At the moment you read these very words, teenagers and young adults across the country are having sex (hopefully not with one another). This fact is undeniable, and there is not much any one person could do about it, unless of course you happen to be one of them. Parents have been concerned and fretting over the issue of teen sex for at least a century, as this nascent form of carnality has gone through countless revolutions and iterations informed by everything from birth control to “sexting.” So, to repeat, there is no stopping the sex train that is on a crash course with the impressionable lives of American teenagers everywhere. However, apprehensive parents have new reason to be troubled and wary due to the prevalence of the notorious “hook up.”
The hook up, or “hooking up” as is used in a more active context, is nothing that new, but has, over the past few years, been canonized in popular culture to define casual and consensual sex. The term itself is sufficiently vague, but generally involves sexual encounters, of varying degrees of frequency and intensity, with little or no strings attached. This form of casual sex will sometimes, but not always, lead to something more substantial like a long term relationship, which is an inversion of the usual dating chronology which placed relationship well before the prospect of sex. Teenagers and young adults have been opting out of the traditional courtship ritual of dating, in favor of the far more casual, and far less doctrinaire, practice of “hooking up.” Dating itself, with its definitive gender etiquette and high price tag just doesn’t stand a chance against the visceral appeal of easy and unfettered sexual congress.
So is dating dead? This has been a concern among parents, bloggers, and commentators alike. Dating, according to Beth Bailey’s history of dating, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America, evolved out of a courtship ritual where young women entertained gentleman callers, usually in the home, under the watchful eye of a chaperon. At the turn of the 20th century, dating caught on among the poor whose homes were not suitable for entertaining. And then the practice was moved to the backseats of cars, converted and carpeted basements, and the poorly lit bathroom stalls of nightclubs.
Ironically, even with the rise of “hooking up” teens are having far less sex than they were a few decades ago (according to data from the CDC) and many participants in the “hook up” culture claim that the informality and lack of pressure breed a more relaxed social environment where true friendships are nurtured. But is the “hook up” degrading our traditional notion of dating and intimacy? Many critics of the “hooking up” phenomenon claim that being able to engage in intimate relationships where men and women bring all of themselves to the relationship is the cornerstone of family, and without it we are cast adrift in selfish sexual pleasure and fleeting intimacy. In the era of hyperactive internet-based social networks, “hooking up” seems like the logical extension of the current technological culture, but is this sex liberating or just cynical and detached? Is the route to empowerment (for both genders) in the bedroom or within the confines of a developing and mature relationship?
Would love to hear from those of you who are “hooking up” or those of you just fed up?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.