Is Hookup Culture Putting An End To Anniversaries?

Photographed by Renell Medrano.
Most of the couples I know didn't start out as couples. Instead, they "hooked up" for several months and eventually found themselves in relationships. One friend was hooking up with her now-boyfriend for over a year when she heard that he had slept with someone else and gave him an ultimatum: they'd either be in a relationship or stop hooking up altogether. He counts the day she gave him the ultimatum as their anniversary, while she usually tells people they've been together since the first time they hooked up.
Another friend can't really pinpoint a time when she and her now-boyfriend stopped hooking up and started being a couple. It just kind of happened, and because they never DTR (defined the relationship), they don't have an official anniversary. My girlfriend and I also had a complicated path to our relationship. We hooked up for four months before she asked me to make it official. We count our anniversary as the day we DTR, but we could just as easily count it as the day of our first date (which would make our relationship significantly longer).
Advertisement
Maybe it seems weird that my friends and I have such similar stories, but it's a product of how we grew up. We're in full swing of a hookup culture, where it's expected that we'll have casual sexual relationships, at least until things don't feel so casual anymore. And if we're at all indicative of larger trends, this kind of hookup culture is changing the way we think about anniversaries.
But that's not really shocking, says Lisa Wade, PhD, a professor of sociology and author of American Hookup. Hookup culture is just the latest iteration of dating, which changes all the time. In fact, people didn't really have anniversaries (apart from their wedding anniversaries) until the 1950s, she says. We have the idea of "going steady," meaning that it's normal to have a long-term monogamous relationship before getting married, because of World War II. "The New York Times was telling young women that they lost 800,000 men in World War II," she says. And that's true. Lots of men died, many married women from overseas, and many came back knowing that they were gay because they were able to explore their sexuality while at war. "There was a big media push telling young women that they better nail down their guys early, because if they didn't get a guy they'd be an old biddy for life," Dr. Wade says. "So women invented going steady to try to make up for all the men that were gone."
Advertisement
And with going steady, we got anniversaries. So it makes sense that with another big change in dating culture, now focusing on casual relationships instead of serious ones, we'd start to see the idea of anniversaries change again.

In retrospect, it makes the other kind of dating culture, where you go from having a few dates to suddenly being boyfriend and girlfriend, seem really rash.

Dr. Lisa Wade, sociologist.
While hookup culture seems like a really new thing, it's been around since the 1990s, Dr. Wade says. And it's a product of women who were raised with the feminist ideals of Baby Boomers, who wanted women to be able to do what men could do. "The daughters of those boomers, their whole life, get taught that it's okay if you want to be girly, but it's cooler if you want to be boyish. And it might even be what liberation looks like," Dr. Wade says. When those women went to college, they applied that logic to sex and started having casual relationships.
Eventually, the "script" of hookup culture spread, and many young people (especially those who went to college) learned a new way of building relationships. "In hookup culture either you don't or you have to pretend that you don't have any romantic interest," Dr. Wade says. "So that doesn't just affect the initial contact, it affects the transition into a relationship." Socially, it's kind of dangerous to admit that you have feelings for someone. So instead of unloading our feelings, many of us find more creative ways into a relationship. "Maybe at first you've hooked up and then the next stage of the relationship is that you're hooking up, and then you're just hooking up with each other, but you're not in a relationship," Dr. Wade says. It's a series of baby steps that can eventually end in a committed relationship. But chances are good that the day a couple typically counts as their anniversary will get muddled along the way.
Some might use that fact to poo-poo hookup culture, and talk about how it's ruining love. But that would be a disservice, Dr. Wade says. Sure, there are problems with a hyper-masculine hookup culture that decides who is and isn't desirable (often, fat people, people with disabilities, and many other marginalized groups get the short stick). But, the relationship baby steps that hookup culture has created are actually kind of smart. "In retrospect, it makes the other kind of dating culture, where you go from having a few dates to suddenly being boyfriend and girlfriend seem really rash, right? That's a big step to take all at once," Dr. Wade says.
In comparison, the hookup culture strategy is much safer. People who wind up in relationships now spend a lot of time considering the relationship first (while enjoying all of the benefits of casual sex). "It problematizes the picking of a day, sure. But it also reveals how artificial the picking of the day always was," Dr. Wade says. "And how it's really just a social construction that we're supposed to have a day in the first place." And if anniversaries are a social construct, anyway, does it really matter if you have one?
Advertisement

More from Sex & Relationships

Watch

R29 Original Series