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Another notch on the bedpost.

Andrey Kryuchkov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Some advice for college-aged men: "Give the girl a pair of sweats," says Kate, a 21-year-old arts major at Dalhousie University.

She's referencing the so-called "walk of shame" that sees a young woman teetering home after a hookup in whatever getup she had on the night before. And while men are no longer obliged to walk their partners home the morning after ("just seems kinda pointless," offers Kate), sweatpants are appreciated.

More important in the hookup protocol is your exit: "I don't like going through all the small talk in the morning. I just kind of leave," says Annie, a 23-year-old psychology graduate from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. "Definitely don't overstay," Kate concurs. "If I come home and they're still in my bed, I'd say, 'Um, k, I want to get on with my day.'"

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For students practising the bleary-eyed art of casual sex, a corresponding etiquette has emerged across campuses, where hookup culture remains the defining, tequila-soaked ritual of modern university life. Research estimates that 80 per cent of undergraduates have at least one hookup, although those numbers tend to drop by half for encounters involving full-on intercourse – much more of it involves heavy make-out sessions and oral sex.

From the outside – and aging – world, the economics of today's hookups can seem bleak: Participants worry if staying for a glass of water in the morning is okay (it is) while boastfully recounting, preferably via multiple-media platforms, another notch on the belt. Where's the love, and what's the point?

Last month, The Argosy, a student newspaper at New Brunswick's Mount Allison University, published an enlightening piece about the civilities involved in hooking up: The key rules involve discretion and not getting emotionally attached, even as the parameters of the intimate act often remain purposely non-committal and murky.

"A lot of this stuff is kind of vague," said Colin, a 20-year-old economics major at the University of Western Ontario. He finds the etiquette around exclusivity is a particular "grey area." Asked about any letdowns in casual sex, Colin paused. "Negatives? Nothing I can think of."

It's a numbness that author Donna Freitas attempts to mine in her new book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.

"This practice creates a drastic divide between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy," writes Freitas. More troubling is her suggestion that, "If we live in a culture that teaches young people to care less about their own feelings, and everyone else's, that bodies are to be used and disposed of afterward, we can be sure that those lessons are going to spill over into everything else they do, and everything they are."

While Freitas acknowledges that students are outwardly nonchalant and often smug about chronic hookups, she insists that privately, many feel they are missing out on something significant: intimate, good sex, the kind that happens without a stranger's offer of half a dozen Jägerbombs. The author surveyed 2,500 students online across seven secular and non-secular colleges and universities in the United States. She then conducted in-person interviews with 111 of those pupils, who also kept diaries. Some of them felt they'd become incapable of creating "valuable and real connections." Others complained of "deserving more than 3 a.m. – 10 a.m., three nights a week."

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By their accounts, no-strings-attached sex sounded "mechanical" and "robotic" to Freitas, who writes, "Although many students talked at length about having had sex, few mentioned whether or not they had enjoyed any of it." Ultimately, she argues, hookup culture is a repressive place that trades love and real desire in for "greater access to sex – sex for the sake of sex."

Jessica Maxwell recalls her own years at Queen's University, when she shared a house with six other women. The students in her year would constantly debrief about who they'd slept with, "But we would never ask, 'How's the sex? Was it great? Were you satisfied?'" Maxwell, now a social psychology PhD student at the University of Toronto researching modern intimacy on campus, says: "There's far more chance of having an orgasm with a long-term romantic partner than with a first-time hookup. They don't have the incentive to go out of their way to make each other happy."

For Lakehead University's Annie, who started hooking up after her two-year relationship imploded, casual encounters haven't been mind-blowing: "Most of the time when you bring someone back from the bar, you're pretty drunk. Either your memory isn't that good or the performance is kind of sad."

Problematically, researchers (Freitas included) have not followed the hookup generation through their post-college, professional years to decipher what impact, if any, this campus bacchanalia would have on their ability to forge respectful, committed relationships later on. Freitas suggests that some of her subjects who graduated left the "convenience of residence halls, of rows and rows of bedrooms," feeling ambivalent about how to proceed with their sex lives – "lost, confused and searching, but not damaged."

Still, critics like Maxwell question whether hookup culture is necessarily a problem: "Just because you didn't start dating the way your parents did, does that predict things later on?"

Maxwell's main problem with casual sex is the fluid definitions it is founded on: "People are afraid of labelling their relationships and to openly communicate in them. They feel a lot of anxiety: Is it appropriate for me to stay for breakfast, or do I need to leave right now? Paradoxically, it becomes more complicated because the norms are less defined."

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Asked if he foresees two years of hooking up bleeding into his future attempts at commitment, Western's Colin says, "It might be a little harder because you'd have less experience with dating instead of doing your own thing. But if you really like the person, like spending time with them, it comes naturally."

Defining the hookup

Of the thousands of students Freitas surveyed for her new book, 23 per cent "didn't care about the hookups they had" and 41 per cent "expressed sadness and even despair" about the casual romps in their dorms. Below, one definition of the hookup. (It's complicated.)

The three qualities that constitute a hookup are its sexual content, its brevity and its apparent lack of emotional involvement.

1. A hookup includes some form of sexual intimacy, anything from kissing to oral, vaginal or anal sex and everything in between.

2. A hookup can last as short as a few minutes to as long as several hours over a single night.

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3. A hookup is intended to be purely physical in nature and involves both parties shutting down communication or connection that might lead to emotional attachment.

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