Are today’s college students operating in a sex-fueled romantic wasteland, where casual, loveless sex has entirely replaced candlelit dinner dates with a special someone?
That’s the picture painted by some recent news stories on the campus “hook up culture,” which is loosely defined as students engaging in casual sex with people they don’t expect to become serious romantic partners. But a new nationally representative study casts doubt on that interpretation, suggesting that contemporary college students actually have sex slightly less frequently than they used to, albeit with partners they’re not as likely to have a relationship with.
“It is by now pretty well understood that traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by ‘hooking up’—an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse — without the emotional entanglement of a relationship,” wrote the New York Times’ Kate Taylor in a recent 5,000-word cover story on hook up culture at the University of Pennsylvania .
But a new working paper from the University of Portland complicates that assumption, finding that today’s college students do not have more sex or more sexual partners than their predecessors. College students are slightly less likely to have sex with people they are in serious relationships with than in the past, but by a small percentage that does not support the notion that a sexual revolution has swept college campuses in the past 10 years.
The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, is different from many examinations of campus hook up culture because it uses a nationally representative sample of more than 1,800 young people who have completed at least one year of college. (Many college sex studies interpret survey results from a specific college or university, raising the problem that the results may not apply to other campuses.)
The new study compares the self-reported sexual behavior of students who attended college between 2002 and 2010— allegedly the peak of the “hook up” era--to that of a generation of students who went to college between 1988 and 1996. To the surprise of the study’s authors, not that much has changed between the two eras, clothing trends aside.
Contemporary students were less likely than those from the earlier era to say they had sex weekly or more often (65.2 percent compared to 59.3 percent), and were almost exactly as likely as the earlier generation to say they’d had more than two sexual partners since turning 18 (51.7 percent of students in the past compared to 50.5 percent today).
The study did detect one significant change, however. Contemporary students were less likely than their predecessors to report having a regular sexual partner in the past year (77.1 percent compared to 84.5 percent). They were also more likely to say they had had sex with a friend, casual date, or other non-regular partner in the past year, as compared to college students of the past, by a small but significant margin.
The study’s author, University of Portland Professor Michael Monto, said he doesn’t think the change is significant enough to support the conclusion that college sexual behavior has changed significantly since the 1988-96 cohort of students.
Even so, it’s clear that the dating atmosphere has changed somewhat, and that college students are less likely to be having regular sex with one person. Interestingly, the shift away from one regular sex partner does not mean that college students have more sexual partners, or more sex.
Monto said he was surprised by his working paper’s findings. He said he’d expected students in the 2002-2010 cohort to be more likely than their peers from 15 years earlier to have had sex in the past year, and to have more total sexual partners.
“Our results provide no evidence that there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a liberalization of attitudes toward sexuality,” Monto wrote in the paper with his co-author Anna Carey. “The alarmist concerns that ‘easy sex is rampant on college campuses today’ are not justified and are largely based on cross-sectional research and misconceptions.”
Monto’s study cannot isolate out students based on whether they live on campus or what type of college they attend, which means it can’t assess claims in other research that hooking up may be more prevalent on elite, private school campuses.
It’s also possible that students are “hooking up” casually more than they did in the past, but just aren’t having more sex.
Monto said “hooking up” is often interpreted as meaning sexual intercourse, when many people use it to mean just kissing. That could contribute to the widespread misconception that college kids are having more sex today than they were 20 years ago. Because the General Social Survey—the dataset the study relies upon--asks people specifically about sex, it may present a more accurate look into students’ sexual behavior than surveys that only ask about “hooking up.”
“The term hooking up is pretty ambiguous,” Monto said. “It could be intercourse, to other people it could mean making out…I think it’s often interpreted as meaning sex or intercourse.”
“We wouldn’t have a lot of headlines on hooking up if it was called making out,” he added.