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'Hooking Up' -- What Does It Really Mean?

Hookup Meaning

First Posted: 10/12/11 05:34 PM ET Updated: 10/12/11 08:29 PM ET

How do you define "hooking up?"

A recent study of how social networks lead college students to define, perceive, and participate in “hooking up” showed that while everybody is talking about it, no one is exactly sure what it means.

The study, conducted by Amanda Holman, a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, and Dr. Alan Sillars of the University of Montana, was conducted on 274 college students at a large public university. They found that while 94 percent of participating students were familiar with the phrase "hooking up,” there was no consensus about what “hooking up” actually entailed. Over half described a hookup as involving sex, nine percent described it as not including sex and about one-third said it could be ambiguous as to whether or not “hooking up” had to involve sex. In other words, “hooking up” could mean anything from kissing to intercourse. (For a list of alternate euphemisms, see below.)

All Talk?

Despite the ambiguity of the term "hookup," 84 percent of students reported that they had discussed theirs with friends in the previous four months. Over 50 percent reported at least one and a third reported at least two hookups during the school year, indicating that these liaisons -- however the students defined them -- were common. Still, the students "greatly overestimated the pervasiveness of hookups within the general student culture," Holman wrote in her report on the study. Based on these results, Holman expressed concern that the gossip around “hooking up” may make the practice seem more common than it is, causing students to engage in potentially risky behavior because they believe everyone is doing it.

The study concluded by attempting to finally define “hooking up" as entailing certain sex acts "between two people who are not dating or in a serious relationship and do not expect anything further.”

Why Define It?

In theory, if all students adopted Holman's definition, they would all have a better idea of what exactly their peers meant when they reported a weekend hookup. But is pinning down the definition actually useful? What if there are advantages to leaving the meaning ambiguous?

"If you say casual sex, then I know exactly what you are saying," Amanda Holman told ABC News in a telephone interview. "Hooking up is strategically ambiguous. It's a way for them [students] to communicate about it but without having to reveal details."

TIME’s Megan Gibson also thinks the ambiguity is a good thing:

It seems the phrase offers a way of divulging information -- which, yes, could still be considered gossip -- but also provides an element of mystery about the encounter, which could protect privacy in some cases. And in today's social media-obsessed, oversharing culture, that's not a bad thing.

The fact that participants were divided along gender lines when it came to reporting their hook up experiences comes as no surprise. 63 percent of men vs. 45 percent of women said they hooked up in the last year, and "males expressed more favorable attitudes toward hookups,” the study's authors asserted. Holman sees this as a response to the increased pressure on men to exaggerate their level of sexual activity, she wrote.

Whether you agree with her interpretation or not, the ambiguity surrounding what “hooking up” means enables both men and women to round up or round down their experiences. Amanda Hess, writing for GOOD, goes so far as to say that the vagueness of the term could help both men and women dodge the judgments others might make about their sexual behavior:

Since "hookup" serves as a catch-all for everything from intercourse to passing out while spooning, the term could help mitigate the gender-based social pressures and stigmas attached to sexual relationships ... young women are still shamed for going too far, and young men are shamed for not going far enough. In a sexist sexual climate, "we hooked up" could be the great equalizer.

Do you agree? Do the many meanings of “hooking up” help keep private what actually happens in sexual relationships, or is it just confusing?

Ever feel like "hook up" isn't euphemistic enough? Try these options:


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Filed by Jessica Pearce Rotondi  |