College Students on Dating vs Hooking Up

Recently, researchers have documented the phenomenon of “hooking up” on college campuses in the United States and how it is replacing traditional dating as the primary form of romantic interaction between the two sexes.1 A “hook up” is characterized by a sexual encounter, usually occurring between people who just met or are casual acquaintances, for which there is no expectation of future commitment. This is in contrast to dating, a more formal process, in which one person asks another person to accompany them on “a date” and generally includes the possibility of developing a relationship.1

Bradshaw and colleagues undertook a study on the perceived benefits and risks of dating and hooking up reported by each gender as well as a preference for one over the other.1 A convenience sample of 221 undergraduate students from a public university in the southern US rated their preference for hooking up or dating in 11 different situations. The participants also chose the top 3 benefits and top 3 risks for traditional dating as well as for hooking up.

The results of the study showed that over 95% of women and 77% of men preferred dating to hooking up. However, both male and female participants had experienced, on average, almost twice the number of hook ups as first dates in the past 2 years. Both male and female participants indicated several situations in which they would prefer dating over hooking up, including: “having a friend or new acquaintance that they could see themselves in a relationship with”; “being interested in a long term relationship with someone”; and, “meeting someone with an amazing personality.” The majority of participants preferred hooking up to dating if they were consuming alcohol with an attractive person. On the other hand, they preferred traditional dating if they were not consuming alcohol.

Participants were aware of some risks of hooking up. About 2/3 of the participants reported STDs and 1/3 reported pregnancy as a risk of hooking up. Other responses to perceived risks revealed differences between male and female participants. A quarter of the women indicated that “wanting a relationship after a hookup and your partner feeling otherwise” was one of the greatest risks. Similarly, almost a fifth of the women indicated that “getting emotionally attached” was another risk of hooking up. In contrast, over a quarter of the men indicated that “your partner wanting a relationship or getting attached” was one of the greatest risks.

The study is limited due to its small sample size and restricted geographical and demographic focus. The sample size was small and included undergraduate White students from one public university. Hence, the sample is not representative of the entire young adult population in the US. Young adults who are not students or are older may have very different views and behaviors than those included in this and other similar research.

Regardless of these limitations, this research offers insight into the relationship attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of college-aged youth. First, if hooking up is more common than dating as a heterosexual interaction on college campuses, then these students are at risk of negative outcomes. Multiple partners and casual sex are associated with increased risk of sexually transmitted infections and emotional consequences, such as regret and shame.2,3 Both the physical and emotional consequences of hooking up could change a young person’s life forever. Second, the role of alcohol in encouraging hook ups over dating points to a worrisome pattern of risky behavior. Indeed, alcohol consumption can lower inhibitions that a person would normally feel while hooking up. Lastly, even though young adults, especially women, prefer dating to hooking up, they are hooking up more often than dating. In doing so, they are putting themselves at risk for the physical and emotional consequences discussed above, as well as unwanted sexual activity, as reported in other studies.2,4

It is important for youth, parents, and educators to understand the prevalence and risks of hooking up. Not only is this behavior becoming a norm among youth, it may be taking precedence over interactions that have traditionally been stepping stones to stable long-term relationships. Parents and educators can make a huge difference in the lives of children by informing them of the risks of casual sex. So, encourage our youth to aim for a bright future by making the healthiest choices during their transition to adulthood.


1. Bradshaw C, Kahn AS, Saville BK. To hook up or date: which gender benefits? Sex Roles 2010;62:661-669.
2. Paul EL, Hayes KA. The casualties of “casual” sex: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenology of college students’ hookups. J Soc Pers Relat 2002;19:639-661.
3. Eshbaugh EM, Gute G. Hookups and sexual regret among college women. J Soc Psychol 2008;148:77-89.
4. Flack WF, Daubman KA, Caron ML, et al. Risk factors and consequences of unwanted sex among university students: hooking up, alcohol, and stress response. J Interpers Violence 2007;22:139-157.

Reviewed: June 2010