Hook-up culture: Is it hurting or helping romance?

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Before Tindr and FetLife, there was Adult Friend Finder.

My buddy Mike went on AFF looking for a partner with whom he could do a little bondage and maybe more. Soon he found someone who was nearby and down to play. The woman he met was a tall, stunning blonde, and they had immediate chemistry. After a night of torrid passion, they returned to their respective homes.

Over the next day they both came to the same conclusion: That was good.

Having enjoyed themselves thoroughly, they opted to hang out again. And again… And again. It turned out that they had a great deal in common. Both of them are insightful, compassionate, lovers of reading, and heavily into physical fitness. They have similar taste in music and pets. More importantly, they felt good around each other.

Nine years later, they’re still together, sharing a house and a menagerie of dogs.

They could have found each other on a regular dating site, maybe searching for someone who had read the same authors or who loved lifting weights. They also could have met by chance: buying pet food or at a charity run. It’s likely they would have had sparkling conversation over drinks, found each other intriguing and eventually gotten around to the naked-except-for-ropes fun. But who knows? Maybe they wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking for that in a traditional dating scenario.

Every so often I read an article about hook-up culture, usually written by someone who bemoans the effects of easily-acquired sex on long-term relationships. They say romance is dead, that no one goes out on proper dates anymore, that we’re all devalued by the lack of effort required to get into each others’ pants.

Part of the issue is the commonly held idea that getting it only makes a person (somehow) less valuable, as though sex is a commodity that is only prized when it’s rare, as though love weren’t a renewable resource. In a culture where women’s worth is based on their “purity,” and sex is only good if it’s part of a state-sanctioned relationship, then sure: Hook-up culture is ruining everything.

People have always had sex outside of committed relationships; nothing is new about that. But this generation is OK with talking about it honestly and even looking for it specifically. Whether fueled by the power of the Internet or simply too much PBR, today folks are likely to make out first and go to the movies later.

While survey data shows that most sex still happens inside relationships, many of those relationships started out as hook-ups.

How does that transition work? What can be noticed during a supposedly meaningless encounter that makes us want to see someone again in the daytime, with their clothes on? How does one relate a sense of humor, kindness, generosity, or other important qualities through a purely physical experience?

Well, perhaps it’s not just physical. Perhaps sexuality, like talking, is a means of communication.

It’s easy to see if we’re selfish and distracted, or giving and enthusiastic, but maybe we also allow glimpses of a true, vulnerable part of us that we normally obscure when we’re trying to impress a date over drinks and fancy dinner conversation. Maybe sharing our sexual selves is like traveling abroad or surviving boot camp together: We share risks and pleasure, work as a team, put genuine human reactions ahead of decorum, and experience a part of a person that not everyone gets to see … including parts that make us fall in love.

My friend Mike and his partner went looking for one thing and found something else entirely, both of which are perfectly valid goals. But that’s not to say traditional dating is always the more direct route.

Given how much chemistry matters in a long-term relationship, there’s a lot to be said for finding a sexual connection first and compatibility later. More than a few marriages have ended because of mismatches in the bedroom that weren’t apparent until the couple were already deeply invested.

Between Tindr, Grindr, Scruff, Ashley Madison and a million other venues, we can cut to the chase and ask explicitly for what we want. With Match.com, OKCupid, and the other sites, we’re able to shop for humans as conveniently as we might browse for leggings or shoes.

A greater quantity of options, though, makes it more difficult to select a single purchase. So if your real goal is to find one partner with whom you’ll share the rest of your life, online dating may actually not the best option, even if it’s the most convenient.

If the goal is satisfying your skin hunger tonight, though... Well, there’s an app for that.


Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure. 

She's has an award-winning podcast, "Sex with Timaree", and hosts a BYOB sex ed, comedy/game show "DTF: Darryl and Timaree Fun Hour" which can be seen every second Friday at the Philly Improv Theater (2030 Sansom St.)