Is Hook-Up Culture Dominating College Campuses?

Surveying 30 years of sexual behavior in young adults.

Posted Aug 28, 2018

Vasilyev Alexandr/Shutterstock
Source: Vasilyev Alexandr/Shutterstock

With the advent of dating apps like Tinder, it’s easier than ever to find a partner for casual sex. And since today’s young adults are postponing marriage longer than ever before, many of them are meeting their sexual needs by hooking up. For example, surveys over the last decade show that about three-quarters of college students have hooked up. However, on further questioning, they report that only about half of those encounters led to intercourse. So it seems that young people are using dating apps to meet new people, but a swipe right is no guarantee of sex tonight.

Citing such data, conservative commentators bemoan hooking up as the new “culture of courtship” on college campuses. But is it really true that college students today are having more casual sex than ever? This is the question Canadian psychologist Nancy Netting and her colleague Meredith Reynolds explored in a recent article.

In fact, Netting and Reynolds already had the data that could answer this question at their fingertips. Every 10 years since 1980, researchers at a rural university in British Columbia have surveyed students on their sexual behaviors. In other words, they had measures at four points in time — 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010 — that they could use to follow trends and changes in sexual norms over time.

The data provide fascinating insights into the changing sexual norms of college students. Many of the results are not surprising, but some are quite unexpected. As we go through the data, keep in mind that the ages of the respondents have remained the same (around 20 to 21 years old) for all four timeslots.

The first question considered the marital status of college students. For both males and females, slightly more than half were already married in 1980, but by 2010, only 4 percent of the men and 8 percent of the women had ever married. The only sex difference was that the big shift from ever to never married was between 1980 and 1990 for the men, but between 1990 and 2000 for the women. Since women tend to marry at an earlier age than men, this finding seems quite reasonable. In all, these data confirm what’s already well known, namely that young people are delaying marriage more than ever before.

Next, the researchers considered the sexual experiences of college students. Across all four surveys, the respondents who reported that they’d never married were then asked if they’d ever had sexual intercourse. In 1980, 72 percent of males and 61 percent of females reported having had sex. By 2010, the number was about 80 percent for both men and women. In other words, college students in 1980 were already fairly active sexually, but they’re somewhat more so today. Furthermore, the old double standard that allowed young men to “sow their wild oats,” while expecting young women to remain chaste, seems to be a thing of the past.

Those who reported having sex were then asked about number of lifetime partners and age of first sexual intercourse. In 1980, the median number of lifetime sex partners for college men was four, and this number has remained fairly constant through 2010. For college women, the median number was three, again remaining unchanged from 1980 to 2010. Likewise, the median age of first sexual intercourse was about 17 for both men and women in 1980 and has remained the same. These data suggest that college students today are no more promiscuous than they were in 1980.

Starting with the 1990 survey, researchers also asked more specific questions about sexual behaviors and experiences that allowed them to define three groups:

  • Abstainers, who were either virgins or had not had sex in the last year
  • Monogamists, who were currently in a committed relationship and reported at least one sex partner in the last year
  • Experimenters, who were not currently in a committed relationship and reported more than one sex partner in the last year

Members of the hook-up culture would, of course, be classified as experimenters. So the data can tell us whether there’s been an increase in casual sex since 1980 and whether hooking up is the new normal.

In 1980, about a quarter of males and females were classified as abstainers, and the numbers were similar through 2010. Among the abstainers, the large majority were virgins, with only a few self-reporting as abstaining non-virgins. That is to say, the abstainer category is mainly composed of those who had not yet had sex.

From 1980 to 2010, about half of the men and somewhat more than half of the women classified as monogamist: that is, being in a committed relationship whether married or not. In other words, monogamy was the dominant form of sexual relationship for both male and female college students in 1980, and this remains true today. So there we have our answer: No, hook-up culture is not dominating college campuses. Rather, good old fashioned “going steady” still seems to be the preferred relationship style for young adults.

And what about those experimenters? In 1980, 22 percent of the male respondents fit in this category, and that number has remained steady through 2010. However, we do see a notable transition among the women. In 1980, only 8 percent reported activities that would place them in the experimenter category. But this was up to 14 percent in the 2010 survey, with the shift occurring between 2000 and 2010. Although there are still fewer women than men in the hook-up culture, their numbers are catching up.

Finally, the demographic data show that the experimenters have a number of characteristics in common. In terms of personality traits, most were highly extroverted and open to new experiences. Many were also members of fraternities, sororities, or athletic teams. These are subcultures of college campuses where casual sex is acceptable or even expected behavior, and they attract like-minded persons. Furthermore, experimenters had their first sexual experience at an earlier age and more sexual partners before college compared with their fellow students. In other words, they were already living the hook-up lifestyle before they came to college and joined that fraternity or sorority.

In sum, these findings suggest that the sexual practices of college students haven’t changed much since the 1980s, with the exception that women have become more similar to men in their attitudes toward casual sex. The majority of young people now — just like in the past — are in committed relationships. Meanwhile, a small minority are celibate, mainly because they haven’t yet had any sexual experience. Likewise, there’s a small minority of young men and women who are promiscuous, starting sex at a younger age than their peers and having more lifetime sex partners.

The hook-up culture hasn’t come to dominate college campuses, and it isn’t new, either. By 1980, the sexual revolution was in full swing, and many students were experimenting with casual sex. Only the technology for finding partners has changed. No doubt, bars and frats are still the go-to places for hooking up on campus, but apps like Tinder have provided additional options for those who already pursue a promiscuous lifestyle.

References

Netting, N. S. & Reynolds, M. K. (2018). Thirty years of sexual behavior at a Canadian university: Romantic relationships, hooking up, and sexual choices. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 27, 55-68.

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