The XX Factor

Does the Hookup Culture Really Not Even Exist?

Hooking up
Maybe hooking up, maybe not.

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We’ve heard that the hookup culture is destroying us. We’ve heard that it’s saving us. We’ve heard that it’s racist. We’ve agonized over which one of these is true. Then this week we heard that it doesn’t even exist. A new paper publicized by the American Sociological Association (but not officially published yet) found “no evidence of substantial changes in sexual behavior that would support the proposition that there is a new or pervasive ‘hookup culture’ among contemporary college students.” That’s how most media outlets, including Slate, reported it. But that’s not exactly what the paper found. Its author, Martin Monto, e-mailed me to say that he meant the paper only to be a “clarification” of media hype about the hook-up culture. The vision most people of parental age have when they hear “hookup” is just of mayhem and abandon: lots of sex, with lots of different people, on any old Tuesday. That’s not happening, although it’s not true that there’s no change in sexual behavior.

Monto and his co-author, Anna Carey, compared two sets of cohorts who had completed at least one year of college–one from 1988 to 1996 and another from 2002 to 2010. The kids in the more recent group are not having sex more frequently than the kids in the other group. Maybe that comes as a surprise to you and maybe it doesn’t. They also don’t change sexual partners more frequently than they used to. And they were less likely to have sex once or more a week. What has changed is how they choose partners. They are more likely now to have sex with a “casual date” or a “pickup” or a “friend.” (Which might explain why they don’t have sex once or more a week–that’s what boyfriends or girlfriends are good for). That’s how “hookup” 2010 is different from “hookup” 1996.

That seems to me like a substantial change in sexual behavior, although I can’t say if it’s good or bad–probably depends on the circumstances. Maybe it means that people don’t take sex as seriously as they used to. Maybe it means women are less afraid of it than they used to be. Maybe it means that young people have learned to incorporate sex into their definition of friendship. Maybe it means sex isn’t so loaded, and doesn’t put you on a path to marriage or a real relationship anymore.