Hookups can be Purposeful, Positive, and Safe for LGBTQ+ Young Adults

By Nikole Babcock and Shannon Snapp

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Living an LGBTQIA2+ Life

Our new research on LGBTQ+ young adults’ hookups illustrate how they can be purposeful, positive, and safe. Sexual health choices of LGBTQ+ young adults are often depicted as “risky” (i.e., HIV/ STI focused), and can perpetuate negative stereotypes about the queer community. Yet, our research illustrates that queer young adults are often intentional and thoughtful as they approach casual sexual encounters or “hookups.” Hooking up is an ambiguous and highly utilized term that is used to describe sexual activities ranging from kissing to penetrative sex. Hookups not only foster intimate and pleasurable connections with other people but may lead to romantic partnerships and can help young adults explore their sexual identity.

In order to better understand queer hookups, we interviewed 50 LGBTQ+ young adults in North America. The average age of participants was 21, and 20% identified as having two or more sexual orientation identities (i.e., queer and asexual). Our participant racial/ethnicity demographics were 52% white, 20% Asian, 12% Latinx, 6% Black, and 10% did not disclose.

From our data we examined whether LGBTQ+ young adults use hooking up to help them navigate their sexual identity, what motivates LGBTQ+ young adults to hook up, and how LGBTQ+ young adults navigate their personal safety while using hookup apps.

Sexual Identity Development

Sexual identity is a broad term that often includes an individual’s relationship to their sexual orientation, partner preference, sexual practices, and the gender identity of their partners or themselves. Our research showed the development of one’s sexual identity may be explored through hooking up, which can either solidify one’s sexual preferences or aid in discovery and experimentation. We found that hookups were opportunities for some LGBTQ+ young adults to discover that their sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual preferences were flexible and may fluctuate. These findings strengthen the theory that sexual orientation may be fluid throughout the lifespan. Although 21% of participants did not think hooking up contributed to their sexual identity development, over 16% found that it strengthened their relationship to the LGBTQ+ community by affirming their sexual orientation and/or queer identities. You can read more about these findings in our paper recently published in Emerging Adulthood.

Queering Hookup Motives

There are several reasons that may motivate young people to hook up, with pleasure and intimacy being the top two. However, we know much less about the hookup motives of LGBTQ+ young adults. In our next paper, we identified six hookup motives based on responses from participants’ interviews. Similar to past research, LGBTQ+ young people are highly motivated by intimacy and pleasure, including the desire to pleasure their partner(s). Previously identified motives such as self-affirmation and coping (with stress) were also important. LGBTQ+ young adults were also motivated by cultural norms and easy access and multifaceted motives. For example, participants explained that hooking up is accepted and normalized within the queer community. Further, geographic location can also aid in hookup partner accessibility due to larger pools of potential hookup partners who are accessible through hookup apps. We describe multifaceted motives as a combination of other motives, such as physical closeness, coping with a breakup, and personal sexual satisfaction. In short, there are lots of motives that drive hookups among LGBTQ+ young adults. The discovery of new and multifaceted motives queers the past research and gives us even more insight into this understudied topic. Our paper containing these findings is currently under review in the Journal of Sex Research.

Personal Safety and Hookup Apps

The little research on personal safety during hookups has been limited to young men who have sex with men. To address this, we created a theoretical model of personal safety during hookups called the Safety Spectrum, which describes LGBTQ+ young adults’ safety strategies as stringent, ambivalent, or relaxed. We found that personal safety strategies may not necessarily be linked to one’s sexual identity, or even sexual practices, and are better understood as “circumstantial.” For example, bisexual women may use stringent safety tactics with heterosexual cismales (e.g., talking for weeks through social media and text messaging) but may be relaxed with women (e.g., only talking to them for a day or two before meeting in person). We also found that LGBTQ+ young adults thoughtfully negotiate and navigate personal safety when using hookup apps, and most participants used stringent or ambivalent safety strategies. These findings contradict the belief that LGBTQ+ young adults are more relaxed and “risky” and instead illustrate that many take ample precautions to ensure their personal safety during casual sex. These findings were recently presented at the 2022 Society for Research on Adolescence conference, and the manuscript is currently under review with the Archives of Sexual Behavior.


Hookups can serve as positive experiences for LGBTQ+ young adults who demonstrate more consideration for themselves and others than previously credited. Hooking up can be a tool to discover sexual preferences and can support sexual identity development. There are far more reasons LGBTQ+ young adults seek hookups than previously known, and personal safety is strongly considered as queer young people navigate potential hookup partners. We hope this collection of new research can inform comprehensive sexual education and gives scholars and practitioners a broader view of the hookup experiences of LGBTQ+ young people.

Nikole Babcock (she/her/hers) is an undergraduate psychology student at California State University, Monterey Bay, Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROC) Scholar, and Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar.

Shannon D. Snapp (she/her/hers) is an Associate Professor in Psychology at California State University, Monterey Bay. Her work focuses on: 1) interpersonal relationships and 2) educational policies and practices that support underrepresented youth’s health and well-being, with a focus on the experiences of LGBTQ youth, youth of color, and youth whose identities and experiences intersect.



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