Hookups and heartbreaks: Navigating the modern dating field

Dating and relationships have changed significantly for this generation of young adults, with hookups and dating apps taking to the forefront of how people get together.


Design by Naomi Hofferber

Naomi Hofferber, Senior Reporter

Hookup: It’s a word that can mean anything, from a makeout to a variety of sexual activities, and it’s the key descriptor in the culture of relationships that college students are navigating. Hookup culture, aided by dating apps, has permeated the traditional methods of dating, changing the game for the younger generations.

University Counseling Services Therapist Ian Evans said that while dating app culture is relatively new, hookups existed well before them.

“The means that people would meet up to hookup would be parties and those kinds of things,” he said. “Now, it’s a much easier, detached way, using an app to connect.”

According to a Pew Research Center study from Feb. 6, nearly half of 18-29 year olds have used dating apps, with 45 percent of all users saying using dating apps have made them feel more frustrated than hopeful when it comes to finding a partner.

University of Iowa senior Kristina Ernst said her dating experiences in college have been primarily based through apps such as Bumble and Tinder, but that nothing had come from them. She said dating apps and the internet have led to people not knowing how to talk with one another.

Design by Naomi Hofferber

“The internet has kind of taken over our lives,” she said. “You’re not forced in this day and age to talk to people because you have things like Bumble and Tinder to do that for you without having to be face-to-face with other people.”

Such apps aim to have campus presences and market to college students, with Bumble offering an ambassadorship program for enrolled college students, and Tinder offering Tinder U, a service only available to college students, according to their websites.

Evans said there is an interesting dynamic in the shift from dating to something more app-based, leaving students vulnerable to be haunted by “ghosting culture.”

“There’s this pattern of regular rejection that people experience on dating apps, whether that be people swiping through and getting a whole bunch of matches and nobody initiating conversation, which can feel like a sense of rejection…” he said. “Or the person reaches out and starts talking and then doesn’t communicate back in a way that reciprocates the excitement that that person had.”

Data from a 2016 PlentyofFish survey of more than 800 millennials found that 78 percent of users had been ghosted — where the person of interest ceases contact altogether, with no explanation of why.

Ernst said she feels like people prefer hookups and friends-with-benefits situations over dating.

“I feel like people are scared of [dating], they’re scared of being committed to one person,” she said. “They’d rather just hook up with people and do what they want to do and feel like they still have freedom without actually having to date people.”

According to a December article by sociologist Lisa Wade, hookups are now the primary way college students initiate sex. However, her findings saw that under the pressure to keep things casual when it comes to sex, many students found dissatisfaction in the cycle of hookups.

RELATED: Swipe Right: The dating game of the 21st century

Wade found that, “students enact sexual casualness by hooking up only when drunk, refraining from tenderness, being unfriendly afterward, and avoiding “repeat” hookups. Students both break and follow these rules. Breaking them is a primary way they form romantic relationships, but also a source of stigma, especially for women.”

The 2019 National College Health Assessment shows UI students reported having an average number of 2.9 sexual partners — slightly higher than the national average of 2.2 — in the last 12 months. Men had an average of 3.3 partners, and women had an average of 2.5.

Of the 568 UI survey respondents, 18.8 percent reported having four or more sexual partners in that time period compared with 10 percent nationally.

UI freshman Michelle McGinnis said hookup culture feels very real on campus.

“It’s hard to get to know people in a real sense, on a deep emotional level, where you can actually date someone in college. It’s too much of a commitment for people most of the time,” she said. “You meet someone, and the first thoughts in your head are, ‘Oh, are they trying to have sex with me?’ It’s not meeting people to make connections and to make friends and to get to know people.”

Design by Naomi Hofferber

Among her friends, McGinnis said around half are into hookups.

Evans said that while hookups can be positive experiences, communication, along with practicing safe sex, is key.

“One of the things people find really appealing about a hookup is that it’s a harmless and fun commitment to someone,” he said. “It’s a way to connect to someone sexually, because sexuality is exciting for many people. Another aspect is it’s a sense of control over one’s sexuality, it’s a means of exploring one’s sexuality.”

While there are benefits to keeping things casual, there can be implications of doing so as well. Ernst said she worries dating will go by the wayside in the future, in favor of keeping things casual.

“I kind of am scared that dating isn’t even going to be a thing in the long run, because people are already so terrified of it now,” she said. “I can’t imagine that people are really going to ever take a step back and go, ‘Woah, we might actually need to get to know people before we hook up with them.’ ”

UI anthropology Ph.D. candidate Emma Wood said in an email to The Daily Iowan that how people act on dating apps reflects common mating strategies in the animal kingdom. She emphasized that what is typical in animals does not excuse people from poor behavior.

“However, Tinder is so fascinating because it reflects exactly what is predicted for males and females in the animal world: Males try to mate often and females are choosy about whom to mate with,” she said.

Wood said that while more men report maxing out swipe allowances on Tinder, women will often match with every man they swipe right on, which can lead to a feeling of dejection and stress for men.

“While I don’t think this be choosy/mate often dynamic is quite as stark in ‘real life,’ i.e., offline men-women interactions, I do think Tinder and apps like it are a perfect example to demonstrate this dynamic,” she stated.

Evans said his advice for those entering relationships in this day and age is to identify their motivations for entering a relationship, and to find ways to communicate that with their partner.

“Being able to get on the same terms with, ‘Here’s what I’m looking for out of a relationship at this point,’ whether that be, ‘Maybe I’m not emotionally ready for a long term relationship, but I’m looking to casually date and spend time with someone,’ ” he said. “Making sure that you’re on the same page with that person is the biggest part.”