The real difference between casual sex and hooking up

Donna Freitas, author of The End of Sex, talks about the generation that’s having sex, but not connecting.

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Getty images

Getty images

In her new book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, Donna Freitas explores how young men and women are creating a new, dysfunctional sexual norm. Here, Freitas explains how a pervasive “hookup culture” on college campuses is creating barriers to true attachment. (And why hooking up all the time is really less fun than it sounds.)

Q: Can you explain what you mean by hookup culture?
A: First of all, I want to distinguish between a hookup and a culture of hooking up. A hookup is a single act involving sexual intimacy, and it’s supposed to be a liberating experience. A culture of hooking up, as far as my students have talked about it, is monolithic and oppressive, and where sexual intimacy is supposed to occur only within a very particular context. The hookup, on its own, becomes a norm for all sexual intimacy, rather than being a one time, fun experience. Instead, it’s a thing you have to do. A hookup can be really great, in theory, but over time becomes jading and exhausting.

Q: So you’re saying that the default mode for relationships for young people has become casual sex?
A: No, that’s not what I’m saying. Casual sex is not necessarily what happens in a hookup. A hookup can be kissing. The hookup has become the most common way of being sexually intimate on a college campus, and relationships are formed through serial hookups.

Q: Why is this problematic?
A: It’s only problematic if people don’t like it, and if they’re not finding it fun or liberating. Bravado is a big part of what perpetuates hookup culture, but if you get students one-on-one, both young women and men, you hear about a lot of dissatisfaction and ambivalence.

Q: Why do they find it dissatisfying?
A: Students, in theory, will acknowledge that a hookup can be good. But I think they also experience the hookup as something they need to prove, that they can be sexually intimate with someone and then walk away not caring about that person or what they did. It’s a very callous attitude toward sexual experiences. But it seems like many students go into the hookup aware of this social contract, but then come out of it unable to uphold it and realizing that they do have feelings about what happened. They end up feeling ashamed that they can’t be callous.

Q: Do you think men and women are differently affected by the new sexual norms?
A: My biggest surprise when I started this project was the answers I heard from young men. I assumed I would hear stories of revelry from the men and a lot of complaints from the women. But a lot of the young men I talked to complained just as much as the women. They wished that they could be in a relationship and that they didn’t have to prove all of this stuff to their friends. They wanted to fall in love, and that was what I heard from the young women. What was different was that women felt like they were allowed to complain about it, and complaining felt verboten to men.

Q: But didn’t you find students who felt liberated by the opportunity to experiment sexually without forming lasting ties?
A: Let me be clear: Every student I talked to was happy to have the option of hooking up. The problem is a culture of hooking up, where it’s the only option they see for being sexually intimate. They’re not against hooking up in theory, they just want other options.

Q: Do you think this will have lasting effects for this generation?
A: I’m very optimistic. I hear a lot of yearning from students, and I think they’re thinking a lot about what they want. But a lot of them don’t know how to get out of the hookup cycle because it’s too against the norm to do anything else. Some of them are graduating college and realizing that they don’t know how to start a relationship in the absence of a hookup. There is a skill involved when it comes to developing relationships, and students are aware when they’re missing that.

Q: But if they’re missing that skill set, will this generation struggle more with intimacy?
A: There are lots of students who end up in relationships, often when a hookup turns into something more. What concerns them is what happens when they get there. Hookup culture requires that you’re physically intimate but not emotionally intimate. You’re teaching yourself how to have sex without connecting, and spending a lot of time resisting intimacy can create a challenge when you’re actually in a relationship. Hookup culture can discourage intimacy and conversation, and that can create difficulties later on.