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Dale and Susan are thirty-somethings who have both been divorced for several years, and each is the primary parent for an only child.  Dale’s son Andrew plays soccer for a local club team, and Susan’s daughter Anna plays volleyball at the same club.  The two parents literally bumped into each other in the club parking lot when Dale backed his car into the door of Susan’s SUV.  Dale readily admitted it was his fault, and their exchange of insurance information was so cordial that they agreed to meet for coffee.  One thing led to another and four days after the accident they had sex.  Both said they weren’t interested in a long-term relationship, and although they slept together twice more, their hook-up relationship was over in a month. 

       Susan felt vaguely used, but she knew enough about hooking up not to be surprised about what happened.  Dale had problems convincing himself that, even though he was still alone, he’d had some great sex with Susan.  He felt used, too.

What’s Going On?

Until recently, adolescents and twenty-somethings were just about the only people involved in the agony and ecstasy of dating and courtship.  But in today’s typical life-pattern, long-term relationship development begins with dating in adolescence, moves into serious courtship a few years later, culminates in cohabitation or marriage in 1-3 additional years, disappears from the couple’s radar for the months or years that the partnership or marriage lasts, and then, for over half of us, becomes a priority again when the partnership ends or divorce occurs.

This means that dating and courtship are primary life concerns for tens of millions of people from puberty through senior citizen status.  Junior high students are certainly sexting, but pages of AARP publications also feature dating advice and sex products. [1] 

Unfortunately, contemporary culture also generates ever-newer ways to make the process challenging and dangerous.  Today, between two thirds and three quarters of college students hook up at some point during their academic careers,[2] where “hooking up” means having casual sexual contact with someone you’re not dating, without any expectation of future conmitment. [3]  The practice is also widespread among thirty-somethings and divorced baby boomers like Dale and Susan.[4] 

Hook ups are assertively impersonal.  Most of the time hook-up partners have been drinking, and almost half engage in sexual intercourse during the hookup, although participants believe that petting below the waist, oral sex, and intercourse all regularly occur in the process of hooking up. The practice is widespread enough that researchers have identified a “Hook-Up Culture” that is part of North American life.[5]  Moral considerations aside, this culture puts people at risk for all the threats they learned about in junior high health classes, including STDs, HIV, and date rape, not to mention the inevitable psychological and spiritual pains that come from confusing sex and intimacy, distorting what it means to be masculine and feminine, and compromising your own values to meet someone else’s expectations.

Pluralistic Ignorance

       Hook-Up Culture happens partly because of widespread “pluralistic ignorance,” which basically means going along with a mistaken belief in a group consensus.  In this case, the mistaken belief is that other people accept questionable practices more than I do, when the fact is, they don’t.  To put it in researcher-talk, pluralistic ignorance happens when “group members believe that most others in their group, especially those who are popular and opinion leaders, actually endorse the norm [hooking up] and want to behave that way, while they themselves privately feel they are going along with the norm because of a desire to fit in with the group and exemplify the norm.”[6]  So studies show that many people who are hooking up mistakenly believe that “everybody thinks it’s okay,” when, if asked individually, most of their friends would say it isn’t.  In addition, men believe women are more comfortable engaging in these behaviors than in fact they are, and many women mistakenly believe that other women accept hooking up more than they do.  This pluralistic ignorance leads some people to experience sexual assault and not to interpret the behavior that way, because they believe that what happened is the kind of thing their peers think is normal.[7]

Hookup Advice

       If you know someone who uses hookups to cope with their loneliness and sexual desires, you might encourage them to test their belief that “everybody thinks it’s okay.”  It can be embarrassing to be that mistaken.  You could also suggest that involvement in group activities is a better way to combat loneliness, and the Insanity Workout video and masturbation are both better ways to manage hormones. 

       The longer-term fix starts with de-mystifying the relationship-development process by learning what its goals are and how people of various cultures typically move from first meeting through experimentation, to becoming a couple, and then bonding.   It also helps to learn how relationships come apart, so you’re not baffled by that process.  There’s a simple model that can guide you, and it’ll be the topic of my future posts.



[1] About 60% of U.S. adults are married, 25% have never married, and just under 20% are in partnered households.  Retrieved 11.17.11.

[2] Heidman, C. & L. Wade (2010).  “Hook-Up Culture:  Setting a New Research Agenda,” Sexual Research & Social Policy, 10.  Retrieved 11.14.11

[3] Armstrong, E.A., England, P., & Fogarty, A.C.K. (2009).  Orgasm in college hook ups and relationships.  In B. Risman (Ed.), Families as they really are.  New York:  Norton.

[4]  Retrieved 11.29.11.

[5] Heldman, C. & Wade, L. (2010).

[6] Lambert, T.A., Kahn, A.s., & Apple, K.J. (2003).  “Pluralistic ignorance and hooking up,” Journal of Sex Research. 11.14.11.

[7] Lambert, et al.

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