“Hookup culture,” especially as it plays out on college campuses, is a much-discussed topic. Often, hooking up is studied and speculated about like it’s some kind of sexual epidemic, or at the very least, the outcast of sexual intimacy: Is it increasing or decreasing? Perpetuated by dating apps? Gendered? Dangerous? Sure, hookup culture and the many ways we have and experience sex is worth studying and having opinions about, but it can’t be that all hookups are bad or blah.
Despite the often-negative press, hookups, or, short term sexual/intimate encounters, like one-night stands, summer flings, and semester-long friends-with-benefits relationships, can come with a lot of descriptors: “casual,” “fun,” “random,” and “spontaneous” can be some, but can they also be ethical, considerate, and satisfying? We think yes!
Determining whether or not something is officially ethical can be confusing work, as ethics tend to rely both on our individual values and also what society deems ethical — which might not always align. Get your conservative, married-for-50-years grandfather and your liberal, nonmonogamous LGBTQ+ friends at the same dinner table and ask what makes for an “ethical sexual encounter” and you’ll likely get very different responses from each of them (and if anyone ever does do this, please let me know how it goes).
Regardless of what your hookup entails (making out, oral sex, penetrative sex_ or whether you met via a dating app, a party, or a chance meeting with a beautiful stranger — hookups tend to be understood as uniquely separate from a relationship in that they are typically described as being casual or short term and require minimal official commitment between the people involved. For some, the very short-term nature of a hookup can feel unethical (and that’s a totally fine opinion to have as long as we’re not judging others’ choices!), but for others, short-term intimate encounters are exactly what they want. The reality is, we’re certainly not creating more happy hookup experiences by immediately throwing out the possibility of hookups being conscientious, respectful, and downright ethical just because they’re only happening once, sporadically, or when the mood strikes.
So how do you make sure your hookup is ethical?
As a resident sex educator for a youth collective of 16- to 19-year-olds, I had the great opportunity to sit down with a group of the collective’s youth leaders to talk about what they wanted to communicate to their peers about the components of an ethical hookup. Here’s the advice we came up with to help you make your hookup as ethical as possible.
Know and share your STI status.
Being aware of the state of your personal sexual health and sharing it openly and without shame is a key part of making sure our partners and ourselves are informed participants in our hookup. The general rule of thumb is to get a new STI test at least every six months if you’re sexually active with more than one person, or anytime you have a new sexual partner. Empower yourself by knowing that you can set the tone for this “status talk,” so practice speaking confidently and nonjudgmentally about your status and your partner will likely follow suit.
In addition to sharing your status, you should also know and share how to prevent the transmission of STIs via various safer-sex practices. And when it comes to hooking up, it’s always a good idea to have those safer-sex supplies on hand! This HRC Safer Sex Guide (available in both English and Spanish) can help connect the dots between levels of risk, certain sex acts, and which safer-sex practices to put in place.
Consider others’ feelings.
Despite common portrayals, a hookup doesn’t need to be completely devoid of feelings to be considered successful, and not all people experience short-term sexual encounters as emotionless. You can absolutely enthusiastically agree to a hot roll in the one-day hay and be kind, check in about your hookup partner’s feelings the next day, and still maintain casualness. A simple text of appreciation or a “How are you?” can go a long way; as long as you’re clear about intentions, feelings don’t need to get hurt or ignored.
Know and be clear about your intentions.
Intentions are just that — what we set out to do, on purpose, with the knowledge that what we intend might not pan out. If you know that you’re only available for a summer fling but lead your partner on into thinking you want to continue your short-term relationship indefinitely, that’s not ethical because you’re creating a connection based on false pretenses.
Despite our intentions, things can change, feelings can get caught, and our best-laid plans can shift, and that’s okay. But if we have specific intentions from the get-go and aren’t communicating them, then our partners can’t make their own choices about how they would like to interact with us, their own feelings, and their own boundaries. Knowledge is power — don’t strip your partner of theirs by withholding intent.
Respect your own boundaries.
Intentions and ethics start with you. Just like communicating your intentions to your partner gives them power, checking in with your moral compass, your sexual desires and limits, and your hopes for your own intimate interactions gives it to you. Hookups can really get us caught up in a moment, so be prepared for a casual connection by thinking about some of these elements ahead of time. How do I want and like to be touched? What do I want out of a hookup? What do I not want? Scarleteen.com’s sexual inventory checklist, Yes, No, Maybe So, can be a helpful piece of hookup homework to do on your own, in advance.
Respect your partner and their boundaries.
Yes, a fling can be casual and maybe even happen quickly, but always make sure to make time to ask your partner directly about their own yeses, nos, and maybe-sos. Not only does this ensure that we’re respecting our partners and practicing consent, but this also drastically increases our chances of having a mutually pleasurable experience.
If a hookup is indeed temporary, why waste your time guessing at what your partner might want rather than simply asking them directly? And when they give you an answer, you should listen to it. Asking our partner about their desires is consensual, ethical, and just plain economical.
No shame in your own game and no slut-shaming.
Create more emotional, relational, and sexual safety in your hookups by maintaining mutual respect for your and your partner’s particular desires, wants, yucks, and yums — including wherever you and your partner might fall on the spectrum of sexual experience.
Being fearful to express what it is that turns you on or shaming your partner for what tickles their intimate fancy is a terrible way to explore a mutually satisfying hookup. Sexuality is a very wide world, so it’s impossible that you’ll both be totally into every single thing the other person is into, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as everything is consensual. Instead, focus on where your desires overlap and remember that you can enthusiastically consent to trying something new because consent means you can change your mind at any time if the new thing just isn’t for you.
Honor consent and seek it actively and in an ongoing manner.
Consent starts with asking for explicit permission before your intimate interaction begins, making sure that each party involved is fully informed about and understands what they’re saying yes, no, or maybe to. Make sure your consent practice doesn’t end there, though!
Active, ongoing consent continues through your intimate interaction and for the duration of your hookup relationship, no matter how long it lasts. During your hookup, ask questions like “Is this still okay?” “Do you like what we’re doing or should we switch it up?” and never assume that just because you hooked up once that your partner (or you!) wants to hook up again, or do the same things you did last time. Keep asking questions and don’t be worried about asking too many. It’s better to spend more time asking questions and less time feeling regret or remorse.
Practice makes perfect.
Feeling awkward is one of the main reasons high school and college students tell me they don’t utilize consent skills and safer-sex supplies. Though putting a condom on a banana is one of the most tired classroom sex-ed tricks in the book, getting your hands on things like condoms, dental dams, gloves, lube, and knowing how to use them properly before you find yourself in a hookup situation will make using these tools more seamless (and less awkward-seeming) in the moment.
Masturbating using condoms, gloves, and/or lube to get familiar with the sensation can be a fun way to practice. You can visit your local Planned Parenthood to get accurate information about birth control and risk-management options (even if you don’t plan on needing them anytime soon), which can help bust myths and let you know the resources available to you. Better yet — make it an educational outing with a few friends, complete with going out for ice cream afterward — because why not?
Check in regularly.
Though the general lack of commitment can be part of what makes hooking up appealing to folks, it’s always a good idea to check in every now and then about whether or not keeping it casual is still what you want to do. Checking in with ourselves about our own wants and needs and communicating them clearly also makes sure that we’re keeping tabs on our own priorities, too, and makes sure that we’re remembering to stay clear about our intentions.
Ask for info on pronouns, body parts, no-zones, and triggers.
Even if our sexual interactions are short-term, hooking up is still a vulnerable place to be. All of our partners deserve respect and to feel safe and valued. Nothing will ruin a hookup faster than crossing a boundary (even if accidentally), so make sure to ask where and how your partner likes to be touched, the words they use to talk about them and their bodies, and where they absolutely do not want to go with you whether that’s right now or ever.
Pro tip: Remember that someone saying “no” or “not there” to you isn’t something that you should take personally. Rather, a no can be valuable information your partner is sharing with you about themselves so that you can get to know them better. This perspective can make the “nos” easier to hear while keeping our egos in check.
Respect the gender and sexuality identities of your partners and support their ongoing journey.
Gender, sexuality, and identity is fluid and, especially between teenagehood and adulthood, can change and shift a lot. If a partner tells you about how they identify, believe them, respect them, use the language they ask you to use, and adapt if what’s true for them changes.
Your sureness about your own gender and sexuality doesn’t need to get rattled just because your partners’ identities shift — we promise.
Don’t stir drama.
A truly ethical hookup doesn’t kiss and Snap. While getting support from or excitedly dishing to your friends about hookups can be a totally healthy part of the experience, spreading rumors, sharing information, or even dropping hints that violate your partner’s privacy, consent, or are intended to hurt them or someone else is not. Know the difference, ask your partner before sharing their personal information, and absolutely keep their sexts to yourself.