Technology has made hookups culture easier but no less morally complex

December 15, 2020 — by Jonathan Li

Editor’s note: Sariah is a pseudonym to protect the source's identity. 


Dating apps have made $2.1 billion so far in 2020, according to Statista. To place that into context, in this year alone, dating apps have racked in more money than the gross domestic production of 16 countries.

Tinder, by far the dominant app in the online dating industry, has seen tremendous success over the past few years due to its reputation for providing quick and easy hookups. 

The American Psychological Association defines hookup culture as the normalization of brief, uncommitted sexual encounters between individuals who are not dating. 

Hookup culture has helped empower some individuals to seek satisfaction beyond the restrictions of traditional relationships. But in the long term, experts say the normalization of casual sex can potentially hurt people’s physical  or emotional health. 

Roughly 40 percent of college students believe that the main reason to use Tinder is for hookups,  according to Psychology Today, and approximately 45 percent of Tinder users say they don’t use the app to look for long-term relationships.

According to Match Group, the company that owns Tinder as well as several other dating apps, Tinder saw a 5.9 million increase in subscriber count during the last quarter of 2019. This influx of users scrambling to get in on the dating site’s functions may reflect the growing popularity of dating apps due to millennials and Generation Z’s detachment from deep, committed relationships. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) attributes these increases in casual sexual encounters to the increasing age gap between puberty and marriage, which has dramatically widened in recent decades. This century has seen a steadily rising number of people who are not ready to commit to long-term relationships. In the 20th century, the average age for marriage was around 22; now, that number has risen to 29.

An early form of hookup culture became popular in the U.S. during the 1920s with the increased popularity of automobiles and movie theaters, where young adults were able to court away from their parents. With the rise of feminist movements and birth control, the phenomenon became even more popular in the 1960s. 

In the 21st century, hookups are now more common than traditional sex within committed relationships. In 2003, a survey conducted by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 70 percent of sexually active individuals from ages 12 to 21 have reported having noncomittal sex.

Studies have shown that the effects of engaging in noncommittal sex differ greatly between different genders. 

The APA concludes that, of the individuals who have had a hookup, 82 percent of the men said they were satisfied they had done it whereas only 57 percent of women were satisfied. Similarly, 49 percent of women reported negative reactions after a hookup whereas only 26 percent of men engaged in such a relationship reported such feelings. 

Such implications, according to APA, may stem from lingering societal norms from the 20th century, in which men who engage with many sexual partners are often glorified whereas women in the same scenario may fear being “slut-shamed,” by others.  

In a Web-based study in 2011 of 1,468 undergraduate students, participants reported a variety of consequences to hooking up: “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.” 

A study based in Canada reported that 78 percent of women and 72 percent of men felt some form of regret after engaging in noncommittal sex. 

Results seem to be highly contradictory with little clear conclusion from survey to survey. Sample size may be a possible factor of this, given the differences in location each survey had been conducted and the relatively low number of individuals surveyed.

Junior Sariah is one among many affected by hookup culture. Following her breakup with her boyfriend, every waking moment became filled with stress. 

Complete strangers from schools, neighboring and local, have reached out to her requesting her to engage in hookups. She attributes this to the growing popularity in hookup culture.

Sophomore Eli Tsives said that he is personally against engaging in casual sex.

“I think it is important for people to engage in relationships only if they truly care for each other,” Tsives said. “It’s safer, and it promotes healthy relationships.”

At the same time, he points out that, despite the increasing popularity of hookup culture, it isn’t his business to judge. 

“What people choose to engage in isn’t my business,” Tsives said. “Hookups are becoming a societal norm.”

However, following the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, this mindset might be changing. Rachel De Alto, a dating expert at Match, believes that this moment — with fears about COVID-19 and recommended social distancing — could signal a decline in  hookup culture. 

No doubt there will be individuals who break social-distancing regulations and hook up with strangers, but many others will not. According to De Alto, the pandemic gives single people a chance to find “intention” while dating.

In fact, in March, Match Group found that messaging on some of their apps increased by 30 percent. Similarly, interest levels in video chatting features in dating apps owned by Match Group shot up 69 percent in April. 

In an interview with University of Wisconsin associate professor Catalina Toma notes that while video dating is often looked down upon, people are in a “destitute situation” and are forced to rely on such alternatives. 

Individuals who once might have chosen to hook up now have to resort to video calls. 

“What’s the alternative if you don’t have video dating? No dating,” Toma said. 

People are now looking for deeper connections more than casual hookups, according to Toma.

This shift, however, may not be a bad change.

While casual sexual encounters have been promoted by Hollywood and popular social media apps such as Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok, many individuals have found that they don’t provide the comfort the individuals had set out to seek. 

Sariah remembers questioning herself as a person after engaging in intimate activity.

“It obviously depends on the person but there’s definitely been times where I’ve questioned my values and questioned if the person I’m talking to really cares about me or cares about my body,” she said. 

Psychology Today notes that hookups place people at risk of anxiety, sexual dysfunction, embarrassment, guilt and other negative emotional side effects. They also found that people who did not originally report feelings of depression and loneliness often came out of hookups feeling as such. 

In a study across multiple campuses, consisting students of various backgrounds and ethnicities, Psychology Today found that individuals who had casual sex report lower levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness compared to those who weren’t involved in casual sex in the past month. 

While hookups can offer a medium to relieve sexual desires, research seems to encourage entering such relationships with caution. Results differ from individual to individual, but the effects of engaging in hookups upon existing relationships and mental health are real. 

“Hearing about people getting hickeys or other stuff like that with someone they met [a week ago] is alarming, especially when you’re 15 or 16 years old,” Sariah said. “But also I think it’s a good lesson to learn young — learning how to interpret what it is people want from you and what your boundaries are now is a good thing to carry with you.”

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