The Truth About College Hookups

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Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times / Redux

Students at a concert at UPenn's Spring Fling in Philadelphia, on April 13, 2013.

Recent claims about the hookup culture among college students are greatly exaggerated, it seems.

Despite racy headlines suggesting that college kids are increasingly choosing casual liaisons over serious relationships, a new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association finds that just under one-third of college students have had more than one partner in the past year.

And that’s exactly the same proportion of students who were surveyed between 1988 and ’96, and between 2002 and ’10; both groups also had the same number of partners. So kids aren’t hooking up more than they ever were, or even more than their parents did, which is what recent media coverage has implied.

“College students today are not having more sexual partners [after] age 18, more sexual partners over the last year or more sex than their parents,” says the study’s lead author Martin Monto, professor of sociology at the University of Portland in Oregon. Gen Xers were actually more likely to have sex weekly or more frequently compared with millenials, according to the research.

The research did show a slight decline in the number of college kids saying they had a “spouse or regular sex partner,” but that doesn’t mean that college romance is dead. Indeed, 77% of students said that they’d had a regular partner or spouse in the 2000s, compared with 85% in the earlier generation. In other words, today as in the past, most students having sex are still doing so in the context of some type of ongoing relationship.

“We do see a decrease, but it’s not huge,” says Monto. “And part of that can be accounted for by a change in age of marriage.”

(MORE: Looking for Love: College Students May Prefer Relationship Sex to Casual Hookups)

The research involved data on nearly 2,000 people from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey that asks a wide range of questions and has been carried out since 1972.

Kathleen Bogle, author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus and an assistant professor of sociology at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, whose work initially described the hookup culture in the scientific literature, says the latest study is “very interesting,” but naturally disagrees with the authors’ representation of her work.

Bogle argues that what is now called hookup culture began in the 1970s, after birth control became widely available and the age of marriage began rising. At that point, the couple ceased to be the center of college social life, and dating with the aim of marrying in college or shortly thereafter fell out of style.

She argues that this ultimately flipped the dating script — so that couples tended to get physical first and acquainted later, rather than the other way around, as occurred in the 1950s and ’60s. But Monto says there is no evidence that such choices are more common now than in the recent past — and there’s no data going back further to provide objective answers.

(MORE: What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Ivy League Hookup Culture)

Of course, much of the debate revolves around the definition of hooking up — a term both researchers acknowledge is deliberately ambiguous and can encompass everything from just kissing to intercourse. That means that it’s not clear whether what Bogle has labeled as hookup culture is really different from what the “one-night stand” or “making out” seen on past campuses as something that may or may not lead to further intimacy. Haven’t college students of any era always had similar struggles with getting partners to commit to more-serious relationships?

But Bogle and Monto do agree that students tend to think their peers hook up far more frequently than they actually do. One study found that on average, students report a total of five to seven hookups in their entire college career. But when Bogle surveyed students about how often they thought their fellow students were hooking up, they typically said seven times a semester. “That would be 56 people” in four years, she says.

In fact, 1 in 4 college students is a virgin and in the new research, only 20% of students from either era reported having six or more partners after turning 18.

(MOREWhat the U.S. Can Learn from the Dutch About Teen Sex)

That discrepancy in perception may explain the conflicting beliefs about whether college kids are really hooking up more than they used to — or not. The current study did find — based on reports by the students of their own sexual relationships — some evidence that recent generations of college students are having slightly more casual sex and so-called friends-with-benefits relationships. About 44% of students in the 2000s reported having had sex with a “casual date or pickup,” compared with 35% in the 1980s and ’90s — and 68% reported having had sex with a “friend” in the previous year, compared with 56% in the earlier group.

How students think of their liaisons with fellow students has clearly changed, and so has the college culture, apparently. All of the evidence points to the fact that college kids today are drinking less, taking fewer drugs and even having less sex than their parents’ generation. Hooking up just isn’t what it used to be.