Look at these three statements and ask yourself which might be correct:
- Students on US campuses today are more sexually active than those of previous generations.
- They have more sexual partners than their counterparts before them.
- “Hook-up culture” pervades campuses, with adventurous students doing their own thing.
Did you say “all correct.” If yes, surprise, surprise. Statistics on the college hookup culture reveal that only one of the three statements is correct. Students are not as sexually active as people think they are, and they are not having more partners than students from earlier periods. In fact, there might just be more sexually inactive people on campuses these days.
However, “hook-up culture” prevails on campuses, as part of bold experimentation by a segment of students. But what is “hooking up,” exactly? Well, it is a sort of umbrella term for a range of casual-sex activity from making out to intercourse. Hooking up seems to have replaced conventional dating, for which most students don’t seem to have the time or inclination anymore.
Hook-up culture doesn’t denote hypersexual activity or behavior, says Lisa Wade, author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, in her August 2016 article in The Guardian. As part of the research for the book, she identified four types of students with some interesting statistics on sex on campus: enthusiasts, who make up 14 percent of students, and enjoyed casual sex; dabblers, who were in two minds about casual sex but yielded to temptation (45 percent); one type of abstainers, who opted out in their first year (34 percent); and a second type of abstainers who chose to stay away because they were in monogamous relationships (the rest of the students).
Each of these groups thrived, survived, or made their own peace with the hard-to-escape hook-up culture on their campuses. However, hooking up doesn’t help students achieve sexual maturity or explore sex in a healthy way, Wade writes.
Attitudes hold their own
Martin Monto, a sociologist at the University of Portland, reported from a study he coauthored and presented to the American Sociological Association that students today were not “hooking up” any more than students a decade-and-a-half ago. Students were also not having sex more frequently or having more sexual partners as the media seems to say.
The study compared responses to three questions from students from 1988-96 and 2003-10: how many sex partners they had since age 18; how many sexual partners per year; and how often they had sex. The differences between the two groups were not statistically significant, according to a LiveScience article that mentioned the study.
To the first question, 50 percent of both groups reported having more than two sexual partners since age 18. To the second, 31.9 percent of the older group reported having more than one sexual partner in the past year, compared with 31.6 percent of the younger group.
To the third question, 65.2 percent of the older group reported having sex at least once a week compared with 59.3 percent of the younger group. For the survey, 1,800 people in the 18-25 age group who had completed high school and at least one year of college were contacted.
The perception of a rampant “hook-up” culture on campuses may have gained ground because the term itself is used more today than it was in the past, Monto says. Moreover, students today are more likely than those of the past to say that one of their sexual partners was a casual date or pick-up.
Monto feels that attitudes toward sex have also not changed much. Young students today are no more accepting of sexual activity by 14-16-year-olds, premarital, or extramarital sex than students of previous eras, according to him.
Gender ratio and campus culture
Not all campuses have the same prevalence of casual sex, according to a study by the Society of Personality and Social Psychology and reported in Glamour. The study finds that the ratio of female students to male students influences campus culture. If women students are in a majority, hook-up culture is more prevalent: because of a competition for male partners, women students find themselves having to meet the sexual demands of male students. If male students are in a majority, hook-up culture is less prevalent, and steady dating and “commitment” become the mantra.
Author John Birger makes the same argument in the book Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game. Given that the number of women on campuses overtook that of men in the US in 2014, it follows that hook-up culture is on the rise. For example, a premier technology university in California, with men comprising 60 percent of the students, had virtually no hook-up culture, whereas a liberal arts college in New York, with 75 percent women students, had virtually no dating culture.
The influence of gender ratio continues even after college: because there are fewer male graduates than women graduates, women have a smaller pool of men with the same education level to choose from, according to Date-onomics, as reported in Glamour. Hook-up and casual sex, then, continue to flourish.
Both eyes open
Hook-up culture has not engendered any sexual bacchanalia on campuses. According to a New York poll in 2105, 40 percent of 700 students polled were virgins. College students seemed “clear-eyed” about the blessings and afflictions of hook-up culture, says an article in New York Magazine’s website for women, The Cut. They know its good side and bad. What hook-up culture has given campuses is a new freedom where various sexualities and genders are at play. No more, no less.
According to a New York Times article, Elizabeth A. Armstrong, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, feels that hooking up is gaining greater currency among women on the campuses of elite universities because they view dating and steady relationships as too demanding, distracting them from their serious academic pursuits. Indeed, women students are too busy—trying to win membership to student clubs, get chosen for research projects, and land good internships and jobs at top companies—to worry about getting into a committed relationship.
Conversely, having little time for a relationship makes women try to identify “hook-up buddies”—attractive partners, their personalities be damned, or, even better, good-looking guys with character faults, so that there’s even less chance of commitment or a relationship.
Hook-ups have a close relationship with alcohol, and “bad hook-ups” and sexual abuse and assault are far too common. Women tend to come off worse from a sexual encounter in a hook-up; in a relationship, they are treated much better sexually by their partners, an NYT article reports Paula England, a sociologist at New York University, as saying.
Dr. England says that in hook-ups, men aren’t bothered about the quality of sexual episodes for women, and a lingering sexual double standard makes them look down upon their partners for their promiscuity.
Dr. England’s Online College Social Life Survey found that in the US, by senior year, 40 percent students were still virgins or had sexual intercourse with only one person. Thirty percent students had no experience of hook-ups. However, 20 percent of women and 25 percent of women reported having ten or more hook-up partners.
Low achievers and hook-ups
The NYT article, like the article in The Guardian, says that unmotivated and troubled students were more likely to hook up than students with academic targets and career ambition. Students from less privileged backgrounds shared an unease about the hook-up culture. In a study with Laura Hamilton, who was a professor at the University of California, Dr. Armstrong found that women students from wealthier families were more likely to hook up than those from less wealthy classmates and more wary of romantic relationships.
Hook-up culture is enforced by students who have the most “power” on the campus, the same class of people who form the elite of American society. Their bold and fashionable lifestyle makes it appear as if hookup culture defines campus ethos, an impression popularized by the media.
Dating isn’t dead
The NYT article says that not all students are afraid of commitment, and quotes a Penn senior, Catherine, who questions the wisdom of focusing only on academic and career pursuits and neglecting the joys and benefits of commitment and a relationship.
An article in Slate points out the mutual support and comfort that a young couple could give each other as they faced the tribulations of early adulthood. One female student who was mentioned in the article says a great job is difficult to find, but it is equally hard or harder to find a supportive life partner. If you miss the chance to marry someone you love, “what else do you really have at the end of your life?” she asks.