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Teen Health 411

But What is Hooking Up?

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Warning - this post is not for the faint at heart or those people who believe "denial" is a form of birth control and safer sex.

Hooking up. I hear this term everywhere - from teens, professionals, parents, and in the media - but what exactly are the behaviors being referred to, and how dangerous are they from a sexually transmitted infection, point of view? What behaviors are teens participating in, how much fluid exchange is there, and do they understand how sexually transmitted infections can be transmitted via oral sex and even skin-to-skin in the case of herpes and HPV?

From what I had heard, and from the questions submitted at We're Talking Teen Health, I surmised that hooking up can mean getting together to hang out, or it may mean having sexual contact with a person they know, or just met, and that the sexual contact could include behaviors ranging from making out, petting (for us old folks), oral sex, fingering, anal sex, or vaginal intercourse. I was curious, so I asked the teens working with me this summer to explain what it meant. When they were done squirming, the consensus of these teens, ranging in age from 15 to 20, was that teens use the slang term "hooking up," to refer to everything short of sexual intercourse, but in college, when people are more likely to be having sexual intercourse, it can mean that, too.

What I admit surprised me, was that the "everything" short of sexual intercourse included not only making out (kissing, rubbing, touching, with or without clothes), but also oral sex and fingering, which were perceived as less sexually intimate than vaginal intercourse. It seems the current generation of teens are far more comfortable sharing their bodies with each other than we, as parents and professionals, may understand. Sadly, I admit that my generation is more likely to perceive oral & anal intercourse, as well as fingering, things that are more sexually intimate than vaginal intercourse, which suggests we are out of touch and that our "sex talks" may not be preparing teens for the sexual pressure or expectations they may encounter when they are out in the real world.

The teens reported that oral sex, and "fingering" (a partner inserting one or more fingers into a vagina), were just an extension of making out and considered "no big deal." In fact, they were likely behaviors that "just happened" before any discussion about potential risk occurred, and not even likely to be perceived as "sexual activity" that would require a conscious decision or any preparation.

I explained that what was concerning me was that so many girls were submitting questions on We're Talking Teen Health wondering if they had been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection by not using a condom for oral sex, or why they were bleeding or swollen after having been "fingered," by a partner. These teens seemed to have no concept that they were likely bleeding because their hymen, or the delicate vaginal tissue, had been torn, and swollen because there was likely not enough lubrication or too much friction, both things that suggest the experience was far from satisfying.

All-in-all, these scenarios did not sound to me like they were sexually pleasurable in the way my (granted middle-aged) brain thinks they should have ben, in order to justify the risk. I am left wondering why these young women are participating in a behavior that leaves them bleeding and hurt, or exposed to infection, and how they are participating in these activities without forethought about the consequences.

What this conversation suggested to me was that parents need to have a chat with their teens about the sexual experiences "their friends" might be having, and the risks and benefits associated with those behaviors. Just asking if friends are having sex, and breathing a sigh of relief when the answer is "no," is too easy (what a surprise). Finding out that teens are actually having oral sex and that fingering is seen as a safe and not sexually intimate activity, may require another, more uncomfortable conversation.

Photo Credit: greefus groinks

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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