How Hookups Really Affect You
Updated: Feb 3
A study conducted at Ball State University revealed that 75% of the students surveyed confessed that they had engaged in casual sex or a “hook-up,” while 78% reported that they view casual sex as “normal.”* The grip that hookups have on our culture and the ways we, especially young people, view sex is undeniable. It saturates our media. Think of popular television shows and movies; think of stand-up comedians and YA novels; think of popular songs and music videos. Romance stories on film and television often blossom out of hookups or fast-paced physical relationships (The Big Sick, Sex Education, Shameless, etc).
But have we really stopped and thought about the effect this approach to relationships can have on us? It goes beyond what may be perceived as outdated public morals. Studies have shown that casual sex impacts our psychological well-being. This outcome stems from the way our bodies’ biochemistry works. During orgasm, our brains release a chemical called oxytocin in high volume. This isn’t the only time this chemical is released. Our bodies release oxytocin during a long hug and when a mother breastfeeds. What do these activities have in common? They are all bonding! That’s because oxytocin is a bonding chemical. It connects us to the other person and helps affection develop between parties.** The only other time the body releases oxytocin in this volume is when a mother gives birth. Think of the kind of bond that is created biologically between a mother and child. The same driving force is at play during sex without even thinking about it.
This occurs in both the male and female brain; however, men will typically see less oxytocin and more vasopressin, which causes a protective instinct.*** Meaning, you could believe that your hookup is just casual, but before you know it, you’re more attached than anticipated, or you begin to become jealous when you see your former partner with someone else. We may think that in a post sexual revolution world we won’t fall prey to these realities, but that’s just how our bodies work. The chemicals in our brains have a tendency to override our logic and our judgment. That release of oxytocin and dopamine may leave us feeling really good, but they may not necessarily reflect reality. Expert Dr. Loretta Breuning cautions that “despite those initial feelings, it does not necessarily mean that person is trustworthy. The perception you have at that moment is an illusion you create about the person that may or may not fit what happens next.”
What happens when we cling to this feel-good experience instead of fostering relationships founded equally on intimacy and commitment? A study by Melina Bersamin reveals that “students who had recent casual sex reported lower levels of self-esteem and happiness,” while nonhook-ups report higher self-esteem and “more secure attachments.” These experts’ conclusions: when the oxytocin wears off or we don’t build that relationship, “we find ourselves feeling sad or confused,” as Melina Bersamin said. In fact, choosing to begin a relationship with sexual intimacy adds these ungrounded feelings into the mix before we have time to form sound judgements. It is truly a gamble, and one that can be easily avoided by first developing a solid groundwork in trust, communication, and understanding, which takes time. One must ask his or herself: “Does the commitment and connection I have with this person warrant the chemical bond that I will be creating in my brain?”
Although the study at Ball State concludes that a majority of college students are hooking-up, Lisa Wade, author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, found the opposite in her research. Although the common perception was that most of their peers were having lots of casual sex, most students surveyed by her and in the studies she reviewed, were hooking up an average of twice a year, if at all. In her book, she explores the dangers of this false perception. Hooking-up may seem like the thing to do based on the media we consume, the celebrities we idolize, or the peers we envy, but aside from being an unhealthy approach, it may not even be as popular as you may think.
We’ve seen time and again in the media the idea that high school students need to have sexual experiences before entering college or early adulthood. The title of virgin is synonymous with loser (thanks Clueless!). However, that mentality is inconsistent with the lifestyles of a majority of high school students. In the state of Pennsylvania for example, the CDC has found that up to two thirds of high school students have never had sex. Out of a classroom of thirty students, as few as eight are currently sexually active.**** The idea that “everyone is doing it,” simply does not hold up. Not only does hooking-up not provide the relationship foundation or satisfaction our media portrays, it also fails to assimilate us to our peers the way we hope.
At the end of the day, a hook-up simply cannot deliver what it promises, but setting healthy boundaries in singleness, engaging a world full of other exciting activities, or pursuing meaningful and healthy relationships can surely be worth our while.