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Hooking Up: Sex, Theology, and Today's “Unhooked” Dating Practices

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Kari-Shane Davis Zimmerman
College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University


Current theological literature on dating emphasizes issues of premarital sex and chastity. At the same time, recent sociological research suggests that dating is being replaced by the alternative practice called “hooking up” among college-age students. A key issue not addressed in these discussions is whether the current generation's contraceptive practices influence the decision to hook up rather than date. I argue that one cause of younger women's sexual assertiveness today is the increased use of contraception, which in turn promotes a mentality that sustains the practice of hooking up and an insufficient anthropology. For theologians who attempt to discuss these issues with their students, a more adequate anthropology is necessary in order to better ground a theology of dating that is able to compete against the practice of hooking up.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2010

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1 See for example the following theological books: Freitas, Donna and King, Jason, Save the Date: A Spirituality of Dating, Love, Dinner, and the Divine (New York: Crossroad, 2003)Google Scholar; Winner, Lauren F. et al. , 5 Paths to the Love of Your Life: Defining your Dating Style (Colorado Springs: THINk Books, 2005)Google Scholar; Winner, Lauren F., Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Cloutier, David, Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press, 2008).Google Scholar

2 See for example, Bogle, Kathleen A., Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus (New York: New York University Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Regnerus, Mark, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stepp, Laura Sessions, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007).Google Scholar According to Stepp, the term “hooking up” first surfaced as a sexual concept in porn magazines in the 1990s. Within a few years, the term made its way onto college campuses across the United States, starting with the “pricey” private schools. Following these accounts were reports, first in the Washington Post and later in other national publications, that “hooking up” had surfaced in high schools and even some in middle schools (Unhooked, 30–31). For more on this, see also Freitas, Donna, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).Google Scholar

3 This question arises because of the reasons Laura Sessions Stepp offers as to why young women are more sexually assertive today. In Unhooked she offers a two-part theory. On the one hand, she believes that because young women have been told they can go for what they want (and more importantly, that they should), they carry this attitude into the bedroom. On the other hand, in order to accomplish the goals they have set for themselves and those set by their parents, she states that her research suggests women do not have time to invest time, energy, and emotion into a deep relationship. Thus hooking up appears to be a practical alternative for some young women. For more on this point, see Unhooked, 31–40. For this reason, more of my attention in this essay will focus on Stepp's claims. Where appropriate, I will also bring in research done by Kathleen Bogle and others.

4 In what follows, I am relying on Stepp's description of hooking up, which is based on her observations of three different groups of women (three women per group). The first group attended public and private high schools in the Washington, DC area. The other two groups attended prominent, four-year co-educational colleges (George Washington University [Washington, DC] and Duke University [Durham, NC]).

5 To answer this question, I rely on Bogle, Kathleen's analysis (Hooking Up, 2944).Google Scholar

6 When it comes to hooking up and alcohol, Stepp notes these “unspoken rules” of the hooking up culture: “Girls get drunk with girls, guys with guys, and the sexes then come together to drink more, flirt, dance and hook up” (113). Alcohol is the “social lubricant that fuels the unhooked culture, beginning in high school and particularly in college, where intercourse becomes more common” (115). Stepp argues, however, that one cannot blame hookups solely on alcohol; that misses a larger point, namely, that alcohol does not cause college students to jump into bed with each other. Rather, it simply makes it easier for them to do something they think they want to do even though they may know it is not good for them. See Stepp, 113–20.

7 According to Bogle, how much physical attraction mattered differed for men and women. On the one hand, male participants claimed a striking physical appearance was the most valued quality a woman could posses. On the other hand, women also recognized the important role physical appearance played in their decision of who to hookup with, but fraternity or athletic team membership was also a valued quality. See Hooking Up, 31–33.

8 Ibid., 34.

9 Some, but not all, of the factors influencing location choice include: who lives closer to where the two met? Who has the better set-up for staying over? Where does the woman feel most safe? Does one partner prefer sleeping overnight or not? This latter decision is especially important if one wants to avoid the “walk of shame,” i.e., walking home the day after a hookup in the same clothes one wore before (ibid., 35).

10 Ibid., 37.

11 E.g., Bogle notes that if there is one norm specific to the hookup culture, it is that some students admit they would go further sexually in a hookup if they did not really like the person or think there was any chance for a relationship. On the surface this appears illogical: why would students be more sexually intimate with someone they did not really like? The irony, according to Bogle, is that many college students in her study admitted it was not smart to become overly sexual with a hookup partner if one actually wanted to begin a relationship with the partner. If someone really likes another person, the operating (and dominant) social consensus is to “take it slow.” Thus it appears socially acceptable to do “whatever” with someone sexually who is “just a hookup,” but the situation changes if one is potentially interested in forming a post-hookup relationship.

12 Stepp, , Unhooked, 4.Google Scholar

13 Ibid., 5.

14 Ibid., 36.

16 See Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe, “The Changing Pathway to Marriage: Trends in Dating, First Unions, and Marriage among Young Adults” in Family Transformed: Religion, Values, and Society in American Life, ed. Tipton, Steven M. and Witte, John Jr. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 168–84.Google Scholar

17 Ibid., 170.

19 Stepp, , Unhooked, 37.Google Scholar

20 According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the second leading method was female sterilization (used by 10.3 million, most of whom are over the age of 35), followed by the condom (used by about 9 million women and their partners). Additionally, the CDC reports that the condom is the leading method at first intercourse, while the pill is the leading method of women under 30. See “Use of Contraception and Use of Family Planning Services in the United States: 1982–2002,” (accessed 8 January 2009).

21 Pearson, Marline, “Ignoring Teens' Romantic Lives,” (accessed 24 March 2010).Google Scholar Pearson also notes that even if the sexual education program revolves around an abstinence-only theme, the bulk of time is still spent discussing STDs, how condoms do not fully protect, and that the only way to be safe is to abstain.

22 For more information, go to The typical monthly birth control pill is taken every day for three weeks, followed by one week of placebo (inactive) pills. Recently, however, women have two new options. The first, referred to as either Seasonale or Seasonique, reduces the number of menstrual cycles the average woman has from thirteen per year to approximately four per year. The second new option, Lybrel, is even more convenient. A woman on Lybrel takes the pill 365 days per year; no placebos are involved. The result is the near elimination of the menstrual cycle altogether. For further reading on the history of birth control methods, see Knowles, Jon, “Report: A History of Birth Control Methods,” (accessed 8 January 2009).Google Scholar

23 Doctors also now frequently prescribe the birth control pill to allay symptoms of acne.

24 Despite serving to decrease a woman's fear of becoming unintentionally pregnant, use of the oral contraceptive pill does not reduce the danger of transmitting or receiving a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

25 More specifically, the report states that between the years 1991 and 2003, contraceptive use by United States teenagers, as well as delay in initiation of sexual intercourse, significantly improved, thus serving to lower teenage pregnancy rates. The report also notes the substantial changes in contraceptive use over the past thirty years. The most common method of contraception in the 1970s was the birth control pill, followed by the condom and withdrawal method. The 1980s, however, witnessed an increased use in condom while the use of birth control pills declined. The study reports that since 1988 condom use has continued to increase and newer forms of contraception for women, such as long-acting hormonal methods, have been introduced.

26 For further reading, see “Contraceptive Use and Pregnancy Risk among U.S. High School Students, 1991–2003” in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 38/2 (June 2006): 111, (accessed 8 January 2009).

27 Pearson echoes a similar point. Although we teach young persons about sex, she argues, they receive little instruction as to how build quality relationships and foster true intimacy. For more on this discussion, see Carroll, Colleen, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthrodoxy (Loyola: Loyola University Press, 2004).Google Scholar See also Donna Freitas' discussion of the ways young adults have attended to Church teachings but nonetheless found them wanting and thus moved on (Sex and the Soul, 194–202).

28 It should be noted, however, that just because there may no longer be a fear of pregnancy and the resulting shame that often accompanied an unplanned pregnancy, both Stepp and Bogle argue that the hookup culture places unusual burdens on women. For Stepp, the aftermath is not only real, but can include serious physical and emotional risks for women (Unhooked, 224–37). Bogle notes the lingering presence of the “good-girl” image even in today's hookup culture. That is, the goals of men and women in this culture begin to diverge after freshman year: men are more able to enjoy the status quo while some women begin to want something more. In other words, the hookup script often times continues to work for some men; thus, they do not want an alternative. Many women, however, want hookups to turn into relationships. Bogle argues that, as a result, the intimate side of college life can easily become a “battle of the sexes” (Hooking Up, 96–97.)

29 Among those who support and defend the teaching on contraception as articulated in Humanae Vitae are Smith, Janet, Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Lawler, Ronald, Boyle, Joseph, and May, William E., Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation, and Defense (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1985)Google Scholar; Grabowski, John, Sex and Virtue: Introduction to Sexual Ethics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003).Google Scholar Examples of those who have challenged the teaching in Humanae Vitae include Curran, Charles E. and McCormick, Richard A. SJ, Dialogue about Catholic Sexual Teaching (New York: Paulist, 1993)Google Scholar; Cahill, Lisa Sowle, Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gudorf, Christine E., Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Traina, Christina, “Papal Ideals, Marital Realities: One View from the Ground,” in Sexual Diversity and Catholicism, ed. Jung, Patricia Beattie and Coray, Joseph Andrew (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001): 269–88.Google Scholar For an interesting reading of the history of contraception in the United States, see Tentler, Leslie Woodcock, Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004)Google Scholar, especially chap. 6.

30 2008 marked the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, prompting a flurry of scholarly commentary. For further reading, see Eberstadt, Mary, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” First Things no.185 (Aug.-Sept. 2008): 3542Google Scholar; Rubio, Julie Hanlon, “Beyond the Liberal/Conservative Divide on Contraception: The Wisdom of Practitioners of Natural Family Planning and Artificial Birth Control,” Horizons 32 (2005): 270–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tentler, Leslie Woodcock, “Continuing the Conversation: Humanae Vitae's Legacy,” Commonweal 131/11 (4 June 2004): 11Google Scholar; Miller, Paula Jean, “The Theology of the Body: A New Look at Humanae Vitae” in Theology Today 57/4 (January 2001): 501–08.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also a collection of essays entitled “Sexual Ethics 40 Years after Humanae Vitae,” ed, Murphy, William F. Jr., in The Josephinum Journal of Theology 14/2 (2007).Google Scholar

31 For the purposes of this article, the “marriage context” refers to an exclusive, primarily heterosexual institution. I am aware there is a diversity of sexual orientations operating within the hookup culture and that some states condone other forms of marriage beyond an exclusive, primarily heterosexual arrangement. However, space does not allow me to engage such matters.

32 Paul, Pope VI, Encyclical Humanae Vitae (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1968), 17.Google Scholar

33 Winner, , Real Sex, 66.Google Scholar She also contends that the possibility of procreation affects how we understand the sacramental aspect of married love and sex, “for again, procreation redirects the lover's attention beyond the spouse, beyond the marriage bed” (67). She does admit, however, that it is possible for sex without procreation to be sacramental, e.g., in the cases of sterility or infertility.

34 I realize that in saying this some may say the the “floodgates” are now open. However, my experience in the college classroom shows that students are hungry for reading material and conversations in which one is honest and frank about issues pertaining to sex (and contraception). For some readers, this approach may seem counter intuitive, but there is a need to facilitate good conversations on these topics. This is an important pedagogical strategy, for the majority of my students do not see the value of official Church teaching on these issues. Some students publically affirm the Catholic Church's teachings on sex and contraception, but in order that students on both sides of this issue may be able to intelligently assess the merits, debits, and potential fresh applications of traditional Church teaching, one must go beyond simply giving documents that affirm the Church's teaching. This is especially true because those students who do not see the value of the teaching at hand are often more vocal. Therefore, in order for the “silent” minority's position to be heard, I think it is good pedagogy to assign reading material that covers a spectrum of viewpoints on these matters and to assist students in drawing out ways that Catholic Church teaching on sex (and contraception) might be applicable even beyond the boundaries of the traditional relegation of sex to marriage.

35 A similar kind of approach is taken by Freitas, Donna and King, Jason in their book Save the Date (New York: Crossroads, 2004).Google Scholar In their discussion of chastity, they refuse to spell out the “law” or give a list of do's-and-don'ts when it comes to questions of sexuality. Instead, Freitas and King contend they are more concerned with the attitude by which young men and women approach the sexual dimension of dating relationships. Thus, they argue, “Sexual expression is good when it connects the pleasure of physical intimacy with love and honest communication to the nature of the relationship. Sex is good when it nourishes the spiritual life of the people involved” (119). In contrast, they argue, “Sexuality that disturbs one's relationship with God, that inclines one to go against what is right and wrong, that overpowers all other dimensions of a romantic relationship, is not good” (119). See Save the Date, 102–24.

36 Farley, , Just Love, 207.Google Scholar For a similar revisionist sexual ethic, see Lisa Sowle Cahill's 1992 Madeleva Lecture Women and Sexuality: A Feminist Catholic Moral Perspective (New York: Paulist, 1992).Google Scholar As Cahill notes, her goal is to “restate constructively the Catholic approach to sexuality in a way that could be fruitful in shaping discourse toward a more integral, embodied, and social perception of sex's meaning, and which applies essentially the same interpretative framework for men and women” (68–69). More specifically, she argues that the three traditional values of sex, love, and procreation need to be understood as “ongoing, personal relationships, rather than as isolated acts or qualities of acts” (70). The three values are intrinsically connected despite common cultural assumptions that they are separable options.

38 The purpose in employing Farley's suggested norms is to articulate more fully how these seven norms might assist in the discussion of “hooking up” that I have each semes ter with my students. It is not my intent here to provide a comprehensive analysis or critique of her ethical framework.

39 According to Stepp, episodes of “gray rape” are one of the most “egregious, and least-talked about, implications of the hook-up. In gray rape, the girl who may have come on like a hunter becomes the hunted.” Stepp asks provocatively, “Whose fault is that?” (Stepp, , Unhooked, 233–37Google Scholar).

40 Farley, , Just Love, 220.Google Scholar

41 Ibid., 223.

43 Ibid., 225.

44 Ibid., 227–28.

45 The current level of distress in the medical community and beyond over rising rates of chlamydia in young women is an especially important concern today because it, along with the human papillomavirus (HPV) and genital herpes, can all be transmitted via oral sex, anal sex, or vaginal sex. Moreover, some strains of HPV are often undetectable in men.

46 This can remain a legitimate fear even after one may have moved beyond a prior history of “hooking up” and is now in a committed relationship.

47 Farley, , Just Love, 234.Google Scholar For further insight into these experiences, Farley recommends the multiple studies reported by Blodgett, Barbara J. in Constructing the Erotic: Sexual Ethics and Adolescent Girls (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002)Google Scholar, chapter 4.

48 Gaillardetz, Richard R., A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage, Rev. ed. (Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 2007), 87.Google Scholar

49 Lisa Sowle Cahill refers to this disconnect between the emotional/psychological/moral dimensions of the sexual act and the physical dimensions as a “new dualism.” She writes, “The dualism of modern Western culture consists in separating the sexual body from morality, making our sexual lives not really ‘count’ in defining whether we are good persons” (Women and Sexuality, 3). See further ibid., 3–5.

50 Stepp, , Unhooked, 242.Google Scholar

51 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2332.

52 For further reading, see Keenan, James, Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition. 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009)Google Scholar; Beaudoin, Tom, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998).Google Scholar