Sex Ed

Why Women Hook-Up—And How They Feel About Their Hookups

August 24, 2020 by Katie Adams

When I was an undergraduate student, the weekends usually meant parties. And Sunday brunches often consisted of friends dishing on any hookups that occurred at those parties. Looking back on those conversations, it’s clear that my female friends seemed to have pretty mixed results—both emotionally and sexually—with those encounters. For example, some described situations where they didn’t fully enjoy themselves sexually—meaning they didn’t have an orgasm—but they still enjoyed the experience overall or some of the non-sexual aspects of it.

The fact that my friends weren’t always orgasming isn’t surprising in light of what research on women’s hookups has revealed. Study after study has found that women have fewer orgasms than men during sex, but this is especially true in the case of hookups [1].

So why are so many women hooking-up despite often getting the short end of the stick? (Pun intended) Perhaps some women are finding sources of satisfaction from their hookups that go well beyond the presence or absence of orgasm.

Some of my colleagues and I conducted a study to explore this possibility. We thought that women’s reasons for hooking-up might explain their varied and potentially conflicted emotional reactions and experiences. We sought to explore this through approach-avoidance motivational theory [2].

Approach motivation responds to rewards and motivates behavior toward rewards. In this case, an individual can view the goal of having sex as the pursuit of positive outcomes (e.g., because it feels good, or to make an emotional connection). By contrast, avoidance motivation responds to threats and motivates behavior away from threats. In this case, the goal of sex is the avoidance of negative outcomes (e.g., to cope with feeling lonely, or to prevent a partner’s anger).

In addition to behaviors being rooted in an approach-avoidance orientation, behaviors can also be self- or other-oriented. In other words, are you enacting a behavior for you, or are you doing it for someone else?

These dimensions (approach/avoidance and self/other) interact to result in six distinct motivations for having sex. Approach motives include having sex for pleasure and fun (enhancement motives) or to make an emotional connection with one’s partner (intimacy motives). Avoidance motives include having sex to affirm one’s self-worth or attractiveness (affirmation motives), to avoid upsetting or angering one’s partner (partner approval motives), to avoid negative judgment by one’s peers (peer approval motives), and to alleviate negative feelings (coping motives) [3].

We conducted a longitudinal, weekly diary study involving 264 single and sexually active college women (ages 18-32), each of whom completed online surveys about their motives for hooking-up [4]. In the initial survey, each woman reported reasons for why she might engage in a hookup based on the six different motivations discussed above. For the remaining five weekly surveys, each woman reported whether she hooked-up during the seven days prior.

If a hookup occurred, the woman indicated the extent to which the encounter satisfied the six domains from the initial survey. She was also asked to report how she felt about the hookup in terms of 14 different positive emotions and 18 different negative emotions. If a hookup did not occur within a given week, she was asked to report on how she felt about having not hooked-up using those same emotions.

Out of the total 947 weekly reports completed, just over half (53%) involved hookup encounters. Overall, 77% of participants reported at least one hookup; just 23% (61 women) did not hook-up at all over the course of the study. Among those who hooked-up, 30% did so only once, 24% hooked-up twice, 25% hooked-up three times, 11% hooked-up four times, and 10% hooked-up in all 5 weeks of the study.

The most common motives women reported for hooking-up were enhancement and intimacy, with the least common motives being partner- and peer-approval. This means that we saw approach-orientated motivations for hooking-up endorsed more often than avoidance-orientated ones.

Our results demonstrated three key findings: (1) women who engaged in hookups for enhancement motives tended to have more positive and less negative emotions following the encounter compared to women who hooked up for other reasons; (2) achieving pleasure, intimacy, and/or self-affirmation during the hookup—when that was their intended motivation—resulted in more positive and less negative emotions afterwards; and (3) simultaneous feelings of both positive and negative emotions following a hookup were common.

In fact, most women (63-71%) reported a variety of positive feelings following a hookup, coupled with a low degree of some negative feelings. Positive emotions included feeling contented, enthusiastic, excited, happy, joyful, and/or satisfied, whereas negative emotions included feeling anxious, discontented, dissatisfied, guilty, regretful, sad, shameful, unhappy, and/or worried.

Even when participants reported high levels of feeling ecstatic, enthusiastic, and excited following their hookup, most also reported some degree of remorse (characterized by a combination of shame, guilt, and regret). We speculate that these negative feelings are likely related to the prevalent (albeit diminished in recent years) stigma around women engaging in uncommitted sex and the risk of STIs and unintended pregnancy.

Putting these results together, hooking-up for enhancement motives was consistently associated with the most favorable emotional outcomes (more positive and less negative feelings). By contrast, hooking-up for peer- or partner-approval or coping motives generally led to worse outcomes via greater feelings of remorse.

Interestingly, intimacy motives were not related to emotional outcomes, but hookups that satisfied intimacy motives were emotionally positive. This may suggest that, for intimacy, what happens during a hookup may be most influential.

These results point to the problem with trying to characterize hookups as uniformly good or bad for women. Sometimes, these experiences are positive; other times, they’re negative. And yet other times, they are simultaneously beneficial and problematic. So, while women may not always reach orgasm during a hookup, they can still find the experience satisfying if it achieves their motivation(s) for engaging in it in the first place.

Thanks to Katie Adams for this guest post! Learn more about her below: 

Katie Adams is a Doctoral student at the University of Kansas in the Social Psychology program, working with Dr. Omri Gillath. Her research focuses on close relationships and the underlying motivations of attraction, sexual behaviors, and short- vs. long-term commitment. She is currently heading research projects on (1) the creation and validation of a measure for pornography consumption motives, and (2) the motivations for, and outcomes of, communicating infidelity to one’s partner. She completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Rochester (2014) and her Master’s degree at Villanova University (2018).

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[1] Armstrong, E. A., England, P., & Fogarty, A. C. (2012). Accounting for women’s orgasm and sexual enjoyment in college hookups and relationships. American Sociological Review77, 435–462

[2] Elliot, A. J., Gable, S. L., & Mapes, R. R. (2006). Approach and avoidance motivation in the social domain. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin32, 378.

[3] Cooper, M., Shapiro, C. M., & Powers, A. M. (1998). Motivations for sex and risky sexual behavior among adolescents and young adults: A functional perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology75, 1528–1558

[4] de Jong, D. C., Adams, K. N., & Reis, H. T. (2018). Predicting Women’s Emotional Responses to Hooking Up: Do Motives Matter? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships35, 532–556.

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Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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