Giving Hookup Culture a Makeover

October 2, 2012

Hooking Up Smart aims to help people figure out how to navigate the hostile terrain of the contemporary sexual marketplace. I support both women and men in their search for meaningful relationships by providing strategic insight, guidance, and perspective as they manage their social and sexual interactions. 

Hooking Up Smart Mission Statement


Regular readers know that I think of myself as working on the margins here. Thoughtful people seeking relationships come here for sensible, strategic and actionable advice that they can put to use immediately. They get it in the posts, and the comment threads have a great deal of valuable information as well. That is the “bread and butter” of Hooking Up Smart. One relationship at a time.

There are also many other related topics I explore here, including:

1. Biological sex differences

2. Demographic trends around mating and marriage in the U.S.

3. Feminism

4. Hookup culture; environmental analysis and data

On this last point, I have never set my sights on actually changing the culture, as it seems impossibly entrenched 50 years after the Sexual Revolution. How might one be a catalyst for change? But after thoroughly analyzing hookup culture, and comparing it with actual hooking up behavior, it’s clear that there’s a lot less hooking up going on than most people believe, especially of the P in V variety. At the very least, there’s an opportunity to correct some misimpressions, and HUS is a potentially effective platform from which to achieve that. 

Ironically, feminists have used the low participation in hookup culture to discredit those of us who are concerned about its effect on young people. Even Hannah Rosin, in her recent column Boys on the Side, highlights the research of Stanford’s Paula England, who has gathered data from over 20,000 students:

  • Only 11% of  students enthusiastically enjoy hookup culture.
  • 50% hook up, but do it rather ambivalently or reluctantly, some with extremely negative experiences.
  • 38% opt out of hooking up altogether.

I write for the unenthusiastic 89%. I first began writing HUS for young women that got a good look at the culture and blanched, and that group is still the largest share of my readership. I’m a lot more concerned about the men and women who are sidelined, ambivalent or reluctant than I am about those who are promiscuous by choice. (They’ve already got what they want – let them go at it like rabbits.)

In a recent article The Art of Crowdshiftingauthor Leon Neyfakh observes:

Culture, the mix of rituals, values, and traditions that defines a group, is tenacious and sticky. Whether the culture belongs to a sports team, a neighborhood, or a country, it persists because it’s one of the main ingredients in the glue that holds the group together–because it exists in the space between people, rather than residing in any one individual. 

…What researchers have found is that there are techniques for changing a culture that appear to work, but they are not always the obvious ones. Doing so in a way that produces lasting results, but doesn’t involve destroying the group entirely, requires finesse, subtlety, and patience. It also requires a certain suspension of optimism about human nature. To really change how a group of people thinks and behaves, it turns out, you don’t need to change what’s inside of them, or appeal to their inner sense of virtue. You just have to convince them that everybody else is doing it.

“The inner conformist is stronger than the inner activist,” said Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies the role of culture in decision-making.

Of course, this is precisely what makes hookup culture so pervasive on college campuses. One study revealed that college students prefer dating to hooking up, but continue to hook up rather than go on dates. 

[The study author]…says it comes down to something called “pluralistic ignorance.” Essentially: Everybody’s doing it, so it must be good.

One of Kahn’s previous studies on the topic found that both men and women overestimated the degree to which the opposite gender enjoyed hooking up — described in this study as “a sexual encounter, usually lasting only one night, between people who are strangers or brief acquaintances.”

Furthermore, students overestimated how much members of their own gender liked hooking up. “Because everybody else is hooking up you assume that they do it because they like it. Whereas you know that you don’t like it that much, but you do it to go along,” Kahn explains. “College students are very conformist.”

Neyfakh addresses the leverage of the human desire to conform:

We may need to stop trying to tap into people’s desire to be good or virtuous, and instead take advantage of something less lofty and, frankly, harder to admire: the powerful drive to be normal.

Alternatives include the scorched earth approach, where you destroy a culture in order to end it. Obviously, the downside is that one throws away the good with the bad. Shaming has also been used at times, but it is limiting to punishing wrongdoers rather than eliminating the deeply ingrained beliefs that produced them. 


 Luckily, researchers say there’s a workaround that produces lasting change, but doesn’t call for somehow reprogramming people’s inner values. What it does seem to require is changing their perception of what everyone else thinks.

A 2010 New York Times article about the sex ratio at the University of North Carolina featured students interviewed in bars. Hypergamous sorority chicks lamented that girls steal each other’s boyfriends, that guys don’t respond to texts after ONSs, and that they have to let cheating slide because there are so few dateable guys on campus. The message is clear: Drinking and hooking up define the scene at UNC. However, Neyfakh shares an interesting story:

The idea that we’re often mistaken about our compatriots’ beliefs and behavior has been deployed in anti-binge-drinking campaigns on college campuses, which aim to reduce the pressure students feel to drink by showing them that their peers don’t drink nearly as much as they assume. A poster campaign at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill presented students with hard data about their classmates: “Whether it’s Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, 2 out of 3 UNC students return home with a .00 blood alcohol concentration.” The program worked: After five years, people at the college were drinking less.

By educating students about what their peers were really doing, the norm was redefined, and behavior changed. This approach has also been used to encourage voter turnout:

When told about low voter turnout and encouraged to “buck the trend,” people were actually less likely to vote. A more effective approach, the study found, was to tell people that turnout had been higher in the previous election than at any in history. In other words, more people were voting — so if they wanted to be normal, they should vote.

After decades of publicizing the health risks of smoking, adults knew that their efforts had had little effect on teens, according to an article in the New York Times.

Any teenager could explain why. For them, a cigarette is not a delivery system for nicotine. It’s a delivery system for rebellion. Kids take up smoking to be cool, to impress their friends with their recklessness and defiance of adults. Teenagers don’t care about lung cancer — they’re immortal. They know that smoking is dangerous. In fact, they overestimate the chances of getting lung cancer. Danger is part of a cigarette’s appeal.

Since 1997, we’ve learned a lot about how to prevent teenage smoking. The best strategy? Make smoking uncool.

By depicting smoking as profitable for the big, bad tobacco companies, the strategy dubbed Truth cut teen smoking in half in the U.S. between 1998 and today. Kids want to rebel against adults, but they wish to conform within their peer groups.

There’s something a bit circular about the idea that we change people’s behavior by tweaking their perceptions about the behavior of others. It’s a self-reinforcing process: The more people believe that smoking is atypical, for instance, the less typical it becomes, which in turn provides further evidence that it’s atypical. The most challenging part is kicking off the cycle, by convincing enough people that deviating from existing norms will not leave them shunned by the rest of society.

This is precisely the challenge we face in trying to change the culture of no-strings sex in college. Students are ashamed to admit they haven’t hooked up, and both sexes can expect a round of high-5s on a Sunday morning as they report their exploits of the previous night. Letting students know the real facts about hooking up makes non-participants feel normal rather than the odd one out. I have witnessed great surprise (and some skepticism) when sharing consistent findings across many studies and institutions with young people. There is great potential here for cultural change.

Institutions are beginning to do their own research on hooking up behaviors among their student populations. Duke University surveyed 1,450 freshmen and seniors anonymously online and found the following:

  1. Only one-third in each grade had ever had a hookup.
  2. Less than half of the hookups involved oral sex or intercourse.
  3. 60% of freshmen were virgins.
  4. One-third of students were in committed relationships.
According to researcher Wendy Brynildsen:

Our findings call into question some popular accounts as well as some social scientific ones. We find a diverse mix of campus relationships at Duke. We also find a strong association between previous relationship behavior and current relationship behavior for both freshmen and seniors.

The findings show that, of those at Duke who had hookups, many had hookups in earlier relationships, and for freshmen, that meant in high school. Drinking as well as having friends who hooked up has a strong effect on hooking up.

…A lot of this hooking up is what we used to call ‘making out.’ 

That’s hardly the impression one was left with when Karen Owen published her infamous Sex List. Observe the power of the media!

The Truth will out, and I intend to be a part of that effort. It should prove interesting to watch. 95% of women and 78% of men express a preference for dating over hooking up, so we should expect a gradual but decisive shift in the culture within the next ten years. 

Hooking Up Smart: Where Dirty Lies Perish