The advent of the hook up culture—the supposed increased in brief uncommitted sexual encounters between individuals who are not romantic partners or dating each other—among young Americans has provoked much handwringing from promoters of the latest moral panic. But is it so? A new study by researchers at the University of Portland suggests that young Americans are not behaving all that differently with regard to sex than have previous generations. Using survey data of 18 to 25 year-olds from the General Social Survey the researchers compared the responses from a cohort from 1988-1996 to one from 2002-2010. What did they find?
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." In addition, 31.9 percent of the earlier cohort reported having more than one sexual partner in the past year, compared with 31.6 percent of contemporary college students. Also, 51.7 percent of the earlier group reported having more than two sexual partners after turning 18, compared to 50.5 percent of the 2002-2010 cohort.
In terms of attitudes toward other sexual norms, the researchers also found that contemporary college students were no more accepting than those in the earlier cohort of sex between 14 to 16-year-olds, married adults having sex with someone other than their spouse, or premarital sex between adults. But contemporary college students were significantly more accepting of sex between adults of the same sex.
However, [one researcher] said 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," [one researcher] said. "This means the idea of waiting until marriage to begin sexual behavior is a less tenable narrative. Courtship and relationship practices are changing, and the implications of these changes present a new unique set of challenges, but this study demonstrates that we are not in the midst of a new era of no rules attached sexuality. In fact, we found that, overall, sexual behavior among college students has remained fairly consistent over the past 25 years."
Like the Rainbow Parties and Butt-Chugging Freakouts before it, the hook up culture panic is almost over. Time to "panic" over something else.