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The out-of-control hookup culture on American college campuses has become a predictable subject for magazine articles, op-ed pages and blogs over the past decade or more. It’s terrific in that role, mixing titillation with a narrative of moral decline among elite young people, and giving commentators a chance to tisk at kids these days. But it might be time to shift the debate. The trouble isn’t just that the standard narrative about hook-ups—the idea that college kids are getting wasted and sleeping with random strangers every Saturday night—overstates things. It’s that it masks some of the things that are really interesting, and sometimes worrying, about young adults’ notions of sex and gender roles.

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What’s Really Changing?

A recent paper by Martin Monto and Anna Carey of the University of Portland confirmed what scholars looking at sexual behavior on campus have known for a while—the notion of modern campuses as a non-stop sex-fueled party is massively overblown. Looking at survey data from two groups of students, one that was in school from 1988 to 1996 and the other from 2004 to 2012, Monto and Carey found that the “hookup era” kids didn’t have more sex, or more partners, than the earlier group. However, there was a fairly small drop in the percentage with a regular sexual partner, with more respondents saying they’d had sex with a friend or a “casual date or pickup” instead.

Writing in the American Sociological Association magazine Contexts, Elizabeth A. Armstrong of the University of Michigan, Laura Hamilton of the University of California, Merced, and Paula England of New York University agree that modern campus culture isn’t a big departure from the recent past. The big change came with the Baby Boom’s sexual revolution, and increases in casual sex since then have been relatively gradual. They also note that hooking up rarely happens between total strangers and often involves “relatively light” sexual activity. It’s what they call “limited liability hedonism”—a way to be sexually active without taking on big physical and emotional risks.

What’s Wrong with Casual Sex?

Whether or not it’s on the rise, casual sex is certainly a thing that happens on college campuses. A lot of the media panic over hookups centers on the notion that it hurts young women. The typical argument is that women want relationships but settle for casual sex because that’s what the culture has to offer. So, are hookups bad for women? Research suggests the answer is a resounding “sort of.”

In 2006 paper, Catherine M. Grello, Deborah P. Welsh and Melinda S. Harper of the University of Tennessee surveyed studied 382 students at a conservative-leaning US college and found 52 percent of the men had engaged in casual sex, compared with 36 percent of the women. The survey also found women suffering from depression were more likely to have casual sex, and to regret it afterwards, while depressed men were less likely to hook up. The researchers suggested depressed women might seek out sex as a way of dealing with their condition, or might be perpetuating a negative cycle by “unconsciously engaging in sex in doomed relationships.” But they also hypothesized that societal double-standards might play a role in depression. “Guilt, regret, and the violation of societal expectations may contribute to female psychological distress,” they wrote.

Old Rules for Young Women

In fact, old-fashioned sexual double standards are a big feature of hookup culture. The Contexts article notes that sex is more likely to be satisfying to women when it’s in the context of a relationship. That’s partly because (heterosexual) hookup sex is more likely to center on male pleasure. In a study that helped inform the Contexts story (and that they’ve since turned into a book, Paying for the Party), Hamilton and Armstrong carried out an intensive ethnographic study of a women’s hall in a Midwestern university dorm. They found that relationships and casual flings weren’t mutually exclusive: 75 percent of the women hooked up at least once—though not all hookups involved sex—and 72 percent had at least one relationship that lasted six months or longer. Many of the students, particularly those from privileged backgrounds, said they preferred avoiding relationships so they could focus on schoolwork and friends. “We found that women, rather than struggling to get into relationships, had to work to avoid them,” the researchers wrote. Some of the women also said they would have had more casual encounters if they weren’t worried about being viewed as “sluts.”

The Contexts piece notes that 48 percent of women who’ve been involved in a hookup say they’re interested in a relationship, compared with 36 percent of men. But, rather depressingly, the dorm ethnography also found some big downsides to relationships. Of 46 women they interviewed on the subject, the researchers found 10 accounts of boyfriends using abuse to avoid a breakup. “For most women, the costs of bad hookups tended to be less than the costs of bad relationships,” they wrote. “Bad hookups were isolated events, while bad relationships wreaked havoc with whole lives.”

And What About Men?

The standard narrative about hookup culture is that it benefits men at the expense of women. There’s some evidence for that in these studies—particularly in the observation that men’s sexual desires tend to be the priority in casual sex. But the kind of in-depth research that Hamilton and Armstrong have done into women’s feelings about hookups doesn’t seem to have been done for college men. And if there’s anything we can learn from these studies, it’s that assumptions based on conventional narratives have a pretty good chance of being wrong.


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Contexts, Vol. 9, No. 3, thrill ride! sex over the life course (SUMMER 2010), pp. 22-27
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the American Sociological Association
Gender and Society, Vol. 23, No. 5 (October 2009), pp. 589-616
Sage Publications, Inc.