the hookup scene: good or bad?

Let’s start with a thought experiment. Assume we want to sell widgets but we haven’t developed any mechanism for coordinating buyers and sellers. Then, you read a proposal for setting up a widget exchange. It will have the following properties:

  • Low information – the buyers and sellers don’t really have a lot of accurate information about widgets. Many customers are first time buyers. Some are minors.
  • 1 shot interaction – the buyers and sellers will only interact with each other briefly and many will never see each other again.
  • Low visibility – widgets will be bought and sold in secret locations and their will be no record of the transaction.
  • Coercion is allowed/No complaints – There will be very little punishment for people who break the terms of widget trading. Many who steal widgets go unpunished. Widget sellers are consistently bigger and stronger than widget buyers.
  • Inebriation – Widget exchange frequently occurs when traders are drunk.

What would be your ex ante evaluation of the propsoed widget exchange? You would be justified in saying that the widget exchange would be inefficient. You might also be justified in saying that the widget exchange facilitates criminality. It is hard to find many reasons to support the proposed widget exchange.

Claim: Modern hookup culture is very close in practice to the dysfunctional widget exchange. In private spaces, young and often sexually inexperienced people meet, drink, and engage in short term relationships. If you think the widget exchange proposed above is bad, then it follows that hookup culture is bad as well.

Social conservatives are often critics of hookup culture because they often pick up on the inefficiencies of that institution. However, they often make a mistake – the rejection of hookup culture does not entail a return to more traditional approaches to the organization of sexuality. We can ask about the institutional design of more traditional sex and apply the same criteria. For example, in a regime of no-premarital sex and unbreakable martial contracts, we would expect suboptimal performance because you have low information customers who commit to a single unbreakable transaction.

One might counter that the a no-premarital sex/no divorce regime might be preferable to hookup culture. If the only option is the hookup scene, then that might be a strong argument. However, there is a lot of unexplored space between hookup culture and more traditional sexual institutions. The hookup scene is only one extreme point on a continuum. It is not hard to imagine other sexual institutions that try to address the problems of hook up culture as I’ve outline them. For example, it might be possible that liberalizing alcohol on campuses might decrease the demand for hookup scenes.

The bottom line in hookup culture is that it is a very bizarre institution with a lot of very bad built-in features. But that doesn’t mean one should revert to an older institution that had its own problems. In an age where people have sex for both procreation and enjoyment, and where birth-control is cheap and common, we should be able to think about the unexplored territory between highly regulated sexual interaction and the false freedom of the hookup scene.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 22, 2015 at 12:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. This takes a very rational choice view that implicitly assumes the utility of marriage is sex and that sexual relationships always above all focused on the exchange of bodily fluids (“widgets”). A symbolic interactionist would look at this very different–there’s inherently a lot more shared “meaning” in marriages and long term relationships than in “hook-ups”, which are ideotypically “meaningless”. Hook-ups in the real world often find people at cross purposes: one party is interested in the simple exchange of sex, the other in building up shared meanings. This is the plot of hundreds of books and movies from the last twenty or thirty years, though the tradition goes back much further (arguably, Scheherazade even fits this trope). JLM has a good critique of the whole “romantic relationships modeled purely as exchange” literature: “Theories of Sexual Stratification: Toward an Analytics of the Sexual Field and a Theory of Sexual Capital,” though even that I don’t think gets very far into agents wanting different things from different types of partners (“she’s a very freaky girl/the kind you don’t bring home to mother”).


    Graduate student

    June 22, 2015 at 4:43 am

  2. Not to be too much of an economist, but if I saw a market where 1) there were tons of repeat buyers and sellers, despite 2) the well-known existence of many other markets for similar exchange, and 3) massive takeoff of technology (e.g., the Tinders of the world) which make the widget market even more like the bullet points described above, I might begin thinking that revealed preference was telling me something…

    Liked by 1 person


    June 22, 2015 at 6:32 am

  3. 1. This explains quite well why people rarely hook up when they’re sober.

    2. Much of the evolutionary psych research in the past decade has shown a distinct divide between the short-term mating system and the long-term mating system. Both involve sexual desire, but they differ in ways that make it difficult and possibly misguided to study mating preferences in some kind of generalized way. In fact, many social psychology articles these days are either about short-term mating or long-term mating, but not both. This is line with what “Graduate student” said. So hookup culture may work for short-term mating.


    Chris M

    June 22, 2015 at 5:57 pm

  4. Wait, did you really just say social conservatives dislike hookups because *inefficiencies*?! Not because of their anti-sex (or however you could put that more positively) views overall? I mean, maybe there are social conservatives who use perceived ‘inefficiencies’ as a justification for attacking hook-up culture, but I sure don’t think that’s their main objection.

    I also don’t think ‘widgets’ & exchange/markets generally are a good analogy for sex, but it is an interesting rhetorical device for thinking about about the pros & cons of hook-up culture for the people who participate in it, without engaging all the moralizing that social conservatives & many other kinds of Americans (and others, but I think especially Americans, at least as compared to, say, the Netherlands) can’t help bringing to bear on the question.


    Daniel L

    June 23, 2015 at 1:04 pm

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