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Friends With(out) Benefits
Hooking up may be gratifying in the moment, yet the aftermath can be psychologically and emotionally damaging.
March 2, 2018
It was the summer before senior year. Sarah* had just gotten out of a serious, long-term relationship with a boy she felt very much in love with. Stuck in the stage of grieving, she was mourning over having just lost her best friend and “all of this love [she] felt in [her] life.” And she didn’t know how to cope with it.
“So instead, I turned to someone else and I dove into this hookup culture and I started projecting these feelings into someone else and immediately, he just replaced him,” Sarah said. “Instead of me not having an ex, I had this new guy. And now I was hooking up with him and everything was fine, because, in my mind, now I have someone again.”
The guy was also getting over his ex.
They had sex four times in one week, and in the midst of it all, Sarah felt awful. She didn’t like the guy she was hooking up with, nor have any feelings towards him. And he, likewise, didn’t have any feelings for her, according to Sarah.
“During our hookups, we’d talk about other people we wanted to go hookup with,” Sarah said. “And it was the most f***ed up thing that I’ve ever experienced before.”
In the aftermath, Sarah described “never feeling so dirty.” She felt used because she was hooking up with a person who only wanted her for the sex.
“And once it was over with and once I wasn’t with him, I just felt so dirty and awful and I just went back to feeling empty again,” Sarah said. “And instead of dealing with my problems, instead of trying to cope and trying to establish my self worth and confidence and my securities, instead, I just projected everything onto him and I started depending on him for a hook up, for him to make me feel valued but in reality we didn’t have any feelings for each other. And I just felt so dirty afterwards. I just felt like some object that he had used for his own satisfaction.”
In the end, Sarah realized that she hooked up with him only to fill the void she had after her breakup.
In popular culture, hooking up is portrayed on screen through movies like “American Pie,” “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached.” The American Psychological Association (APA) defines hookups as “brief uncommitted sexual encounters between individuals who are not romantic partners or dating each other.” This “cultural revolution” emerged from more general social shifts manifesting throughout the last century, according to the APA.
Sarah’s own definition of hookup culture is having sex with with someone when not in a committed relationship. She believes that even if feelings develop in the process, “nothing comes of it in a serious nature.”
“Especially at Algonquin, there’s a lot of people that hook up just for fun and do it a lot and they’ll develop feelings for each other — they’ll get the feels, I guess — but it will never become a serious relationship,” Sarah said. “I think people that are engrossed in the hookup culture are scared of the commitment and I think it’s a way to get their sexual drives met, a way for them to get pleasure out of things but without putting in any work.”
Nick*, a senior, defines hooking up as a “culture where it’s encouraged to have sex outside of relationships for fun.” He believes that teenagers currently live in a culture where commitment can be seen as a burden.
“If you live in a culture where hookups are seen as the ideal, where commitment is seen as a negative, then you don’t get the obvious upsides of committing to somebody, of falling in love, in the more complex but gratifying side of sexuality and romance,” Nick said.
While Nick has been in “fulfilling relationships with commitment,” he has hooked up with people outside of relationships.
The Party Environment and Social Media
In popular culture, hookups have often been portrayed to happen at parties, where people may be under the influence. As someone who has seen many hookups at parties, Sarah believes that parties create an environment that promotes casual sex.
“I have friends that will go to these parties and hook up with many people in one night,” Sarah said.
Thalia*, a senior, hooked up with a guy at a party once when she was intoxicated. Like Sarah, she had just broken up with her boyfriend and hooked up with a boy she had no feelings for. In fact, she didn’t even know the boy, who had also just broken up with his girlfriend.
“I did it to fill that void, because I was so upset; I was grieving,” Thalia said. “I didn’t know what to do. I needed something to get over him… I felt so much worse after, hooking up with this boy I barely knew. We were kind of using each other.”
Thalia believes parties are the most common place for hook ups.
“Drinking and doing drugs definitely influence people to want to more things,” Thalia said.
“When you’re incoherent you’re more apt to do things you normally wouldn’t want to do so you definitely feel braver and you’re more encouraged to go hook up with someone,” Sarah said. “But I think hookup culture is really anywhere these days.”
Both Sarah and Thalia connected with their hookup partners through Snapchat first, before meeting to hook up. With social media available at this generation’s fingertips, Sarah believes that Snapchat serves as a means to connect couples, giving rise to hooking up beyond just parties.
“[People] hook up anywhere, in any way,” Sarah said.
Although Sarah felt empty afterwards, she described feeling “happy for the first time” in the moment.
“I did it once,” Sarah said. “Then, it kept happening. My relationship had been deteriorating for two months before that. So it was the first time that I wasn’t upset. It was the first time I felt whole again. It was the first time that I felt alive and I was genuinely happy– or so I thought. Obviously, it was all just a lie. And so I needed more of it. I craved it because I craved feeling okay and he made me feel okay for a temporary amount of time.”
Thalia believes teenagers often don’t get into a relationship because “they don’t want to be committed to that one person.”
“They’re young and they don’t want to be tied down,” Thalia said. “They want to experiment with new people.”
Many of Thalia’s friends have told her that the only reason they don’t want to get into a relationship is the effort portion of it. They don’t want to put in the effort that accompanies a serious relationship, such as consistently caring about a significant other, “planning out dates and getting gifts for birthdays.”
“Our generation is all based on instant gratification,” Sarah said. “Whatever we want, it’s at our fingertips, whenever we want it. With social media and everything, it’s just so easy to look up an answer for homework instead of actually sitting down and doing it. I think the same goes for relationships; no one really instills in our generation that putting in an effort with others and respecting others is important. They don’t want to have to deal with all of the emotions and drama that happens with them. They just want a quick fix and then just leave and not have to deal with any of the consequences.”
Nick also believes that hookup culture can be a distraction from allowing oneself to be vulnerable.
“If you don’t ever commit to somebody, then you don’t ever need to show them your weaknesses and your flaws,” Nick said. “And just hooking up with them, and leaving it at that with no emotional otherside, I imagine can make you feel disconnected and lonely and shut off from people because you haven’t been able to be your full true self and be accepted as that.”
According to the APA, “hookups can include negative outcomes, such as emotional and psychological injury, sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.” With hookup culture comes the danger of compounding disease risks; the APA has found that people who hook up are more likely to have concurrent sexual partners.
Beyond physical dangers, studies have been conducted to look at the emotional effects of hookup culture, including regret with respect to hookups and the negative feelings men and women may feel after casual sex.
According to the APA, in a large web-based study of 1,468 undergraduate students, 27.1 percent felt embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect and 10 percent reported difficulties with a steady partner. In another recent study conducted on a sample of 200 undergraduate students in Canada, 78 percent of women and 72 percent of men who had uncommitted sex reported a history of experiencing regret following such an encounter.
Both Sarah and Thalia have felt the “emotional trauma” after hooking up. Afterwards, both described feeling empty and taken advantage of. The idea of two people using each other to get over a previous relationship left them feeling worse than they were to begin with.
“Afterwards, people sometimes just feel so bad about themselves and feel so worthless, thinking about how the other person used them for only that specific purpose,” Thalia said.
“I didn’t want it to begin with,” Sarah said. “I didn’t want it while it was happening and after. I didn’t want it to happen again. But it kept happening. I felt very lost. I think, with hookup culture, you lose yourself and what you want in life because you’re just so distracted by the idea of a relationship and the idea of love when it’s really not there.”
However, Sarah believes that the main downfall to hookup culture is the “lack of respect that occurs when hooking up happens, especially towards women.”
“When men see all these women hooking up, they see them as sexual objects and I think it happens for both genders,” Sarah said. “When someone’s just there to hook up with, and you don’t have to respect them, you don’t have to put work into the relationship and you don’t have to consider them a partner and an equal; you just think of them as some kind of object that’s just there for your sexual pleasure. Men and women can just get used to a disrespect, a degrading thing. You’re just using this person for your own pleasure.”
While Nick doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with a guy just seeking sex, he can understand why his female counterparts harbor empty feelings after “hooking up in order to feel accepted.” But likewise, if the roles were reversed, Nick believes there would still be a disconnect.
In general, he thinks it is easier for guys to have casual sex.
“Teenage guys want to have sex, with as little commitment as possible,” Nick said.
Hookup culture dominates college campuses. According to an NPR story (“Hookup Culture: The Unspoken Rules Of Sex On College Campuses”), Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental College, describes how in today’s college hookup culture, “developing an emotional attachment to a casual sex partner is one of the biggest breaches of social norms.” A report titled, “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Mating and Dating Today,” indicates that 91 percent of college women say that hookup culture defines their campus.
Through her past experience, Sarah has made the decision to not engage with this form of hookup culture in college, with the belief that there is an even greater potential for dangers in the college hookup culture environment.
“In high school, we’ve grown up with these people,” Sarah said. “We know everything about them. We sometimes know every person they’ve been with. In college, they’re complete strangers. So I think it’s dangerous because you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, no idea who that person is, no idea what diseases they have or what they’re going to do to you… I think it’s something to watch out for, especially with roofies and everything. [In college], there’s a much greater potential of people getting taken advantage of.”
Instead, Sarah hopes to be involved only in healthy relationships for the future, through which she can cultivate feelings and a meaningful relationship. After her brief experience with hookup culture, she discovered the value of commitment.
“Hooking up, in my opinion, is the best when you’re in love with someone,” Sarah said. “That’s when it’s worthwhile… Relationships make you feel better about yourself. When you both care about each other mutually, it allows yourself to have respect for you and your partner.”
*Names of students have been changed to maintain anonymity.