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Alan Reifman, Ph.D.
Alan Reifman Ph.D.

State of College Students' Romantic and Physical Unions

Is "dating" dead on American college campuses?

With February being the month of Valentine's Day, I thought I'd briefly review some of the latest trends in romance and physical intimacy on American college campuses. According to LaSalle University sociologist Kathleen Bogle, author of the 2008 book Hooking Up, the primary ways young adults (including college students) have established romantic and sexual relationships, of whatever length, have followed three paradigms or "scripts" over the past century.

Up until around 1920, "calling" was the dominant mode of (heterosexual) young people establishing romantic relationships. A man would seek to "call upon" a woman in her home, with her mother's permission, and with the family at home during the visit. A variety of factors, such as the increasing availability of the automobile to facilitate two people going out by themselves, then made "dating" the primary form of seeking romance and relationships from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Although the term "hooking up" has become popular only in the last decade or so, Bogle sees the roots of it emerging in the mid-1960s, especially on college campuses. "College students began socializing in groups, rather than pair dating, and 'partying' with large numbers of friends and classmates. Parties represented more than just a social outing; they became the setting for potential sexual encounters" (p. 20).

Essentially, then, a system has been evolving for roughly the last 40 years, in which unattached college students would begin their weekend evenings going out with a group of buddies to a larger group activity (e.g., party or bar). Within the larger events, people would get to chatting and -- through what Bogle and her interview subjects portray as largely non-verbal communication -- pairing off for hook-ups would occur. Hooking-up can refer to anything from kissing to sexual intercourse, or something in between, and is often left ambiguous in students' descriptions.

Given that hook-up partners are not necessarily well-known to each other beforehand, the whole scenario looks rife with danger to me, especially considering how much drinking likely takes place. As Bogle writes, students sometimes take steps to try and minimize the risk, such as having mutual friends vouch that a prospective hook-up partner is "OK" or making sure friends are not far away during the hook-up. How effective such precautions are, I don't know.

Hook-ups often amount to a one-off encounter, or perhaps repeated hook-ups ensue between the same partners. A long-term romantic relationship apparently results only rarely, which tends to cause greater dismay to women than to men.

As a sign of the demise of traditional pre-planned dating as a method of bringing two people together (at least at the studied schools), Bogle quotes student after student as claiming they have never been on a date during college (pp. 44-46). One exception to this trend is that some students report going on formal dates after they have established a long-term relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend, thus inverting the traditional order of things. Interestingly, though, traditional dating does re-emerge after students graduate from college and spend time in settings (i.e., the workplace) that often don't have large numbers of similar-age peers around, according to Bogle's interview with recent college alumni.

Bogle's findings are based on interviews at only two universities, however. What do national studies say? Eva Lefkowitz and colleagues, writing in their chapter of the new volume Romantic Relationships in Emerging Adulthood, summarize the results of national and local studies as follows:

Despite media depictions and news reports of college students and other emerging adults engaging in frequent casual sex encounters, emerging adults commonly report having had one sexual partner in the past year (60% of individuals aged 18 to 24...).

(I also have a chapter in the same book, providing background information on emerging adulthood and suggesting some possible connections to close-relationships research.)

Another new book, Premarital Sex in America, by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, examines results from a number of surveys to characterize the sexual activity of young people in recent years. According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the largest segment of never-married 18-23 year-olds (66.4% of women and 52.5% of men) can be classified with the relationship status of "dating and having sex." The next-largest category (27.4% of women and 40.0% of men) is "not in a relationship." Small percentages of respondents (regardless of gender) were classified as "dating but not having sex" (about 4%) and "just having sex" (about 2.5%). The latter category seems most similar to a chronic hook-up lifestyle, although some in the no-relationship group may also have been engaging in such conduct occasionally.

Even under the most ideal research conditions (e.g., with large, representative samples, and well-trained surveyors), data on sexual behavior are always vulnerable to distorted self-reporting, either inflating or minimizing the extent to which one has engaged in a particular type of behavior. I think it's safe to say that hooking-up does occur among college students (to whatever degree) and that the prevalence likely varies across different campuses. Hooking-up may coexist with traditional dating on some campuses more than on others. Whether college students continue to get together, sexually and romantically, through these paradigms, or new paradigms start to evolve, will be interesting to see in the coming years. The study of non-heterosexual relationship development will also likely increase.

About the Author
Alan Reifman, Ph.D.

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

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