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Study dispels notions of 'no-holds barred' sex on campus

A new study finds that sexual activity among college students hasn't increased in recent decades — but students are more likely to report having sex with a friend.

August 12, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Recent UCLA graduate Sebastian Milla, 22, says hooking up allows students to explore their sexuality without derailing their goals.
Recent UCLA graduate Sebastian Milla, 22, says hooking up allows students… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Despite popular alarm and fascination with "hooking up" on campus, college students are not having sex with more partners than in the past few decades, are no more accepting of sex before marriage and are actually less likely to report having sex weekly or more often, according to a study released Tuesday.

"We're not living in a new era of no-holds-barred sexuality," said Martin Monto, the University of Portland sociology professor who co-wrote the study. For instance, fewer than a third of college students surveyed between 2002 and 2010 said they had had sex with more than one person in the preceding year — about the same level as reported during the late 1980s and early '90s.

What has changed, Monto and a fellow researcher found, is who students sleep with: Recent college students were more likely to say they had sex with a friend or "casual date" and less likely to say they were wed or had a "regular partner," compared with students polled between 1988 and 1996.

Among those who were sexually active, more than 68% said they had had sex with a friend in the last year — an increase from roughly 56% during the earlier period.

The findings line up with earlier research on teens and 20-somethings that showed no increase in sexual activity in recent decades, even as experts have observed changes in how college students pursue sex and romance. Scholars writing about the "hookup culture" — sexual norms revolving around more casual, uncommitted intimacy — say their research is sometimes misunderstood to mean that sex is newly rampant on college campuses.

Instead, La Salle University associate professor Kathleen A. Bogle likens the change to switching romantic "scripts."

"With the dating script, it was like, 'I'm going to date someone and that might lead to something sexual happening' " — whereas with hookups, it's the other way around, said Bogle, author of "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus."

That might be why college students are increasingly likely to have had sex with friends or casual dates, other studies suggest. Young adults have been pushing off marriage to later in life. Many students, eager to forge careers and have adventures, see peril in a relationship that could limit their opportunities.

Hooking up lets college students explore their sexuality without derailing their goals, said Sebastian Milla, a recent UCLA graduate interning at its Art & Global Health Center. If you pursue a serious relationship, Milla said, "you graduate after four years, and the person you based your life around might get a job in Zimbabwe."

"For a lot of people, it just doesn't make sense."

Meeting a stranger at a party comes with its own dangers, especially if alcohol is part of the mix. For students who have ruled out a relationship, sleeping with a friend can seem like a comfortable alternative. Several said their hookups with friends weren't at all awkward.

"It was just like, 'Hey, we're both drunk, let's go,' " said V., who is going into his senior year at USC. He, as well as some other students interviewed, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We still hang out. It's completely the same as it was before."

It isn't just men who think that way, said Laura Hamilton, assistant professor of sociology at UC Merced. In her research, she found hooking up with friends appealed to female students who didn't want to risk being mistreated by someone they barely knew.

"I only really hook up with friends. I don't like to be a number to people," said Shira Barlas, who is going into her junior year at Occidental College.

Earlier research by sociologist Paula England found that most students hooked up less than once a semester throughout college, and "hooking up" often meant something other than intercourse, including just kissing and touching above the belt. Studies also have suggested hooking up is more common among white, wealthy students.

Scholars argue that the phenomenon has nonetheless shaped campus culture. Among college students, "a majority will say they prefer relationships. But they think everyone else just wants casual sex," said Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College.

When you hook up, "you don't want to define anything, because you're afraid you might mess up what you have at the moment," said Katie, 21, who attends New York University. Sometimes, she said, she wishes there was more old-school dating going on. Still, "I don't really want to get into a relationship, go through the emotional stages, and have it end up not working out."

Bogle said the major changes in sex and dating happened before the time periods examined by University of Portland researchers, making it a comparison of "hookup culture" over time rather than before and after. Monto said the questions that the study relied on weren't asked in earlier years and that academic databases showed the term "hooking up" popping up much more often in scholarly literature after 2006.

The findings were gleaned from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative poll from the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago and included responses from more than 1,800 young adults who had finished at least one year of college.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

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