I attended college from 1968 to 1972, shortly after the Pill arrived but long before the big scares about herpes and AIDS. Like all young adults from time immemorial, my friends and I experimented with sex--and rather exuberantly because the Pill virtually eliminated pregnancy risk. I fell in love with the woman I later married as a college junior, but during my freshman and sophomore years, I had several casual escapades that, at the time, we called flings or one-night stands. Today, they're called hookups.
In recent years, there's been a great deal of hand-wringing about teen and young-adult hookups by worried parents and by the sexual panic industry, the loose confederation of social/sexual conservatives who rail about youthful promiscuity, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Promoters of sexual panic insist that teens are dangerously promiscuous, that the U.S. rate of teen pregnancy is the highest in the industrialized world, and that STIs are rampant.
It's certainly reasonable to feel concerned about these problems, but should we panic? No. According to the Centers for Disease Control, today's teens are less likely to be sexually active than teens were 20 years ago (54 percent reported intercourse by the end of high school in 1991 vs. 46 percent in 2009). Our teen pregnancy rate is, indeed, the highest in the industrialized world, but it used to be much higher. Since 1991, it has dropped 38 percent (115 per 1,000 teen girls in 1991 vs. 75 in 2009). And condom use has increased, reducing risk of both pregnancy and STIs (46 percent of teens used condoms in 1991 vs. 61 percent in 2009). Still, parents and public health officials can't help but feel concern about teen and young adult sexuality, which fuels anxiety about hookups.
Another reason adults feel so concerned is that, because of AIDS, there's been an explosion of research about teen and young adult sexuality, so we have much more information about young people's sexual activities than was available when I was in high school and college. For example, the source of the statistics cited above is the CDC's annual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, launched in 1990. Before that, there were no authoritative data about young people's sexuality, and way fewer headlines about it.
Which brings me back to hookups. They've been researched now for around 10 years. An early and admirably comprehensive survey (2000) showed that among 555 college students, 78 percent reported at least one lifetime hookup, with young men more likely to have these flings than young women (48 percent vs. 33 percent). The biggest predictor of hookups by far was alcohol. Forty-eight percent had hooked up without intercourse, while 30 percent of hookups went all the way. The students' median lifetime number of hookups was six. Condoms were used by 81 percent of those who had intercourse, and most of the rest reported using another contraceptive. Half of those who had intercourse never associated with the partner again. In the group that fooled around but did not have intercourse, 78 percent saw each again.
More recent findings are similar. Some studies have also investigated the possibility that hookups might cause emotional damage, especially to young women. Any sexual relationship can cause regret--hookups with intercourse caused the most--but studies to date have found hookups to cause little, if any, lasting emotional damage.
All the recent hookup research pretty much mirrors what I recall about the flings my friends and I engaged in 40 years ago. Most of my peers, both male and female, participated in occasional casual sex. Alcohol was often involved. I recall fooling around without intercourse more often than going all the way. When I did have intercourse, most of the time, I didn't see the woman again, not because I disrespected her or considered her a slut, but simply because neither of us viewed our time together as anything more than a one-night stand. Finally, I never felt emotionally scarred by any of my flings.
The biggest difference between my flings and today's hookups is that in my cohort, contraceptive use was less routine. I always carried condoms and used them if the woman was not taking the Pill, but in my college friendship circle, two of the girls got pregnant and the student health service helped them arrange for MD-administered abortions, which were illegal at the time. Today, my daughter is a college junior, prime hookup age, and as far as she knows, none of her friends has had an unplanned pregnancy.
Every generation of parents feels anxious about their children's sexuality, so it's no surprise that hookups raise mature adults' eyebrows--and sometimes hackles. But as I read the research on hookups, I feel reassured. Like young people of every generation, today's youth are having fun experimenting with sex and some of it involves casual flings. But the available evidence shows that compared with Baby Boomers, today's teens and young adults are more committed to prevention of pregnancy and STIs. That's progress.
Eisenberg, ME et al. "Casual Sex and Psychological Health Among Young Adults: Is Having ‘Friends with Benefits' Emotionally Damaging?" Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (2009) 41:231.
Eshbaugh, EM and G Gute. "Hookups and Sexual Regret Among College Women," Journal of Social Psychology (2008) 148:77.
Fielder, RL and MP Carey. "Predictors and Consequences of Sexual Hookups Among College Students," Archives of Sexual Behavior (2010) 39:1105.
Paul, EL et al. ""Hookups:" Characteristics and Correlates of College Students' Spontaneous and Anonymous Sexual Experiences," Journal of Sex Research (2000) 37:76.
White, HR et al. "Prospective Associations Among Alcohol Use-Related Sexaual Enhancement Expectancies, Sex After Alcohol Use, and Casual Sex," Psychology of Addictive Behavior (2009) 23:702.