"Anything from making out to having sex": men's negotiations of hooking up and friends with benefits scripts.Although adolescent sexuality is usually examined in the context of romantic relationships, recent attention has also highlighted sexual experiences that occur outside of the context of romantic relationships--also known as casual or nonrelational experiences. Popular press articles, especially, have raised concern that a decline in committed dating relationships among young people may have emotional consequences (Baxter, 2004; Iggers, 2004; Rackl & Hermann, 2005). Indeed, participating in nonrelational sexual activity appears to be quite common among adolescents and young adults, with over three fourths of college students reporting having had at least one such encounter (Lambert, Kahn, & Apple, 2003; Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000).
Nonrelational sexual behavior has been labeled with terms such as "hooking up" or "friends with benefits," which have been cited both in popular media (Denizet-Lewis, 2004) and academic literature (Hughes, Morrison, & Asada, 2005; Lambert et al., 2003; Maticka-Tyndale & Herold, 1999). Paul et al. (2000) defined a hookup as "a sexual encounter which may or may not include sexual intercourse, usually occurring on only one occasion between two people who are strangers or brief acquaintances" (p. 76). Friends with benefits, on the other hand, is defined as "relationships between cross-sex friends in which the friends engage in sexual activity but do not define their relationship as romantic" (Hughes et al., 2005, p. 49). The three central themes that make up the definitional script, or agreed-on blueprint, for a hookup are that the two parties are not involved in a committed relationship, that the encounter is short-term and occurs outside of a committed relationship, and that there are a variety of sexual behaviors that can be classified as hooking up. The definitional script for friends with benefits varies from that of a hookup only in the length of time (possibility of long-term involvement) and the addition of an ongoing friendship relationship between the two partners.
In this article, we conceptualize terms such as hooking up and friends with benefits as nonrelational scripts. Simon and Gagnon (1987) theorized that scripts are "mutually shared conventions" (p. 20) that help make meaning of sexual situations by organizing sequences of behavior into a coherent story. Once the initial behavior is enacted, the script outlines how the rest of the sequence is to be carried out. In the case of hooking up, for example, attending a party, drinking alcohol, and dancing may be the initial steps to engaging in sexual behavior with a brief acquaintance. The accessibility of the script ensures that both parties are familiar with the consequent steps (in the case of hooking up--carrying out sexual behavior and not expecting any subsequent romantic contact). For example, Maticka-Tyndale and Herold (1997) found that a party atmosphere, drinking alcohol, and participation in nonrelational sex during spring break presented a coherent script among college students. Those students who began enacting the script by engaging in partying and drinking were more likely to engage in nonrelational sexual behavior than those who did not begin enacting the script at all.
In both academic and popular press, young men are portrayed predominantly as benefiting from such arrangements (Baxter, 2004; Rackl & Hermann, 2005; Townsend, 1995). Portrayals of men as sex-driven and commitment-phobic are consistent with traditional depictions of masculinity that call for a man to be assertive and successful with as many sexual partners as possible and to remain unattached and unemotional toward these partners afterward (Crawford & Unger, 2004; David & Brannon, 1976; Levant, 1997; Mahalik et al., 2003; O'Neil, Helms, Gable, David, & Wrightsman, 1986). Compared to women, who are assumed to seek emotional closeness and committed relationships, men are expected to initiate and always be ready for sex and to prefer nonrelational sexual encounters to committed relationships. Studies examining gender differences in attitudes toward relationships and sexual behaviors support these notions (Grello, Welsh, & Harper, 2006; Herold & Mewhinney, 1993; Hyde, 2005; Levant, 1997; Oliver & Hyde, 1993; Smith, Guthrie, & Oakley, 2005; Townsend, 1995; Twenge, 1997; Wiederman, 1997). The impression left is that nonrelational sex is desired by, beneficial for, and prevalent among young men.
However, a recent push for examining men's nonconformity to traditional gender roles has revealed within-gender variability in men's enactments of masculinity, including their experiences with sexuality. In fact, a number of recent accounts suggest that men and boys may not universally benefit from nonrelational sex, but may instead seek and enjoy close emotional ties with their sexual partners as much as women do (Manning, Giordano, & Longmore, 2006; Pollack, 2006; Smiler, 2008). This discrepancy requires closer investigation, including examination of how men define and behave in both nonrelational and relational situations. For example, do all men share a universal definition of nonrelational terms such as hooking up and friends with benefits? To the extent that there is a universal definition for these terms, do men describe their behaviors in ways that are consistent with the definition? Accordingly, this study seeks to examine how nonrelational sexual scripts and traditional dating enactments interact in men's lives.
Diversity of Men's Experiences with Nonrelational Sex
There is diversity in findings regarding men's experience with and attitudes toward nonrelational sex. Whereas studies comparing men's and women's experience tend to support the idea that men seek nonrelational sex over traditional dating, studies also find that this preference is not universal. For example, although men are more likely than women to anticipate casual sex (63% and 28%, respectively; Herold & Mewhinney, 1993), Townsend (1995) found that 8% of men reported they found it difficult to "keep from getting emotionally involved" with a nonrelational sex partner. In a similar vein, Herold and Mewhinney found that more men than women enjoy casual sex (25% and 2%, respectively), but only one fourth of men reported that they "always enjoy hooking up," suggesting that the majority have more complicated feelings.
One way in which young men appear to violate nonrelational scripts is related to their desire for emotional connection to their partners (Paul & Hayes, 2002; Pollack, 2006). In fact, regarding nonrelational sex, some men appear to have difficulties meeting the goal of "no strings attached" that is central to the hooking up script, whereas others may refer to sexual behavior with familiar partners as hookups or even engage in hookups with relational goals in mind. Townsend (1995) found that 12% of men agreed that they wanted to be emotionally involved with a person before having sex with him or her, and 25% of men agreed that, even if no emotional commitment was originally desired, after several instances of sex they do experience emotional vulnerability and wish for a romantic connection. Manning and colleagues (2006) found that one third of the high-school age boys they surveyed who had nonrelational sex wanted those partners to become girlfriends. Further, Manning et al. found that among boys who reported at least one instance of nonrelational sex, in 76.3% of the cases the partner had been a friend, and in 66.3% an ex-girlfriend. Thus, although these were sexual encounters outside of a committed dating relationship, these boys had had long-standing relationships with their nonrelational partners. Findings such as these highlight the diversity of men's reactions to engaging in nonrelational sex.
In other words, there may be a disconnect between those behaviors that men refer to as hooking up and behaviors explicitly specified in the hooking up script. There appear to be multiple ways in which nonrelational sexual behavior is experienced among men. Whereas some studies find that men report greater endorsement of nonrelational scripts than women, other studies show variability in men's preferences for and enactments of both nonrelational and committed dating experiences. There may be a conflict between the readily available, culturally endorsed notion of men's preference for nonrelational scripts and the diverse actual enactments among men. Thus, a more nuanced approach is needed to examine how men interpret and negotiate nonrelational scripts such as hooking up and friends with benefits.
The goals of this study are to examine much more closely men's nonrelational sexual experiences. Rather than attempting to assess the prevalence of such behaviors, we focus on the definitions and enactments of the behaviors. Building on the work of Paul and Hayes (2002), we employ a qualitative approach, allowing men to provide their own definitions of nonrelational and relational sexual terms, and asking them to describe their experiences in situations in which those terms apply. Given the nature of the topic studied, it is important to note that our sample is nonrepresentative, as participants were chosen with the aim of sampling the experiences of men of various ethnic backgrounds and with varying levels of sexual experience.
Accordingly, this study attempts to (a) document the standard as well as the diverse definitions of nonrelational sexual terms, (b) examine how these terms apply (or fail to apply) to men's lived experiences, and (c) explore the multiple ways that men use nonrelational sexual terms and negotiate nonrelational sexual relationships.
Participants were students at a large, public Midwestern university and were recruited from their earlier participation in a larger survey (397 women and 182 men) of gender and sexuality across the college years (Smiler, Ward, Caruthers, & Merriwether, 2005). Upon completion of this earlier survey, male participants submitted consent forms for possible participation in a paid interview study on sexual attitudes, experiences, and decision making.
On the consent forms, each participant provided his name, e-mail address, age, and ethnic group background. Participants also responded to the the following questions: "Have you ever hooked up with someone" (responding yes or no), and "How would you describe your general level of experience with sexual relationships," indicating level of experience by selecting one of three choices: (a) none, very little, just starting out; (b) one or two romantic relationships; (c) several romantic relationships (see Table 1).
A total of 97 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 23 (M = 19.72), initially volunteered to be interviewed. Of these there were 68 White men, 5 Latino men, 14 Asian men, 7 African American men, and 1 Native American man. In addition, 1 man identified as multiracial, and 1 did not identify his ethnicity. The majority (n = 72) of men had at least one hookup experience, and most reported that they had been in one or two (n = 58) or more (n = 31) romantic relationships. A subsample of 20 men was selected by the researchers based on the information from the consent forms to create a sample as diverse as possible in ethnicity and levels of hookup, dating, and sexual experiences. Because we expected that some men would have additional sexual and relationship experiences between the time of the survey and the time of the interviews (approximately 1 year), we began recruitment by oversampling men who had initially indicated little to no experience, then moved on to participants with greater levels of experience. Because the initial sample was overwhelmingly White, we tried to recruit as many ethnic minority volunteers as possible by contacting them first. Once we had 20 volunteers, no more men were recruited. The men interviewed for this study were 18 to 23 years old (M = 19.45 years). By self-identification, the sample consisted of 14 White, 4 Asian or Asian American, 1 African American, and 1 Latino man. The majority of the sample (n = 16) was identified as heterosexual based on information they provided during their interviews about their romantic and sexual partners. Two men were identified as homosexual and two as bisexual. The interview of one participant (a gay, White man) was destroyed in an equipment failure, resulting in a final total of 19 participants. A list of participants' pseudonyms, demographics, and levels of hook up and relationship experience prior to the interview are provided in Table 1.
Interviews were conducted during March and April of 2004. Participants provided explicit signed consent to be audiotaped and to have those tapes transcribed by a professional transcriptionist. Only one participant requested that his interview be transcribed by the interviewer. To maintain confidentiality, participants created their own pseudonyms prior to the interview to be used in the transcripts, and were also asked to create pseudonyms spontaneously for everyone else mentioned in their interviews. The third author interviewed all of the participants in either his office or lab (only one participant chose to be interviewed in the lab).
In a semistructured interview design, participants were asked first to define a list of sexual and relationship terms including "dating," "hooking up," and "friends with benefits." After providing definitions, the interviewer asked each participant to describe in detail his current or most recent dating relationship. A series of probing questions was used to elicit information about the following: how the participant met this partner, a description of the dating partner, and the stages and course of their relationship including (if the relationship is a past one) how the relationship ended.
After describing their most recent dating relationships, participants were asked whether they have had sex and, if so, to describe their most recent nonrelational (i.e., hookup) and relational sexual experiences. For both types of sexual experiences, the interviewer asked participants to describe what happened sexually from the time the participants first met their sexual partners and the time they first had sex. Additional questions probed into the initial meeting, the timing and steps leading up to sex, whether drugs and alcohol were involved, if protection was used, how the participant knew that the partner wanted to have sex, and the participant's and partner's satisfaction with the experience. Participants were asked to clarify their current relationship status with this sexual partner (i.e., "Are you still having sex or dating?"). Participants were debriefed upon completion of the interview, and were paid $25 for their participation.
The first two authors independently read the same five interviews. Both researchers created brief biographies for each of the participants consisting of the participants' definitions of dating, hooking up, friends with benefits, and representative excerpts from descriptions of the beginnings, the courses of, and the ends of their relational and nonrelational sexual experiences. Summaries were then compared to ensure that both researchers highlighted the same content for each of the five participants. Coders discussed any discrepancies and revised summary strategies until consensus was reached. Based on these five interviews, researchers then used grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) to identify emerging themes concerning definitions and reflections on different terms for nonrelational sexual encounters and the antecedents and consequences of both relational and nonrelational sexual experiences. Each of the researchers then created biographies for one half of the remaining interviews, coding responses using the previously described themes.
Defining Hooking Up and Friends with Benefits: Traditional Definitions
When asked to define the terms hooking up and friends with benefits, participants appeared to be very aware of these terms. All of the men gave a description of a hookup that is consistent with the definition provided in previous research (e.g., Paul et al., 2000) and the definitional script (see Figure 1). For example, John B. defined hooking up as "spur of the moment. It's not really about the actual like person per se. I suppose sexual ... Short term." Similarly, Jim S. said, "Hooking up would be ... if this was an English lesson and you'd say like Jim hooked up with Janet, I'm basically saying that the two of them had sex and they don't really have any sort of emotional ties." Other men provided definitions that contained some or all of the themes from the definitional script.
With respect to the friends with benefit script, again, almost all of our participants were able to provide us with a coherent definition for these behaviors. The central themes of this script were that the partner was a friend or an acquaintance, that a sexual activity (potentially involving intercourse) was ongoing, but that there was no monogamous commitment to each other. For example, Superman defined it as "like a friend who [you] hang out [with] all the time but don't want to get into a relationship or anything, but enjoy sexual aspects." Chuck defined friends with benefits as an "extended period of hooking up," whereas Zeke's definition positioned friends with benefits between hooking up and dating. He said:
That would kind of be like a little bit more than a hookup maybe but certainly not dating. Friends with benefits would be someone who I would want to be friends with forever no matter what but maybe have hooked up or continued to hook up.
Like Zeke, other participants appeared to explicitly define these nonrelational scripts in terms of their opposition to traditional dating relationships. Although our participants separated casual dating (or "going on a date") from more committed dating relationships, the men in our study agreed that "being someone's boyfriend" or "dating" was monogamous and committed. For example, Derek described dating as, "A committed relationship in general, if I'm dating someone, I would be saying that I'm committed to them and I wouldn't date other people at the same time." Chuck took this a step further, and said:
Dating is like a beginning relationship between two people who like feel some sort of connection. There are just sort of feelings to each other. Like they know that they might be interested in this person and that.... It's their first step towards like an eventual like getting married.
Contrasting hooking up with dating, Mike described hookup partners as "anyone, people that aren't your girlfriend," whereas Joe defined friends with benefits as "you're friends with someone, you're having sex with them but you're not dating."
To summarize, the men were aware of the definitional scripts for hooking up and friends with benefits as sets of behaviors involving strangers or friends engaging in some sort of sexual activity without the expectation of a romantic relationship. Both of these nonrelational scripts were positioned in contrast to monogamous, committed dating relationships and were consistently repeated, suggesting their accessibility to the college population.
Alternate Script Definitions
At first glance, it appeared that the men in our study agreed on the definitional scripts for hooking up and friends with benefits. Yet, almost immediately upon providing us with these common scripts, they began amending the definitions by adding additional contingencies or their own interpretations. Seven of the men provided alternate definitions for hooking up that were not consistent with the original script (see Figure 1).
One of the salient alternate definitions emphasized the ambiguous nature of this arrangement. As an example, Matthew's definition that a hookup "could but doesn't have to involve any kind of emotional aspect, some kind of sexual contact, usually implies some level of nudity in some way" deviates from the definitional script to allow for an emotional connection between hookup partners. The possibility of an emotional connection coupled with a wide array of possible sexual behavior further increases the ambiguity of the hooking up script. Echoing this ambiguity, Mr. G. confessed that, "I try to use it now in the context with the people I am with. So I kind of adapted my definition to other people's definition" because he was not sure whether there is a generally agreed-to script for hooking up.
Another contribution to the ambiguous nature of the hookup script is the change in meaning depending on the context. David pointed out that, "Hooking up in a general sense is just when two people become physically intimate. But you can also hookup with someone you are dating. Like 'I hooked up with my girlfriend'." In fact, although no other man included this use of the term in their definitions of hooking up, many of them used the term later when discussing their experiences with dating. In sum, although the definitional script for hooking up that outlined a coherent set of behaviors was accessible to the men in our sample, there were some personal and contextual variations in the actual use of the term that introduced ambiguity to the script.
In a similar vein, four of the men shared alternate definitions for friends with benefits. In fact, it appeared that these participants had reservations about the existence and feasibility of this arrangement, in general. Matthew defined friends with benefits as "Attempts at sexual gratification without the worry of obligation," implying that such relationships are rarely successful. David's definition likened friends with benefits to dating by saying that, "Oddly enough I think it would be monogamous. There is a very fine line and I have heard it only working out very infrequently." Finally, echoing David's last line, Frank commented, "I don't know too many people that actually have friends with benefits. It is just kind of a word that's out there, really doesn't make all that much sense."
Real-Life Experiences with Nonrelational Sex
In addition to providing multiple definitions of the hooking up script, the men in our study reported having diverse hookup experiences. These men engaged the script in three distinct ways. One way involved adherence to the definitional script, where men's experience with hookups matched their traditional definitions. The second form of engagement was actually a rejection of nonrelational sex altogether. In such cases, these men reported a preference for committed relationships instead. A third form of engagement with the script took the form of what appeared to be failed attempts to enact the definitional script or experiences that reflected alternate definitions. In describing their experiences, these men violated the script by blurring linguistic distinctions between committed dating and nonrelational scripts and by using nonrelational terms in ways that downplayed their emotional investment. Notably, it was not unusual for men to report multiple types of enactments of hookups or to express different sentiments depending on the context of the event.
Enacting the definition. Of the 13 participants who indicated that they have hooked up, only four reported having a positive hookup experience that is consistent with the definitional script: involving a stranger or acquaintance, devoid of a relational context, and without expectations of future involvement. For example, when asked to describe his most recent hookup, Jeremy described the following experience:
It was the first time I had sex, lost my virginity [as a] freshman. Then it was actually a person I knew that went to my same high school that was a freshman girl. We hung out one night and the whole time, like she started making out with me and then she was like, let's go back to my dorm room. Pretty much all she told me was like "do you want to go to my place?" I said "sure."
Similarly, Andrew hooked up with Rachel at a New Year's Eve party where, as the night progressed, everyone was coupled up. Andrew described that he and Rachel were both "a little drunk. It just kind of happened, I guess. I guess just she was there and I was there and the mood was right." Rachel went to a different college and, when Andrew saw her again, "She was cool with it. It was a mutual understanding."
Both of these stories contain an important element that is also implied in the definitional script of hooking up: a lack of emotional reaction to the partner or the experience. Both men described their hookup experiences as positive and casual; neither alluded to any further romantic or sexual contact with their respective hookup partner. Also, neither expressed any emotional connection either to the partner or the experience they shared. It is apparent from these two accounts that hookups--as defined by the definitional script--do, in fact, exist.
Refusing to enact the definition. By contrast, five men expressed an unwillingness to engage in hookups altogether. For example, Mr. G. said, "I am not really looking for casual relationships. I would kind of like to meet someone and settle down." B.D. also expressed his reluctance to engage in hookups. He said:
I usually won't do that, not because of what other people will think, just because I kind of feel like well, what's the point. I feel I could do better in terms of ... I think I could get someone that I'm more physically attracted to. Usually I'd rather not get some and wait.
B.D. even described an incident in which he turned down the opportunity to hook up: "But that night she basically was.... She basically almost didn't want to give me a choice you know. And that is amazing to me and I was like, 'no I just don't think it is a good idea'."
Some of the men explicitly stated that they were more interested in committed dating relationships than hookups. For example, when Derek met his girlfriend Sarah, she was "scantily dressed" and expressed immediate interest in him. However, he said that he only took her number and decided not to pursue anything that night. He said, "I like to take my time and I didn't want a hookup." He called her a few days later, and the two started dating. They did not begin having sex, however, until both got tested for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.
Thus, consistent with the definitional script, some men welcomed the idea of nonrelational, no-strings-attached sex. However, given that the majority of our sample did not fall into this category, it may be that these by-the-book encounters are rare. Instead, it is possible that the majority of college-age men follow more relational scripts that endorse traditional dating.
Violating the definition. When asked to describe their "last" or "typical" hookup, nine men appeared to attempt to enact the hookup script, but found that their real-life experiences did not neatly match up with it. Resulting were hybrid experiences--stories that were inconsistent with the definitional script but did not entirely reject it either. This inconsistency was manifested in several ways. Some men engaged in hookups but found it difficult to remain detached from the experience. Others used the term hookup in relational situations, such as the beginning and ending stages of dating, or even an unsuccessful attempt at a dating relationship. For all, it appeared that hookups were not simply casual.
A few of these men did engage in hookups, but described a tension between emotional and sexual involvement. According to the definitional script, and echoed by traditional masculinity, emotional vulnerability is not part of a standard hookup experience. Men should be able to hook up with a stranger and not experience any emotional repercussions. However, real-life situations appear to be more complicated for the men in our sample. Andrew admitted his vulnerability by saying, "I either have to not care about the girl at all or care about the girl a lot and feel comfortable. Cause there's like I have a little problem with being vulnerable a little bit."
Some of the men reported regretting past hookups, such as David who hooked up with Jess but said that "I kind of regret it." He said that he did not find Jess attractive and the two did not get along, and David blamed alcohol and a party atmosphere for the hookup. Frank described hooking up with Mary, a secretary at his summer job. He said "I guess we kind of got pressured by other employees like 'hook up!' And I would say the next Monday at the office, it was a little awkward."
In another example of violating the definitional script, Derek described an instance where he hooked up with his ex-girlfriend from high school that pushes the boundaries of the definitional script even further:
So for her and for me it was like really about the emotional connection. It wasn't just about that incident but it was ... it seemed like it had more meaning to it because it was emotional although we both knew that at the same time it was just once and nothing to take too seriously. I wasn't really expecting anything. I really didn't care, to be honest with you, what happened exactly. I just wanted to see her and spend time with her.
Although Derek himself labeled this a hookup, the encounter violated the script by being both emotional and relational. His partner had also not been a stranger, but someone he was familiar with and had shared a committed relationship in the past. Thus, although the definitional script for hooking up was accessible to almost all of our participants, when it came to enacting these behaviors in real life, tension between the nonrelational nature of hooking up and emotional involvement did come into play. Other men also described hookups with partners they also referred to as "friends" or admitted to romantic feelings. In one instance, Mike explained about his hookups with Katie, who attended another college:
I don't think we were really dating because we never really talked about it, but the feelings were definitely there to, like, where I would. I would've easily dated the girl had she gone to [my college] ... I didn't have a car. I couldn't go there. But it got so it was considered hookups, I mean, but there were definitely feelings there.
The ambiguity in distinction between relational and nonrelational enactments was also evident in the men's linguistic use of the terms. In providing us with definitional scripts, our participants separated dating and hooking up as monogamous and committed versus nonrelational and casual. However, when describing their actual experiences, the men consistently conflated these terms, with the resulting equivocation possibly serving to down-play men's emotional investments in their sexual activities. For example, in an earlier quote, David pointed out the relational context of the term hooking up in the example "I hooked up with my girlfriend." Similarly, when asked to define dating, Matthew said, "I use the term dating for when I have actually been like very interested in someone. And you know, very consistently hooking up with this person," again combining terms that, according to the definitional scripts, are mutually exclusive. Unlike the definitional scripts, Matthew's statement suggests that men understand hooking up and dating as continuous rather than discrete. For instance, Andrew described his dating relationship with Sarah as almost middle-ground between hooking up and dating. He said, "I wouldn't consider dating her in the same way I would consider my first two girlfriends. I would say hooking up with but like serious hooking up with."
In addition, several of the participants talked about hooking up as beginning steps in a relationship--a description that runs counter to the traditional script that emphasized that hookup partners are not interested in pursuing a relationship with each other. Joe described the beginning stages of his relationship with Jane as hooking up. He said:
We originally hooked up because I was on vacation basically and then she was on vacation too so we just.... I mean we had kind a similar backgrounds like that. We casually kind of talked a little bit and then after a while like the relationship progressed and then we got a little more serious.
In a similar story, Jeremy described how he and his girlfriend Julie came together:
It was just hanging out on the weekend and I took her out to dinner and then like driving home.... I mean at that point, like we had already hooked up a few times and things like that and so.... I just asked her if she wanted to be boyfriend-girlfriend.
Both couples were still involved at the time of the interview.
Nonrelational labels may also be of use when a dating relationship does not work out, perhaps to attempt to diminish the importance of the connection. For example, Mr. G. described his interaction with Megan as follows:
Basically kind of flirting with a girl from a sorority for a couple of months and one night I went to a party with her [and it] just kind of escalated into making out for an extended period of time. Was kind of hoping it would evolve into a dating relationship. I am not really looking for casual relationships.
Mr. G. later asked Megan out but she turned him down. It is possible that because the result of this interaction was purely physical and the relationship did not transpire, Mr. G. classified it as a hookup.
The ambiguity of the friends with benefits script and the men's uncertainly of its viability was also reflected in their real-life experiences. Mike was the only one with an experience he described as "friends with benefits and also hooking up." Mike and his partner Jenny eventually had sex, which Mike described as "a very regrettable decision." He had lost his virginity that night and said, "I guess your first time is supposed to be like really special or whatever, but I just felt like it was just in a complete haze and like stupid decision-making."
None of the other men had had a relationship that they describe as friends with benefits, but some told stories about the experiences of their friends that indicated that having these types of relationships is generally unsuccessful. However, B.D. related a friend's experience with his friend with benefits as follows:
The girl randomly appears when they want to get it on. But I don't think they're so much friends as just, you know, using each other for sex but in general friends with benefits. I'd like to think that they are comfortable enough with each other and not looking for a relationship.
However, later he added:
At first she was kind of ashamed and like talked shit about him later because she wanted to take the focus off herself for just having sex with him the very first night that they did anything, and so once she got through that denial or whatever now she starts, you know, popping up more often and now he's saying maybe I should take her out for dinner or something.
Although B.D. describes this interaction as a friends with benefits arrangement, it appears that the "couple" may eventually become romantically involved. It may be that using a nonrelational label at first may be one way of dealing with the uncertainty that comes in the first stages of dating.
To summarize, when it came to enacting hooking up and friends with benefits scripts, few of the men in this study could describe experiences that conformed to the definitional scripts. For example, although most of the men in the sample were able to provide the same definition of friends with benefits, testimonials reveal that such nonrelational sexual arrangements are the exception rather than the norm. Furthermore, the men did not seem to use the terms dating and hooking up to discriminate relational and nonrelational behaviors but used them, perhaps strategically, to minimize their apparent involvement in a relationship. In addition, many of the men explicitly did not conform to the notion that nonrelational, commitment-free sex was more desirable than sex within a relationship. Others found keeping relationships completely emotion- and commitment-free to be challenging. Thus, the nonrelational scripts in their definitional form did not appear to inform the men's behavior. Based on these interviews, it seems possible that nonrelational sexual scripts are seldom enacted as traditionally defined. This possibility is corroborated both by testimonies of the men's actual experiences and through the existence of alternative definitions that amended the traditional scripts.
In this study, we examined the multiple ways that college age men defined and enacted two nonrelational sexual behaviors: hooking up and friends with benefits. Previous findings indicate that both behaviors are perceived as cohesive scripts that are commonly available and enacted by undergraduates. Undergraduate men, in particular, are often portrayed as enjoying and seeking to adopt these behaviors because they conform to traditional gender norms encouraging men to seek out multiple sexual partners. However, existing literature on men's nonrelational sex experiences also shows considerable variability in men's level of participation and satisfaction. Further, enactments of these nonrelational sexual scripts may not always reflect the script definition. For example, men may choose a hookup partner who is a close friend or former dating partner, or may become romantically involved with a friend with benefits (Afifi & Faulkner, 2000; Bisson & Levine, 2009; Manning et al., 2006). Accordingly, this qualitative study examined variability and potential inconsistencies in men's definitions and enactments of hooking up and friends with benefits.
Most participants in our study provided definitions of hooking up and friends with benefits that were consistent with the definitional scripts previously offered in the literature (e.g., Paul & Hayes, 2002). However, many of our participants also presented alternate definitions that extended, and in some cases even contradicted, definitional scripts both in literal meaning and use of the terms in context. For hooking up, participants pointed out that the choice of hookup partner is not necessarily limited to strangers, and that there may be an emotional connection between the two. Further, depending on the context, "hooking up with your girlfriend" may refer to just the sexual aspects of the encounter without undermining the commitment of a dating relationship. As for friends with benefits, although participants generally agreed on the definition, many questioned the existence and viability of this arrangement.
How do these definitions compare to men's enactment of nonrelational sexual behavior? With regards to enacting the friends with benefits script, all of the men's experiences reflected the alternate script, which cast doubt on the viability and frequency of this form of nonrelational sex. Only one of the men in this study had had a friend with benefits, nor were most able to provide an example that reflected the definitional script from the lives of their friends. Such enactment may exist more as a fantasized masculine ideal than a common occurrence.
However, there was greater diversity in enactments of the hooking up script whereby three trends in men's behavior emerged. First, two of the men reported enactments consistent with the definitional script. These men reported positive experiences and appeared content with the nonrelational nature of their encounters. Other men indicated a reluctance to engage in hooking up, although they did not necessarily reject the definitional script. The third group of men described hookup experiences that matched some aspects of the definitional script, but also embodied some elements of the alternate definition. These men reported emotional connections to their hooking up partners, hooking up with a previous girlfriend, or even consistently hooking up with the same person and likening it to dating. Some of the men's experiences contradicted the definitional hookup script altogether. Yet, these men appeared to use the hookup definition to their advantage to downplay romantic setbacks or to not appear too relational. Because initial stages of dating may resemble hooking up (both involve relative strangers or brief acquaintances engaging in sexual behavior), the term hookup may be especially suited to equivocating about the extent of sexual involvement, relational intent in pursuing a hookup, or "saving face" if rejected. This linguistic tactic is consistent with findings from Grello et al. (2006), who found that some men may choose to refer to the encounter as a hookup if the relationship ends after one or two dates. This linguistic ambiguity may be especially useful for men who are unwilling or unable to embrace the traditional masculinity approach to nonrelational sex, but who do not reject it altogether either.
In sum, compared to the specificity and rigidity of definitional scripts, men's actual sexual experiences appear to be more fluid. Few men entirely adopted or rejected nonrelational sex. The two men who reported having "successful" hookups also reported having been in committed dating relationships. Some of the men who stated that they preferred dating to hooking up had also reported hookup experience. Most men in this study engaged in a mixture of committed, semi-committed, and nonrelational sexual relationships rather than having settled on one particular type of involvement.
Although these findings shed new light on how men define, enact, and negotiate their sexual experience outside of established monogamous relationships, this study has some limitations. First, the use of a nonrepresentative sample requires that generalizations be made with care. Because our sample was selected based on diversity of sexual experience, it is unclear what proportion of college age men engage in nonrelational sex that is consistent with the standard script. It is possible that enacting the "standard" definition of hooking up and friends with benefits is more common among college-age men in general than among men in our study. It is also possible that men who have more hooking up experiences that are consistent with the definitional script also define the script in more standard ways. In addition, these findings may also not reflect experiences of men who are outside of the college environment or age group. It may be the case that access to peers of similar age creates more opportunities for nonrelational sexual behavior that may be infrequent in other contexts. Nevertheless, the use of a college-aged sample is also a strength of this study, as qualitative research on the sexual behaviors of men in this age group is rare. Further, this is a developmental period in which many men are making their debut into sexual and romantic relationships.
The second limiting factor of this study was men's reporting on the last hookup or friend with benefits experience versus one that is typical. It is possible that the majority of men in our study generally engaged in hookups that are consistent with the definitional script, which their most recent experience did not reflect. Because none of our participants had ever had a friend with benefits, however, this limitation does not apply to this form of nonrelational sex. Future research in this area is needed to learn more about the frequency of typical versus alternate enactments of nonrelational sexual scripts and about the prevalence of alternate definitions in other populations.
Our findings highlight the benefit of using a qualitative approach to examining how men negotiate the pressure to conform to traditional masculine norms with their need to form meaningful romantic relationships. Future studies need to take into account the diverse ways that men define nonrelational sexual scripts as well as ways that they use the terms in context. For example, engaging in a hookup with a previous dating partner as a way of conveying affection is not the same as a hookup with a stranger at a party. Our findings also suggest that, although the linguistic markers (terms and definitions) are relatively clear and mostly agreed-on, actual behavior does not neatly fall into these categories. Instead, the conflation of terms (e.g., "hooking up with one's girlfriend"), the potential for a hookup relationship to become a dating relationship, and the potential to hookup with a former dating partner suggest porous definitional boundaries that might be better understood as a continuum. These findings also draw attention to the fact that the language currently available to men may be insufficient for describing the true range of their experiences.
Further, as we demonstrated, men may have diverse motivations for engaging in hookups. For some men, the motivations are consistent with the hookup scripts (such as a way of having no-strings-attached sex); yet for others, hooking up may be a way of pursuing a relational need that is contrary to the script definition. More data are needed to learn how men intentionally and unintentionally use these terms and how these and other terms for sexual behavior are reflected in their real-life experiences.
Finally, future work needs to address the historical context of these sexual experiences and terms such as hooking up. Do these terms carry new meaning or are they synonymous with older concepts such as "casual dating" or "one-night stand?" Are patterns of committed and casual dating and sexual relationships different among young men today than in the past? Future studies will need to examine these questions using larger representative samples, and will need to pay particular attention to the subtle amending of term definitions in real-life contexts.
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Substance Abuse Research Center, University of Michigan
Jerel P. Calzo
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan
Andrew P. Smiler
Department of Psychology, State University of New York, Oswego
L. Monique Ward
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan
Support for this project was provided by NICHD T32-HD00710926. Thanks also to Allison Caruthers and Erica Wollerman for their help in developing the interview protocol and recruiting participants.
Correspondence should be addressed to Marina Epstein, Substance Abuse Research Center, University of Michigan, 530 Church St., Room 2225, Ann Arbor, MI 48109. E-mail: email@example.com
Table 1. Participants' Pseudonyms, Demographics, and Levels of Dating, Sexual, and Hookup Experience Sexual Experience Pseudonym Age Ethnicity Orientation Level (a) Andrew 18 Mexican American Heterosexual C B.D. 19 White Heterosexual A Ben 21 White Heterosexual C Chris 23 Chinese Heterosexual B Chuck B. 19 White Heterosexual A David 20 White Heterosexual C Derek 19 White Heterosexual B Frank 20 White Heterosexual C James 20 White Bisexual A Jeremy 19 White Heterosexual A Jim S. 19 White Homosexual B Joe 19 Asian American Heterosexual A John B. 18 African American Heterosexual A Matthew 20 White Bisexual B Michael 19 Korean American Heterosexual A Mike 19 Indian/White Heterosexual B Mr. G 18 White Heterosexual B Parker (b) 21 White Homosexual B Superman 19 White Heterosexual B Zeke 19 White Heterosexual C Dating Sexual Hookup Pseudonym Experience Experience Experience Andrew Y Y N B.D. N N N Ben Y Y N Chris Y Y N Chuck B. Y N N David Y Y Y Derek Y Y Y Frank Y N Y James N N N Jeremy Y Y Y Jim S. Y Y N Joe Y Y Y John B. Y N N Matthew Y Y Y Michael Y N N Mike Y Y N Mr. G Y Y Y Parker (b) Y Y Y Superman Y Y N Zeke Y Y Y (a) (A) None, very little, just starting out; (B) one or two romantic relationships; (C) several romantic relationships. (b) Audiotape of interview destroyed in equipment failure. Figure 1. Comparison between definitional and alternate scripts for hooking up and friends with benefits. Definitional Script Alternate Script Hooking up Uncommitted Committed People that aren't your girlfriend I hooked up with my girlfriend (Mike, 19, Asian/White, (David, 20, White, heterosexual heterosexual) The nature of the encounter is Possible emotional or relational nonrelational and short term connection between partners Short term (John B., 18, African Could but doesn't have to involve American, heterosexual) any kind of emotional espect (Matthew, 20, White, bisexual) There are a variety of sexual Definition is ambiguous behaviors that can be cassified I try to use it now in the context as hooking up with the people I am with. So I Some kind of sexual cooled, kind of adapted my definition to usually implies some level of other people's definition (Mr. nudity in some way (Matthew, 20, G., 18, White, heterosexual) White, bisexual) Friends with benefits Partner is a friend or an Unstable or unsustainable acquaintance I don't know too many people that A friend who [you] hang out [with] actually have friends with all the time (Supemtan, 19, benefits. It is just kind of a White, heterosexual) word that's out there, really doesn't make all that much sense (Frank, 20, White, heterosexual) Ongoing sexual reletionship Extended period of hodrkp up (Chuck, 19, White, heterosexual) No formal or romantic commitment Monogamous to each other Oddly enough I think it would be You're friends with someone, monogamous (David, 20, White, you're having sex with them but heterosexual) you're not dating (Joe, 19, Asian American, heterosexual)