When a  guy says that he “hooked up” with someone, what exactly does he mean?  Does it mean they had sex (and what does “sex” mean anyway)?  In order to find out, I interviewed 20 guys to find out how they used “hooking up” and how they understood “hooking up” when someone else said it.

Why?  “Hooking up” has become a common expression in our culture.  People might hook up for lunch or coffee, but we often use it to mean some type of casual sex.  For those of us who study sex, it’s important to know exactly what people mean when they’re talking about their (sexual) hook-ups.

Who?  I interviewed 20 male undergraduates, mostly juniors and seniors.  Most were White (“European-American”), but there were a few African- and Asian-Americans as well.  Some of the guys were virgins, some had sexual experiences with only a few people (<3), and some had a lot of sexual partners.  Most  of the guys said they were straight,  a few said they were gay, and one or two said they were bisexual. None of the guys were married or engaged.

How?  Each guy was interviewed in a one-on-one format.  At the beginning of the interview, the guys were asked to define terms like “hooking up,” “having sex,” and “making love.”  After that, they were also asked to describe their most recent dating relationship,  their most recent experience of coitus, and their most recent hookup experience (to the extent they’d had any of these).

With each guy’s permission, the interview was recorded and then transcribed.  The analysis used the transcripts.  This analysis was lead by friend and colleague Marina Epstein, so she’s officially the first author.

What did we find? During the interviews, most of the guys defined “hooking up” in  the same way: a short-term sexual experience that did not include any kind of emotional connection or an ongoing romantic/dating relationship.  The guys said that a hookup could include “anything from making out to having sex”, as one of our participants put it.  The expression is generally assumed to indicate sex, but the guys allowed that sexual activity didn’t need to go that far to qualify as a hook-up.

When we looked at the guys’ descriptions of their actual sexual experiences within relationships, we noticed that most of the guys talked about hooking up with their girl-/boy-friend.  Given that the guys were very clear that hooking up is something that happens without emotion and without an ongoing dating relationship, this is a bit…strange.  Part of the reason for this use might be that the guys didn’t see their in-relationship sexual activity as “casual sex” and they tended to find the term “making love” old-fashioned, but they couldn’t come up with another term.  The guys also said they (thought they) used “hooking up” when they talked to their friends, but not their romantic partners.

So what? At the simplest level, this  means that there really isn’t a good definition of “hooking up.”  For researchers (like me), therapists, and others who talk to people about their sex lives, it means we need to be very careful to make sure that we know exactly what someone is talking about when they say they “hooked up” with a partner.

But there’s also something more: many of the  guys used “hooking up” when they talked about their girl-/boy-friends.  This might mean that they  think about their casual and their relational sexual experiences in the same way.  That has the potential to be a problem: I wouldn’t want my partner to think or feel the same way about me that she would about someone she only really knew for one night.