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The Definition of a Hookup: What Does Hooking Up Really Mean?

A woman in bed laughing because she doesn't know what the definition of a hookup is.

A month ago I was talking to a friend of mine who revealed to me she had recently “hooked up” with a guy. I was quick to assume sex but then stopped myself. My friend wasn’t someone who normally had one-night stands, so maybe she meant making out? Maybe with some touching? Was it just sleeping side-by-side with a little bit of canoodling? Was it hugging and then sharing a plate of fajitas?

The idea of trying to figure out what exactly my friend meant got me wondering if I even knew what hooking up meant anymore. When I was in high school, hooking up meant kissing. When I was in college, it meant sex. But now? I wasn’t sure.

It turns out I’m not alone. Google “what does hooking up mean” and you’ll find a slew of articles trying to decipher just that.

One study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that, while 94 percent of the college students involved in the survey were familiar with the term “hooking up,” there was no consensus about what it meant. Over 50 percent described it as involving sex, nine percent said it didn’t include sex, while one-third said it was “ambiguous.” No kidding.

Another study noted that “some students… feel that ‘hooking up’ generally refers to ‘having sex’; however, many others indicated that when they say ‘hooking up’ they are referring to something less than intercourse. To some it means ‘just kissing’ or ‘making out’…’fooling around’ beyond kissing, which includes sexual touching on or underneath clothing. Still others suggested that hooking up means ‘everything but’ intercourse.”

To make things even more confusing, an informal poll conducted this year in the Cavalier Daily asked, “What does the phrase ‘hook up’ mean?” Half of the 118 respondents said it meant “making out” while 43% said it meant “hand stuff.” Sixty-six percent agreed it involved sex.

So, basically, hooking up means some sort of physical intimacy but just what it entails is entirely up to the two individuals involved. What most people can probably agree upon is that hooking up usually occurs between two people who aren’t in a committed relationship. Let’s face it: no one says, “I hooked up with my boyfriend last night.” Which means that no matter what goes on during a hook up, it’s almost always based on the lack of a commitment and emotional investment. Maybe.

Because here’s the rub. As one 2013 study points out, because “the precise elements that define a hookup differ, in some cases quite radically, depending on the eye of the beholder…it is possible that for college students this can lead to mismatched expectations regarding sexual activity and commitment which in turn could lead to negative outcomes.”

My friend’s latest hook-up could attest to this conundrum. She had feelings for this guy, they hooked up, and she was left wondering, “Now what?” Were they a couple? Were they exploring a relationship? Or was it really just a one-night stand?

While we might not be able to pinpoint what hooking up means, we can agree that its ambiguity is a direct correlation between the two people involved. While a clear definition of a hook up might not exist, it’s safe to say that it entails sexual activity between two people who are not in a committed relationship.

Hooking up  can be fun and exciting. If you want to make out or sleep with that new connection, then, by all means, do what feels right for you. But it’s important to remember that even though the definition of hooking up is unique to your situation, the consensus of what it is not is pretty clear: a relationship. Which means no matter how much you might like this person, hooking up with them doesn’t mean you’re headed for coupledom or ever will be. It’s food for thought for those who might wonder if having sex with their crush actually means anything more because chances are, it might not.

Which is why hugging with a side of fajitas sounds like the safest bet.

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