Hook Up Culture in the US: Encountering it and Navigating It

There’s something that tends to happen every Saturday morning in my house.

In our respective rooms, we wake up early, usually to the sound of one another’s stirrings. Someone goes to the bathroom, brushes his or her teeth, starts to get ready. Eventually, when we’re all awake and have our doors open, one of us will emerge, hair tousled, eyes lidded with sleep, and say, “So, how was your night?”

Although my housemates and I usually begin our evenings at the same party, we often drift off our own ways, either to other parties, back to our rooms, or to other people’s rooms. Asking what happened last night is the process of filling in the gaps, and our answers vary: sometimes we’ll talk about who we hung out with or ran into, and sometimes we’ll talk about who we hooked up with.

[International student opinions on partying at U.S. colleges]

It’s funny to think that hooking up – something that now seems so ordinary and so ingrained in my university’s party culture – used to be wholly unfamiliar to me. Prior to coming to the U.S., I had never heard or known of the concept.

A completely different culture

I grew up in a culture where sex definitely happened, but was never discussed. You didn’t talk about sex or physical desires, and you never saw any hints of it on TV or the media.

Public displays of affection were, for the most part, taboo: couples didn’t touch too tenderly in public, and ideally they didn’t touch at all. Pop stars sung of chaste, romantic love that saw its physical culmination in marriage. Sex, if it ever manifested itself in the media, came in the form of a warning: you couldn’t watch a Thai soap opera without seeing the heroine, at least once, be threatened by rape.

Thus, if there was anything about going to the U.S. that I was utterly unprepared for, it was the hook up culture. My first moment of culture shock in the U.S. wasn’t about food, language, academics, or the tendency for American students to drop a pop culture reference every other sentence. It actually came from going to a frat party, and seeing, for the first time, a couple making out.

It wasn’t the kissing that left me incredulous – it was that the two were kissing in public (and quite passionately at that), without a care as to who could see them. I remembered being a bit shocked and unsure of what to do, especially when the couple happened to be making out against the table where I had stored my things. After I had gotten my coat and left the party, I realized that there it was, I had experienced it: culture shock.

Navigating the hook up scene

I got my first introduction to what “hooking up” meant from a sophomore who explained the term to us international students. I was immediately struck by its ambiguity. “Hooking up” was amorphous and all-encompassing, a loose term that could mean anything from making out on the dance floor to going home with someone.

Over my first few weekends on campus, my friends and I started learning the different bounds and ramifications of the experience: we went to parties and learned what it was like to kiss strangers. We learned to stick together, but to also let each other know if we were going home with someone else. We encountered some awkward situations (how do you act when you see the person the next day at brunch? When do you leave and when do you stay?), but understood that they were an inevitable part of the learning process.

The fun of having no strings attached

One of the first things that I found attractive about hooking up was how relaxed it was. The idea that sex wasn’t such a loaded act, that it could be enjoyed casually by both parties, was refreshing. There was a kind of freedom to being able to acknowledge that you wanted something, and to get it without having to worry about breaking a social norm. Ideally, hooking up was also something that was always your choice, something that you were in control of: you decided whether or not you wanted to hook up, and how far you wanted to go.

For one of my friends, the complete detachment of a hook up is what makes it so alluring. There is no need for conversation or personal interest. There is no awkwardness, just sex.

“Hooking up is almost like a sport,” she told me. “It’s a purely physical interaction devoid of emotion.” Hooking up, for her, is convenient; she doesn’t have to think much about it. For some of my other friends, hooking up is a way of casually pursuing a romantic interest, of having fun until the right person comes along.

Recognizing its faults

However, that loose, “anything goes” kind of attitude can also make a lot of hook ups confusing, messy, and, at times, demoralizing. I’ve had to console friends when their hook ups ended abruptly, or when someone they had slept with ignored them the next day.

No matter how well-versed you are with the rules of hooking up, it’s not always easy to separate emotions from sex. At times, I’ve fallen into thinking that how someone responds (or doesn’t respond) to me in a hook up is somehow a reflection of myself, of some kind of deficiency in my personality—even when I know it’s not. Furthermore, when almost anything is permissible in a hook up, you can find yourself in a gray zone where even the standard rules for social interaction (such as knowing someone’s name) no longer need to apply.

I think it’s also important to note that hooking up, while pervasive (if not ubiquitous) on college campuses, is not always accepted as a positive part of the culture. There are a number of debates as to whether or not hook up culture is damaging or liberating. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the hook up culture is so pervasive that it’s hard to find any kind of intimacy that goes beyond the physical. While some social critics argue that hooking up is an achievement in feminism, others worry that it’s a step backwards for healthy, intimate relationships.

Plus, safety is a legitimate concern when it comes to hooking up. Sexual assault is, unfortunately, a far too common occurrence on many college campuses, and several incidents have been reported during my time at Wesleyan. As much as a college campus can feel familiar and safe, assault can – and does – happen. In fact, one of the most repeated statements about sexual assault is that most incidents occur among people who know each other, in familiar social situations.

[Read more about protecting yourself from sexual assault]

On the other hand, I’ve definitely come to respect how much colleges here emphasize raising awareness of sexual assault. During my freshman year orientation, I was required to attend a discussion of sexual assault that was facilitated by both students and university staff. Participating in that discussion (and subsequent others) has helped me understand the issues surrounding sexual assault and consent, as well as to maintain my own safety.

Hooking up is your choice

My own foray into freshman year hook ups was relatively brief. By November, I started dating someone who eventually became my boyfriend for the next two and a half years. It began, somewhat surprisingly, in a way that edged on the traditional: we went on dinner dates and spent some time getting to know each other before we “called it official” – all of which came before our first kiss.

Now, as a current senior, I’m single and am discovering hookups again. I believe that relationships happen when they happen, and until then, I’m content to explore.

My friends have all made their own choices as well.  Some hook up pretty regularly with different guys, while some have eschewed hooking up for relationships. Others have never hooked up at all, nor even desired to do so.

Are there consequences to not participating in the college hook up culture? I’d say it all depends on how you see it – there’s a high chance that you’re going to encounter someone hooking up at a party, or that your friends will participate. I’ve been to parties where almost all my friends would eventually disappear with their hook-ups. It can definitely make you feel a bit left out sometimes, but I’ve come to accept it, especially knowing that I’ve done the same myself.

Are there consequences to participating? Again, it depends, especially on how much you care about how others perceive you. It’s hard to deny the double standards involved in hooking up – girls have to deal with the walk of shame while guys almost always don’t.

Furthermore, other international students may not be as open and accepting of hooking up, especially if it’s not a part of their culture. I certainly felt as if I was being judged for hooking up and going out at first, although this concern eased with time – I became much less conscious of how others felt, and they also came to accept cultural differences. Yet I’d say that the most important concern should not be how others perceive you, but how you feel about yourself. Ultimately, you should feel comfortable with what you’re doing.

In the end, whether or not you hook up is your choice. You can revel in the hook up culture, or reject it – it’s entirely up to you.


  1. Interesting article you have that probably summarizes the prevalent attitudes towards sex and relationships.

    Towards the middle of your piece however, I can’t be sure whether you are purely making an observation or advocating this choice of lifestyle. I think what you describe is also not entirely a facet of American culture but one that exists in every part of the world where rigid norms of religion and culture do not determine how people should behave.

    I would even venture further to say that I take offence to your article if your are passing it on as modern American tradition. As a self-respecting person, I see millions of American families destroyed each year due to infidelity. This infidelity has its roots in the casualisation of relationships.

    Putting two-and-two together and it becomes clear that what you have described here is a rather destructive force to the family unit which serves as the bedrock of society. Couples no longer think it is in the interest of anyone to stay together after a relationship loses its initial spark all to the detriment of young children caught up in this miserable cycle.

    So, it would be worth underlying what your true motivations are of writing this article.

  2. Yu, thank you for writing such an interesting and well-expressed account of the “hooking-up” culture at your college. I enjoyed reading it and learning more about your generation’s social life.

    As an American of many more years than you and your friends — I was born in 1951 — I have not personally experienced hooking up, though I did sometimes hear my kids mention it when they were around your age.

    Though some of the customs of hooking up are new, it still has a lot in common with typical sexual activity in every time and place. People of varying backgrounds and varying levels of sexual desire behave in different ways, even within one culture. For example, if you could study the actual experiences of friends back in Thailand, you would probably find that some of them indulged in sexual activities earlier and more openly than others.

    However, it is quite possible that open sexual activity is now more acceptable among college students in the U.S. than in some other times and places. I’m sure there are various reasons for this, but one likely factor is the common use of female-controlled birth control methods. Oral contraceptives only became widely available in the mid-1960s. Fifty years later, use of birth control pills has become a background assumption in many families and social groups. If all the girls in your college had to worry about getting pregnant, most of them would probably avoid hooking up entirely.

  3. Thank you for all your comments! I

    Nareg – Thank you. Your question is quite thoughtful and complex — I think I came to terms with hooking up not necessarily because I needed to rethink my traditional values. I’m not sure I fully agreed with them in the first place, however, I knew that I had unconsciously absorbed certain Thai virtues (as evidenced in my initial surprise at seeing such public displays of affection, for instance). Now, I realize that I don’t share certain Thai attitudes towards sexuality, but I will respect those attitudes when I am in Thailand. As for social survival – this was not a factor, I definitely don’t think that one needs to hook up to “fit in” at all, at least at my university. I think hooking up is mostly seen as a matter of personal choice, and there’s much less stigma in choosing to abstain from it than, say, choosing not to drink. Finally, I’m not sure if I believe that hooking up has *inherent* worth, but I do appreciate what it is, and, to a certain degree, the sexual liberation that it has come to represent. But it’s still tricky, and a lot of people approach hooking up in different ways.

    Joel – I am quite prepared for disappointment, thank you! In fact, I have experienced a lot of it already – though I’m not quite sure if this had much to do with my “exoticism”. I do find that perception interesting though — why does it seem like a lot of white men have to justify their interest in Asian women by deeming it an “Asian fetish”, with ‘fetish’ implying that it’s something somewhat *different*, outside the norm? It strikes me as a bit problematic. And, interestingly, I’ve found that people of all shapes and sizes have been pretty successful at hooking up in the U.S.!

    Jim – I do apologize for not acknowledging the risk of STDs. Thank you for bringing this up, it’s definitely an important point and one that I should have taken into account while writing this post.

  4. How can you write this with absolutely no acknowledgement of the risk of STD’s? Denial is not a river in Egypt. You WILL get ans STD if you “hook up” with one wrong person and there is absolutely no way you can adequately protect yourself. Say nothing of the moral / ethical component of flagrant promiscuity. Please do yourself a favor and reconsider this lifestyle.

  5. Foreign students, being well, foreign, have an advantage if they do choose to go out for this in that most Americans will be attracted to their “exotic” nature. So, there will be a lot of “success,” perhaps more than a typically situated American.

    But this will not work very well for the shy, or someone who is not in good physical shape and is “attractive.” The hook-up culture is fundamentally shallow…so appearances count for more than anything else. Be prepared for disappointment.

  6. A very interesting insight, and well-written too.

    Do you think your coming to terms with hooking up came about because of an appreciation of its inherent worth, or perhaps as a social survival skill you had to develop as an outsider, or is it that you ended up re-thinking the traditional values with which you were familiar?

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