If you’re the parent of a teenager, you’ve probably heard the term “hooking up.” The term itself has been around for decades, but for many parents of teens, it seems to have become far more widely used within the last few years.
With movies, television shows, music videos, and media infiltration rationalizing and, in some cases, glamorizing the hookup culture so prevalent in our society today, it’s no wonder that hooking up seems to dominate teens’ perceptions of the new culture of dating within their age groups.
Regardless of whether your child is in middle school, high school or college, studies have confirmed that teens today think this lifestyle is the norm. Exactly, what this lifestyle means, however, is still yet to be defined.
What’s Your Definition of “Hooking Up?”
Ask a group of parents what the definition of hooking up is and you’re likely to receive a range of answers without a steadfast consensus. In fact, a recent study asking students their definition and perception of what hooking up is showed that while everybody is talking about it, no one is exactly sure what it means.
The study, conducted by Amanda Holman, a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Dr. Alan Sillars at the University of Montana, involved nearly 300 college students at a large public university. They found that while 94 percent of participating students were familiar with the phrase hooking up, there wasn’t any sense of solidarity regarding what hooking up actually entailed. Over half described a hookup as involving sex, nine percent described it as not including sex and about one-third said it could be ambiguous as to whether or not hooking up involved sex. In other words, “hooking up” could mean anything from kissing to intercourse.
According to the dictionary, the term means: (of two people) meet or form a relationship. In a sentence it might sound something like this: “Jake and I are going to hookup at the mall next Saturday.”
The Urban Dictionary, however, paints a slightly different picture:
verb: to engage in any type of sexual activity. noun: 1. Purposely ambiguous, equivocal word to describe almost any sexual activity, usually used to exaggerate or minimize exactly what happened. A hookup can range from a make-out session to full out sex. 2. A person you hook up with.
a. “so what did you guys do last night?”
b. “well, you know… we hooked up.”
a. “come on! That could mean anything… give me details!”
An equivocal (meaning vague) word used to exaggerate or minimize exactly what happened. According to Amanda Holman during an ABC News interview, “if you say casual sex, then I know exactly what you’re saying, however, hooking up is strategically ambiguous. It’s a way for students to communicate about it without having to reveal details.”
Considering the fact that this ambiguous term offers us little comfort regarding what it actually means, there are a few “givens” that we do know.
Broad Discrepancy in the Definition of Hookup
The term hooking up is extremely vague and doesn’t carry a single definition for every community, campus, school, age group or child. Middle schoolers may categorize the term primarily as making-out, while high schoolers and college students might correlate it more with making-out, oral sex, or casual sex. However, the lines are extremely blurred. (According to The American Virgin: First-Time Sex Trends of U.S. Males and Females Study, the average age of virginity loss for American boys is 17.3 years of age, while the average age for American girls is 17.5).
No Strings Attached
According to MSNBC, teens simply don’t date as much anymore. While there are still exclusive couples, dating and sexuality have become far more casual. For many teens today, their idea of relationships has evolved into heading out with a group of friends that oftentimes leads to sexual encounters including anything from kissing and fondling to oral sex and full-blown sexual intercourse. And, typically these encounters occur between two people who are not in an exclusive relationship, quite often with no strings attached.
Hookups Are “Thought” to Be the Norm
Regardless of the facts, many teens are being exposed to the ideology that hooking up is the norm. This widespread assumption can lead to serious consequences as more teens who long to fit in jump on the bandwagon feeling they’re not “normal” if they don’t engage in hookups. Additionally, in many mediums, casual sex without emotion or connection is often glorified, which gives teens the wrong impression about healthy relationships and paves the way for regret in the long run. In a large Internet-based study conducted by the American Psychological Association involving 1,468 undergraduate students, a variety of negative consequences resulted when students were involved in casual (sex) hookups: 27.1 percent felt embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect and 10 percent reported problems with a steady partner.
The Term “Hooking Up” is a Way for Teens to Hide the Facts
Teens are using the term hooking up as a means to maintain some sense of secrecy regarding their actions. In some ways, it could be a good thing, in other ways, perhaps not. According to MSNBC, it could give a girl, for instance, the opportunity to be more sexually active as men traditionally have, without the fear of being judged by her peers. On the other hand, it might offer a girl who opts not to engage in sexual activity an opportunity to kiss a boy, i.e. a casual make-out hook up, making her feel more in the “in” crowd and less isolated from the “normal” hookup culture that surrounds her.
It Starts Younger Thank You May Think
The pervasive hookup culture that seems to be permeating the lives of our teens through TV, movies, videos and social media is contributing to the increase in younger kids hooking up. Kids as young as 13 years of age are viewing the culture as the norm and are engaging in a variety of sexual activity. Further complicating matters, social networking and instant messaging have created a platform of ease making it all too simple for kids to chat openly and be far bolder than in past generations. Teens can make intimate statements or send risqué’ photos because it’s all too easy to do, not realizing that those images may be passed along to others, publicized or misconstrued.
Teens Are Hooking Up Via Apps
With concerns about their teens hooking up looming in parents’ minds, there’s another hidden danger that’s becoming increasingly concerning – digital relationships. Mobile devices are providing freedom for teenagers to test boundaries, meet people outside their peer groups and pursue a digital relationship without a parent peering over their shoulder. According to a recent Pew Research Study, “aided by the convenience and constant access provided by mobile devices, the number of college-age students using online or mobile dating apps has increased fourfold over the past three years (from 5% to 22%).” Tinder, an adult app that is becoming far more widely used by teens, now reports that seven percent of its users are between the ages of 13 – 17. Aside from the danger of teens reaching beyond their circle of friends to connect with total strangers, what’s concerning is that this app is viewed primarily as one that facilitates casual hookups rather than friendships or long-term partnerships. For more information about the latest hookup apps check out this website: 6 Teen Hookup Apps Parents Should Know About.
Hookup Culture: Fact vs. Fiction
While the hookup culture varies depending on what campus you’re referring to (middle, high school or college), in college the hookup scene is typically perceived as a wonderland of cheap wine, loud frat parties, scantily-dressed girls who are ready for practically anything, and far too many rounds of cheap vodka shots followed by a night of two totally drunk college kids hooking up in some dark corner of the frat house. It’s a night of casual, noncommittal and nonemotional sex.
But, is it really as bad as everyone says it is?
In our culture that seems to be pressuring our teens to “put out” with of a vision of sex-crazed teens hooking up at every turn, are teenagers in our society living up to the reputation we’ve so carelessly assumed?
While much of the conducted research regarding the hookup culture revolves primarily around college students, interestingly, many experts agree that, despite widespread perception, teens today aren’t living up to the reputation that society has placed on them.
In fact, some experts believe that teens aren’t having any more sex today than teens did 20 years ago.
Lisa Wade, a professor and author of the book. “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus,” whose research took her to 24 colleges and universities in 18 states, found that it’s mainly the culture around sex and dating on college campuses that has changed in recent years. “Though college kids today are not actually having more sex than they were two, three, or even four generations ago, they are enjoying it less while talking about it more.”
Wade’s research found that the average graduating senior in college reported eight hookups during college – one per semester. Half of those were with someone they had hooked up with previously. They had intercourse only 40 percent of the time, and they only had one new sexual partner per year, on average. One-third of the students never hooked up at all.
Another study at the University of Nebraska found similar results. The study found that only 37 percent of students actually had two or more hookups throughout the school year compared to the 90 percent who believed the average student had more than two or more hookups.
Yet another study conducted by New York Magazine found that a large percentage of college students aren’t nearly as sexually active as us old folks think they are. In the poll, 74 percent of freshman and sophomores and 64 percent of juniors and seniors said they believe they had far less active sex lives than their friends did.
It turns out that no one is having nearly as much sex as everyone thinks they are. From freshman to seniors, 41 percent of women and 49 percent of men claimed they weren’t sexually active at all and another 39 percent said they were virgins.
In essence, although it seems that hookups are thought to be ever-present on college campuses, some experts feel it may be a product of “pluralistic ignorance,” which in social psychology essentially refers to a situation where a majority of group members reject a norm in private, but go along with it only after incorrectly assuming their peers accept it.
The Link between Hookups and Alcohol
Although its comforting to know that hookups are far less prevalent than we originally thought, when they do occur, quite often alcohol is involved.
Alcohol has always played a major role in casual sex and it continues to be a key factor in hookups today.
And, considering the fact that, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 7.7 million young people between the ages of 12-20 reported that they drank beyond “just a few sips” in the past month and 5.1 million reported binge drinking at least once in the past month, there’s reason for concern.
A University of Illinois survey found that 49 percent of college men and 38 percent of college women claimed to have had sex as a direct result of drinking. When Canadian researchers asked students about alcohol and their last hookup, the results found that 27 percent had their last hookup sober, 27 percent were mildly intoxicated, 35 percent were very intoxicated and 9 percent were passing-out drunk. With 71 percent students admitting that alcohol played a role in their last hookup, essentially the study found that alcohol and lust are a dangerous combination.
What’s even more concerning is that sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) are on the rise. According to the CDC’s 2016 Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report, young people aged 15–24 years account for half of all new STDs and one in four sexually active adolescent females has an STD, such as chlamydia or human papillomavirus.
The American Sexual Health Association reports that in 2015 rates of the three most common reportable STD’s — chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — reached a record high level with approximately 1.5 million reported cases of Chlamydia infections (up 5.9 percent from 2014), Syphilis infections rose by 19 percent since 2014 and Gonorrhea cases increased by 13 percent since 2014. This dramatic increase has health officials concerned primarily because, with proper protection, these diseases are preventable.
Talking with our kids about sex, dating, hookups, and sexuality requires not just one conversation, but many open, honest conversations throughout their developmental years.
The hookup culture is here to stay, yet many parents find the subject difficult to broach. Ask any teenager and they’ll tell you it’s the one topic they aim to steer clear of with their parents. However, regardless of whether our kids want to hear it or not, we need to persevere in our efforts to go beyond the traditional “sex talk” and teach them about establishing caring, loving, respectful and healthy relationships.
Although our kids might be embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about it initially, the more candid, non-judgmental conversations we have with them, the more likely they’ll be to talk with us about their feelings, views, pressures, and concerns they face regarding hookups, dating, sex, and relationships. Only then, will we have the ability to guide them and potentially positively influence their attitude and behavior.
For more information about teen sexuality visit: “Child Trends Date Bank “Sexually Active Teens”
Sources used for this article: MSNBC, CDC, University of Illinois survey, National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, New York Magazine Study, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Study, excerpts from the book (and quotes from the author), “American Hookup: The Culture of Sex on Campus,” American Psychological Association, Tinder, Pew Research Study, Canadian Research Study and The American Sexual Health Association.
This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.