As I mentioned, I’ve been talking a lot lately about the hook-up culture among young adults. Last month, the New York Times stirred the cultural pot with their article titled, She Can Play That Game Too. In it, the Times reported the experience of college age women who have become the sexual aggressors in the hook-up culture, often even intentionally getting themselves drunk so that they can bring themselves to play the role of sexual aggressor.
A new study from the University of Portland offers some additional perspective on the scope of the problem. News outlets are saying that the study shows that the hook-up culture is being over-hyped, but I’m not really sure that’s the case. Let’s look at the facts.
Frequency of Premarital Sex: Then and Now
The first results of the study would appear to argue against fears of a hookup culture because, according to the data, young people are having about as much premarital sex, and maybe even a bit less, than previous generations of young people did.
“Recent research and popular media reports have described intimate relationships among contemporary college students as characterized by a new and pervasive hookup culture in which students regularly have sex with no strings attached,” said study co-author Martin Monto, Ph.D.
“This implies that the college campus has become a more sexualized environment and that undergraduates are having more sex than in the past. We were surprised to find this is not the case….”
“…We found that college students from the contemporary or ‘hookup era’ did not report having more frequent sex or more sexual partners during the past year or more sexual partners since turning 18 than undergraduates from the earlier era,” said Monto.
Researchers were surprised to find that among the 1988-1996 cohort, 65.2 percent reported having sex weekly or more often in the past year, compared to 59.3 percent of college students from the “hookup era.”
The Nature of Pre-Marital Sex: Then and Now:
So, as I said, young people are having, more or less, about as much premarital sex as ever. But that’s not really what the hookup culture is about. The hookup culture isn’t just about the amount of sex people have and the number of people having it. It is about the kind of sex people have and the attitudes toward sex people hold. And this where I think the Univ. of Portland study really does support concerns about the hook-up culture. The second part of the study shows that young adults are more likely than their older counterparts to have casual sex with strangers or friends and see casual hookups or “friends with benefits” as a substitute for marriage instead of a potential path to marriage as previous generations at least tacitly did. Let’s look again at what the study says…
“For example, it is true that sexually active college students from the contemporary era were more likely than those from the earlier era to report that one of their sexual partners during the past year was a casual date/pickup (44.4 percent compared to 34.5 percent) or a friend (68.6 percent compared to 55.7 percent), and less likely to report having a spouse or regular sexual partner (77.1 percent compared to 84.5 percent).”
“Contemporary college students are coping with a new set of norms in which marriage occurs later,” Monto said. “This means the idea of waiting until marriage to begin sexual behavior is a less tenable narrative.”
So Is There A Hookup Culture or Not?
As I said above, I think it would be completely wrongheaded and misleading to use this study as a way of saying that the hookup culture doesn’t really exist and isn’t really any more of a problem than sex on campus ever was. The data does not, in fact, appear to support this dismissive attitude. What the study really shows is that while young adults are having about as much premarital sex as young adults of a previous generation, when contemporary young adults do have premarital sex, it is more likely to be of a casual nature and more likely to be seen, not as a lead up to marriage, but as a substitute for, or way of putting off, marriage. That is a big difference over previous generations’ attitudes toward sex.
So, no, colleges are not necessarily any larger “dens of iniquity” than they ever have been in modern memory. But, there is an important difference in that those young people who are engaging in premarital sex today are more cavalier about it, more pessimistic about marriage, and less likely to see sex as leading to marriage than any generation before them.
So, yes, Virginia, there is a hook-up culture. And it is a problem because it points to a whole subset of the current generation who believes less than ever that fulfilling, lifelong love is possible. As a person who has found his lifelong love, and who has dedicated his life to helping people discover and live lifelong love, that strikes me as profoundly sad.
If you would like to learn more about discovering and sustaining a lifelong, passionate love, check out Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Mind Blowing, Toe-Curling, Infallible Loving. And if you’re a parent who wants to teach your kids to resist the cultural tide and hold out for lifelong, married love, pick up a copy of Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids (2nd edition–Revised and Expanded) today!