A History of Sex: The Origin of the "Hook-Up"

Excerpted from:
A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue
By Wendy Shalit

Page One

Here, I think, is a task for sex research: an objective inquiry into the short-term and long-term effects on men, women, and children of emancipation from sexual repression, from feelings of sexual shame and guilt. Sweden and Denmark, where convalescence from Victorianism appears to have progressed the furthest, are favorable sites for such an inquiry; but much might also be learned from a comparison of the inhibited and the emancipated here in the United States or anywhere else.

hello, -- EDWARD M. BRECHER, 1969

Along with his wife Ruth, Edward Brecher was a key figure in popularizing and promoting the work of Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson. He was on the forefront of trying to save his culture from Victorianism, what he saw as a "debilitating sexual disease...also known as Puritanism, and as the Judeo-Christian ethic." And yet, as the above passage reveals, even as he railed against the last remnants of sexual repression and that diseased Judeo-Christian ethic, he did not know what sex would be like without shame and guilt. There were no liberated societies to study nor any empirical data to collect because there had always been shame, guilt, and various taboos, even in the most primitive of cultures. By his own admission, then, he was just guessing. He enthusiastically set us on a path, without any reservations, and guessed that it would be good.

Thirty years later, now that we do live in a condition of "emancipation from sexual repression, from feelings of sexual shame and guilt" -- indeed we are actively urged to overcome such feelings in the classroom -- we no longer have to guess.

So welcome, Mr. Brecher, to the world of postmodern sexual morality. In some respects it has turned out more horrifying than even the "inhibited" might have imagined, but in other crucial respects the experiment turned out to be a great tribute to the human spirit.

We may not have the old Judeo-Christian rules, but we do have extremely detailed and tangled system of postmodern sexual etiquette -- fashioned not out of any wealth of stored wisdom, traditions, or familial advice, but simply out of necessity, broken hearts and the discovery that maybe we are human, after all.

The question, I guess, then becomes, Is our guerrilla etiquette as good as the older rules?


About a decade ago, the late Allan Bloom surveyed the college sex scene, and found it unsettling that the young rarely said "I love you" -- and certainly never "I'll always love you." Rather, he found, most lived together because it was convenient, "with sex and utilities included in the rent," and then often "le[ft] each other with a handshake and move[d] out into life." "This was called having a relationship. As Bloom famously, scornfully, put it: "Did Romeo and Juliet have a relationship?"

The answer to his rhetorical question, of course, was that Romeo and Juliet had something slightly more profound than a relationship, but even a relationship is closer to what Romeo and Juliet had -- when we compare it to what we have now. For ten years later, we are very lucky if we can find a young couple capable of sustaining Bloom's much-maligned relationship. What we have now, mostly, are hook-ups. Here is Sex on Campus: The Naked Truth About the REAL SEX Lives of College Students, 1997:

In recent decades, the students at small colleges seem to have moved away from the whole concept of dating....The favored approach is just to play it cool and wait until you see the person again to develop your relationship further....Hooking up: You were almost certainly acting on physical attraction, not a well-formed emotional attachment, and there was no risk to either of you. You're under no obligation to date each or call each other -- nor should you expect to be called or dated....Ball-and-chain rating: 1....you should never get so drunk that you do something you didn't want to. In reality, however, a great many college hookups occur when both parties are sloshed. Sometimes it's no problem at all and everyone can have a good, sloppy time....[But] if you realize almost immediately after you finish having sex that this will definitely be a one-time-only event and you really don't want to pursue any relationship -- even a purely physical one -- with this person, try not to sleep through the night with the person. It may seem awfully awkward and it may be late at night, but get up, get dressed, say, "Thank you for a wonderful evening," and go home....Leaving someone with whom you've just traded bodily fluids can seem strange, rude, and inconsiderate, but at least you'll have the knowledge that you were being honest, and it will make things less complicated down the road.

Hook-up is my generation's word for having sex (or oral sex) or sometimes for what used to be called "making out." The hook-up connotes the most casual of connections. Any emotional attachment deserves scorn and merits what Sex on Campus calls a dangerously high "ball and chain rating." ("A ball-and-chain rating of 0 or 1 would mean that you should be able to go on about your business without much worry.") Without embarrassment, there cannot be any surrender. We can only hook up.

In context, the typical exchange is, "I hooked up last night." "Yeah? Me too." Above all, it is no big deal. Indeed, hooking up is so casual, and the partners so interchangeable, that sometimes it's hard to discern a pattern in all the hooking and unhooking. It seems almost arbitrary. Hence, a 1998 issue of YM magazine takes up the question: "Q: Why do guys dump a girl, then try to hook up with her again?"

For the full answer, here is NBC's report from the University of Michigan: "Dating takes a lot of time," as one male senior puts it, "it costs a lot of money, and also I think out of the little time that you have, you want to kind of maximize what you get out of it." Sums up the NBC reporter: "Dating...is a practice which on this campus and others is history." Why date, when you can just hook up, then unhook? And perhaps later, hook back?

It's such a strange expression, hooking up, like airplanes refueling in flight. Not just unerotic but almost inanimate. Where did this idiom come from?

I looked everywhere for the origin of the expression, but couldn't find "hook-up" anywhere. First I checked the Bible. Nope, wasn't there. Then I looked in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, but it wasn't there either. I won't bore you with the rest of the search. The end of the story is that after months and months of research, I finally tracked down the first use of the expression ever recorded. It turns out that the "hook-up" originated with Nena and George O'Neill's 1972 tract, Open Marriage. Here is how it was first used:

Your Hook-up Points:...So there you are, a person, a particular identity, with your unique pattern of hook-up points. And there next to you is your mate with his own particular identity and his own unique pattern of hook-up points. You become joined together because you find that numerous, perhaps even a majority of your hook-up points match. You grew up together, you speak the same language, have the same values, both like potted plants...but however many hook-up points you share, there will be others that you do not, simply because you are unique individuals.

As for "those hook-up points you and your mate cannot match," you can just go ahead and match them elsewhere:

Whether they are actual needs that your mate cannot meet, or unrealized potentials that your mate cannot stimulate to further growth, they are part of you. And if they are not used, if they remain untouched, unvalidated or unfulfilled, they will become brittle from disuse. Eventually, to continue the image of these hook-up points as external antennae, they will become so deadened that they will simply drop off, making you a diminished person with fewer points of contact. These lost hook-up points leave you less of a unique person, less than you once were or could in the future be. If one of these hook-up points has roots deeply imbedded in your personality, stemming from a major need, it may be impossible to simply shed it like a porcupine's quill. Instead it will fester where it is....In our closed marriages, we allow only those hook-up points that match those of the mate to be fulfilled.

So see ya later, alligator -- you didn't hook up all my hook-up points. In this light, it is not very surprising that so many date-rape charges should fly after these "hook-ups." At every turn our romantic hopes are quashed by the words once used to rationalize faithless marriages. Our sexual landscape is already soaked in the language of betrayal before we've even begun.

Which brings us to the one minor problem with the hook-up: women have been known to be less enthusiastic about these hook-ups than men. A 1993 study of college women, in fact, found that 69.8 percent of the women surveyed reported they had been "verbally coerced" into having "unwanted sex." For the past 15 years or so, feminists and conservatives have been locked in a bitter struggle over whether retroactively claimed "unwanted sex" constitutes rape. Totally unaddressed is the fact that, whatever it's called, most women are not happy with these "hook-ups." Why? The advice given by Sex on Campus provides us with a clue: "And if the person asks the dreaded question, 'Will I ever see you again?,' respond with a platitude of some sort, like 'I really enjoyed spending time with you tonight, but I'm not into having a relationship.'" Then "Comfort yourself with the knowledge that, as long as you're not in Texas, gunplay is unlikely." Translation: it's okay to treat women like prostitutes, because nobody cares anymore.

Consider the following advice given in a 1997 issue of GQ magazine: "Q: I've just had a one-night stand with a woman I really like. I don't want a relationship, but I don't want to look like a cad, either. What's the etiquette here?" Comes the reply:

Don't presume that (1) all women are living in the 50s and (2) all women want to cultivate a relationship with every Tom they meet. Good news for both genders: It's 1997, and chicks like unencumbered sex as much as men do. We just like it polite. So, here's the rule: The seemly thing to do after you've shared a poke is to call...yes, you can leave a message on her machine. All that's needed is a two-minute base touching: "I really had fun with you. It was nice. Thanks for a great date." Keep it sweet, simple and sincere and women will understand. It's called closure. Do not allude to a future when none is intended. And no matter what you say, never, ever trot out the "I'll call you" line when you know you won't.

Well, if "chicks" like "unencumbered sex" so much, then why is it so important that the man call after the hook-up? And why is it so important that he not give the woman false hope about the future?

In any case, that's stage one in postmodern sexual etiquette: you should be hooking up on a regular basis. If you're like me and a bit disgusted with the very idea of a hook-up, you may simply refuse to hook-up with anyone. You can explain to the men you date that you are just particular and simply have too many hook-up points. But be forewarned: avoiding the hook-up is no guarantee that you won't get your heart broken.

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