A new study was released last month in the Journal of Sex Research, which has once again spurred a flurry of headlines declaring that hookup culture is a myth. At the same time, I have yet to meet a college student who can’t describe it in great detail from personal experience. Is hookup culture real, or is it a myth trumped up by conservative old scolds?
The answer depends on what you mean by “culture.” Generally, the word culture in this context refers to the attitudes and behavior of a specific group. What’s confusing about hookup culture is that the “scripts” for behavior are not consistent with actual student behavior. Don’t forget that the term “hook up” can mean everything from one kiss to a one-night stand. I have most frequently heard it used to refer to a makeout session.
Prepare to be astounded by the results of the study!
In other words, students perceive that casual sex is the norm for their cohort, but the vast majority opt out. This misperception is known as pluralistic ignorance:
In social psychology, pluralistic ignorance is a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but incorrectly assume that most others accept it, and therefore go along with it. This is also described as “no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes.” In short, pluralistic ignorance is a bias about a social group, held by a social group.
To use the term hookup culture implies not only distinctive patterns of behavior, but also the other components of a subculture, including values, attitudes, lifestyles, and modes of behavior. Conceived this way, the meanings associated with the phenomenon of hooking up are as important as the behavior itself.
Bogle’s work, along with other qualitative research, has made a convincing case that the meanings and narratives associated with college student sexuality today have changed. Bogle used Waller’s sexual scripting theory as a framework for describing how sexual and intimate practices and behaviors in the United States have changed over time.
Scripting theory describes the processes in which practices of initiating relational and sexual behavior are learned in our society. “Scripts” provide the normative content through which sexual interaction is supposed to progress, as well as parameters around appropriate scenarios for sexual interaction.
In A New Standard of Sexual Behavior? Are Claims Associated With the “Hookup Culture” Supported by General Social Survey Data? researchers compared data on the sexual behavior of college students from 1988-1996 with the same data from the 2004-2012 reports. Specifically, they compared the GSS data on sexual behavior for 1,500 respondents aged 18-25, who had completed at least one year of college. Two-thirds of the respondents were aged 23-25, at the more sexually experienced end of the spectrum.
Rather than present cumbersome statistical tables, I’ve summarized the key findings in several charts.
Two things should be noted. First, those skeptics who like to fall back on the claim that the data is invalid because women lie about their sex lives should be reassured to learn that researchers have concluded that men fudge the numbers more than women do. The effects are minimized when anonymity is assured, as it was in the GSS.
Second, the GSS asks about sex partners without explicitly defining what that means. Generally, surveys that specify the term include oral, vaginal and anal sex. We can’t know the breakdown in the GSS data, but it is important to keep in mind that not all sex partners have had sexual intercourse. The consensus from previous research is that guys have intercourse in 48% of their hookups, while girls have intercourse 33% of the time.
The first chart compares the number of sexual partners reported.
GSS sex partner data
As you can see, little has changed in 25 years. Of the students who had ever had sex, over three quarters have had it with a regular partner.
“The rise in the term hookup and perception among students that it is normative behavior at college are significant in and of themselves. While college life is far from a sexual free-for-all full of “no-rules relationships,” the rules appear to be changing and the implications are important. The tradition of “dating” as a means to get to know a potential marital partner has declined, and students are slightly more likely to engage in sex with people with whom they are not in a committed relationship.
…Our investigation suggests that one perception—that the sexual landscape of contemporary college involves frequent sexual encounters pursued by both participants without any expectation of further emotional or relational contact—is questionable.”
1. Finding: Who’s having sex has not changed since the advent of hookup culture.
The same percentage of men have “access” to sex and the same percentage of women “grant” sex. This is especially surprising given the changing sex ratio on college campuses during this period. I expected that the scarcity of men relative to women would have increased the options for males, and competition for females, increasing the number of males with sexual experience. There is some effect, as you will see below, but it’s relatively minor.
2. Finding: How much sex college kids are having has not changed.
Confirming what I have previously found in reviewing dozens of data sources, 80% of students have sex within the context of a committed relationship.
3. Finding: There has been an increase in the number of people who have casual sexual encounters.
While the male number increased only slightly, the increase among females may be partly due to increased freedom of sexual expression. The changing college sex ratio has no doubt had some effect. However, the role of peer pressure/pluralistic ignorance probably accounts for much of the change.
4. Finding: Sex between close friends was not unusual 25 years ago, and is less unusual today.
The researchers believe that terminology is an issue here. For example, those who are hooking up in hopes of establishing a relationship fall into this group. This reflects a change in the normative script, which demands physical intimacy before emotional intimacy. In addition, those who desire sex that is safe and intimate may opt for a FWB arrangement in the absence of a romantic relationship.
5. Finding: Ethical attitudes about sex have not changed at all during the time period, with the exception of the acceptance of same-sex relationships.
As demonstrated in previous research, sociosexuality is largely static throughout one’s lifetime. The hookup culture, which exists primarily as a script, has been decisively rejected by the vast majority of college students.
What can be done do eradicate the hookup culture script?
Writing in the LA Times, NYU professor Jonathan Zimmerman shares:
“What most students of both sexes really want — as my own students often tell me — is a long-standing, romantic relationship. But the hookup code works against that, encouraging them to remain isolated and detached.”
Zimmerman believes that this code, which includes a great deal of drinking, is largely responsible for the increase in sexual assault on college campuses.
“We need to change the hookup culture itself, which replaced one set of flawed instructions with another. We’ve gone from “just say no” to “just say yes,” from “don’t do it” to “everybody does it.” Actually, they don’t…But there’s still a perception that college is about sex, and that you can’t have one without the other.
There’s also a feeling that sex should be devoid of feeling, at least of the emotional or romantic kind. That’s a formula for misery and, yes, coercion. If you don’t really connect with your partner, you won’t know what they want. And you might end up doing something they don’t want.
We need to provide our students with an altogether different model of sex, one based not on impersonal hookups but on human intimacy. It’s not enough to say that no means no. What are we saying yes to, and why?”
Hookup culture is real in the sense that it provides scripts for normative behavior. However, it’s very clear that most students are rejecting that script, even though they may feel uncool for doing so.
The best thing about articles claiming hookup culture is a myth is that they get the statistics out, and it’s that truth that will set students free.
What do you think? Are you as surprised as I was that so little has changed in 25 years?
Are we closer to making college kids aware that their choices are legitimate, and that both sexes desire relationships?
Feminists have been heavily invested in the “sex as empowerment” narrative. How does this affect the sex-positive feminist script and the movement itself?