A Literature Review Of Contemporary Youth Dating Culture In The United States of America

The contemporary youth dating culture in America has evolved over many years. The 19th century saw the fashion of a “calling” style of courtship which gradually evolved into dating in the 20th century. Technological advances such as the automobile provided the youth liberation from their parlors and the freedom to meet in private. The years before the second world war saw a system which sociologists referred to as the “dating and rating complex”. In this, men and women gained popularity by securing a large number of dates. But the 1950s brought with them a paradigm shift from quantity to quality. The war left behind a scarcity of young males which led to an emphasis on finding a loyal partner. The next two decades brought with them the sexual revolution catalyzed by the emergence of the birth control pill. Thus, the hookup culture was born. The 21st century revolutionized dating culture with the invention of online dating websites (The History Of Dating in America 2018). Applications such as Tinder and Bumble have reversed the process of getting to know a person slowly and then taking the decision to remain with them. Hence, romance has undergone a variety of changes at the hands of dominant social forces.

Review of Existing Literature

There exists a wide variety of literature on courtship and dating through the decades. But this review of literature will focus on a progression in the themes surrounding dating through the 20th and 21st century.

The 20th century

Waller (1937) studied the courtship practices of college students. He proposed that dating took place under conditions determined by a culture complex that he called the “rating and dating complex”. According to this complex, both male and female students on a college campus simultaneously rate each other and are rated by others into classes. These ratings would depend on factors such as which fraternity they belong to, whether they dress well and if they have a copious amount of spending money. The most important factor for popularity among women is how many men ask them to dance. Furthermore, Waller also proposes that men and women belonging to a particular class stick to dating amongst themselves.

Waller’s proposed method of rating ad dating set the tone for subsequent research on dating for years to come. But when studied carefully, the historical accuracy of his research is questionable. He based his research on a single college campus (Pennsylvania State) which could be termed as rather special due to its skewed sex ration in the favor of men. Moreover, Waller presented his material as if it characterized American college students as a whole but it must be remembered that he himself mentioned, “dating patterns varied from campus to campus” (Waller 1937). Finally, the 21st century has seen a virtual disappearance of the rating and dating complex from the lives of American adolescents. The elaborate system of pluralistic dating proposed by Waller has given way to a system which is less pluralistic (Gordon 1981).

Lee (1988) made the next major contribution to the romance arena when he proposed the 6 major types of love styles. According to him, different types of people approach and engage in romantic relationships differently. The first is Eros which is based on strong physical and/or emotional attraction for one’s partner. The second is Ludos which is a characteristic of those that see love as a game. The next is Storge which is based more on friendship and similar interests than passion. The fourth is Pragma which is a love style that is pragmatic and realistic. The next is mania that usually arises out of low self-esteem. The last love style is Agape that is based on an unbreakable bond in which one would do anything for their partner.

More than 30 years later, the Love Attitudes Scale which is designed to measure which kind of love style one possesses, is still in circulation. Over the years, many researches have tried to find a link between love styles and hormonal variations versus social learning. But the maximum they have been able to find is that what an individual does in love is in some manner tied to their hormonal experiences (DiDonato 2017).

The 21st century

At the beginning of the 21st century, online dating sites brought with them a paradigm shift from offline dating. Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis and Sprecher (2012) have employed psychological science to examine these differences. According to their results, online dating is unique. It is fundamentally different from offline dating due to many reasons. Firstly, it involves learning a broad range of facts about a potential partner without having to meet them. Secondly, it could also be said that some forms of online dating involve placing one’s romantic future in the hands of a mathematical algorithm. Finkel et al. also observed that it many ways, online dating is superior to conventional forms. Firstly, it provides unprecedented levels of access that some individuals might not otherwise have. Secondly, it allows individuals to gauge their compatibility through online communication before having to meet each other face-to-face. But the most important results found during this research were that not all aspects of online dating are good. This form of dating reduces three-dimensional people into two-dimensional displays of information. Moreover, due to the plethora of choices, individuals might be unwilling to commit to one partner. Finally, due to mathematical algorithms that work on similarity, there has also been an increasing trend in homogamy in marriage.

An important consequence of online dating applications such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge is an increase in the hookup trend. This is due to the ease of access and the option of only having to meet an individual once in contrast to the burden of going on multiple dates. Thus, online dating supplements other school and college arenas where youth are on the lookout for casual sex. Some examples are college festivals, concerts and clubs.

The previously mentioned concerts and clubs are almost always providers of alcohol. Alcohol is considered to play a key role in the hookup culture. Owen, J & Fincham, F. (2010) did extensive research on this subject. Not only did they discuss how more alcohol use leads to a higher number of hookups, but they also commented upon how alcohol use during the sexual encounter would lead to more negative emotional reactions and fewer positive ones for both men and women after the fact. They discovered that there were no significant gender differences in alcohol consumption. Owen and Fincham suggested educators to help out participants in their programs by making them understand the risks of making the decision to hook up under the influence of alcohol.

Armstrong, England and Fogarty (2012) investigated the determinants of orgasm and sexual enjoyment in hookup and relationship sex among heterosexual college women and sought to explain why sex within a relationship leads to more orgasms and better sexual enjoyment for women. They used data from women respondents to a large online survey of undergraduates at 21 U.S.A colleges and universities and from 85 in-depth interviews at two universities. Their research was important as it focused on the sexual satisfaction of women which is not an area touched upon by other studies. More importantly, it brought to light a double standard that contributes to better relationship sex for women. Men and women both question women’s entitlement to sexual pleasure during hookups but strongly believe in women’s entitlement to sexual pleasure within relationships. Thus, more attention is thus given to producing female orgasm in relationships.

In modern times, it is almost impossible to sustain a romantic relationship without using technology. Social media plays an important role in dating amongst the youth. Gutzzman (2018) studied the role that social media played in strengthening communication in long-distance relationships. He used a qualitative design to interview individuals between the ages of 20 and 30 years. They were asked questions surrounding their use of social media as a method to sustain their long-distance relationships. But since this was a qualitative study with limited participants, it could be argued that the findings were insignificant. Moreover, each individual interviewed had successfully sustained a long-distance relationship. This might have led to a bias in the interpretation of the findings surrounding the positives associated with social media.

Most research papers discussed up till now have been studies of youth present in academic institutions such as high schools or colleges. But Nievera (2013) did a landmark study upon the decline in traditional dating beyond the college campus. The study was a qualitative- inductive one with 22 participants. Only those adults living in and near a major metropolitan American city in the Midwest were selected and they had to be college-educated and working at that time. The data revealed that these graduated adults abandoned many aspects of traditional dating scripts and held on to fragments of a hookup culture present in college. Hence, they constructed a pseudo hook up culture after college. She referred to this phenomenon as a “hook up hangover”. Her research was an important contribution as firstly, it focused on youth outside of college campuses and secondly, it told us that college hook up culture does not disappear after graduation.

Literature Gaps

After examining literature relevant to contemporary youth dating culture in America, a few gaps were observed.

Firstly, apart from the Nievera (2013) article, there are very few other researches on youth dating culture which are based outside of academic institutions. This is relevant because an individual’s actions are not based solely upon the moment in which they act. It is important to take an expansive approach to viewing the youth’s dating culture by also studying their childhood. This would enable us to view influences of parental styles and childhood trauma if any upon an adolescent’s dating choices. Furthermore, just as Nievera did in her research, it is necessary to study the short term and long term impacts of romantic and lifestyle decisions made in high school and college. Thus, restricting the study of youth to only their presence in academia is a shortcoming of the existing literature surrounding this topic.

Secondly, there is a focus only on those belonging to the white upper-middle-class amongst those whose dating practices have been studied. This is a huge disadvantage because it prevents us from learning about the intersections of other factors such as race, ethnicity and class and how they shape an American’s romantic values and choices.

Thirdly, the existing literature has thrown the spotlight on only heterosexual relationships. Even those few studies that have same-sex couples as their focus have many shortcomings. They have approached these researches from a savior point of view. For example, most of these studies are upon the stigma that homosexual couples face which prevent them from being a public couple. Others have studied intimate partner and domestic violence. Still, others talk about stress, mental health and therapy which many couples same-sex couples are bound to go through. The last topic discussed by them is that of HIV and AIDS. Instead of only focusing upon the negative aspects of these relationships, it also essential to focus on the positive ones. Researchers must also treat them as they treat heterosexual couples and attempt to study other factors such as sexual satisfaction or online and offline platforms used to meet.



Armstrong, E. A., England, P., & Fogarty, A. C. K. (2012). Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships. American Sociological Review, 77(3), 435–462. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122412445802

DiDonato, T. (2017). Love Styles Are Not Arbitrary: Why Do You Have Yours? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meet-catch-and-keep/201709/love-styles-are- not-arbitrary-why-do-you-have-yours

Finkel, E., Eastwick, P., Karney, B., Reis, H. and Sprecher, S. (2012). Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science. Association for Psychological Science, 13(1). Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~ghaeffel/OnineDating_Aron.pdf

Gordon, M. (1981). Was Waller Ever Right? The Rating and Dating Complex Reconsidered. Journal of Marriage and Family,43(1), 67-76. doi:10.2307/351417

Gutzmann, Lexie. (2018). Utilization of Social Media in Strengthening Communication in Long Distance Relationships. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/860

Lee, J. A. (1988). Love-styles. In R. J. Sternberg & M. L. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (p. 38–67). Yale University Press.

Nievera, Reginald, “The Hook Up Hangover: The Decline in Traditional Dating Beyond the College Campus – Before Formal Commitment” (2013). Master’s Theses. 1466.

Owen, J & Fincham, F. (2010). Young Adults’ Emotional Reactions After Hooking Up Encounters. Archives of sexual behavior. 40. 321-30. 10.1007/s10508-010-9652-x.

The History Of Dating in America. (2018). Retrieved from https://sexinfo.soc.ucsb.edu/article/history-dating-america

Waller, W. (1937). The Rating and Dating Complex. American Sociological Review, 2(5), 727- 734. Retrieved February 21, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/2083825

Share on:

Arushi is a sociology and environmental studies. She is passionate about writing and researching about these two fields. She has a keen interest in social work and has collaborated with many volunteering programs in the past. Her hobbies include horse riding, trekking and painting.