Does Hooking Up Lead to Relationships?

August 26, 2010

There’s a new study out that takes a look at relationship quality in a variety of different scenarios. Here’s how the press has responded:

I. Tracy Clark-Flory, Salon:

Surprise! Hookups Can Lead to Love

That one-night stand might turn into a perfectly happy relationship, a new study warns

II. Kay Steiger, Feministe:

Another Defense of Hooking Up – This Time With Science!

III. Anna North, Jezebel:

Yes, Reader, You Can Find Love After All Those One-Night Stands!

IV. Zachary Goelman, Reuters:

Better to Wait If You Want Real Love

Hmmm, my second-grade standardized test-taking memories alert me that one of these headlines does not belong with the others. Let’s see, three women, one man. Three feminist blogs, one worldwide impartial news organization. I hypothesize a) bias, b) analytical ineptitude, or a combination of the two. I decide to go straight to the source material and tackle the analysis before reading any of the articles.

Anthony Paik, a sociologist at the University of Iowa just published a study entitled “Hookups, Dating and Relationship Quality: Does the type of sexual involvement matter?” The full study is not available online, so there’s minimal information, mostly gleaned from the university’s press release, which begins:

Relationships that start with a spark and not much else aren’t necessarily doomed from the get-go, new University of Iowa research suggests.

We may now conclude that bias is a factor in the first three headlines. I proceed with my own analysis of the article.

The Methodology

1. Paik surveyed 642 heterosexual urban adults living in Chicago. In analyzing the data, Paik controlled for marital status, children and social embeddedness.

  • The first two factors suggest that the sample group included heads of intact families, as well as single parents.
  • The age distribution of the study subjects is unknown.
  • No mention is made of students, so we may deduce that at the very least the survey was not targeted to the college population.
  • In Paik’s previous study, which assessed the risk associated with concurrent sexual partners, he used 1995 data from 700+ adults in the Chicago area. If this comes from the same data source, it’s very old data, especially with regard to hookup culture, which has intensified dramatically in the last ten years. This data source was considered a limitation in his previous study.

2. The analysis compared two distinct groups of people.

  • In Group A were subjects in committed relationships who had delayed sex until the relationship became serious.
  • In Group B were subjects engaged in hookups, FWB arrangements, or casual dating relationships.
  • Hookups were not specifically defined. The generally accepted definition includes anything from making out to sexual intercourse.
  • Casual dating relationships were characterized as romantic in nature.

3. Relationship quality was measured by asking about the extent to which each person loved their partner, the relationship’s future, level of satisfaction with intimacy, and how their lives would be different if the relationship ended.

    The Findings

    1. Average relationship quality was higher for individuals who waited until things were serious to have sex compared to those who became sexually involved in “hookups,” “friends with benefits,” or casual dating relationships.

    This is hardly surprising. One wouldn’t expect high scores for love, future expectations, intimacy or degree of involvement in Group B. However, even within Group B there is potentially much diversity with respect to relationship goals and expectations.

    2. Having sex early on wasn’t to blame for the disparity.

    The timing of sex did not explain why Group A had higher relationship satisfaction. (On a personal note, I’m relieved to hear this, as I married a one-night stand, as you know.)

    3. When Paik factored out people who weren’t interested in getting serious, he found no real difference in relationship quality. That is, couples who became sexually involved as friends or acquaintances and were open to a serious relationship ended up just as happy as those who dated and waited.

    Eliminating subjects seeking a casual sexual relationship evened the scores between Groups A and B. In other words, the essential ingredient producing relationship satisfaction is intent to enter a serious relationship. Those who began casual sexual relationships with the hope of achieving a serious commitment were ultimately as happy as those who had waited until they were serious to have sex. This is in keeping with other research, which shows that hookups lead to relationships 12% of the time, and that on college campuses, hookups are the primary pathway to relationships.

    4. “People with higher numbers of past sexual partners were more likely to form hookups, and to report lower relationship quality. Through the acquisition of partners,” Paik said, “they begin to favor short-term relationships and find the long-term ones less rewarding.”

    Does a higher number of casual partners lead to impairment in the ability to bond? Or does a person incapable of or disinterested in bonding seek a higher number of casual partners? Paik implies that short-term relationships are habit forming, or at least lead to a disinclination to committed relationships. Either way, these folks report lower quality in their relationships.

    5. “It’s also likely that people who are predisposed to short-term relationships are screened out of serious ones because they don’t invest the time and energy to develop long-term ties,” Paik said.

    Those who pursue a promiscuous, or short-term mating strategy demonstrate inferior relationship skills, perhaps as a result of their disinterest in a commitment, perhaps as a result of little experience with intimacy in relationships.

    6. “While hookups or friends with benefits can turn into true love, both parties typically enter the relationship for sex and the expectations are fairly low,” Paik said.

    This is hardly an endorsement of a strategy to hook up if you are seeking true love. Yes, it happens, but it requires that both parties share the goal of a serious relationship. If that can be determined early on in the “hooking up” period, the prognosis for a satisfying relationship is high. However, spending time in a short-term arrangement focused on sexual gratification is a waste if the objectives of the parties differ, especially for the party seeking a relationship.

    7. In a study of Chicago-area adults published earlier this year, Paik reported that being involved with a friend increased the likelihood of non-monogamy by 44 percent for women and 25 percent for men. Involvement with an acquaintance or stranger increased the odds by 30 percent for women and 43 percent for men.

    Clearly, there is a correlation between number of sexual partners and the propensity for non-monogamy.

    The Headlines

    So who got it right? Do we have a case of bias, ineptitude or both?

    I. Tracy-Clark Flory

    “It isn’t so much the type of sexual relationship that determines its quality, but the relationship readiness of the people involved. Casual sex doesn’t deaden one to the possibility of falling in love or becoming happily romantically committed. I hate to be a jerk and quote myself, but … as I wrote in my defense of casual sex for Salon: “Like innumerable 20-somethings before me, I’ve found that casual sex can be healthy and normal and lead to better adult relationships…Maybe, just maybe, young women can pursue sex without delaying or losing out at love.”

    A fair and balanced analysis. By no means does it advertise casual sex as a means to lasting happiness, but rather a crap shoot that may work out. The content of the article is directly at odds with the headline, and I suspect TCF didn’t sign off on the latter.

    B+ Little evidence of bias. No unsupported claims.

    II. Kay Steiger

    “It shouldn’t be all that surprising that research shows that hooking up after meeting someone by chance at a bar or a party is just another way to meet someone. Sometimes you meet a dud and sometimes you meet someone worthwhile. It’s also worth remembering that this is related to the study a while back from the University of Minnesota that showed casual sex wasn’t emotionally damaging.”

    That study was crap, debunked here by moi.

    “Granted, there are several problems with this study: They only examined 642 heterosexual adults. As we all know, LGBT folks have experiences with hooking up (and not hooking up) too.”

    Yup, and studies of hooking up generally focus on heterosexuals, because THEY ARE 90% OF THE POPULATION. Deal with it. Furthermore, let’s take gay males out of the equation, as they invented hookup culture and know better than anyone how it works.

    “It is the very existence of this amorphous laundry list of sexual expectations that leads some young women into thinking that sex equals love…The good thing is that I think this narrative is slowly changing. People these days (at least most normal, rational people I meet) are starting to view hooking up as a natural part of their general sexual experiences.”

    Oh boy, we’re in trouble here…

    “Now that’s not to say that women don’t suffer emotionally sometimes because of a bad hook up. Sometimes they do. (I’d almost argue that encountering an asshole or two in the realm of hooking up is necessary for young women so they can improve their bullshit detectors later on.)”

    The rationalization hamster wheel is spinning so fast here, it appears to be a blur…

    C-  Nonsensical emotional claptrap. No evidence of intelligent thought. However, no nefarious motives either. She’s a rookie.

    III. Anna North

    “A new study finds that — shocker — people who have casual hookups aren’t destroying their chance of long-term relationship. But that hasn’t stopped the slut police.”

    Full Disclosure: Jezebel linked to me with the term slut police. Thanks to my mom and dad, and my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Ryan, who told me to never sell myself short. Thanks to the readers of this blog, who have stood with me through thick and thin, so that I can now enjoy being vilified by Gawker Media. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this could happen to me!

    “Paik’s research doesn’t seem to address the fact that many people go through phases of sexual preference in their lives, some of them relationship-focused and some of them not. However, it does back up what a lot of us have been saying all along — in the absence of assault or coercion, people (including fragile ladyfolk) are capable of choosing the kind of sexual behavior that’s right for them. Women don’t have casual sex because they’re desperate and damaged — often, they do so because they want casual sex.”

    Right. And Paik says those women are less happy than those in serious relationships.

    “…sex and love are incredibly complicated things and we can’t even agree on what a hookup is, so what’s the point of making blanket pronouncements about what sex does and doesn’t mean? As the Iowa study points out, it’s not even always possible to separate casual sex from relationship sex, since one can become the other. So why are we still arguing that the former will destroy your soul?”

    “It’s not even always possible” – yeah, I don’t like those odds so much. Typical backdoor, tortured logic.

    F   The worst kind of deceitful, trashy journalism. Conclusions do not follow from supporting evidence. The political agenda is transparent – not even a modicum of effort is made to objectively analyze the study.

    IV. Zachary Goelman

    “Most of the 56 percent of 642 adults questioned in the study who said they had waited until they got serious before they had sex reported having a high quality relationship. The number was higher than for the 27 percent of people who had sex while dating casually and the 17 percent who were intimate while in a non-romantic relationship…There’s something about the characteristics of people who wait before sex that is linked to higher-quality relationships,” said sociology professor Anthony Paik of the University of Iowa.

    Quotes the stats, a very good start.

    “The debate is ‘why can’t we have sex now?’ The expectation is that sex should occur very quickly. But doing so, you’re losing out on some information that might be useful,” he explained in an interview. It’s almost an economic equation, he added. On average, the more costly the process leading into the relationship, the more likely it is to work. That’s what the data would suggest.”

    Did someone say economics? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes…..And for the record, let me just say that anticipating sex is incredibly pleasurable, and in my experience heightens sexual tension immeasurably. It’s the difference between a 1 and a 7 on the Richter Scale.

    “When he filtered out people who said they had frequent non-romantic or casual dating sexual relationships he found that the gap in relationship quality between serious and nonserious contexts of sexual activity disappeared.”

    OK, so there is clearly a correlation between non-romantic relationships and lower relationship quality. Paik is saying that people who pursue non-romantic relationships are not really relationship material.

    A-   No axe to grind. Just balanced reporting with appropriate attention to the stats, and quotes from the academic who conducted the study. Motives appear professional.

    There you have it. In two cases, strong bias and shameful ineptitude. One unbiased male reporter. One hopeful female writer cheering on the sex positive agenda, but unwilling to sell her soul to do it.