Did you guys hook up last night? That depends: Even college students, a key hookup demographic, don't agree on what the term means. According to a new academic study on the language of collegiate sex, "hooking up" can cover kissing, intercourse, and all the bases in between. The activities can involve acquaintances, friends, or potential long-term partners, and can unfold over the course of one night or many months. The closest researchers Amanda Holman and Alan Sillars get to a unified theory of college hookups is that they end "when one person leaves."
Despite the ambiguity over the term, college students talk about hooking up—whatever that means—more than they actually hook up. But they don't necessarily talk about it with their hookup partners. Holman and Sillars write that students (or at least, the largely white college students at a public university in the northwest that comprised Holman and Sillars' sample set) rarely "talk about what is happening during the hookup," but often "talk about it later with friends," meaning they're often skipping out on the real-time communication necessary to ensure safe, consensual, or even pleasurable encounters.
But even when students replay a hookup for friends, certain relevant details are omitted. Though hookups "represent a relatively public form of sexual behavior," the researchers write, hookup discussions emphasize the gossip angle ("typically, who is hooking up"), and avoid more complicated discussion ("how far it went, whether a condom was used, what pressure or resistance occurred").
Holman and Sillars write that they "do not wish to problematize all nonrelationship sex," but their study, published in Health Communication, nevertheless takes a dim view of the vague sexual relationships rocking dorm beds across the country. Still, the ambiguity surrounding hooking up has its social advantages. The researchers describe the undefined boundaries of hooking up as potentially "strategic," saying that because "the phrase may be used to reveal a sexual encounter while concealing details, it serves as a vehicle for disclosure with less risk of disapproval."
Since "hookup" serves as a catch-all for everything from intercourse to passing out while spooning, the term could help mitigate the gender-based social pressures and stigmas attached to sexual relationships. The hookup script may encourage young people to avoid positive discussions about sex, but it can help them avoid the negative conversations, too. Even today, young women are still shamed for going too far, and young men are shamed for not going far enough. In a sexist sexual climate, "we hooked up" could be the great equalizer.