Are People Who Hook Up Looking for More Than Casual Sex?

A couple laughing and playing in bed together after hooking up.

In many ways, dating today is vastly different than any other time in history. Recent studies have shown that more couples are living together before marriage, more singles are choosing to remain alone, and more people are having casual sex. Do all these changes mean that the way we view love and relationships is vastly different as well? Are things like romance, love, and long-term commitment falling out of favor?

We sat down with social psychologist Dr. Amanda Gesselman to chat about these recent trends in sex and romance and what they may mean. Gesselman is a researcher at Indiana University’s prestigious Kinsey Institute, the forerunning academic institution in sex research. Her work spans a number of sex and romance related topics, including intimacy and romance in hookups.

One of Gesselman’s most recent studies surveyed college students from across the country, ranging from ages 18 to 25. The students were asked a series of questions about hookups and their attitudes toward romantic relationships and affectionate behavior. The results were pretty surprising: 60–85% of the students reported having hooked up at least once in their life. That’s a high number to be sure, but around 74% also said they prefer being in a “traditional romantic relationship” over hooking up. That means the vast majority of college students would rather couple up than play the field.

So does this mean the hookup culture is a myth? Well, yes and no. More people are hooking up but their reasons aren’t what you’d expect. According to research, 40% of people engaging in casual sex report wanting a relationship, and 54% said that although they went in looking for physical gratification they also want emotional gratification.

“They wanted to have a connection with a person regardless of whether it turned out to be a long-term thing or not,” Gesselman said. “They want to feel good about themselves because someone else made them feel good.”

And making someone feel good involves a lot more intimacy than the stereotypical idea of a casual hookup. According to the survey, most singles hooking up reported wanting to engage in intimate behavior like hand-holding, sleeping over, gazing into each other’s eyes, and extended foreplay. Considering that one in four women admit to having a hookup that turned into a relationship, maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising.

“If you just show up, rub bodies, and leave, what could’ve possibly turned out from that?” Gesselman said. “They must’ve had some accidental but still present emotional connection.”

So, what does it all mean? Well, for starters, there is definitely a rise in hookups and casual sex in recent years, but that doesn’t mean intimacy or love is on the decline. Love is still very much a priority for most singles, and so is intimacy.

“In terms of things like falling in love and forming bonds, I don’t think that’s changing. We’ve done pair bonding for all of human history. What I see happening now is adaptation. We’re adapting to a bit of a slower process,” Gesselman said. “You used to meet the person through family or through church. By doing that you have a lot of information about this person. They came recommended. Now with online dating, what we have to go on is a few photos. We’re still pursuing the same thing but we’re doing so in a way that’s more adapted.”

Hookups are on the rise, but they’re not only about satisfying a physiological urge. Many are using hookups as a way to experience intimacy or take a step toward a committed relationship. Don’t worry. Love isn’t dead, but the way we look for it is evolving.

Alex Bocknek

Alex Bocknek is the senior editor of The Date Mix and works at Zoosk, the online dating service. He’s also a recovering music critic and an aspiring fiction writer (probably lost) on the way to an independent bookstore near you. He can be found occasionally musing about politics, philosophy, and love in the modern world.

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