College Hookup Culture Isn't Destroying The World

by Carrie Murphy

Bad news, Caitlin Flanagan. Bad news, New York Times. College hookup culture isn't actually destroying the world. In fact, it's not even making people have more sex.

Researchers from the University of Portland have just released a working paper that found that today's college students don't have more sex or even more sexual partners than the college students in those hazy, golden, days of yore (if yore can be considered the days of flannel, Doc Martens, and Nirvana). Using nationwide data from more than 1,800 people who completed at least one year of college, the study compares students from 2002 to 2010 against those who attended school from 1988 to 1996.

The results of the study are clear: Today's college students were less likely than those from the late '80s and early '90s to say they had sex weekly or more often (65.2 percent versus 59.3 percent). They were basically as likely to say that they'd had two or more sexual partners since their 18th birthday, with 51.7 percent of past students and to 50.5 percent today.

Surprised to hear that the dirty, nasty world of casual sex on campus isn't leading our society towards Sodom and Gomorrah? As someone who participated willingly in "hookup culture" during her undergraduate years, I'm certainly not. The study's lead author, Michael Monto, apparently is, writing in his paper:

“Our results provide no evidence that there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a liberalization of attitudes toward sexuality.The alarmist concerns that ‘easy sex is rampant on college campuses today’ are not justified and are largely based on cross-sectional research and misconceptions.”

There is one novel piece of information that the University of Portland study uncovered, however: That today's college students were actually less likely to report having a regular sexual partner in the last year, with 77.1 percent versus 84.5 percent. They were also more likely to say they'd had sex with a friend or other casual acquaintance. That information does support the idea that there has been at least a slight change in the attitudes towards casual sex and sex outside of committed relationships, but study authors say this doesn't mean that today's college students are having more sex than their predecessors. (The flip side of that assumption being, of course, that having more sex is somehow bad? NO SEX PLEASE we're in college!)

While I'd be interested in seeing results from a more comprehensive study that included all kinds of sexual activity (making out, oral sex, non-penetrative sex, etc.), I still think this study's results are useful ammunition against puritanical, patriarchal cultural critics who continue to engage in alarmist hand-wringing over what the depraved young people today are doing with their genitals.