Claremont, CA. Among young Americans, “hooking up” has been common – both as a term and as behavioral norm – for two decades. The Oxford English Dictionary says the term dates to 1989, although I first heard it in the early 1990s, used then as it is now to describe fooling around – that is, doing anything from kissing to having what my sister calls “sexy bedtimes” – with someone who is not necessarily involved with you in an established romantic relationship.

It’s a term that is anything but new; my students talk about hooking up much in the same way my friends and I talked about hooking up during college (and still talk about hooking up, in these, our thirtysomething days).

But it seems as if some people have just discovered hooking up, at least if a recent cover story in The Weekly Standard, titled “The New Dating Game,” is to be believed. In that article, writer Charlotte Allen encounters hooking up as if she is Columbus landed on San Salvador (with all the exoticism and distortion that entails). Allen describes a social world in which all the old manners and restraints have fallen away, in which “Cro-Magnons are once again dragging their mates into their caves by their hair – and the women love every minute of it.” Subsequent pieces in The New Republic and The Huffington Post, among others, do a lot of keyboard-gnashing about whether the “hookup culture” of young Americans – a culture in which hooking up tends to take precedence over dating – does or does not signal the end of Western civilization.

Mostly, this new round of cultural criticism echoes arguments that have already been made, perhaps most notably in Kathleen Bogle’s Hooking Up and Thomas Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. In addition to a general excoriation of hookup culture, these works tend to “blame” the dominance of hookup culture on one of the following things:

1)    the sexual revolution, which legitimized sex outside of dating and marriage;

2)    feminism, which told women to embrace their own sexual desires and act on them;

3)    medical technology, which makes it easier for women to prevent pregnancy and easier for everyone to treat VD;

4)    legalized abortion, which means that pregnancies can be made to disappear; and

5)    lenient universities, where lax administrators all but throw students into bed with each other by offering up coed dormitories and keg parties and free condoms.

My immediate response to these explanations is “blah, blah, blah.” It’s not that there’s not some truth to them – there certainly is – but they smack too much of blaming the usual suspects, and they fail to take stock of the cultural whole.

A more holistic response, I think, would see the extent to which hooking up is almost bound to emerge as a norm among young adults in a large-scale society where mobility is highly prized and cultivated.

In a large-scale society where mobility is highly prized and cultivated, young people are schooled early in the lessons of living with transience. In a country where the average person moves 12 times in his or her lifetime and 43 million people (including 13 million children) move each year, it is hard to grow up without ingesting the idea that most relationships have expiration dates. In the United States, as teen movies like “American Pie” teach us, the culmination of compulsory education – high-school graduation – is a ritual of separation. Everyone who attends an American high school does with the expectation that it ends in the breaking apart of a community, not in integration into a community. (This probably explains why all teen television dramas fall apart when the characters graduate high school; for American audiences, it is implausible that a group of high-school friends would remain friends after commencement.) For young people who attend college, the cycle of separation repeats four years later.

Americans learn early, and most of us learn it often, that the structures of our existence force mobility upon us, whether we would choose to be mobile or not. And it seems to me that adolescents, just as they are all juiced up with the kind of hormones that make you want to touch other people, get hit with that lesson the hardest.

If you come of age in that kind of circumstance, learning that lesson, a certain wariness about the prospects for long-term relationships is not just self-protective; it is realistic. If all your experiences have led you to believe that community life is ephemeral at best (or to believe that your life is a “series of disconnected emotional episodes,” to borrow a phrase from my teacher Hadley Arkes), you have good reason to pursue very short-term engagements with other people, engagements where little if anything is promised beyond the present moment. You have very good reason to develop the kind of superficial friendliness for which Americans are known around the world. And you have very good reason to pursue hook-ups rather than more serious romances.

Three years ago, I had a research assistant do a series of interviews with college students about hookup culture. One of the things that a few of them said was that they were not interested in dating (and certainly not interested in getting married) until they were sure that they could “settle down” – a term they meant often in the literal sense. They expect to move around quite a bit in their 20s, compelled to seek additional training or to have shifting careers. With those expectations, why should we be surprised that they seek the kinds of short-term entanglements that fit better within the constraints of such a life?

With expectations of transience and impermanence, why should we be surprised that hookup culture has become so dominant, and has had such staying power, among American young people?

I don’t mean to berate or vindicate hookup culture here. Rather, I want to emphasize that if people are interested in understanding the mating behavior of American young adults, it is worth revisiting the conditions in which we raise those young adults – and the lessons that those young adults pick up by cultural experience.

It is not just that the facts of American existence point toward mobility. It is also that we have long posited mobility as an ideal of American existence. Americans tend to talk about mobility as a marker of success. We associate geographic mobility with achievement; the students who “the best” in high school tend to travel long distances to attend college. We describe “professional mobility” as a desirable trait, signifying elite status and flexibility. We laud “mobile technology.” And, of course, we use the term “social mobility” as a way to describe one of the central ideals of American life.

There are lots of good reasons we Americans tend to praise mobility, I think. We praise it because it is our inheritance; as Americans are fond of saying, we were (almost) all immigrants once. We praise mobility because we associate it with being free; Hannah Arendt once said that physical mobility is the oldest and most elementary form of freedom. We praise mobility because it exposes us to diversity and variety. We praise mobility because we believe that it affords us certain opportunities and possibilities for self-determination that might not be available to us in more place-bound conditions.

But of course, as many people on Front Porch Republic have said in one way or another, there are serious costs to living in a culture where mobility is so valued. One of those is that mobility puts great pressure on (and even works to dismantle) all sorts of human relationships: extended families, long-term friendships, marriages, and so on.

Mobility also shapes our expectations for relationships from the outset. It suggests that few of our relationships are likely to be defined by sustained physical proximity, that physical proximity to any given person is something that will pass quickly.

Before it took on its present connotation, “hooking up” was a term popularly used in the years after World War II, when television operators began using the phrase “hook up” to describe the act of connecting two or more broadcasting systems for the short time needed to broadcast a common item on their otherwise different programs.

In the present formulation of the term, I suppose the implication is that people are the equivalent of separate broadcasting systems, with otherwise different programs, who only have a short time to “broadcast in common.”

It’s an image, you might say, that very much captures the spirit of our place and time, a place and time where we occasionally plug in as we all move along, mobile devices in hand.

[I would like to thank my dear former student, Kelly Eng, for alerting me to the recent spate of attention to hookup culture among the chattering class.]

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  1. This is a really brilliant article – you get to the root of the problem. As a recent graduate, I would add a bit of anecdotal evidence to your argument – the “senior year hook up”.

    At my small institution, though accepted, the hook up was also usually a source of gossip or intrigue. In one’s senior year, however – before one is once again cast off into the world at large – nobody even bothers to gossip anymore. It’s never “I can’t believe those two got together”, but rather, “oh, they’re seniors”.

    To the best of my understanding (and experience), “Oh, they’re seniors” doesn’t mean that they are looking for a last-blast undergraduate sexual extravaganza, though some certainly are. Rather, it tends to mean that those in question had been close, perhaps simply as friends, or maybe they had recently met and felt a spark. Either way, they may not have been the type of people who would normally hook up after your average Saturday fraternity party. But with one having an internship in Chicago, the other starting grad school in Texas. . . well, something great could have happened, given a few more months. Unfortunately, they’ll probably never see each other after graduation (except through facebook). The only way to express whatever garbled and meaningful emotions that might have existed – the default expression – is the hook up.

    At least that way, something happened. No matter how drunken, premature, or too-far it was, each can turn it into some sort of meaningful, cinematic moment in their heads, a rite of passage, a closing of the book on that guy or girl who might have been the one. . .

    That’s how it seemed to me, anyway.

  2. I’m very glad for this article, even though I was ready to stop at “blah, blah, blah” initially. Your theory seems very plausible – and to provide another argument for rootedness and community. (The saints and monastics argue for rootedness, too. I don’t expect to be a snow bird in retirement.)

    But may I offer another theory alongside yours (i.e., don’t try to stop me)? That relationships are transient is only half the story. Why are those transient relationships sexual? I have long (like 40 years) thought that our seeming expectation that you’re not ready to marry until after your Masters or PhD, combined with a lowering of the onset of sexual maturation, is a really good formula for inciting oodles of premarital sex.

    That theory fits less neatly into a rootedness/community model of human thriving, except that there’s some correlation between the expectations of advanced education and transience. I’d venture a guess that there’s less hooking up among the “Shop Class as Soulcraft” set.

  3. Thanks for this insightful article, Susan. I am a 21 year old man who was suckered into this very hookup culture myself, albeit only when I was in high school. But, believe me, it starts very young. By the time I reached college I was so disgusted with the state of relationships I passionately opposed the hook up culture every chance I got. Being a Philosophy major, I once had to construct an argument for an Ethics class and successfully defend it in front of the other students. For this project, I crafted a well argued position against the hookup culture and for a return to human decency in sexual relations. I expected to be booed, attacked, and shouted down. Something amazing happened instead. I received a standing ovation. Several of the female members of the class just stared at me wide eyed. The positive response blew me away. So I believe that despite hooking up being in vogue, the suffering it causes is widespread and many young people are hungry for authentic relationships but have no direction as to how to achieve them.

    Roger– I know what you are saying about the encouragement of late marriage. The family next door to me told their children not to get married until they are at least 30.

    Brandon B.

  4. I think the late marriage is a better explanation, although rootlessness, better living through chemistry, and all the rest certainly contributes. We expect heroic virtue from the young, for a very long time, and give them no reason to be virtuous. In fact, we bombard them (and ourselves) with messages that preach exactly the opposite.

  5. What an excellent article, shedding light on an aspect of this problem that I’d never considered before. Just what I always hope for and have come to expect from FPR.

    I think my own experience at a conservative Evangelical college bears this out. There wasn’t a “hookup culture” at the school, but plenty of hookups still occurred. I think it makes a lot of sense to think that a contributing factor was that we were all far from home, and knowing that most of us were only going to be together for a few years.

    And we had our own version of Seth’s “seniors” phenomenon — except ours had a strong pro-marriage bent, driven by the fear that after graduation we’d probably never be in such a “target rich” marriage environment again (we called it “ring by spring”). I worry about how many of those marriages were premature and later went through suffering or divorce due to a too-hasty match.

  6. And speaking of hasty matches, I wonder if a portion of our divorce culture can also be explained by this phenomenon. How many couples nowadays know each other for years before marrying? How many are childhood playmates or high school sweethearts who have watched each other mature? How many worry that if they don’t pop the question *now*, when the iron is hot, then that next job transfer or educational step will break them apart forever? Bad hasty marriages are the flip-side of marriages postponed or never made for the same reasons.

  7. Reminds one of the old Chinese saying:
    For a return on the investment in one year, plant rice.
    For a return on the investment in a decade, plant fruit trees.
    For a return on the investment in a century, educate men.

  8. Ah, the refreshment of sanity. Not to be taken for granted, of course, and so we thank Susan.

    I will now rephrase my favorite Modern Lover’s lyric, written circa 1971:

    “The modern world’s not so bad, not like the students say”

    So that it becomes:

    “The modern world’s not so bad, just like the students say”

    I.e., don’t listen to those Boomer and X-er pundits so much that you don’t try to get the students of today to say how it generally is.

    Don’t get me wrong, Porchers, I agree with Modern Lovers that the modern world is bad. And getting worse.

    It’s just that it’s not SO bad, and it’s more key than many a Porcher thinks to recognize that. Let me thus conclude with another Modern Lovers’ lyric, this one from an alternate version of “Roadrunner”:

    “And we love God’s world, and we love God’s girls!”

    Young ‘uns…I’m sure Susan would join me in saying “don’t play with hooks!” And she might even rethink her blah, blah, blah bit a bit, and have you read one of those astounding essays by Mary Eberstadt.

    Old (and young) worrisome ‘uns…do know that those loves will always be there, will never be eradicated…no matter how modern things get. Get infectiously indignant about barbarity, yes, but don’t let the sci-fi types spook you into bitterness.

  9. I crafted a well argued position against the hookup culture and for a return to human decency in sexual relations. I expected to be booed, attacked, and shouted down. Something amazing happened instead. I received a standing ovation

    A hopeful story.

    People have simply lost the vocabulary of a decent culture. They see nobody else speaking up, nobody else reminding them of these good habits, and so they plod along in silent puzzlement.

  10. I agree with all of this. I’d just add that we’re talking about the middle class and above; maybe even the upper middle class and above. Certainly in the steel town where I live the norm isn’t for any of the kids to go to university; they ‘hook up’ in high school, are often pregnant by senior year, and marry after graduation. I don’t, however, get the feeling that the marriages last much past five years or so. So, I’d say that college just puts this on hold for a few years for their suburban contemporaries.

  11. Fair enough, Carl Scott. I’m one of the “worrisome” ones toward the younger end of the spectrum, and I agree in many ways, things aren’t “so” bad, and the more local the view, the better things seem, at least for the populations with relatively high technocratic access.

    But I’m not sure whether the concern for the specter of having to deal with technological powers the elder generation will not have to deal with makes me less sanguine. It seems to me that while loves may always be here–at least as long as the Church is here–it is not necessarily the optimistic ones who will be ensuring the place of love and virtue even as they claim it as evidence of their wisdom. You are right, of course, to warn against the kind of bitterness that debilitates and so refuses to build, though I would have kinder words for the denunciation of (aspects of) destructive ideas, practices, artifacts, and institutions like the one I link to above.

  12. Yes, Albert, and one way to deal with sex-bots and such is to pass laws against them. And in at least the short term, that means, er…voting R more than D, and not…er, saying “pox and both, I sit out!”

  13. Give Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a reading (in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation) and track the character Levin. Not that his story dovetails exactly with this topic on sexual misbehavior. but the novel shows Levin at his best as a thrifty agrarian family man, some what a la Wendell Berry, while when he gets away from his roots he drifts into restlessness, wastefulness, and debt, like our Congress.

  14. I think this is all true. Mobility means people will hook up with lots of other people. But think about that and rephrase the argument as:

    Mobility means you will get to hook up with lots of people. So instead of traditional barn dances and locally crafted products, you will get McDonald’s, Walmart, and lots and lots of sex with random people.

    I think most people would take that trade in a second. And not just teenagers. For better or worse.

  15. Carl Scott,
    Just what has the GOP done to render our culture one whit more decent? Maybe offered some vague rhetoric about Traditional Values, but on the whole it’s been nothing but smarmy hypocrisy from the folks who brought us Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Mark Sanford and David Vitter.
    But in any event I do not expect virtue to arise from politics, or to find any legislative solution to deeper cultural problems like these. Taxes, foreign policy, defense, crime, justice, education, healthcare, etc.– these are proper matters for politicians to deal with. But morality comes from other sources, and Washington DC, or even a state capital, is useless there.

  16. I’ve lived in New Zealand most of my life but studied in the US. I was struck by how people that interested me tended to vanish suddenly & unexpectedly, to other universities, states, cities. Here in NZ things are much smaller, there is also less mobility (although lots of people go to Australia for the hell of it, the only other place it’s dead easy to migrate to), there is always the chance youll bump into someone again, in the US I realised it was a brutal certainty you never will.

    Another thought (in progress) is that fleeting “romantic” encounters make the self the most significant person in the world. It can be interpreted as very narcissistic. this shouldn’t be a surprise, despite all the so called wealth around many people have nothing but themselves. They have no land, no ecosystem, no meaningful community of which to be a part, of course they’re going to be self-absorbed.

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