CE credits: 1
Exam Items: 10
1. Describe the concept and context of contemporary sexual
hook-up culture and behavior.
2. Review the current research on psychological and health
consequences of emerging adults’ uncommitted sexual
3. Discuss the role of uncommitted sexual behavior, and larger
social-sexual scripts, on the lives and experiences of emerging
adult college students.
It is an unprecedented time in the history of human sexuality. In the United States, the age when people first marry and reproduce has been pushed back dramatically,
while at the same time the age of puberty has dropped,
resulting in an era in which young adults are physiologically
able to reproduce but not psychologically or socially ready
to “settle down” and begin a family (Bogle, 2007; Garcia &
These developmental shifts, research suggests, are some
of the factors driving the increase in sexual “hookups,” or
uncommitted sexual encounters, part of a popular cultural
change that has infiltrated the lives of emerging adults
throughout the Western world.
Hookups are becoming more engrained in popular culture,
reflecting both evolved sexual predilections and changing
social and sexual scripts. Hook-up activities may include a
wide range of sexual behaviors, such as kissing, oral sex and
penetrative intercourse. However, these encounters often
transpire without any promise of — or desire for — a more
traditional romantic relationship.
In this article, we review the literature on sexual hookups
and consider the research on the psychological consequences
of casual sex. This is a transdisciplinary literature review
that draws on the evidence and theoretical tensions between
evolutionary theoretical models and sociocultural theory.
It suggests that these encounters are becoming increasingly
normative among adolescents and young adults in North
America and can best be understood from a biopsychosocial
Today’s hook-up culture represents a marked shift in
openness and acceptance of uncommitted sex.
A cultural revolution
Hookups — defined in this article as brief uncommitted
sexual encounters between individuals who are not romantic
partners or dating each other — have emerged from more
general social shifts taking place during the last century.
Hookups began to become more frequent in the 1920s, with
the upsurge of automobiles and novel entertainment, such as
movie theaters. Instead of courting at home under a parent’s
watchful eye, young adults left the home and were able to
explore their sexuality more freely.
By the 1960s, young adults became even more sexually
liberated, with the rise of feminism, widespread availability
of birth control and growth of sex-integrated college
party events. Today, sexual behavior outside of traditional
committed romantic pair-bonds has become increasingly
typical and socially acceptable (Bogle, 2007, 2008).
Influencing this shift in sexuality is popular culture.
The media have become a source of sex education, filled
with often inaccurate portrayals of sexuality (Kunkel et al.,
2005). The themes of books, plots of movies and television
shows, and lyrics of numerous songs all demonstrate a
permissive sexuality among consumers. The media suggest
that uncommitted sex, or hookups, can be both physically and
emotionally enjoyable and occur without “strings.” The 2009
film “Hooking Up,” for example, details the chaotic romantic
and sexual lives of adolescent characters. Another film, “No
Strings Attached,” released in 2011, features two friends
negotiating a sexual, yet nonromantic, component of their
relationship. Popular pro-hookup same-sex representations
have also emerged in television series like “Queer as Folk” and
When it comes to real life, most of today’s young adults
report some casual sexual experience. The most recent data
suggest that between 60 percent and 80 percent of North
American college students have had some sort of hook-
up experience. This is consistent with the view of emerging
adulthood (typical college age) as a period of developmental
transition (Arnett, 2000), exploring and internalizing sexuality
and romantic intimacy, now including hookups (Stinson,
Although much of the current research has been done on
college campuses, among younger adolescents, 70 percent
of sexually active 12- to 21-year-olds reported having had
uncommitted sex within the last year (Grello et al., 2003).
Similarly, in a sample of seventh, ninth and 11th graders, 32
percent of participants had experienced sexual intercourse
and 61 percent of sexually experienced teenagers reported a
sexual encounter outside a dating relationship; this represents
approximately one-fifth of the entire sample (Manning et al.,
Affective responses to hooking up
On average, both men and women appear to have higher
positive affect than negative affect after a hookup. In one
study, among participants who were asked to characterize the
morning after a hookup, 82 percent of men and 57 percent of
women were generally glad they had done it (Garcia & Reiber,
2008). The gap between men and women is notable and
demonstrates an average sex difference in affective reactions.
Similarly, in a study of 832 college students, 26 percent of
women and 50 percent of men reported feeling positive after