The Ambiguity of “Hooking Up”

There’s a stranger in my bed

There’s a pounding in my head

Glitter all over the room

Pink flamingos in the pool

I smell like a minibar

DJ’s passed out in the yard

Barbies on the barbeque

Is this a hickey or a bruise

—Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)

In chapter 3 of her book, Bogle defines the necessity of ambiguity in the term “hooking up.” For males, facing pressure from same-sex friends to participate in hook up culture and “go all the way,” this ambiguity allows any interaction, even kissing, to be considered “hooking up.” For women, however, the opposite is true. We discussed in class the need for women to often times explain the depth of interaction when they refer to a “hook up.” What this means to say is that when a women tells her friends of a “hook up,” she then is often compelled to eliminate the ambiguity inherent to the term by telling her friends the specifics of this interaction. Even within this hook up culture, there is a clear divide between women and men when it comes to their experiences and how they describe the interaction to even their closest friends.

The ambiguity present in the term “hook up” is necessary to the culture of hooking up on college campuses in much the same way that individuals who do not fit into the gender binary find safety in identifying with an ambiguous term. For example, some transgendered and intersexed individuals do not feel comfortable identifying as either male or female. In this case, these individuals often find comfort in using gender-neutral pronouns such as “they/them/theirs.” In this case, those who identify as anything other than male or female do not ascribe to the “traditional” gender binary. Because of this, they are often ostracized, denied opportunities and suffer a greater risk of abuse and homelessness than those who belong to the dominant group and identify as either female or male. The ambiguity of genders, or the blurring of lines where they would traditionally be drawn often makes people uncomfortable. For hook-up culture, however, these are the exact features which serve to benefit those who exist within this culture. For women, as Bogle puts it, they are given the identities of either the “good girl” or the “slut.” Women therefore address the ambiguity to often assure others that they do, in fact, belong to the “good girl” identity. For men, on the other hand, the ambiguity present in this term is often assumed to mean the most it could, or to mean he did in fact have penetrative sex with his hook up partner. What dominated these understandings is the ever-pervasive moral boundaries which are dictated by society, which we then reflect back and to one another.

In the song by Ke$ha quoted at the beginning of this post, she makes clear not only the perceived popularity of hooking up, but also the casualness it is often received with. However, this representation in pop-culture doesn’t serve as a true mirror for the lived experiences of individuals within hook-up culture. We learned that truthfully, while a majority of college students have engaged in some form of hooking up, a much smaller percentage engaged in sexual intercourse with their hook-up partner. Often times in media, hooking up is portrayed as the ideal relationship, because it excludes emotions and focuses purely on the physical aspect of sex. However, this portrayal is both unrealistic and detrimental to those who use media as a lens through which to view culture and frame societal expectations for themselves.

A definite issue with Bogle’s first three chapters is her description of her procedure when compelling her results. In the first chapter of “Hooking Up,” Bogle makes it clear that she decided to sample a group that was mostly heterosexual, white and upper-middle class, but that she did so very strategically (Bogle 6). Her decision was is based in the fact that these groups are not only the majority, but hold social power in nearly all situations. We identified this lack of diversity as a problematic feature of her study in class. By focusing only on the dominant scripts of understanding, Bogle is in fact playing into the power structures she claims to push against. However, given that there is overall a lack of study in the arena of hook up culture on college campuses, it remains to be seen that there must first be a study of the interactions of this culture with society. Once this has been established, then there can be further exploration into the intricacies of interaction between groups that are in the minority and the culture of hooking up on college campuses. This is not to say that Bogle is justified in excluding most minority groups, but that given the limited nature of scholarly exploration into hook-up culture, she stands to provide a basis for future publications regarding the more nuanced interactions that result of hook up culture at universities.

We’ve discussed at length the paradoxical nature of an ambiguous term which demands definition at every mention – why do you think this term hasn’t evolved or changed to be more specific? Are the benefits to those hiding behind it enough to justify a term which requires definition every time it is used? Colloquially, what does the term “hooking up” mean where you are from, without further refinement by explanation?

5 thoughts on “The Ambiguity of “Hooking Up”

  1. I think one of the reasons “hooking up” has not come to mean something more defined across the board is that it can provide a front for the specifics of a casual sexual encounter. I would argue that many college women are pretty tired of the “good girl” or “slut” binary. Especially in hook up culture, I do not the binary really applies. Yet, it still exists. To navigate around this, I think the term “hooking up” exists with the definition it does because it allows female participants to deflect the categorization of good girl or slut onto those in which she is vaguely describing the encounter to.


  2. I definitely agree. I would argue that some people actually find freedom in the ambiguity of the term. I also think it stems of a slight bit of laziness and our tendency to prefer simplicity. As a society we are always looking for the shortest, easiest way to say things. Rather than telling your friends, “last night at the party I made out with a guy then we…” and explain the details of the sexual encounter it is most effective to simply state, “last night at the party I hooked up with a guy.” Depending on who the conversation occurs with, perhaps the person will go in to more detail about what transpired, but the term “hooking up” functions as an overarching way to imply that some sexual encounter occurred. Because many people feel frustrated that there is no clear definition, it makes me wonder if as a culture we’ve become more nosey in terms of people’s sex lives?


  3. This post is extremely interesting because it is nonetheless a solid representation of Vanderbilt’s culture. When people discuss their eventful weekend, their stories are often accompanied with another story about how they had an occasional “hook up” with someone. This catches me off guard because “hooking up” is such an ambiguous umbrella term; It could honestly mean anything and the term varies by the person who uses the term. I think that people understand that this is an ambiguous term and intend to use it as a safety term. People don’t want to disclose too much information but also want to make it known that they have indeed engaged in some sexual activity.


  4. I would argue that the term “hooking up” being ambiguous makes the term complicated and we as a society do not like to deal with the complicated. This term has persisted for so many years with no definition in sight because of the benefits faced by both parties. Males generally dominate sexual scripts and norms, therefore if the term did not benefit them it would have evolved by now, however it does, so it hasn’t. Men are able to use this ambiguous term to let their buddies imaginations go wild and think they “hit a home run” when in actuality they barely made it off the bench. It gives males the freedom to embellish their sexual encounters without technically lying. For females, they are able to imply a “lesser offense” such as just making out when in actuality something deemed more advanced and not as accepted actually went on. Again, the term acts as a shield. For both sexes the ambiguity of the term gives them the freedom to live up to societal expectations while also showing the pressures they feel to conform. As you suggested, the benefits are enough to hide behind the term.


  5. I think that hooking up will always be an ambiguous term for the sake of being contentious. People will continue to use this word to avoid ay type of revelation of the details of their behaviors, and to avoid having to justify their actions. We are becoming a society that is much more interested in doing what we want without parameters, without justifications and guidelines. This term perpetuates exactly that interest, actions without consequences. I think at Vandy, hooking up can literally mean anything depending on the person, and I think we should all probably just take it for what it is, a term that means everything and nothing all at the same time.


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