Reasons for Abstinence

Hooking Up Is Harmless, Isn't It? (12/04)

In an age of instant gratification and high-speed Internet connections comes a new form of campus romance: the hookup.

It’s lightning-fast love on the run. Like the old one-night stand, it’s a no-strings sexual encounter with a casual friend or stranger. But it’s combined with the tender romantic feelings – however brief – of dating.

“I think in their search for a romantic link, people end up settling for something quick, even though it’s not what they’re looking for,” said Crystal Wood, a 19-year-old biology student at William Paterson University.

According to new research on college sexual practices, hookups are the norm on campuses today. Students don’t date, they hook up.

Unlike the casual sex of generations before, the hookup is an encounter that may involve anything from kissing to intercourse, with the common denominator being the absence of any phone call afterward. But the romance of the hookup – though it lasts just a few hours – brings intense feelings.

“Almost nobody says that it’s all about sex. It’s much more emotional for them,” said Elizabeth Paul, a professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey near Trenton. She is among the first in the country to study hookups.

Paul is finding that what appears to be a quest for uncomplicated sexual abandon may be a frustrated search for real intimacy.

“It’s a quick burst of strong connection, without having to deal with the long-term consequences,” said Paul, who has long studied youth and intimacy.

Paul began collecting data in a 2000 survey of 555 undergraduates. That study found that two-thirds of college students report having hookups. Some hook up weekly with different partners, others do so occasionally, and still others hook up only once, she found.

Studies elsewhere confirm the trend. A University of Michigan researcher found that 60 percent of students surveyed had hooked up, while a Journal of Sex Research study published last year found 77.7 percent of women and 84 percent of men at James Madison University said they had engaged in hookups.

On a chilly morning in the student center café at William Paterson University in Wayne, clusters of college students spoke about their version of modern romance.

A hookup might occur when you’ve had a few brews and your judgment is clouded by “beer goggles.” But that could lead to the “walk of shame,” the embarrassing trudge from their dorm room to yours the next morning, they explained.

You could “catch feelings,” like a virus, which could lead to a boyfriend or girlfriend in your life. But that’s not likely, these students said.

Dan Mahan, a student from Wanaque, puts it this way: “There are so many people, you have the sense that you just want to get your hands on everything.”

While past studies stressed the threat of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies, Paul’s research looks at feelings pre- and post-tryst.

In five years of interviews with hundreds of students, she has discovered that hookups come with some emotional consequences. After several hours of talking, a group of fraternity students who initially bragged about their sexual conquests admitted to some feelings of shame and remorse.

How am I going to go about finding someone I love?” one asked Paul in one recent focus group. “I’m not sure I know how to build a relationship. [A woman] is going to ask me how many people I’ve slept with, and I’ll say 100?

Students say they do not talk about “safe” sex or differing expectations out of fear of ruining the moment. They often drink. And they never talk afterward about whether they have developed feelings for their insta-mate.

The alcohol can blur matters of consent, creating what Paul calls “gray-area situations that come at great consequence.”

Hookups are “a sad topic in some ways,” Paul said. “I try really hard to stay away from the bias in this research, which is gloom and doom and all negative. But for most students, there are also costs. Sometimes the cost is just confusion, but it can also be pretty meaningful – anxiety, sadness, fear, worry, questioning, pressure. Those kinds of feelings are really, really common.”

…On a recent day, Paul asked three young women seated in her office about real romantic love, not the kind that would run its course in a single night. That, the women said, would only occur by accident – by “catching feelings.”

Paul calls her latest work “Catching Feelings, Beer Goggles, and the Walk of Shame: Emotional and Social Hazards of College Hookups.”

…She cautions, however, about the very real threat of HIV infection. Some 47 percent of infected young women received the virus through heterosexual sex, government figures show.

Back at the William Paterson student center, 19-year-olds Tre Walker and Crystal Wood hunched over morning cups of coffee and talked about hooking up. They both said hookups and hurt feelings were prevalent in college. They happen to be an anomaly – a dating couple.
“There are a small percentage of people in serious relationships around here,” Wood said.

As for hookups, “I think it’s sad that it happens, it’s not how it’s supposed to be done,” she said.

Her concern contrasts with near glee at the next table, where two young men from North Jersey said they enjoy the sudden freedom during their freshmen year at college. The 18-year-olds agreed that hooking up is the norm. “We’re all here away from our families,” said Nick B. “You don’t have to answer to anyone.”

Marriage, the young men said, is way off in the distance, and with it romance. “I want to be established before I get married,” he said. “Four years from now married? Not a chance.”

At a third table in the corner, two young women talked about the dark side of hookups. They said men can get hurt, but that women are more likely to “catch feelings” during the interlude. And they said alcohol colors all. “Once you start drinking, you think you’re not going to care,” said Kerri Farrell, a 17-year-old from Cresskill. “And then the next morning, there’s regret.” 

[The Record, 12/05/04, TEEN CAFE : HOOKING UP IS HARMLESS, ISN’T IT?; 22Dec04 Abstinence Clearinghouse Email Update]