The “hookup culture” on college campuses has been a subject of much concern (and, one suspects, prurient interest) in recent years. The first dispatches from this new sexual battlefield, starting with reporter Laura Sessions Stepp’s 2003 article in The Washington Post and her 2007 book Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both, treated it as one in which women were clearly the losers, seduced by false promises of liberation and left vulnerable to exploitative casual sex, regret and heartache. Then came the feminist counter-narrative expounded in Hanna Rosin’s 2012 article in The Atlantic, “Boys on the Side” (and later in her book, The End of Men): brief no-strings liaisons, Rosin argued, are a savvy female strategy to avoid investing too much time or energy in college romance, prioritize career development, and still enjoy sex.
Last month, the New York Times ran a long feature in its Sunday Style section, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” which, despite some caveats, was largely a brief for the feminist side. Based on interviews with female students at the University of Pennsylvania, the story by Kate Taylor acknowledged the hookup culture’s negative aspects and profiled a couple of women who reject it. But its unquestioned star was “A.,” a driven, ambitious pragmatist whose sex life consists of regular encounters with a “hookup buddy” she doesn’t even like as a person (“we literally can’t sit down and have coffee”) and who would rather not make time for a real relationship.
The Conservative Attack
Some conservatives, such as Mona Charen in National Review, were quick to deride the Times story as propaganda that seeks to sell women on the “freedom” of empty sex and celebrates a degraded sexual free-for-all while covering up its reality of female misery.
Which is it, then? Are college girls confidently pursuing the happy hookup or unhappily submitting to male exploitation while pining for true love? The answer, most likely, is that neither narrative is quite true. The sexual environment on many campuses certainly has its unsavory and damaging aspects–but the damage and discontent are by no means limited to women. What’s more, the mindless promiscuous sex severed from all human connection is far less common than hookup hype–from both cheerleaders and detractors–would lead one to believe.
Take the assertion in the Times story that “traditional dating in college” has all but disappeared, replaced by hookups with no “emotional entanglement.” Toward the end, the article itself cited facts that cast doubt on this claim, such as the finding in a major survey that 40 percent of college seniors have either never had sex or had only one partner. Other data confirm that, while “traditional dating” in the sense of structured dates may be on the wane, relationships are not. 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 men 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. A mere six percent of male respondents and three percent of female respondents claimed to have had sex with six or more people. (The survey’s definition of sexual relations included oral sex.) More than half said they were in a relationship at the time of the survey.
Studies Undermine Media Reports
Media reports often greatly overstate the hookup culture’s dominance. In 2010, a study at James Madison University in Virginia was widely reported as showing that “college students hooked up twice as often as they went on actual dates” (even though both sexes, and especially women, claimed to prefer dates to hookups). But, in fact, these numbers referred to first dates vs. hookups (which don’t necessarily include anything more intimate than kissing). Of the 221 respondents, mostly freshmen, 106–nearly half–were actually dating a steady partner at the time of the survey; 76 had been with that partner for at least seven months (and one was engaged). These salient facts were missed in nearly all the reports; ironically, it took a feminist blogger to point them out.
Other studies paint a similar picture. In a study published last fall, researchers from the Miriam Hospital’s Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine in Providence, R.I. found that 40 percent of female first-year students had had at least one sexual hookup while in college but 56 percent had been in a sexual/romantic relationship (with considerable overlap between the two groups). Only one in five “hooked up” regularly.
Elite campuses may not be hotbeds of “liberated” promiscuity, either. In a 2010 survey by the Yale Daily News (based on a sample of nearly 1,800 undergraduates who returned an email questionnaire, out of about 5,000 sent out), students reported an average of eight “make-out” partners but only two sexual partners overall, and one steady relationship. In a similar Harvard Crimson study in 2009, the average student had had one sexual partner. These numbers would be higher if students who have never had sex were excluded from the pool–nearly one in three in the Yale survey, including men–but, even so, they hardly suggest a sexual jungle. At Georgetown, nearly two-thirds of undergraduates surveyed in 2012 said they had sex only or primarily in committed relationships; one in ten pursued only random sexual hookups.
Hoping for a Relationship
Moreover, if “hooking up” is defined by a strictly no-strings attitude, many hookups may not qualify. Stanford University sociologist Paula England, who analyzed data collected in 2005-2011 in the Online College Social Life Survey at 21 four-year colleges and universities, found that not only 39 percent of women but nearly a third of men reported being interested in a romantic relationship with their most recent hookup partner (only 38 percent of the men, and 25 percent of the women, said they had definitely not been interested in a relationship). In another study of about 500 undergraduates at Binghamton University in New York, half of both women and men who had hooked up reported that one of their motives was the hope of a relationship, though few actually expected a hookup to result in one.
Indeed, Penn students who criticized Taylor’s New York Times piece as a distorted picture of the campus sexual scene argued not only that romance at the university is far from extinct, but that there are other things besides romance and “meaningless hookups”; many relationships exist in a gray area between dating, “friends with benefits,” and “hooking up.” (Responses from two young women who actually spoke to Taylor also offer some insight into the reporter’s agenda. Penn junior Amanda Wolkin recalled that all of Taylor’s questions had focused on how female students’ career ambitions affected their love lives. Senior Arielle Pardes noted that she told Taylor she was in a serious long-term relationship with a fellow Penn student, yet neither she nor any other sexually active but monogamous student was mentioned in the article.)
Alcohol as a Crutch
Still, a “hookup culture” clearly exists, even if it is less pervasive and less inhumane than sensationalist accounts suggest. Such as it is, does this sexual culture hurt and exploit women? On this issue, claims of female victimhood come both from conservatives (who think women are shortchanged by a false feminist ideal of liberation that disregards the feminine need for romance) and many feminists (who believe women are shortchanged by “gendered” sexual norms that privilege male needs). But is there actual evidence of female immiseration?
Charen cites two factoids: women typically get drunk before a hookup, which suggests they need to “anesthetize themselves” before dabbling in anonymous sex; and “men get oral sex in hookups far more often than women do,” which suggests that women aren’t the ones calling the shots.
But while the first statement is accurate, it leaves out the fact that the hookup scene involves equally heavy male drinking: in the Online College Social Life Survey, men reported an average of five drinks before “hooking up,” women an average of four.
As for the oral sex gap, it may be largely a myth. One graph based on the same surveys seems, at first glance, to reveal a huge disparity: while 30 percent of women and men reported reciprocal oral sex, 46 percent of women reported giving without receiving while only 24 percent had been only on the receiving end (male reports indicated an even larger gap). Upon closer look, however, it turns out that these figures refer only to a specific subset of hookups: ones in which there was oral sex but no intercourse. It also turns out that this happens in a surprisingly small minority of hookups: in this particular study, about 12 percent. Overall, 26 percent of women said they had performed oral sex in their most recent hookup and 22 percent had received it–a minor gap similar to the one in steady relationships. Unreciprocated fellatio seems to be most common in first-time hookups, sometimes due not to male selfishness but to female reticence: in one sample of 43 college women, ten said they weren’t comfortable receiving oral sex in casual hookups and actively avoided it.
Are Women Being Exploited?
Other findings cast doubt on the notion that the hookup culture is an environment in which women get exploited and men thrive. While it’s true that, as sociologist and culture critic Lisa Wade of Occidental College puts it, “the economy of orgasm” in hookups favors men over women, it doesn’t serve men particularly well, either: in the self-reports in the survey mentioned above, male orgasm occurred in 44 percent of hookups, female orgasm in 19 percent. Many of these encounters don’t go beyond kissing and touching; still, even sexual activity often ends with not only the woman but the man left unsatisfied–which may have to do with the amount of alcohol involved. (If these kids spent less time carousing and more reading Shakespeare, they might have known about this problem from the porter’s famous monologue in Macbeth, which observes that excessive drink “provokes the desire but takes away the performance.”)
All this suggests that in many ways, the hookup scene is not particularly healthy or fulfilling for either sex. Indeed, while we hear much about women’s disappointment and regrets over no-strings sexual encounters, some studies find only slightly fewer negative reactions to hookups among men. (Slightly less than half of OCSL survey respondents, with a negligible gender difference, said they enjoyed their last hookup “very much.”) According to other research, both male and female college students in long-term relationships have far fewer physical and mental health problems than their promiscuous peers. And there is ample evidence that, all in all, both women and men would rather be in a relationship than hook up–even if women express this preference more strongly. In the OCSL survey, a quarter of women and 38 percent of men agreed with the statement, “I don’t really want to be in an exclusive relationship now because I’d rather be free to date or hook up with multiple people”; but seven out of ten–men and women alike–wished there were more opportunities on campus to find a steady boyfriend or girlfriend.
No Need for Moral Panic
I asked Cassandra Hough, a Princeton alum and founder of that school’s pro-chastity Anscombe Society (and, more recently, of the Love and Fidelity Network which sponsors such initiatives at other colleges), whether conservative critiques of the hookup culture have focused too much on its harm to women and supposed benefits to men. In an email, Hough responded that while many men do desire meaningful relationships, “the conversation has tended to emphasize the effects of the hookup culture on women largely in response to the radical feminist voices that champion casual sex as central to women’s equality and liberation.” Fair enough; but the result is that far too often, this critique turns into a conservative version of the same tendency to demonize men as predators and infantilize women as helpless victims for which conservatives have rightly criticized radical feminism. Most disturbing, some conservative opponents of the hookup culture (such as Nathan Harden in last year’s book God and Sex at Yale) have embraced bogus feminist data on rampant campus rape.
How, then, should we approach the hookup phenomenon? For one, it would be a good idea to avoid moral panics. Yes, there are sordid and unhealthy sexual subcultures on many college campuses, though it’s hard to say whether this problem is any more pervasive than, say, thirty years ago (poll data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute show that approval of casual sex among college freshmen has dropped significantly since the 1980s). Most college women and men, however, seek–and often find–steady committed relationships, at most dabbling in the hookup scene for a short walk on the wild side.
Ironically, one factor that helps sustain the hookup culture, and makes young people who shun it feel isolated, is the mistaken impression held by many students that “everyone is doing it.” In this regard, articles that celebrate the hookup and articles that deplore it may have the same paradoxical effect of perpetuating the behavior. Dismantling the myths would be far more constructive.