Sex

New study on ‘hooking up’ finds no sexual sea change

Aug. 13, 2013 at 9:12 AM ET

The rise of so-called “hook-up culture” has afforded some writers the opportunity to spin hay into media gold over the past few years. Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic Monthly, and even the New York Times Style section have taken it for granted that hooking up is a new norm.

“Traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by ‘hooking up,’” declared the Times.

Or has it?

Research released today at the annual American Sociological Association meeting in New York City, and experts interviewed by NBC News, say the whole idea of “hooking up” is often more about branding than actual behavior.

Using data from a long-running nationwide survey called the General Social Survey, University of Portland (Oregon) sociology professor Martin Monto and one of his students, Anna Carey, compared sex behaviors and attitudes from two different time periods, 1988 to 1996, and 2002-2010 (some key sex-related questions were not asked before 1988).

Monto and Carey used responses from 1,829 people aged 18-25 who had completed at least one year of college.

“Overall,” the authors wrote, “our results provide no evidence there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a liberalization of attitudes toward sexuality.”

“What we’ve seen,” Monto told NBC News, “is a change in narratives about what is going on thanks to the term ‘hooking up.’”

“It’s a brand, yes,” agreed Amanda Holman, a doctoral candidate in the department of communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has studied student perceptions of hooking up.

It’s not that students aren’t having sex or one-night stands or sometimes having sex with casual acquaintances or even a partner they picked up. It’s that college students -- and young people in general -- have been doing this for so long it was part of the premise for the 1960 spring break movie “Where the Boys Are.”

“I don’t think what’s happening now is any different,” Melissa Lewis, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington said in an interview.

Monto believes the real difference is that students today are more likely to freely acknowledge it.

His study showed that 51.7 percent of the sexually active members of the 1988-1996 cohort had three or more partners since turning 18. Among the 2002-2010 cohort, 50.5 percent had three or more partners. The same percentages – 31.9 percent and 31.6 percent of sexually active people in the earlier and later groups, respectively, said they’d had more than one partner in the last year. Most sexually active people in both groups had a regular sexual partner or spouse.

This is not to say that Monto found zero support for the idea of hooking up. Of the later cohort, 68 percent said they’d had sex with a friend during the past year compared to nearly 56 percent of the earlier group, and 44 percent of the later group said they’d had sex with a casual partner or pick-up compared to 34.5 percent of the earlier cohort.

“Undeniably, there are people who do fit the ‘hooking up’ profile,” Monto explained. But, he said, “the media is fascinated” by people following a hook-up strategy and not so much with the bigger picture, or the nuances of sexuality among younger people.

For example, there’s no agreement, among experts or young people themselves, of what “hook up” even means. While it’s provocative, it can refer to socializing, or to passionate kissing, or to penetrative sex.

“The term is popular because of its ambiguity,” the University of Washington’s Lewis said. “It can be whatever students need it to be.” John can say he “hooked up” with Jane and his friends won’t know they had intercourse, while Jane can say she “hooked up” with John and her friends won’t know she and John just had coffee.

“The act of naming it doesn’t change the behavior,” Lewis said.

Holman and Monto both agreed that students have bought into the hook up culture brand, wildly overestimating how much sex they think their peers are having and how casual that sex is.

When Holman studied this idea, she found that between 50 and 54 percent of students she surveyed reported they’d had oral, anal or vaginal sex as part of a “hook up” during the past year. But when asked how many of their peers had done so, they put the number at 94 percent.

Monto said his study “contradicts the assumption students live in a highly sexualized culture of no-strings-attached sex … I hope it’s a bit of clarification. It’s important to confront popular perceptions, and it’s kind of reassuring to know that their general attitudes about sex and actual behavior aren’t that much different than previous cohorts, or even their parents.”

In other words, lots of people still have landlines.

Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”

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