Study dispels notions of 'no-holds barred' sex on campus

  • Article by: Emily Alpert
  • Los Angeles Times
  • August 19, 2013 - 2:29 PM


Despite popular alarm and fascination with “hooking up” on campus, college students are not having sex with more partners than in the past few decades, are no more accepting of sex before marriage and are actually less likely to report having sex weekly or more often, according to a recently released study.

“We’re not living in a new era of no-holds-barred sexuality,” said Martin Monto, the University of Portland sociology professor who co-wrote the study. Fewer than a third of college students surveyed from 2002 to 2010 said they’d had sex with more than one person in the preceding year, about the same level as reported during the late 1980s and early ’90s.

What has changed, Monto and a fellow researcher found, is whom students sleep with: Recent college students were more likely to say they had sex with a friend or “casual date” and less likely to say they were married or had a “regular partner,” compared with students polled from 1988 to 1996.

Among those who were sexually active, more than 68 percent said they’d had sex with a friend in the past year, an increase from roughly 56 percent during the earlier period.

The findings line up with earlier research on teens and twenty-somethings that showed no increase in sexual activity in recent decades, even as experts have observed changes in how college students pursue sex and romance.

Scholars writing about the “hookup culture” — more casual, uncommitted intimacy — say their research is sometimes misunderstood to mean that sex is newly rampant on college campuses. Instead, La Salle University associate professor Kathleen Bogle likens the change to switching romantic “scripts.”

“With the dating script, it was like, ‘I’m going to date someone and that might lead to something sexual happening,’ ” whereas with hookups, it’s the other way around, said Bogle, author of “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus.”

That might be why college students are increasingly likely to have had sex with friends or casual dates, other studies suggest. Young adults have been pushing off marriage to later in life. Many students, eager to forge careers and have adventures, see peril in a relationship that could limit their opportunities.

Hooking up lets college students explore their sexuality without derailing their goals, said Sebastian Milla, a recent University of California, Los Angeles, graduate interning at its Art & Global Health Center.

Meeting a stranger at a party comes with its own dangers, especially if alcohol is part of the mix. For students who have ruled out a relationship, sleeping with a friend can seem like a comfortable alternative. It isn’t just men who think that way, said Laura Hamilton, assistant professor of sociology at University of California Merced.

In her research, she found hooking up with friends appealed to female students who didn’t want to risk being mistreated by someone they barely knew.

Earlier research by sociologist Paula England found that most students hooked up less than once a semester throughout college, and “hooking up” often meant something other than intercourse, including just kissing or touching above the belt. Studies also have suggested hooking up is more common among white, wealthy students.

Scholars argue that the phenomenon has nonetheless shaped campus culture. Among college students, “a majority will say they prefer relationships. But they think everyone else just wants casual sex,” said Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College.

© 2018 Star Tribune