Young: The myth of the college sex and the 'hookup culture'

Just how real -- or new -- is

Just how real -- or new -- is the so-called hookup culture of casual sex at colleges? Turns out, not so real, or new. (Credit: iStock)

Cathy Young

Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason and Real Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and

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The "hookup culture" on college campuses has been discussed a lot in recent years, with a particular focus on female students. Are women being empowered by the ability to pursue casual sex just like men, or exploited by a false ideal of liberation that ignores their romantic desires?

Amid the hand-wringing and the cheerleading, I have often wondered just how real -- or how new -- this hookup culture really was. Now we have an answer, from a study presented last week at the meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York: It's not very new, and not nearly as pervasive as many media accounts suggest.

The study by University of Portland sociologist Martin Monto compared survey data from college students for 1988-96 and 2002-10. Almost identical percentages in both cohorts reported more than one sexual partner in the past year (just below 32 percent) or more than two sexual partners since turning 18 (just over half).

Present-day sexually active students were somewhat more likely to have had sex with a casual partner: 44 percent reported having done so in the past year, compared to 34 percent in the earlier sample. But for the vast majority casual sex is a brief experiment, not a way of life. And while many dispatches from the battlefield of the "hookup culture" have suggested that relationships and romance are all but extinct on the modern campus, this is simply not the case. In 1988-96, 84 percent of the respondents had a steady boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse. The figure for 2007-10 was 77 percent.

Many other studies suggest that accounts of a campus culture in which no-strings sex rules and young women pine in vain for true love are greatly exaggerated. In the 2010 National College Health Assessment, based on a survey of nearly 29,000 students, just over a third of men and women alike had never had sex; 38 percent of male students and 43 percent of female students had had only one sexual partner, while fewer than one in five men and one in six women reported more than two. More than half said they were in a relationship at the time of the study.

Why did a few articles and books that portrayed the American campus as a ruthless sexual jungle, based primarily on anecdotes or tiny unrepresentative surveys, get so much attention? Partly because sex and sensationalism sell. But there is another factor, too: Our culture is addicted to woman-as-victim narratives, whether with a feminist or conservative slant. Tales from the hookup culture front offered opportunities for both.

While some feminists have viewed "hooking up" as female self-assertion, others have depicted the campus scene as rife with male sexual privilege and coercion of women. Meanwhile, many social conservatives eagerly embraced the notion that sexual freedom and misguided equality leave women used and abused. Conservative columnist Mona Charen has cited the fact that hookups usually involve drinking as proof that women try to dull the emotional trauma of anonymous sex -- even though the men get just as drunk.

There is indeed a "hookup scene" in college. But it exists side by side with serious relationships and not instead of them, usually as a brief walk on the wild side that young women as well as young men report enjoying. Habitual promiscuity -- which is known to be linked to physical and mental health risks for both sexes -- is no more common among college students today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. It's time to get over moral panics about the younger generation -- and about damsels in distress.