Giving the hook to college hookup culture

College students have less sex with fewer partners than a generation ago, a new study finds. This should free students of the pressure to conform to a popular narrative.

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Prospective students and their parents take a tour of Georgetown University's campus in Washington. A new study of young people finds less hookup sex at colleges and universities than commonly believed.

This fall, American college students may feel a great imposition of sexual expectations lifted from their social life. A new study has busted the common notion of a pervasive “hookup culture” at colleges and universities.

Today’s students are not having sex more often or with more people compared with those of a generation ago, according to research presented last month at the American Sociological Association.

Relying on surveys of 18-to-25-year-olds who had completed at least one year of college, University of Portland professor Martin Monto and co-author Anna Carey found recent rates of sexual activity on campuses were actually lower than those during 1988-96.

The myth-smashing study might just help change the conversation on campuses about the kind of premarital sex that is seen as harmless, no-strings-attached, self-gratifying recreation. Most of all, it should give new freedom to students not to buy into the narrative of a promiscuous era in which sex comes with no emotional entanglements.

“The sheer amount of repression and suppression of emotion required for living in the context of a hookup culture teaches young adults (or tries to teach them) not to feel at all,” writes Boston University religion professor Donna Freitas in her book “The End of Sex.” She describes hookup sex as “quick, ostensibly meaningless sexual intimacy.”

Students need help from parents and schools to resist the pressures, perceptions, and pretensions of sexual stereotypes. A 2011 study published in the journal Health Communication found 90 percent of students assume a “typical student” has two or more hookups a year. Yet only 37 percent of students actually fit that expectation. Such research can help students remain independent of misguided archetypes about sexual behavior.

While the frequency of sex among students may be the same or less as in the past, one troubling trend remains, according to the Monto-Carey study. “Today’s sexually active young adults are more likely to report that one of the people they had sex with over the past year was a friend or someone they hooked up with via a pickup or casual date,” it found.

This sort of “friends with benefits” sex doesn’t come with a sense of commitment to another person, let alone keeping sex within a marital covenant. “College students in this era don’t feel the need to maintain the pretense that a sexual partner is a potential marriage partner,” says Dr. Monto.

Yet students may eventually discover that casual sex comes at a cost. A new study in The Journal of Sex Research finds a strong link between casual sex and stress among students. And both men and women who engaged in sex with someone for less than a week report similar levels of stress.

Popular notions about sex outside marriage often overlook the necessity to honor the dignity of another person as well as that of marriage and family. The more those notions are challenged and found wanting, the more today’s young people will find the dignity they seek.

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