Surprise! Hookups can lead to love

That one-night stand might turn into a perfectly happy relationship, a new study warns

Published August 23, 2010 7:36PM (EDT)

Finally, science steps up to prove what my generation, and the generations before us, have been saying all along: Hookup culture isn't killing relationships.

University of Iowa sociologist Anthony Paik's survey of 642 adults in Chicago initially found that "average relationship quality was higher for individuals who waited until things were serious to have sex compared to those who became sexually involved in 'hookups,' 'friends with benefits,' or casual dating relationships," according to a press release. But when he controlled for people who had zero interest in having a relationship, that difference disappeared. "Couples who became sexually involved as friends or acquaintances and were open to a serious relationship ended up just as happy as those who dated and waited." Says Paik:

We didn't see much evidence that relationships were lower quality because they started off as hookups. The study suggests that rewarding relationships are possible for those who delay sex. But it's also possible for true love to emerge if things start off with a more 'Sex and the City' approach, when people spot each other across the room, become sexually involved and then build a relationship.

Put another way: It isn't so much the type of sexual relationship that determines its quality, but the relationship readiness of the people involved. Casual sex doesn't deaden one to the possibility of falling in love or becoming happily romantically committed. I hate to be a jerk and quote myself, but ... as I wrote in my defense of casual sex for Salon: "Like innumerable 20-somethings before me, I've found that casual sex can be healthy and normal and lead to better adult relationships." Now, this study doesn't prove that contention (and it hardly could, as I was speaking only for myself and not advocating any one path), but it does suggest that hooking up can lead to relationships.

That isn't news to anyone who has had a casual fling turn into a committed relationship, but hookup hand-wringers have tirelessly argued just the opposite. If the results of this study are eventually supported by other research, it will dismantle Laura Sessions Stepp's argument in "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both." Maybe, just maybe, young women can pursue sex without delaying or losing out at love.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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