Despite the perceived ubiquitous nature of hookups on college campuses, sex in the context of romantic relationships is still the norm, according to a longitudinal study conducted by Brown-affiliated researchers and published last month in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
“Over the past few years, hooking up has received a lot of attention in the popular press,” wrote Robyn Fielder, the lead researcher of the study, in an email to The Herald, citing movies such as “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached” and books like “The Happy Hook-up” and “The Hookup Handbook” as examples.
“Hooking up probably gets more media attention than traditional dating because it is seen as more exciting and because it is considered to be a ‘new’ approach to sex and relationships,” she wrote. “Because we hear more about hooking up, we assume it is extremely common.”
Fielder’s study surveyed 483 first-year females at Syracuse University and found that sex in the context of a relationship was more common than sex through hookups with a casual partner. Hookups were defined as sex outside of a relationship with “no mutual expectation of a romantic commitment.”
Between 7 and 18 percent of respondents had hookup sex in a given month, while an average of 25 to 38 percent of respondents had sex with a romantic partner. Over the course of the year, 40 percent of respondents had oral and/or vaginal sex with a casual partner, while 56 percent had it in the context of a romantic relationship. Ninety-six percent of the subjects were heterosexual.
Fielder’s findings are consistent with The Herald poll conducted in 2011, which found that 73.9 percent of students had 0 or 1 sexual partners that semester. A poll conducted last month found that 73.3 percent of students were currently in an exclusive relationship with one other person or no sexual relationship at all, with 56 percent seeking an exclusive relationship.
Fielder’s study found that the total number of sexual encounters with both casual partners and romantic partners peaked at the beginning of the year, which is consistent with the theory that students are more sexually experimental at this time, the authors wrote in the study.
“First-year college students may be more likely to socialize/party, and thus hook up, at the beginning of the semester because they are newly exposed to the college environment and the many freedoms it offers,” Fielder wrote.
This temporal trend can be utilized by health services on campuses to accurately time their education and contraceptive programs.
“We make sure we are getting information to first-years right from the beginning in order to make sure they have access to resources,” said Naomi Ninneman, a health educator at Brown Health Services. Health Services also trains Residential Peer Leaders to have proper knowledge of all resources related to sexual health and equips them with safe sex supplies to provide to their residents, Ninneman added.
Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology and department chair at Occidental College whose work was cited in the study, said she was not surprised by the results. “When people arrive on campus, they try and enact this life that has been promised by the media” where women are sexually free and independent, Wade said. During the course of their first year, only about 10 percent truly enjoy the supposedly free and liberating casual hookup culture, she added.
Because these people also tend to be the most sexually visible, the remaining population suffers from what social psychology has deemed “pluralistic ignorance,” whereby students incorrectly assume that everybody else is having more and better sex. But 20 percent of college students graduate still as virgins, Wade said.
The study focused primarily on college women because they are more likely compared to males to experience depression, sexual victimization and STDs, topics the researchers will address in future papers. The experimenters also chose to study first-years because they identified the first year of college as a critical developmental period during which sexual behavior increases as young women “explore who they want to become and how they want to interact with others,” Fielder wrote. Future studies could investigate whether these trends exist among male populations, upperclassmen and non-college-attending individuals.