Sociation Today ® 
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 Central University

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 Wake Forest

Ella Keller,
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Ken Land,
 Duke University

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Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

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 N.C. State University

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Volume 10, Number 2

Fall/Winter 2012

Update Your Fairy-tale:
A Media Analysis of 
Hook-up Narratives


Renee M. Shelby

Georgia State University

    Hooking-up with friends and acquaintances has quickly become a popular method for young people to have sexual experiences without emotional intimacy.  A vague and elusive term, hooking-up can comprise a variety of sexual behaviors, from kissing to fondling to intercourse (Owen and Fincham 2010). No longer an "alternative" sexual script, Heldman and Wade (2010) estimate that between two-thirds to three-quarters of college students hook-up at least once. The rise of the hook-up and decline of traditional dating has been attributed to changing norms in the life course (Downing-Matibag and Geisinger 2009). Marriage is occurring later, and the period in which young people have to work on personal development is expanding (Heldman and Wade 2010). Without the perceived emotional toll required of romantic relationships, or pressure to be tied to one person, hooking-up has become a viable option for engaging in sexual behavior without the "complications" (Bradshaw, Kahn, and Saville 2010). 

    In 2011, Hollywood produced two blockbuster films featuring the hook-up phenomenon: No Strings Attached, starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, and Friends With Benefits, starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. The rapid production of two all-star cast films echoes the salience of hooking-up. This is no longer a fringe sexual sub-culture, but a mainstream sexual script recognized commercially for its social relevance. However, these films do not simply imitate social interaction. They frame and reify a phenomenon that has specific gender and class implications.

    Media representations are powerful symbols that can shape social discourse (Altheide 1996), and impact norms of acceptable sexual behavior (Stinson 2010). Since 2001, there has been a growing body of hook-up literature. However, there remains limited understanding of how hook-up rhetoric is presented in popular media. Grounded in symbolic interactionism, this research offers insight to the narratives of two recent, popular films- No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits. The focus of this project was not to dissect the films' immediate impact on audience members, but to uncover how they define social situations and clarify shared cultural meanings to the audience.

Literature and Research


    Hooking-up was defined as a distinct social form in the early 2000s (Glenn and Marquardt 2001; Paul, McManus, and Hayes 2000). Broadly, it is characterized by casual sexual contact, ranging from kissing to having sex, and an overarching mutual agreement that sexual contact occurs outside a committed, romantic relationship (Glenn and Marquardt 2001). Research estimates that between two-thirds to three-quarters of heterosexual college students have engaged in a hook-up at least once- defining the campus as a central site of hook-up culture (Heldman and Wade 2010). While the "act of hooking-up" is not exclusively modern, its increasing popularity is evidence of a transition in sexual scripts that shapes prevailing sexual norms and activities (Bradshaw, Kahn, and Saville 2010; Heldman and Wade 2010). The motivations to hook-up include both individual and cultural factors, such as the desire for physical pleasure, an increase in sexual permissiveness, and the notion that romance and relationships are too time and energy consuming in young adulthood (Heldman and Wade 2010). 

    Hook-ups occur in a social context distinct from traditional dating, whereby, individuals do not make social plans prior to sexual activity. Rather, two people at a party or bar will "begin talking, flirting, or dancing…[and] will move to a more private location where sexual activity occurs" (Hamilton and Armstrong 2009:590). The consumption of alcohol is likely (Owen, Rhoades, Stanley, and Fincham 2010), and while hook-ups may happen between strangers, they typically occur among individuals that are at least acquaintances (Manning, Giordano, and Longmore 2006). Repeated sexual encounters are common and are labeled friends with benefits or repeat hook-ups (Hamilton and Armstrong 2009). Though a committed, romantic relationship may evolve (Bradshaw et al. 2010), hooking-up does not reflect relational interest (Armstrong, England, and Fogarty 2009; Hamilton and Armstrong 2009). 

    Research on the emotional and social outcomes of individuals who have hooked-up is varied. Though some indicate overwhelming joy at hook-up culture (Heldman and Wade 2010), the majority has noted some form of emotional distress, such as loneliness or failed expectations (Owen et al. 2010; Stepp 2007). While there is little gender variance in reported emotional outcomes, there is a disparity in reputational outcomes. Whereas men gain social status for "sexually consuming" a large number of women, women lose social status (Bradshaw et al. 2010; Stepp 2007). This reflects the overarching cultural gender inequality that manifests in normative sexual scripts.

Sexual Scripts

    Within symbolic interactionism, the meanings people construct around sexuality shape individual behavior (Simon and Gagnon 1986; Blumer 1969). Notably, meaning arises in the process of interaction, whereby individuals interpret and internalize social knowledge (Blumer 1969). However, while plugging into cultural knowledge facilitates micro-level interactions, a person is not simply a sponge, but retains agency to act based on personal attitudes, values, or experiences. Thus, individuals draw from larger cultural elements to develop a subjective understanding of their sexuality, and use this to determine their choice, and qualitative experience of, their sexual actions (Simon and Gagnon 1973). When sexual encounters become learned interactions that follow predictable sequences they are characterized as sexual scripts (Simon and Gagnon 1973). Sexual scripts not only inform what one is supposed to physically do, and also how one is supposed to feel during and after sexual activity (Stepp 2007).

    Dominant sexual scripts do not occur in a vacuum and are influenced by larger social processes, including gender beliefs (Banker, Kaestle, and Allen 2010; Tolman 2002). Ridgeway and Correll (2004:511) define gender beliefs as "the cultural rules or instructions for enacting the social structure of difference and inequality that we understand to be gender." As individuals believe in gender differences, they "see" them in interaction and hold others accountable (Hamilton and Armstrong 2009; Ridgeway and Correll 2004). Beliefs about gender are particularly salient regarding sexual behavior, as men and women are believed to be the most different sexually (Hamilton and Armstrong 2009).

    This is seen in traditional sexual scripts, where men are characterized as the active pursuers of (women's) sexuality, while women are "naturally" the passive recipients of (men's) sexual advances (Bradshaw et al. 2010). In this model, women's sexuality is dichotomized where "good girls" are to be "desirable but not desiring," while "bad girls" are "imbued with sexuality and are sexually loose" (Reid, Elliott, and Webber 2011:549). This gendered model perpetuates the male sex drive discourse (Gave, McPhillips, and Doherty 2001), which links heteronormative masculinity to sexual prowess (Reid et al. 2011), and underlies the relationship imperative, the notion that all women want relationships (Stinson 2010; Hamilton and Armstrong 2009). These views are problematic, as they preserve men's sexual desire over women's, limit women's sexual agency, and assume all men are sexually voracious (Bradshaw et al. 2010; Stinson 2010). Though this script confers more sexual agency to men, it may negatively impact their sexual experience by generating feelings of shame or insecurity when desires differ from the heteronormative standard (Reid et al. 2011).

Hooking-Up as a Gendered and Socioeconomic Sexual Script

Hooking-up has been characterized as a distinct sexual script, whereby there is a mutual understanding that men and women will engage in non-relational sexual activity (Bogle 2008). Despite this illusion of equality, hook-up culture is shaped by gender norms and class expectations. Hamilton and Armstrong (2009:594) assert that gender and class intersect in the sexual arena, "as these structures both rely on beliefs about how and with whom individuals should be intimate." Whereas much research has focused on sexual scripts from solely a gendered perspective, this may overlook influential social factors. Using an intersectional approach that includes both gender and socioeconomic status can alleviate this problem, and provide a more holistic understanding of key mechanisms.

    Despite a trend towards sexual permissiveness, there is still evidence of a double standard that provides men and women with different positions of power and privilege (McCormick 2010; Stinson 2010; Bogle 2008). England, Shafer, and Fogarty (2008) found men were more likely than women to experience sexual pleasure when hooking-up. Men were also more likely to initiate sexual activity, determine whether the hook-up lead to a relationship, and were less likely to be judged negatively for hooking-up (England et al. 2008). Reid et al. (2011:555) found that within hook-up culture, women's sexual desire was characterized as more "transitory, spontaneous, impulsive, or emergent in the situation compared to men's desire, which [was] viewed as a more stable character trait." Hamilton and Armstrong (2009) found the double standard encouraged the disrespect of women regardless of whether they actually hooked-up. Consequently, women that hooked-up felt the need to minimize or hide their sexual activity, contrary to male counterparts (Reid et al. 2011). However, peer shaming over sexual activity is not the only social concern. 

    Hamilton and Armstrong (2009) found many college women acknowledged the relationship imperative, and actively tried to avoid relationships in order to experience independence and focus on self-development. As college men expressed a similar desire, this reflected a particular socioeconomic attitude toward sexual behavior (Armstrong 2009). Class-specific attitudes derive from the shared cultural knowledge and expectations permeated in social identities. For young, middle and upper class Americans, there is an expectation to postpone family formation to focus on education and career development (Rosenfeld 2007; Arnett 2004). Hamilton and Armstrong (2009) termed this the self-development imperative. Where traditional, romantic relationships are viewed as detracting from self-development, hooking-up is perceived to provide sexual pleasure without the costly time and emotional investment (Bogle 2008).

Media Influence

    Exposure to dominant scripts of gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic class occurs through socializing agents, such as family, peers, and the media (Reid 2011; Fortunato, Young, Boyd, and Fons 2010; Stinson 2010). Bandura's (1986) social cognitive theory proposes that media operates as a social learning framework, whereby viewers observe, imitate, and learn from fictional characters to shape their own behaviors, attitudes, and values. Content analyses of film are concerned with media's effect on viewers (Neuendorf 2002). Holtzman (2000) argues deconstructing media scripts will facilitate a broader understanding of cultural discourse regarding gender and sexuality, and is the first step in understanding how individuals use media to create meaning and guide behavior. 

    Mainstream films "reflect, reinforce, and challenge traditional sexual scripts" (Weitz 2009:18), while also setting new cultural expectations for how and why to have sex. It is recognized that film representations do not solely influence sexual scripts, as audiences actively negotiate cultural messages (Weitz 2009; Milkie 1999). Cultural studies research supports the notion that media messages are encoded into films by producers and then decoded by viewers allowing for audience variability (Hall 1980). This variation is likely to occur amongst viewers with life experiences wholly different from the onscreen characters (Weitz 2009; Milkie 1999; Shively 1992). However, the intended readings of most films, those embedded in the structure, are generally indicative of mainstream audiences' values. These "illuminate the cultural ideas that media producers either hold themselves or believe are most palatable to mainstream audiences" (Weitz 2009:18). Fortunato et al. (2010) found media had a documented influence on viewers' perceptions of what constitutes typical social behavior. 

Research Expectations

    Existing research has largely focused on the prevalence and quality of hook-up experiences. There is burgeoning research on the emergence of hooking-up as a dominant sexual script, and some scholars have focused on its gendered and socioeconomic aspects. However, there is a dearth of research concerning popular media depictions of hooking-up and their role in defining social situations and transmitting shared cultural meanings. Using qualitative narrative analysis, I aim to extend the literature and examine the treatment of hooking-up in recent film media, with a focus on gendered sexual norms and socioeconomic status. Three research questions drove this project: (1) "How is hooking-up framed in the broader social context?" (2) "What is the treatment of men's sexuality versus the treatment of women's sexuality?" (3) "How does socioeconomic class shape the characters' decisions to hook-up?" 

    Hooking-up is a complex process that involves negotiating personal needs and public perception. As well, it provides a space in which gendered sexual norms may be either reified or challenged. Given the dominant role of media in shaping perceptions, uncovering how film treats these possibilities is important to hook-up theory development. While romantic comedies typically approach women's sexuality from a traditional, relationship-focused point-of-view (Cokely 1999), I anticipate popular media featuring hook-up narratives may break from this format.

Sample and Methods


    The data for this research were derived from a qualitative media analysis of two U.S. films, released in 2011, which featured a primary narrative of hooking-up. As hooking-up is a rising American-cultural phenomenon, I wanted to select current media to achieve the most relevant contextual data. This limited the sample to two conceptually important films: Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached. The criterion that the films have a primary narrative of hooking-up was the foremost constraining factor in sample selection. Certainly there are more than two media examples of hooking-up. However, these are largely brief behavioral examples, which provide a much different view of hooking-up than in depth narratives. Consequently, the films selected not only feature hook-up behaviors, but also provide extensive narrative content. For this project, the advantage of having a low N lies in the density of detail that can be observed (Weiss 1994), and the ability to dig deeply within that content to explore cultural context and mechanisms.

    The sample contains only American films, as identifying all representative foreign films was time prohibitive for this project, and foreign films represent only 1 percent of the U.S. movie market (Weitz 2009). It is acknowledged that foreign films have occasionally attracted a large U.S. audience. However, en masse, they have had a limited role in shaping American norms, while conversely, American films exert "disproportionate international cultural influence" (Weitz 2009:20). Further, as the literature focused solely on how heterosexual, Americans hook-up, it was theoretically important to have this demographic reflected as primary characters.

    To date, both films have reached a large audience, contributing to their cultural significance. Friends with Benefits, starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, is categorized as an American romantic comedy, and was released in North America on July 22, 2011. It grossed over $18 million in its opening weekend, and has grossed over $149.5 million as of November 11, 2011 (Box Office Mojo 2011). No Strings Attached, starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, is also categorized as an American romantic comedy and was released on January 21, 2011. It grossed over $19 million in its opening weekend, and has grossed over $147.7 million as of November 11, 2011 (Box Office Mojo 2011).


    To deconstruct the films' discourse, the design of this research applied the tenets of grounded theory and ethnographic content analysis (Altheide 2006, 2002; Berg 2006; Dey 1993; Glaser and Strauss 1967). Methodologically, the aim was to reduce the total content of the films' message to sociologically relevant categories using human coding. To gather data, films were coded based on emergent themes developed inductively through viewing (Van Leeuwen 2005). During the initial viewing, thematic content and related scenes of interest were noted chronologically as they appeared in the films. Using an open coding process (Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw 2011), themes of interest quickly emerged, which then became the coding variables: (1) gendered presentations of sexuality, (2) sexual scripts, (3) self-development imperative, (4) "emotional damage", and (6) alternative relationship development. 

    The theme of gendered presentations of sexuality was measured with concepts derived from the literature review- relationship imperative and male sex-drive discourse. The theme of sexual scripts was measured with the norms associated with the traditional, romantic relationship script and the hook-up script.  Self-development imperative was measured with statements and behaviors that favored career development over romantic relationship development. "Emotional damage" was measured with statements and behaviors that indicate the characters find themselves lacking emotional skills. Alternative relationship development was measured with the transition of hooking-up to romantic relationship. 

    Next the films were re-viewed and recoded to "parse overlapping concepts and to look for alternative readings of the data" (Weitz 2009:21). With this method, data was not simply recorded based on its particular characteristics, but considered within the broader social context in which it appeared. Each film was viewed four times. When new variables ceased to emerge, data was organized, analyzed, and scenes were reviewed to confirm the films' intended message. This process was focused, including a fine-grained, line-by-line analysis (Emerson et al. 2011). 

    The limitations of these methods are acknowledged. First, as I was the only coder, there was a heightened potential for researcher bias. To counter this, I hope to present the data in sufficient detail so that the readers can judge the accuracy of coding themselves. However, while having additional coders may increase intercoder reliability, it does not implicitly reduce bias nor increase objectivity, as coders may share similar perspectives (Weitz 2009). Another limitation is the low sample size and recent production of these films. Research that explores the temporal relevance or stability of these hook-up scripts would be beneficial. Lastly, this study solely examined recent U.S. films with a primary narrative of hooking-up. Films with peripheral or brief representations were excluded. Consequently, the influence and contextual messages of these portrayals is unknown- providing an additional opportunity for future research. Similarly, the sample included only "romantic comedies." Future research should explore the treatment of hooking-up in other genres and media, such as television or magazines. As well, a study of historic film images may illuminate how hooking-up has evolved as a dominant sexual script.


"Emotionally Damaged" Characters

    A central and recurring theme throughout each film is that the main characters suffer from "emotional damage" that originated in nuclear family problems. Having an "emotional damaged" self-concept prevents the characters from fulfilling the behaviors and expectations associated with traditional relational roles. Each character, uninterested in continuing traditional romantic relationships, but desiring to remain sexually active, decides to engage in emotionally void, convenience sex, or the "hook up." While in each film, the "spoiled nuclear family" is the source of the characters' "emotionally damaged" identities, it is important to note the family portrayals are humanizing, rather than stigmatizing, indicating an imperfect family image may be accessible to many viewers. As well, the films' indicate "emotional damage" does not need to be actively managed or hidden in interaction, but rather is a viable social identity. Foreshadowing the centrality of this issue, each film dedicates its opening scenes to these backstories. 

   In No Strings Attached, Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) are teenaged acquaintances at summer camp. Adam's father is a famous actor and is recently divorced. Emma, unable to be conventionally supportive, awkwardly pats him on the back and says, "I'm not really an affectionate person. People aren't meant to be together forever." The statement, coming from a young teenage girl sharply contrasts with the traditional, gendered narrative found in much U.S. media, which emphasizes women's "proclivity" towards relationships and matrimony (Cokely 2005). While the source of Emma's family trouble is not explicit, it is known that her mother does not sustain romantic relationships. The movie's primary storyline resumes 15 years later, where neither Adam, his father, Emma, nor her mother has been able to maintain a long-term relationship. However, while Emma's mother has only had short, serial relationships, Adam's father commits the taboo of dating his son's ex-girlfriend- a source of Adam's continued grief throughout the film. Adam's distress stems not from lingering love for his ex-girlfriend, but rather his father's normative boundary betrayal. 

    Friends With Benefits opens with the break-ups of Jamie (Mila Kunis) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake). In contrast to the first film, the revelation of the character's emotional issues is explicit. Each being "dumped," Jamie is told, "you seem like you got it totally together, but you're actually emotionally damaged." Similarly, Dylan is told he is "too emotionally unavailable." It is not revealed until later, with the introduction of the characters' families, where this "damaged" identity comes from. Jamie's bohemian mother has had a series of one-night stands and short-term relationships her entire life. She does not know who Jamie's father is, and makes light of this with a running joke about Jamie's ambiguous ethnicity. Dylan's mother abandoned the family. Dylan's father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, has painful and embarrassing waves of incoherency. Both characters experience shame at their family's non-normativity, and claim their socially damaged identities cause conflict when attempting to engage in traditional sexual roles. 

Career Driven

    In addition to having an "emotionally damaged" identity, each character's self-concept is centered on career. In the films' narratives, if being "emotionally damaged" is foremost conflicting with romantic relational roles, career success has overshadowed relationship success. In No Strings Attached, Adam works for a popular television show, and Emma is in the middle of her medical residency. After their second time hooking-up Adam asks Emma, out of posterity, if he could hang out with her in the daytime. She responds, "It's not really possible. I have no time. I work 80 hours a week doing 36-hour shifts. What I need is someone who's going to be in my bed in 2 A.M. who I don't have to lie to or eat breakfast with." 

    The career theme is echoed in Friends With Benefits. In Dylan's opening break-up scene, his girlfriend accuses, "Maybe you should care a little bit less about work and a little more about the girl you're dating." Later, when Jamie, a corporate "head hunter," is trying to recruit Dylan to be the new art director at GQ magazine, she urges him to "explore his options." He asks if she is in the perfect situation and she responds, "Job? …Absolutely. Everything else…none of your business." Dylan eventually accepts the job and moves to New York. His career success is highlighted in several other scenes by the prestige of GQ headquarters, his increase in staff, and his upscale apartment. 

Women's Sexual Imperative

    In the traditional, romantic sexual script, men are the active pursuers of (women's) sexuality, while women are the passive recipients of men's advances (Stinson 2010). However, this is more flexible within the hook-up narrative. With the films' decentering of romance, the progression to repeated sexual behavior occurs through explicit negotiation. The depiction of women's sexuality is thus not passive, but as active and necessary as men's. 

    In No Strings Attached, it is Emma that initiates the sexual relationship asking, "Do you want to do this? Use each other for sex at all hours of the day and night…nothing else?" After discussing with Adam, she asserts, "We'll just do this until one of us feels something more, then we'll quit." This agency is also reflected in Friends With Benefits, where Jamie exclaims, "God, I miss sex! Right, I mean sometimes you just need it. It's like…uh, it's like cracking your neck." Later, while her and Dylan are discussing the terms of the sexual arrangement she asks, "you swear you don't want anything more than sex? No relationship? No emotions? Just sex?"

    The theme of women's sexual agency is furthered by the absence of a sexual double standard. Neither woman is portrayed negatively for engaging in non-relational sexual behavior, and both are explicit and confident regarding their hook-up statuses. Neither attempts to hide their sexuality, even with their parents. Jamie's mother, after she's caught Jamie and Dylan having sex, approves of the situation:

Lorna: You never told me you had a hot boyfriend!
Jamie: He's not my boyfriend, mom.
Lorna: Oh!
Dylan: That's right. We're just friends.
Lorna: Why, I love it! Ooh, it's like the seventies in here. Woo! That was a better time. Just sex.
Similarly, in No Strings Attached, Emma and Adam unabashedly confess their sex-only status to his father and his girlfriend:
Alvin: How long have you two been together?
Emma: Oh, we're not.
Adam: We're sex friends.
Emma: Yes we are.
Adam: Friends with benefits. Fuck buddies.
Alvin: Great Scott! (a light-hearted reference to the television show he starred in)
Emma: (leaving the restaurant shouts) IT'S THE BEST SEX OF MY LIFE!
Women's Sexual Agency and Men's Sexual Drive Discourse

    Neither film suggests that women should sacrifice their sexual pleasure for men's. In both movies, once non-relational sex was negotiated, a montage of sexual activity ensued.  Throughout these segments, the pairs engage in a variety of sexual behaviors, including heavy petting, oral sex, vaginal intercourse, and erotic role-playing. In these fast-paced montages, fueled by upbeat background music, the women verbalize their emotional boundaries and sexual needs to their own sexual benefit. 

    This image of sexual agency supplements the overall positive image of women's sexuality. Both Jamie and Emma are able to initiate sexual activity and engage in sexual behavior in which they may, or may not, be the dominant partner. While the men's sexual needs are fulfilled, the women's are not secondary, and both men make an effort to ensure their partners are sexually satisfied. This supports the possibility that women's sexual pleasure can be fulfilled through hooking-up, and indicates the films' general support of egalitarian sexual relationships. 

    Although the portrayal of women's sexual agency is positive, the stereotypical male sex drive discourse remains. If Emma and Jamie's sexual imperatives are nonnormative, then Adam and Dylan's are stereotypical. After Emma asks Adam if he wants to "use each other for sex," he simply replies, "Yeah, I could do that." This succinct reply contrasts sharply with Emma's monologue, implying evidence is needed to explain her sexual imperative, while his is expected. Similarly in Friends with Benefits, Dylan equates sex with sport and when referring to women wanting relationships he says, "you know how you women get."

Alternative Relational Development

    Despite having narratives about emotionless sex, both films conclude with the emergence of a romantic relationship. In the beginning of the films, the characters voice their desired avoidance of the "messy" and "fake" emotional details of relationships. Adam states, "I'm going to call every girl in my phone until someone agrees to have sex with me." Emma states she is not good at "communication. Relationship stuff, " and tells Adam, "If we were in a relationship, I would become a weird scary version of myself. My throat starts constricting. The walls start throbbing." Similarly in Friends With Benefits, Dylan and Jaime converse:

 Dylan: Why [do relationships} always gotta come with complications?
 Jamie: And emotions.
 Dylan: And guilt.
 Jamie: Woah! Guilt!
Dylan: Why can [sex] not be like that? It's a physical act. Like playing tennis. Two people should be able to have sex like they're playing tennis.
 Jamie: Yeah! I mean no one wants to go away for the weekend after they play tennis.
 Dylan: It's just a game. You shake hands; you get on with your shit. 
However, as the films progress, the characters are able to get to know each other without the "complications" of romance. Thus, when both partners eventually fall in love, it is presumably in a more "real" way than the traditional sexual script. This is demonstrated in the films' concluding scenes. In Friends With Benefits, after Dylan surprises Jamie with a romantic flash mob in her honor:
 Dylan: Hey, I want my best friend back…because I'm in love with her.
 Jamie: Under one condition.
 Dylan: Anything.
 Jamie: Kiss me.
 Dylan: In public? In front of all these people? (joking)
 Jamie: I did not ask you… [he comes close and kisses her]
Similarly, in No Strings Attached after Emma surprises Adam at the hospital after finding out his father was ill:
Emma: I know that I can't just call you. I hurt you. I'm sorry. I don't know why I wasted so much time pretending I didn't care. I guess I didn't want to feel like this…but, I love you. I'm completely in love with you. And I don't care if you think it's too late, I'm telling you.
Adam: Wait, you should know, if you come any closer, I'm not letting you go…[they come close and kiss]
Race, Class, and Heteronormativity

    It is important to note these films portray a specific white, middle-class, and heterosexual narrative of hooking up. Aside from one white, gay supporting character in Friends With Benefits, played by Woody Harrelson, and a black, straight supporting character in No Strings Attached, played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, all characters with speaking roles are white, at least middle-class, and heterosexual. While this demographic is extremely limited, it reflects the limited portrayals of people who are (1) lower class, (2) queer or homosexual identified, and/or (3) people of color in popular romantic comedies and other mainstream U.S. media (Weitz 2009). Thus, the themes presented are only validated for white, middle-class, heterosexuals.

    Given that these films solely portray mostly white, normative individuals, it is possible, and likely, that these populations' narratives on hooking up will be different, as those individuals will have a differently situated understanding of sex, relationships, and courting. Interestingly, some research has indicated that hooking-up, as framed in the literature, is a culturally homogenous phenomenon. Davidson, Moore, Earle, and Davis (2008) found that race was the most influential factor in determining sexual behavior. Additional research is needed to better understand this potential institutionalizing force in mediating engagement with hooking up.


    The films' narratives indicate that hooking-up is a viable sexual script and that social identity is shaped by a variety of factors. Foremost, it indicates that when traditional sexual roles are ill fitting or undesirable, adopting an alternate role (hooking-up) is acceptable. From a social interactionist perspective, by deciding to purposefully disengage from traditional, romantic roles, the characters actively preserved self-esteem and protected their self-concepts. This indicates that hooking-up has evolved past simple, noncommittal sex. As a dominant sexual script, it provides a space in which individuals may indulge personal desires and reconcile social identity conflicts, such as the self-development imperative. As well, hooking-up provides an escape from the perceived restraints of traditional romance. In the beginning of the films, the characters wished to avoid the "messy" and "fake" emotional details of relationships. Rather than continue to endure conflict within these roles, they abandon traditional dating entirely. These transitions occur with ease, indicating modern hook-up culture is a socially scripted and acceptable option.

    The transition of hooking-up as a viable sexual script means it is now bound by a particular set of social ideas and expectations. This distinguishes modern hook-up culture from hook-up behaviors just a few decades ago. In Friends with Benefits, Jamie's mother asserts, "Ooh, it's like the seventies in here. Woo! That was a better time. Just sex." However, the factors impacting one's decision to hook-up have expanded since the 1970s- particularly for women. During the mid-1960s, a change in gender politics led to a period of increasing sexual freedom (Bogle 2008). Yet gender politics have changed since then, and the range of social and financial opportunities available to women has increased. Hooking-up is no longer solely about individualism and personal freedom. It is no longer "just sex." As hooking-up emerged as a sexual script, it became imbued with cultural assumptions, and people who hook-up must negotiate not only sexual desire, but also social expectations and views on personal development.

    The characters do not experience negative social, emotional, or physical consequences, such as sexually transmitted infections, from hooking-up. This echoes the films' sex positive themes. Defying the sexual double standard, Jamie and Emma negotiate their own sexuality, and by voicing their desires, achieve sexual satisfaction without negative social repercussions. While the portrayal of men's sexuality is less revolutionary, the films do not indicate that men's sexuality is more valuable than, or should come at the expense of, women's sexual pleasure. 

    While there is a tone of gender equality, the films retain a hegemonic picture of sexuality. The characters are uniformly white, middle class, and heterosexual; and there are limited examples of alternative experiences. Further, there is no acknowledgment of whether the characters' ability to have positive hook-up experiences is related to hooking-up being the superior model, or because the character's social status provides them the unique opportunity to engage in this type of sexual behavior free of consequences. In particular, the role of class should not be overlooked. For example, had Emma held a blue-collar job, rather than being a medical student, her desire to hook-up may have been seen differently. 

    Lastly, both films end with the "sex only" relationships evolving into romantic relationships. Though existing research has confirmed this may occur, it is not the norm (Bradshaw et al. 2010). This storyline is not inherently problematic. However, as both films show hooking-up relationships evolving into romantic relationships, some viewers may view this as typical. Consequently, where hooking-up is a predominant sexual script, individuals looking for romantic relationships may feel pressure to hook-up in order to find one, or experience disappointment if a romantic relationship fails to evolve. 


    This research examined hook-up narratives in two mainstream, U.S. films. The narratives indicate that hooking-up is a viable sexual script, in which men and women can engage in sexual behavior without relationship "strings." Hooking-up in this context differs from the historical existence of hook- up behaviors because of its connection to a particular set of middle and upper class views. Consequently, hooking-up constitutes a temporal social identity in which individuals may engage when it is perceived as beneficial, such as in youth. The absence of a sexual double standard and overall sex positive image of women's sexuality provides an alternative framework to examining gender and sexuality within a social context. However, the stereotypical presence of the male sex drive discourse reifies traditional gender constructs. 

    This research addresses a gap in the literature by exploring recent media characterizations of hooking-up. The data for this project focused on film media. However, there are other media types, such as television shows, print media, and various genres of music, which also reflect hooking-up. Future research should explore the content of these diverse narratives to uncover their shared cultural meanings, which may or may not differ from these findings. As well, future research should explore audience receptivity to and negotiation of media messages on hooking-up. This would provide greater insight into the process of how individuals mediate dominant sexual scripts. Lastly, future research should examine the historic portrayal of hooking-up in popular media. This would illuminate how the meaning of hooking-up has changed over time. 


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