Words won’t help your hook-up odds

There was an interesting Modern Love piece in the NY times a week or so ago. It was written by Gabrielle Ulubay, and is titled, For Best Hookup Results, Use Your Words, O.K.? Right off the bat, I was suspicious of the title and after reading it, definitely see a different way to get to a better outcome.

To begin with, just the term hookup conveys sex with no strings. It’s a coming together of two strangers who are looking for fun without commitment and a relationship. If this author truly wanted just a fun sexual experience, why would she be upset when she doesn’t ever hear from the guy again? According to Gabrielle, guys should just be honest during a hookup—not expressing any attraction/interest/admiration beyond the physical act. Then somehow, the experience would feel better/be better for anyone who participates in it.

Maybe I just can’t help myself, but when I read between Gabrielle’s lines, I heard her express a desire for something more than a one-night stand. She wanted to hear the words, though they frightened her because she feared they were not genuine. However she wanted to believe they were—which tells me that she wants more than a hookup.

I am not suggesting that Gabrielle should not enjoy sex “as much as a guy does.” There is nothing wrong with that. But by not being completely honest with herself about what she wants beyond the sex, is helping to keep her in this unhappy pattern. She even references her fears that this guy will find out that she hooks up a lot, and will see her differently. This suggests she is not truly OK with how she sees herself, and no amount of loving and adoring words from someone else can change that. Nor will doing the same thing over and over again bring different results—unless she just gets lucky.

If Gabrielle were my client, I would begin by talking to her about her relationship goals/dreams/desires, or lack thereof. I would encourage her to explore her own heart—without the voices of the larger culture weighing in. For instance, is she telling herself she only wants to have a good time, to enjoy the sex and the guy’s brief company without strings? Or somewhere deep down, is there a hope for something more—a best friend, lover, and partner? If so, why can’t she admit this to herself? Is there a fear she will seem desperate, weak, an un-feminist? So what, is her goal is to find her heart’s desire, what does it matter what other might think?

Then I would encourage Gabrielle to approach dating differently. I would suggest no sex for a number of dates or even months. This way, she and the guy (if he is still interested when she says no) will get to know each other a bit as people without an intimacy that is not really intimacy—just sex. They can actually go on fun dates, play together, talk about their passions and hopes, share stories of growing up, turn one another on with their shared sense of humor or intellectual connection. Then sex will happen “organically,” with an openness, greater honesty, and a sense that they really do know each other in some ways and so far have liked what they see and want to see more.

Old-fashioned, maybe. But if your goal is a relationship, it’s a better path to follow.

Hooking up is bad for your mental health

Sara Sandberg-Thomas of Ohio State University is the lead author of a recently released study that links casual sex to mental health problems in teens and young adults. Teens with symptoms of depression were more likely to engage in casual sex and to seriously consider suicide several years later as young adults. There have been questions in the past about casual sex and it’s effect on mental health and this study provides evidence that engaging in casual sex has a negative effect on mental health over time. The study also found that the results were the same for both men and women, which was unexpected.

10,000 teens and tweens from 80 high schools and 52 middle schools were interviewed- then the same group was interviewed again when they reached 18 to 26 years of age. They were asked about their sexual activity and screened for signs of depression and and any suicidal ideation.

29 percent of participants reported engaging in casual sex- which was defined as a relationship in which he or she was hooking up, but not dating. 33 percent of males and 24 percent of females overall reported engaging in hook-up relationships. It’s important to note that those who had serious depression and thoughts of suicide were more likely to be engaging in these casual sexual relationships as young adults.

Casual sex among tweens and teens was also shown to lead to greater mental health problems as young adults. For each additional sexual encounter the odds of suicidal thoughts went up by 18 percent. Of note is that casual sex in late teens and early 20’s was not linked to suicidal ideation in young adults as it was for those in their tweens and early teens. Apparently the earlier someone engages in casual sex, the greater their probability of having suicidal thoughts in young adulthood.

The study can be useful not only to parents and those who work with children, but it may also provide some clues to any adults out there who have a history of depression and suicidal ideation beginning in adolescence. Casual sex may be a symptom that points to how someone copes with low self-esteem, stress and other issues- and engaging in this behavior could in turn exacerbate those feelings of low self-esteem and hopelessness that are often present in people who are suicidal.

How we cope with and address what’s eating us can change the course of our lives- and this study provides real proof of this.