Menus Subscribe Search
college-sex

(PHOTO: DR. CLOUD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

In Defense of Hook-Up Culture

• August 12, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: DR. CLOUD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The vast majority of college students prefer dating to hooking up, and most want to be in a committed relationship. Hooking up helps them get there.

In an op-ed on hook-up culture in college, Bob Laird links binge drinking and casual sex to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, confusion, low self-esteem, unhappiness, vomiting, ethical retardation, low grades, and emotional inadequacy. “How nice of The Times to include this leftover piece from 1957 today,” snarked a reader in the online comments.

Fair enough, but Laird is more than out of touch. He also fundamentally misunderstands hook-up culture, the relationships that form within it and the real source of the problems arising from some sexual relationships.

Laird makes the common mistake of assuming that casual sex is rampant on college campuses. It’s true that more than 90 percent of students say that their campus is characterized by a hook-up culture. But in fact, no more than 20 percent of students hook up very often; one-third of them abstain from hooking up altogether, and the remainder are occasional participators.

If you do the math, this is what you get: The median number of college hook-ups for a graduating senior is seven. This includes instances in which there was intercourse, but also times when two people just made out with their clothes on. The typical student acquires only two new sexual partners during college. Half of all hook-ups are with someone the person has hooked up with before. A quarter of students will be virgins when they graduate.

In other words, there’s no bacchanalian orgy on college campuses, so we can stop wringing our hands about that.

Laird argues that students aren’t interested in and won’t form relationships if “they are simply focused on the next hookup.” Wrong. The majority of students—70 percent of women and 73 percent of men—report that they’d like to have a committed relationship, and 95 percent of women and 77 percent of men prefer dating to hooking up. In fact, about three-quarters of students will enter a long-term monogamous relationship while in college.

And it’s by hooking up that many students form these monogamous relationships. Roughly, they go from a first hook-up to a “regular hook-up” to perhaps something that my students call “exclusive”—which means monogamous but not in a relationship—and then, finally, they have “the talk” and form a relationship. As they get more serious, they become more sexually involved (source):

college-sex-chart

Come to think of it, this is how most relationships are formed—through a period of increasing intimacy that, at some point, ends in a conversation about commitment. Those crazy kids.

So, students are forming relationships in hook-up culture; they’re just doing it in ways that Laird probably doesn’t like or recognize.

Finally, Laird assumes that relationships are emotionally safer than casual sex, especially for women. Not necessarily. Hook-up culture certainly exposes women to high rates of emotional trauma and physical assault, but relationships do not protect women from these things. Recall that relationships are the context for domestic violence, rape, and spousal murder.

It’s not hooking up that makes women vulnerable, it’s patriarchy. Accordingly, studies of college students have found that, in many ways, hook-ups are safer than relationships. A bad hook-up can be acutely bad; a bad relationship can mean entering a cycle of abuse that takes months to end, bringing with it wrecked friendships, depression, restraining orders, stalking, controlling behavior, physical and emotional abuse, jealousy, and exhausting efforts to end or save the relationship.

Laird’s views seem to be driven by a hook-up culture bogeyman. It might scare him at night, but it’s not real. Actual research on hook-up culture tells a very different story, one that makes college life look much more mundane.


This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site.

Lisa Wade
Lisa Wade, Ph.D., holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in Human Sexuality from New York University. She is an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @lisawade.

More From Lisa Wade

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.