Maixin Research

Demographics. Geopolitics. Innovation.

Discussing Hooking Up With Susan Walsh

Discussing Demographics

The following interview was published for YRP in 2011.

The hook-up culture is popular with Millennials and some younger members of Generation X. Given your experience counseling young people in the hook-up culture, could you explain what it is to people who are unfamiliar with it?

  • Hooking up is a term to describe a sexual encounter between two people. It is a deliberately vague expression (providing plausible deniability), and can mean making out, having intercourse, or anything in between.
  • Hooking up has replaced traditional dating on college campuses, and has also become prevalent in the general population and culture. The hallmark of hooking up is the clear understanding between both parties that the encounter will be free from any expectations for further contact. It is designed to avoid the possibility of commitment. However, hooking up is still the primary pathway to a potential romantic relationship, although only 12% of hookups eventually lead to relationships.
  • The hookup script reverses the sexual norm; the pair becomes sexual first, before emotional intimacy or a relationship is established.
  • Hooking up is awkward for both sexes. Most students get drunk to relax inhibition about getting naked with a stranger. Research shows that hooking up is not something unplanned that happens when people drink. Rather, young people drink heavily with the full intention of hooking up later in the evening.

What made the hook-up culture become popular and where does the perception of “engage in [behavior] like a man” originate (or another derivative in college was “it’s a man’s world”)?

First, hookup culture is the consequence of the Sexual Revolution, which occurred as a result of the Women’s Movement and the introduction of the Pill. Once women were able to have sex without fear of pregnancy, and with the blessing of Second Wave Feminists, they set out to have sex without restraint, much in the way that men did. When colleges stopped acting in loco parentis, the stage was set with coed dorms, and the hookup became the prevalent mode of male-female sexual interaction.

What happened over a period of 50 years is the loss of assortive mating. That is, it used to be the case that sex was tied to commitment, and people often married their first sexual partners. People generally married a mate with similar characteristics – education, intelligence, socioeconomic background and physical attractiveness.

As casual sex became more prevalent, and the Women’s Movement provided opportunities for women to pursue more education and professional careers, the average age at marriage increased significantly. In the meantime, both men and women seek sex, whether casual or in long-term relationships. However, they no longer limit themselves to people of similar traits.

As the gatekeepers of sex, women soon learned that while they might not hope to marry a man significantly more attractive or higher status than themselves, it is quite possible to command his attention in the short-term – often just for one night. This has led to a sexual “wealth gap” in the population, in accordance with the Pareto Principle. That is, 20% of the men are deemed highly desirable by women. They have the most options for sex, and as a result are the least likely to form committed relationships, especially at a young age. The other 80% struggle to find mates of similar traits, even if they’re willing to offer commitment. I’ve also estimated that about 20% of women are highly promiscuous. They seek short-term male attention. The other 80% recognize that they are unlikely to garner much male attention without offering casual hookups.

In this way, the idea that it’s a “man’s world” or that men have it made is misleading. A small percentage of men have it made. I don’t see any real winners among the women, frankly. Some women do enjoy no-strings sex, and are not seeking a relationship, but many struggle with feelings of regret, depression and low self-esteem.

I’ve heard two basic theories about the future of anything: the pendulum analogy, where things go back and forth from one extreme to the other, and the slippery slope analogy, where once things go downhill, they never return. Based on your interaction with people involved in the hook up culture and dating, experience in the pros and cons of each, and knowledge of Western culture, what do you see for the future in terms of hooking up?

That’s a very interesting question, and we debate it at Hooking Up Smart all the time. Personally, I subscribe more to the pendulum theory. History is characterized by large swings in morality, with periods of extreme hedonism followed by more disciplined or restrictive norms. I see hookup culture sticking around for a long while, but there is some backlash already occurring. In the three years I’ve been blogging, college student newspapers have been printing a greater number of editorials by students opposing the culture. One thing that’s interesting to note is that while most students believe it’s common, and that many other students are hooking up regularly, 90% of college students have only 0-5 sexual partners during their four years. So the culture doesn’t really reflect the reality, but it dominates nonetheless.

Another possibility is a crisis in sexual health. STDs continue to spread rapidly, and are becoming increasingly resistant to treatment. HPV is causing cancers in both sexes, and there is a strain of gonorrhea in the UK, which is now considered untreatable. Of course, there’s the very real possibility of a new, opportunistic virus, much as we saw with AIDS in the early 80s. A worsening of the outlook in this area could create behavioral changes.

We’re in uncharted territory, and the Sexual Marketplace feels hostile to most people. My own view is that regardless of what is happening in the culture at large, each individual has the agency to formulate and implement a strategy that is most likely to help them meet their personal mating objectives. At, I’m working on the margins. There are always opportunities in chaos, and hookup culture is no exception.

About Susan Walsh

Since earning my MBA in 1983 from The Wharton School, I have worked with companies and non-profit organizations to identify key challenges and opportunities, and formulate winning strategies. Launched in November, 2008, Hooking Up Smart brings together my passion and concern for young women with a professional, practical and systematic problem-solving approach.