Has there ever been a more useless phrase than "hookup culture"? The expression implies irresponsibility, depravity and a blasé carelessness that, if we're not careful, could insidiously worm its way into the nooks and crannies of proper society.
In other words, everything millennial dating is supposedly about.
Except it isn't. It's time to bury the phrase "hookup culture" once and for all. Here's a tour of the biggest myths about 20-somethings and how we date, starting with the most pervasive myth of all.
1. 20-somethings are really only interested in "hooking up."
Young people just want to have casual sex, the narrative goes. If constant sex with multiple partners is an option, why would you bother with anything else?
Except that, according to Slate, "Four out of 10 college students in America enter their senior year with zero-to-one sexual partners. Three out of 10 students said that they do not hook up." Once they're out of college, surveys show 20-somethings aren't just hopping into bed the moment they meet someone without knowing them first. A 2013 study by Business Insider and Survey Monkey found that 30% to 40% of respondents said it's appropriate to wait until at least a second date to have sex. Not to mention all the young people who wait much longer or never have sex at all.
It's time to stop acting like a whole generation of people are just scurrying around, sleeping with anyone they can get their hands on.
2. Hooking up always means sex.
In a painfully out-of-touch 2011 segment, Fox News defined hooking up as "you know, casual sex. ... Sex without commitments." Actually, a 2011 study of college students found that while 94% of participants were familiar with the phrase "hooking up," there was no consensus on what it actually included.
That ambiguity might be purposeful and beneficial. Lead researcher on the 2011 study Amanda Holman told ABC News, "Hooking up is strategically ambiguous. It's a way for them [students] to communicate about it but without having to reveal details."
Or, y'know, it's a way for everyone to be massively confused and misunderstand one another. Hey, the 20-something experience is complicated.
3. And sex is always casual.
When young people do "hook up" and have sex, the general narrative says it's always a casual, no-strings-attached affair. But a comparison of young people's sexual attitudes in 1988–1996 versus 2004–2012 suggests otherwise. Published in the Journal of Sex Research in April 2014, the data show that respondents from 2004–2012 did not report more sexual partners since age 18, more partners during the past year, or more frequent sex than those from 1988–1996.
Young people are having sex — a 2002 survey found that by age 20, 77% of respondents had had sex. But unlike the stereotypes, we're not necessarily doing it with any random person we see on the street.
4. With all the casual sex, 20-somethings don't understand real intimacy.
As if millennials didn't have enough reported deficiencies, there's the myth that all our casual sex means we don't have enough emotional maturity for true intimacy. The culture of hookups leads us "to discard, to ignore, to swallow their emotions so they can participate in the anxiety-provoking but common dynamic which is the hookup culture," according to dating expert Rachel Greenwald.
But not all 20-something sex is casual. Moreover, casual sex does not preclude intimacy. Maureen O'Connor insightfully observed in New York, "Alarmists fret that casual sex discourages intimacy. But in my experience, the opposite is true. When you share your bed, your toothbrush, your sexual hang-ups, and the topography of the cellulite on your butt with a stranger, the intimacy is real."
And for those who do feel unable to establish intimacy with a partner? As psychologist Merav Gur wrote in the Huffington Post, that failure isn't limited to young people. All sorts of people of every age can have intimacy problems, and it often has nothing to do with sex.
5. 20-somethings don't want to bother with relationships.
Relationships take effort, and that's something young people couldn't possibly understand with their heads filled to the brim with illicit thoughts, according to this fabulously insulting Fox News segment.
But college kids and 20-somethings do want relationships, and that desire isn't always mutually exclusive to hooking up. Survey research by New York University sociologist Paula England of 14,000 college students found that 61% of men and 68% of women hoped a hookup would turn into something more.
And for many it does: A 2013 study of Facebook data revealed that 28% of married graduates attended the same college as their spouse. Some of those young relationships must have stuck.
As for those who didn't meet their significant other in college, sites like OKCupid are a reminder that plenty of young people are looking for relationships. The site, after all, allows users to select whether they're looking for sex or love. Because, hey, wouldn't you know — sometimes 20-somethings want to experience something as serious as love.
6. No one goes on dates anymore, because no one has the time.
The narrative about the tweeting, texting, ever-swiping generation is that we're too consumed with our plugged-in lives to date seriously. That is untrue for most people (we've all got at least one hour to give if we just cut back on our Instagram habit).
That stereotype also downplays how much time we are willing to spend on relationships in general, from friendships to, yes, casual hookups. "The 'I don't have time for dating' argument is bullshit. As someone who has done both the dating and the casual-sex thing, hookups are much more draining of my emotional faculties ... and actually, my time," 22-year-old Yale Law School student Maddie told Cosmopolitan earlier this year.
We're not afraid of committing time — we're just not always committing it to the most traditional of relationships, and that's OK.
7. 20-somethings don't really know how to date.
"Young people today don't know how to get out of hookup culture," said Donna Freitas, author of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, to the New York Times in 2013. Dating is a huge mystery, according to Freitas: "They're wondering, 'If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?'"
We're not even going to dignify this with an explanation, except to say: Just because relationships these days often start over texting or apps instead of walking up to someone in public, doesn't mean young people don't know how to use words.
8. 20-somethings don't care about "exclusivity."
Rolling Stone's examination of millennial dating, published earlier this year, opens with an anecdote about Leah, her boyfriend Ryan and her boyfriend Jim. The three are presented as the epitome of modern courtship, where sex happens freely between multiple partners, and no one ties anyone else down.
That might be the case for Leah, Ryan and Jim, but it doesn't sum up all relationships for all young people. Dr. England's survey research also showed that by their senior year, 69% of heterosexual students had been in a college relationship of at least six months (presumably between two people). Plus, the massive upward trend of cohabiting underscores an obvious reality: Young people are committing to relationships serious enough to shack up together.
And for those who do date multiple people at once, as Rolling Stone described? That's not millennial rebellion — that's simply called polyamory, and it's not something millennials invented.
9. 20-somethings aren't seriously considering marriage.
That might be true in the beginning of a relationship. But Pew Research Center found that despite delaying marriage until ever-later ages, 69% of millennials do want to eventually get married. Some of us are just waiting longer to do it, and that might actually be a great thing: Expert research suggests that the older a person is when they first marry, the lower their risk for divorce.
Plus, why would Pinterest need secret boards if not for all the millennials with weddings on the brain?
10. Instead of getting married, 20-somethings rush into living together.
It is true that young people are moving in together more than ever before. According to a Pew study, young adults born after 1980 are more likely to cohabit than any previous generation. Today, that means over 8 million couples are cohabiting.
But the decision to join forces (and rent checks) is not one young people are necessarily taking lightly. As one Washington, D.C., couple told NPR, deciding to cohabit involved discussing unsexy practicalities, like whose name would be on the lease. And it could be argued most 20-somethings take it as seriously: A 2010 Pew study found that almost two-thirds of Americans saw cohabitation as a step toward marriage.
In fact, some young people are moving in together precisely to determine whether marriage is a good idea. According to data from the National Marriage Project, reported on by the New York Times, almost half of 20-somethings agreed with the sentence, "You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along." Marriage and serious commitment is clearly on the mind.
11. Everyone meets on the Internet...
Millennials are addicted to the Internet and their devices, the narrative goes, and it's preventing them from becoming normally functioning humans. "Instead of dinner-and-a-movie, which seems as obsolete as a rotary phone, [millennials] rendezvous over phone texts, Facebook posts, instant messages and other 'non-dates' that are leaving a generation confused about how to land a boyfriend or girlfriend," lamented the New York Times in 2013.
We may spend plenty of time on Facebook, texting and Gchat (we assume that's what "instant messages" means?), but it doesn't mean 20-somethings can't connect IRL. In fact, the digital communication can be helpful, particularly when used to refine one's actual dating opportunities.
"OKCupid allowed me to pre-screen my dates in a way that would be completely socially impossible in real life," wrote Jen Dziura on The Gloss. "While OKCupid has a reputation as being a bit of a hookup spot, good software engineering means that users looking for very different things can still control their experiences accordingly." And that can ultimately result in successful relationships.
12. ... or on Tinder.
Yes, game-like apps like Tinder are incredibly popular among the young'uns. And yes, the endless swiping possibilities can up a person's hookup odds on any given night.
But, as TIME points out, even the game-like aspect of online romance these days isn't disturbingly new; it's just manifesting in a different form: "Gamification has always been a big part of the mating mix. It's what mid-century make-out games like spin the bottle and pass the grapefruit were about. It's strip poker and suburban key parties — whose spouse are you going home with tonight? It's half the point of the game Twister, with its left-hand-red, right-foot-blue, and who knows what other body parts will bump up against each other in the process?"
Oh, and while we're at it: Dating sites and apps like Tinder aren't distracting us so much that we can't actively participate in society. Take note, Fox News.
13. Every 20-something wants the same thing.
All the "millennial trend" articles would give the impression that "millennials" are, in fact, a single person with a few specific desires. But like snowflakes, young people are all
flakey unique. There are 74.3 million people between the ages of 18 and 34 in America, according to census data, and there's no way all of their relationships, sex lives and romances look the same.
Even if the New York Times thinks they do.