How Did We Even Get To Hookup Culture? A History Of Modern Dating From Hand Holding To Hooking Up

To “hookup.” A powerful phrase that finds its power in its very lack of definition. A hookup can allude to anything from kissing to sex, but one thing is for certain, it’s an encounter that’s unfettered by emotional expectations and loving attachments, and is the cause of the dating deficit that Millennials face today.

By Catherine Fowler Sample4 min read
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The term hookup first appeared in a 1993 New York Times article, titled “On Language: Stud Muffin’s Buzz-Kill’, which clarified that “hookup” (a term college kids were using) “does not stand for romantic involvement. It is used primarily as a verb, and to hook up is to 'get some,' or 'make out.'” 

Soon enough, the hookup began to replace the date. The social script for connecting was being rewritten by students, and now, decades later society finds itself at a loss as to how the traditional pathways to commitment have been derailed. 

What’s interesting is that although hookup culture has dominated modern relationship culture, the no-strings-attached worldview is strangely incongruous with what people actually want. This especially applies to women, as a 2000s survey by the Institute of American Values showed that over 60% of women hoped to meet their future spouse in college, and over 80% of young women saw marriage as an important goal. Despite this, marriage rates have been in steady decline, hitting an all-time low in 2018. According to the CDC, over 50% of the United States is single – for the first time in history. 

So how did hookup culture capture the hearts of a generation? If you look at the history of dating it certainly didn’t happen overnight.

The Collapse of Courtship

The word “dating” inspires a sense of nostalgia, a throwback to a different era as depicted in the Rockwellian image of two teens sitting at a ‘50s era diner in “After the Prom”

Dating came into common practice circa 1920, but prior to that, the mode of meeting for marriage was “calling,” where the man would come to call at the young woman’s home. Calling was initiated by the woman, and was highly supervised by her family and community. As the world modernized, many young women left their homes to live in big cities, where they were on their own and had no parlors or parents to facilitate calling as before. This was the advent of the “date,” and with the invention of the car, this further provided a “vehicle” for young people to go out unchaperoned. 

A shift in the male-female power dynamic took place, from the woman and her watchful loved ones, to the man and the money he was making. The relationship between man and woman became transactional and the courtship experience isolated. As sociologist Beth Bailey put it, this took courtship “from the front porch to the backseat.” 

Like a mouse can squeeze through a space the size of a dime, ideas only need a small window to enter the human psyche. This radical alteration to how young people met and moved towards marriage created space for two ideas that would put romance on a collision course: sexual liberation and radical feminism. 


The sexual liberation and feminist movements of the ‘60s marched arm-in-arm – the sex revolutionists flying the flag of “freedom,” with the radical feminists blaring “equality” from their bullhorns. 

The former moral dictums that governed the weaker parts of our nature were obliterated and declared obsolete. Words like modesty, chastity, chivalry, and family were demonized using buzzwords like “patriarchal” and “misogynistic.” Sex became “free,” implying that the world had previously been living in the dark ages of repression and romantic attachments. 

As sex became free, it necessitated the de-stigmatizing of birth control and abortion, which up until that point had been deemed incompatible with healthy society by secular and church officials alike (the United States categorized birth control as obscene as early as 1873, and the Comstock Law “prohibited public discussion and research about contraception.” In Canada, the 1892 Criminal Code cited contraceptives as “tending to corrupt morals,” and were declared illegal for that reason). Feminists told women: You're better off in the backseat, when women had been in the driver's seat.

Words like chastity, chivalry, and family were demonized using buzzwords like “patriarchal” and “misogynistic.”

Liberated from conventional attachments of faith, family, and country, the old obstacles to sex between men and women evaporated, and so did the mystery behind the sexes and sex. Men and women stopped valuing each sex as special and necessary in its own right, but instead were declared “separate but equal,” resulting in a neutered version of man and woman. 

Founding feminist, Gloria Steinem, posited this concept as one of the chief goals of the feminist movement: “A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.” Erasing the differences of the sexes made women and men needing and desiring one another for their complementary aspects outdated, and the act of sex, which for millennia had been elevated to the ceremonial and sacramental, was reduced to mechanics and the mundane.

A New Economy

The Economics of Sex, of the Austin Institute, provides a fascinating illustration of the dynamics in the new economy of male-female relationships since the sexual revolution, made possible by the ubiquitous use of the Pill. In a nutshell, sex became easy and flooded the “market” so that men, who before, by and large, had to wait until marriage for sex, or at least work for it in some form of committed relationship, could have sex anytime they wanted, because women were now willing to have it casually. Women abdicated their pedestal, and also their previous place of power in consensual relationships. From there, things fell into a true market economy: people became commodities. 

At the same time, another first was happening – widespread college education. Boys and girls just out of high school found themselves unsupervised and with a drink in hand, creating the perfect marketplace for the new sexual economic exchange. After germinating for decades, hookup culture sprouted like a super-weed. As more and more people hooked up, sex became the initiator of a relationship, as opposed to the consummation of a committed one. Committed relationships became unnecessary and increasingly rare, because why would anyone commit to someone when they could get the same (with less work) for free?

The Root of the Problem

Hookup culture created a vicious cycle, and it didn’t stop at college. Now it’s just as easy to swipe right than to find Mr. or Mrs. Right. The average age for first marriage keeps getting pushed farther and farther back, now at 34 years old, when just a decade ago it fell in the late 20s. 

Hookup culture abandoned what it means to treat one another with dignity.

There seem to be a million problems with modern romance, but no one can pinpoint exactly what the source of the trouble is. The Atlantic ran a story on “the sex recession” to this effect, canvassing modern dating (or the lack thereof) and cited research finds galore about why Millennials are the way they are; why people turn to porn instead of a real relationship; why dating apps are so depressing to navigate; why marriage is so far off on the distant horizon; why love is something that is not only hard to find, but a rarity to see modeled in healthy relationships. 

The crux is that hookup culture abandoned what it means to treat one another with dignity. It may sound overly simplistic, but as men and women collectively numb their conscience to view and treat individuals as commodities, it’s one short step before individuals become viewed and treated as disposable. Treating someone with dignity is obviously the opposite of treating someone as disposable; the word dignity comes from the Latin word, “worthy.” The hookup culture and its ill-effects don’t encourage treating one another as worthy of time, respect, and love, and lowers the bar so people often settle for much less than they deserve. 

Closing Thoughts

This brief history of how we got from handholding to hooking up in a century should hopefully remind us that we are each worthy – and that we each deserve so much more – including finding true love.

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