Illustration by Heather Rose
Illustration by Heather Rose

In the space between a committed and casual relationship is a gray area where “hooking up” exists. It’s a place where being coy instead of straightforward creates missed connections and lost opportunities.

“Hooking up” is an ambiguous term that can refer to anything from passionate kissing to sexual activity. The definitions vary socially and regionally and include unwritten rules that dictate the direction of the relationship, like not asking where the hookup is going.

“The term ‘hooking up’ is vague and encompasses a lot of different possibilities,” said Kathleen Bogle, a sociology professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, in an email. She described the differing intentions in a hookup between partners — one may hope it’ll transpire into dating, while the other may not be looking further than just the hookup.

“One trademark of the hookup culture is that things are left unsaid,” Bogle said. “Given that so much communication is nonverbal, there is a lot of angst over reading the cues someone is giving.”

Bogle is the author of “Hooking up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus” in which she analyzes the significance of sexual encounters, the diminishing stigma around casual relationships and why hooking up has taken precedence over dating.

In a generation when more women are earning college degrees and thwarting gender roles, marriage has economically become less of a necessity and hooking up has become an accessible way to seek certain benefits of marriage without the commitment. Shifting mobility in the workforce has impacted the ability to settle down. Since the ‘60s, the age to marry has increased by six years, and since the ‘80s, marriage rates have steadily declined — the population of married couples in the U.S. is at its lowest in history.

“There are many who assume these changes are necessarily bad,” said Sean G. Massey, Binghamton University associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies. “A lot of the research on hookups has taken a ‘disaster model’ approach to sexuality.”

On college campuses, students have gravitated away from pathways leading to marriage, like dating, and altered their pursuits based on practicality. The scripts for behavior in hookup culture are ever-changing and unique to every community. First-year UC Santa Cruz student Franky Kohn described “getting the hint” as short form for hoping that someone could read his mind and accurately pinpoint his feelings without verbal communication.

“It may feel awful to reject somebody, but it is far worse to pretend they don’t exist,” Kohn said.

First-year student Sarah, whose name has been changed, tries to be honest with her partner, but admits to telling “little white lies” if she’s not emotionally invested in the relationship. An expectation to “be cool about it,” and a fear of being labeled as a “bitch” for being assertive, leads her to withhold certain truths.

“I’ve always felt like the demise of relationships has been my fault because I didn’t understand what they wanted,” Sarah said. “But then conversely, they didn’t really articulate, or [they] weren’t honest with me.”

The lack of honest discourse between partners arises from more than the uncertainty of commitment. UCSC developmental and social psychology professor Campbell Leaper said social patterns develop differently by gender, and it’s more common among females to have intimacy in their friendships and males to bond through activities. This creates an imbalance of intimacy in a heterosexual relationship, where one seeks intimacy and the other is afraid. Both partners remain passive and struggle with understanding cues because it’s safe.

“Some people like to cuddle. Some people don’t … and I don’t want to read into it without it being a verbal thing,” Sarah said. “His signs might be different than my signs.”

In a survey conducted by Leaper, UCSC students responded to questions about dating. While the results are not yet published, he found most students endorsed traditional attitudes about dating scripts.

“Both women and men are, on average, more likely to think that the man should initiate the date — even amongst what you think of as egalitarian UCSC students, this is very common,” Leaper said.

Leaper said that findings in the survey, including that men are generally expected to pay for dates, reflect the perpetuation of chivalrous ideals and sexist attitudes. However, when students were asked if it was appropriate for a person to have a one night stand, little evidence was found in trends regarding double standards in sexual activity.

Sean G. Massey said the rise in hookup culture also means greater sexual agency.

“Less sex-guilt and regret, and fewer unwelcome and unhappy marriages,” Massey said. “It could also mean more risk — but we don’t want to just leave it at that.”