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Sex

The Truth About Casual Sex Today

... and how partners avoid "catching feelings."

Key points

  • Dating in the 21st century has morphed into "hookups," which ironically look a lot like dating.
  • Hookups are most popular among white students at elite colleges who plan to attend graduate school.
  • Most students hook up just a few times a year, and only a minority of hookups involve genital sex.

Since around 2000, college students have stopped dating. Instead, they connect using apps and “hook up,” which sometimes involves sex.

Researchers who work at colleges have many students as handy study subjects. There is plenty of research available on the topic of hookup culture. It intrigues older adults who have often felt fascinated—and threatened—by young adult sexuality.

Recently, sociologists at Clemson University conducted the largest, most inclusive study of hookups ever published. The findings broke some new ground. But like other hookup researchers, these investigators ignored a key demographic trend. Compared with their parents and grandparents, this generation of young adults is significantly less sexual and considerably more likely to be celibate.

The Largest Study Ever

The Clemson investigators mined the Online College Social Life Survey for data on 10,141 students at 22 U.S. colleges and universities. The huge number of participants lends credibility to the study’s findings.

Two-thirds of the participants were women. One-third were men (non-binary students were not specified). About one-quarter of respondents were in each year of college, first through fourth. Two-thirds were white, 10 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Black, and 5 percent other. As samples go, this one is not perfect but reasonably representative.

The study's results confirm many previous findings:

  • Hooking up is a 21st-century phenomenon, but aside from connecting through apps, it looks a lot like dating.
  • Two-thirds of the heterosexual students reported having hooked up, and 55 percent of LGBT+ students had. But not regularly. Most hook up only a few times a year, just 7 percent weekly or more.
  • Compared with other students, campus celebrities hook up more, notably male athletes.
  • Residents of fraternity and sorority houses hook up more than students in other housing. Greek houses host large parties where alcohol flows. Hooking up is less popular at commuter schools. Commuters spend less time on campus and meet fewer prospective partners.
  • Around 10 percent of reported hookups are one-night stands— e.g., spring-break flings. Most involve partners who are acquaintances or friends. They socialize, drink, and one thing leads to another.
  • Two-thirds of hookup partners consume alcohol. Some become blotto. That’s not surprising. In all age groups, sex and alcohol go hand in hand. Alcohol encourages the acceptance of sexual invitations.
  • Hooking up conjures hook-and-eye locks, with the hook slipping into the eye. This suggests intercourse. But only around one-quarter of hetero and lesbian hookups involved intercourse or oral sex. Kissing is much more likely (98 percent), with fondling breasts or genitals fairly common (50 percent). When hookups involve oral sex, women provided fellatio considerably more often than men provided cunnilingus. Among gay men, two-thirds of hookups involved oral or anal intercourse.
  • Pundits have worried that hookup culture has reduced young adults’ interest in long-term relationships. While only a small proportion of hookups lead to long-term relationships, most young adults who hooked up are very interested in committed relationships—eventually—and assessed hookup partners for their long-term potential.
  • Young people of all religions hook up, but as religious observance increases, hooking up decreases.
  • Critics charge that after heterosexual hookups, the men lose respect for the women. Some studies have reported this, but most found that three-quarters of all genders consider hookups carefree fun uncomplicated by issues of respect.
  • Feminist critics contend that hookups are a way for young men to enjoy themselves at the expense of young women, who prefer sex as part of relationships. While women are slightly more likely than men to report any hookup regrets (14 percent vs. 11 percent), studies agree that the considerable majority of all genders rate their hookups as sexually and emotionally satisfying. In the new study, half did. Why not a clear majority? Because the new report included more non-whites and less privileged whites—see below.
  • The best predictors of hooking up with the same person again? Familiarity and mutual enjoyment.

In addition, the new study included some findings that have not been previously reported:

  • Hookup frequency depends on students’—especially women’s—academic year. It peaks in year two and then declines. First- and second-year students want to shed virginity and gain sexual experience. Hookups work well for that. But by year three, many students—especially women—become increasingly interested in committed relationships and hook up less.
  • Most hookups involve acquaintances or friends. Compared with straight hookup partners, lesbians tended to be better acquainted. Young gay men were the group most likely to hook up with strangers.
  • College students of all races hook up, but it’s most popular among whites at elite universities who envision attending graduate school. They view committed relationships as distracting from their professional goals. They consider hooking up a good way to have an active social life while avoiding “catching feelings” for a special someone whose needs might threaten their pursuit of advanced degrees.
  • Hooking up was less popular at schools with students from non-white, less privileged backgrounds. After graduation, most want jobs, not more school. Compared with students at elite institutions, they were more interested in finding long-term mates as undergraduates.
  • The large majority of hookups involve people of the same race. Except for students at traditionally Black colleges, non-whites represent a minority of students on most campuses. They have smaller pools of same-race students to choose from for any hookups. Consequently, minority students, particularly Black young adults, find hookup culture less attractive.

What Hookup Studies Have Ignored

Meanwhile, there’s more—actually less—to young adult sex than hooking up. Recent research shows that since 2000, in all age groups, partner sex has declined, and celibacy—no partner sex at all—has surged.

Increased celibacy has become particularly evident among American men aged 18 to 24. Almost one-third reported no partner sex during the previous year. This is a major change. From 2000 to 2002, one in five men (19 percent) were celibate. From 2016 to 2018, celibacy increased to 31 percent—and this was pre-pandemic for reasons why. See my previous post.

In addition, Americans are marrying later. In 1960, the median age at first marriage was 21 for women, 23 for men. Today, it’s 28 and 31, respectively—around seven additional years of singlehood.

In 1960, age at first marriage roughly coincided with the college years. Those young people dated during high school and got serious about marriage in college. They engaged in casual sex, but not for long.

Today, young people don’t get serious about marriage until they’re around 30—meaning many more years of hooking up, many more years of casual sex before marriage. Far from destroying interest in committed relationships, hookups are a way to have a social life during all the additional years before today’s young people get serious about marrying.

Cultural commentators and the news media have generally focused on—and fretted about—the technology of hood-ups, how they depend on cell phones and various apps, for example, Tinder.

The deeper truth is that hookups reflect extended sexual adolescence, an average of seven additional pre-marital years of youthful singlehood during which many young people are celibate while many others experiment with short-term pairings.

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

References

https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/time-s…

Kettrey, HH and AD Johnson. “Hooking Up and Pairing Off: Correlates of College Students’ Interest in Subsequent Hookup and Romantic Relationships with Other-Sex and Same-Sex Hookup Partners,:” Journal of Sex Research (2021) 58:915. Doi: 10.1080/00224499.2020.1766403.

Twenge, JM et al. “Declines In Sexual Frequency Among American Adults, 1989-2014,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2017) 46:2389.

Ueda, P et al. “Trends in Frequency of Sexual Activity and Number of Sexual Partners among Adults Aged 18 to 44 in the US, 2000-2018,” JAMA Network Open (2020) 3:e203833. Doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.3833.

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