We Talked To People Who Hook Up A LOT – Here’s What They Revealed
In college, this guy and I had a simple routine. We’d text each other midday to negotiate a hookup:
He’d show up on my stoop in sweatpants, looking horny and brooding, I’d skitter downstairs in a T-shirt to let him in, and within a few minutes we’d be undressed on my mattress on the floor. Most of the time we were sober; sometimes, we met up before or after going out. I didn’t always come, but that wasn’t really the point.
After, while both of us were getting dressed, we’d catch up and I’d complain about the other guys I was seeing. All of them gave me more trouble than him. As he was leaving, he’d always ask for a post-coital cigarette. He’d walk off, smoking his; I’d sit on my roof and smoke mine. It felt OK — good, even. It was casual. It worked.
We weren’t the only ones it was working for. From 2013 to 2015, newspapers and magazines were eager to report on the crisis of what the media decided to call “hookup culture,” and each offered a different, slightly hysterical angle: that it was making us misogynistic; no, that it was feminist and liberating; no, that it was an economic calculation entirely bled of romance.
But how much sex are millennials actually having? According to a recent survey, we’re actually having less sex with fewer partners; some millennials (15%, to be exact) aren’t having any sex at all. The average number of lifetime sexual partners for Americans is around 7, for both men and women. Yet that’s also the number I told my gynecologist when she asked the number of partners I’d had — in the last year.
The disparity between the data and anecdotal evidence offered by both media and research reports comes from vastly different sexual practices among millennials. There are people who are in long term, monogamous relationships; people who don’t date much because of their careers or workloads; and a small proportion of people who do hook up a lot because it’s… fun? Exciting? Challenging? Easy, now that we have Tinder and Happn and Hinge and Bumble and Grindr and Scruff and Coffee Meets Bagel and… there’s still some people out there who still use OkCupid, I guess?
How We Start
“I was driven by wanting to explore different types of people,” wrote Sarah*, a 27-year-old Korean-American woman living in New York. “The thrill of both the chase and what happens when you hook up with someone for the first time, and also finding many different types of people attractive physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
For Danny, who’s 22 and based in New York, hooking up casually started as a way to sort out his relationship to being desired. “As an Asian-American male, in my experience, girls don’t really find Asian guys attractive. There have been so many times where a girl I’ve hooked up with has said ‘You’re my first Asian,’ which is just a really weird thing to be told. So hooking up with people always felt like validation. Validation for myself, my looks, my personality. Having sex is just a really good confidence booster in that way.”
Using sex to learn about desire — or more precisely, learn how to be desired — was a common theme among people I talked to. “To be honest, I didn’t know I was hot until like six years ago,” said Megan*, a 24-year-old living in New York City. “Clarification, I didn’t know that everyone is hot.”
“When I decided that I could incorporate my sexuality into my identity without compromising the most important things to me — empathy, fairness, accountability — I kind of compensated for lost time by hooking up a lot,” wrote Ben, who is 25 and bisexual. “I’ve also got the classic condition of all late bloomers — needing to prove to my 15-year-old self that I’m capable of being desired. Which, of course, isn’t super distinct from just acting like a 15-year-old.”
But for others, sleeping around was more complicated. “It felt like something I had to do,” said an anonymous friend when we met up to have coffee and talk. “I felt like I was just trying things out. I felt okay about it at the time, but now, it feels more like a hollow thing, maybe even kind of sad.” It was a learning process, she told me, but it was also something that’s led to exploring sexuality through different outlets, like kink.
For Courtney, a 27-year-old black woman living in L.A., casual sex was useful until it wasn’t — after that her priorities shifted. Though she started out hooking up casually to explore what was possible, eventually “the entire thing, the hooking up, ended up making me feel as though I was missing something deeper. What started out as fun ended up making me feel empty,” she wrote. “I’m a strong supporter of, ‘If you’re not having fun, you should stop’ and I stopped having fun. I crave intimacy, but I also value my alone time and have tried to pursue that instead.”
How We Meet
In 2015, Vanity Fair published a hilariously tone-deaf feature called “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’” which posited that dating apps have killed modern romance and left people “gorging” on a veritable banquet of sexually mediocre yet readily available partners. Tinder has unquestionably changed the way we date and hook up now, but it’s not all for the worse. For queer and trans people especially, dating apps offer a platform for a specific and deliberate kind of self-presentation that also allows users to filter who they talk to. Among other things, it means people can be much more open about their desires.
“Apps, apps, apps,” wrote Alex*. “As a bisexual (trans) man, I am way more comfortable being clear about what I want from other men — and trans people who don’t ID as men using these apps as well — because that’s the point of the app,” he continued, speaking specifically of Grindr and Scruff.
“I like apps because you can screen people for red flags,” agreed Megan. “I haven’t hooked up with anyone racist, transphobic, etc. because of this. Also, there’s a level of transparency people allow themselves on the apps, which is sick. I like to know what I’m getting into.”
Apps may make the process feel more mechanical, and less organic, but they also offer an opportunity to present yourself exactly how you want to be perceived. Online, it’s easier to be direct about what you want and what you can offer a partner in terms of emotional and sexual availability. But sometimes it also means that the entire transaction can take place within a browser, if what’s being sought is a kind of intimacy and not necessarily the sex act itself.
Wrote Shawné, a 25-year-old black woman based in Chicago: “I generally meet people on apps nowadays but rarely sleep with them if I do. If I f*ck someone from an app, it generally feels clinical. Sometimes that’s what I need, sometimes it’s not. I think it’s easier for me to connect with people emotionally on apps, but then, when the physical stuff rolls around I’m bored.”
Swipe anxiety aside, people are still meeting each other through the usual means — bars, parties, and friends of friends. And, of course, totally randomly. “The hookups are never planned,” Courtney told me. “Because if they were, I’d always have the perfect playlist to play in the background.”
How It Goes
Hooking up with my friend — though to be fair, we weren’t really friends, just joined in fluid transfer once or twice a week — wasn’t the mindblowingly satisfying experience that no-strings-attached sex often seems to promise young people. We weren’t freaky; we didn’t have spectacular, marathon sessions in which we enacted our weirdest, wildest fantasies.
Instead, I usually didn’t come. We rarely kissed. We hooked up to the same playlist each time, which gave the whole experience a reassuring familiarity. But it was fulfilling. It was good to touch each other and to be touched in the ways I can’t touch myself, which was really the urge I was trying to satisfy, more than anything specifically orgastic. Our movements made my bed move. There was an intimacy in it. We tried to be good to each other. It was a quieting, but it was also a connection, one I haven’t experienced too much since then.
“It’s a wonderful feeling when you can have a space of camaraderie and mutual understanding and pleasure without anything else, but that’s rare,” wrote Adrian*, a 30-year-old black man living in Brooklyn. “More often it seems to be people that are working through something, me included, and compartmentalizing their lives in a way that is productive for them… or sometimes in a way that seems like delaying the inevitable pain of growth and change. In the rare instances aforementioned… it feels amazing! It’s like, wow! You can make life what you want! But more often, it leaves an aftertaste that’s a bit strange.”
“It feels good!” Megan wrote. “Except for when it doesn’t. There are times when I’m like, ‘OMG, is this gonna be awkward? Sometimes I get caught up in some slightly existential mild anxiety, but then I get an iced coffee and it fixes itself.”
“My sex life is pretty exciting, I think,” wrote Shawné. “I have extremely rough sex with most people. I want it to feel like a sport. I wanna play against each other — especially if I don’t love you. I’m not really interested in truly satisfying my body with casual sex. I want to satisfy something more intellectual.”
“You have people in your life who meet your need for companionship but not your need for sex. It’s not too far out to think you might have people in your life who do the opposite,” wrote Ben. “And ever important and seldom reinforced is the fact that hooking up with new people is in many ways a clean and uncomplicated joy! You learn a new body, you delight in a new person’s actions and reactions. You get to enjoy the sudden pivot from being strangers doing solitary calculations and negotiations over a drink to strangers who are naked and comfortable and stroking each other’s hair.”
But is it always uncomplicated? I wondered, how did people go about navigating the intersection of sex, feelings, and other emotional dilemmas? For some, like Megan, hooking up itself was the solution. “I usually have a rotation of 2-3 people,” she said. “I really just try to be minimally talking to more than one person because I can talk the talk but I’m still figuring out if I can walk the walk in relation to not getting emotionally attached to someone I could potentially see on a consistent basis, even if it’s casual.”
For others, like Sarah and Alex, their racial and sexual identities influenced the way they experienced casual sex. “I briefly ventured into a sugar-daddy/cam/sex-work situation, because after a while, I was like, maybe I should/why not be paid for this?” said Sarah. “But I stopped after I realized a majority of these people were white men pursuing me because of their obvious Asian fetish. I will say there was a weird thrill factor for receiving an envelope of crisp $100 bills, even if the sex was mediocre.”
“The other thing I think is worth mentioning is that I feel like I have a very small pool of men interested in me, and in order to have the amount of sex I’d like to have ideally I would have to change or lower my ‘standards’ of who I want to f*ck. Like, do I want to f*ck someone clearly fetishizing my race or my trans identity?” wrote Alex.
“There were definitely some people where I was way more into getting them off, and at the same time I was funny about not letting them get me off because that was too intimate for me,” said Sarah, speaking now of her non-sex work partners. “I won’t lie, there are definitely times when I felt lonely or wanted a different type of intimacy, but also some hookups were funny in that you would literally meet this person and then like, perform intimacy (like cuddling, little kisses, making breakfast) for one day/the morning after, and then just never see that person again.”
How We Leave
“Not that proud of it, but ghosting was kind of the easiest option for me,” Sarah admitted. “Sometimes if they seem way more invested than I am, I’ll be honest and tell them if I’m just interested in someone else, not interested in being monogamous, or that something came up. I feel like most people knew what the situation was, though, so breaking things off was never that hard. And it goes the other way too, I’ve definitely developed feelings for people who were unavailable. You can end up feeling used, or in uncontrolled or unwanted states of vulnerability, which can be hard.”
For many, ghosting — when you simply stop messaging the other person or returning their texts and essentially disappear from their lives — just feels practical. “In New York it’s easy for the ‘I’m too busy’ card to play and I think I’ve used it as much as other men have used it for me,” said Alex. “I don’t take offense.”
“I have a pretty unpopular approach to breaking things off with people — ghosting,” wrote Danny. “It’s really frustrating and I know because it’s happened to me, but I really hate texting and I think ghosting is just the cleanest way to break things off with someone who you’ve hooked up with once.”
But not everyone appreciated ghosting’s utility. Ben in particular had strong feelings about it, writing to me: “Ghosting is f*cked up and unconscionable. It’s such a naked expression of selfishness. People tell themselves they want to spare the other party but it’s going to f*ck with them so much more if you just evaporate.”
And Charlie, the only non-millennial I talked to, told me: “I will say, with some shame, that I have ghosted on a couple of folks when I should have been more direct — they either required more emotional time and energy than what was first established in our relationship or something made me feel bad or uncomfortable in our last interaction, and I didn’t have the guts to confront them about it. I’ve worked hard to not do that lately, but it’s still hard to have the conversation, ‘This is why I don’t want to be with you anymore.’”
How We Learn
“I wish I’d been into casual sex earlier in my life,” Charlie told me. Charlie, who is 38, is in an open marriage, and hooks up often, both alongside his wife and solo. “I went from my high school girlfriend to my first wife and didn’t leave any space in there to grapple with my queerness or really, what kind of person I even wanted to be with.” Casual sex allowed Charlie to explore his feelings around sex, desire, and pleasure — feelings he hadn’t been able to explore in his previous monogamous relationships.
“There’s a lot of sh*t I wish I had known when I first began engaging with my sexuality, but I feel like having the vernacular to navigate casual sex without stigma would have been super effective for me,” said Megan. “There are times when I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m lonely, I want a consistent partner’ — but then I’m like, ‘Nah, you’ve been conditioned your whole life to want this and this is your socialization trying to get the best of you,’” she continued. “You don’t want a consistent partner in those moments, you want love. I’m learning how to treat love from family and friends with the same exclamation I used to treat love from partners.”
“With kissing and touching and having sex, part of me knew that touching the fire would hurt, but I still had to feel it for myself. I know my personal boundaries, the type of men I’m attracted to and ultimately what I want,” wrote Courtney. “I don’t think I would have a healthy understanding of any of this had I not spent my 20s meeting, befriending and flirting with these individuals.”
“For all my grumbling about how hard it is to meet people and the endless texting and, oh God, the internet is horrible… It’s been helpful for me,” said Charlie. “I’ve met some real friends, I’ve had sex that I was afraid to ask for in the past, and in my fourth decade on this planet, I’m starting to feel like I’m valued sexually.”
My friend-with-benefits and I never actually shared a cigarette together after we hooked up. He’d ask for a cig, I’d give him one, and he’d disappear. Eventually I asked him why. He said, “It just feels like something I want to do for myself, on my own.”
When we broke up, we didn’t really break up — we just faded from each other’s lives. After all, there wasn’t really anything to break to begin with. He started dating someone seriously; a few weeks later, so did I. And that was fine, actually. We’d gotten what we needed from each other; we’d given it to each other, too. And that was something that we could each carry, long after our sexual relationship ended.
Hooking up is a learning experience for many of us. We learn about other people’s bodies, sure — all the ways you can make someone feel different sensations; all the sounds and ways people move when they’re in the throes of passion — but more often, we learn about ourselves. We learn about our bodies; we learn about our emotional needs. We learn about what we like and what we don’t like; what feels great and what doesn’t. We learn about what we want from others, whether that’s physical, emotional, romantic or psychological. After all, at the end of the day, the through line running through our sexual histories isn’t other people — it’s us at the center. And it feels true to say that in sleeping with other people, all we’re doing is really trying to understand ourselves.
*Names have been changed.
Illustrations by Graeme Adams.