huge player," Holman said. "If you become part of this hookup subculture, and you go to parties and you drink a lot and you're not fully aware of it, you probably don't have protection, and then you are more likely to engage in risky behavior. There's more risk than having sex when it's planned."
Holman and Sillars recruited 274 students who were willing to discuss their experiences with hookups as defined by the researchers. Here are some of the results:
"Fifty four percent of participants reported having participated in a sexual hookup during the school year." Holman notes that means nearly half the students had not participated in a hookup that year, so not everybody is involved.
There is more talk than action. Most students thought other students were having far more hookups than they were. "Thus students greatly overestimated the pervasiveness of hookups within the general student culture," the study said, although it added, "over half of students reported at least one sexual hookup and a third of students reported at least two hookups during the school year, indicating that hookups were common."
"A greater number of males (63 percent) reported engaging in a sexual hookup versus females (45 percent)," and "males expressed more favorable attitudes toward hookups." The math suggests that males are exaggerating their experiences, because the percentages should be close to equal since all the participants were attending the same university and none were believed to be gay, Holman said.
Yet even though they were supplied with a definition, about nine percent of the students said hookups do not involve sex, just, in the researchers' words, "fooling around and kissing."
None of this is likely to come as a shock to college students these days, although some parents will probably find it disturbing. Holman noted that there is serious concern over the connection between hookups and the spread of venereal disease, as well as "non-consensual sex." Make that date rape, just to clear up any possible ambiguity.
Other researchers have voiced concerns over where the trend toward hookups is leading -- that as opposed to dating and developing a relationship with one individual. A recent study from the University of Iowa concluded that the United States "has seen a major shift toward nonromantic sexual partnerships, people becoming sexually involved when they are just casually dating or not dating at all."
Some would argue that what these people need is a good lecture on the dangers of risky behavior, but Holman said talking is not likely to make hookups go away. It's quite the opposite.
Her research, which was part of her master's thesis, revealed that the more people talked about it, the more acceptable the behavior became. Students who discussed it with their friends, especially close friends, were much more likely to engage in the same behavior.
"There's this perception that because they are talking about it, everyone's doing it," she said. But nearly half the participants in her study had not had a single hookup for the entire year, so not everyone is doing it.
But like making whoopee, or hanky-panky -- ambiguous terms from past generations -- hooking up is not likely to go away. It's a very different world than it was back when those terms meant whatever people wanted them to mean.
The activity hasn't changed much. But what has changed is the lack of a personal commitment, in so many cases, as a part of sex. Holman said she fears that will lead to more risky behavior, but her own research shows it's widespread, at least on college campuses, and the eventual result remains ambiguous.