Dating is dead and “hookup culture” reigns on America’s college campuses. Or so goes the typical media narrative about college life today. While it certainly sounds compelling and virtually every show on MTV corroborates it, scientific support just isn’t there. In fact, what the data reveals is that, not only is dating alive and well, but modern students do not seem to be any more sexually active than students from previous generations.
One of the most vocal proponents of the “hookup culture” narrative is author Donna Freitas. In her 2013 book, The End of Sex , she argues that “hookup culture dominates the lives of college students today. Most students spend hours agonizing over their hopes for Friday night and, later, dissecting the evenings’ successes or failures, often wishing that the social contract of the hookup would allow them to ask for more out of sexual intimacy.” Freitas’ claims have gathered a lot of media attention, but the science tells a different story.
In a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research , scientists at the University of Portland compared data from the General Social Survey at two different points in time: 1988-1996 and 2004-2012. For each 8-year period, the researchers tabulated the sexual behaviors of all 18-25-year-old adults who participated. What did they find? Compared to students from the 80s and 90s, students today did not report having sex more often, nor did they report having greater numbers of sexual partners.
Consider these statistics: for students in the 1988-1996 cohort, 55.3% said they had sex at least weekly during the last year. For the 2004-2012 students, it may surprise you to learn that the number was actually a little lower (50.6%). The number of students who reported having more than one sex partner since turning 18 was also higher for students in the past (67.3%) than it was for students in the present (62.3%). Likewise, more students today reported having no sex partners since they turned 18 (15.0%) compared to the past (10.2%). As you can see, if anything, the trends in the data suggest that students today are having less sex, not more!
This study also revealed that students’ attitudes toward sex outside marriage has not changed over time—most students (about 80%) said it was acceptable in both cohorts. So neither attitudes toward sex nor frequency of sex appear to have changed all that much among college students, which makes it difficult to argue that millennials are facing such a dramatically different sexual landscape.
That said, it is true that today’s students are somewhat less likely to report sex with a spouse or with a steady relationship partner (78.2% in the 2004-2012 group vs. 84.5% in the 1988-1996 group). However, these high numbers tell us that modern students certainly have not shunned dating. Also, that small difference we see probably has less to do with changing views on dating and more to do with cultural shifts in how long people are waiting to get married these days and less social pressure to settle down quickly.
Of course, all of this is not to say that college students’ sex lives haven’t changed one bit. One big way they have changed is that today’s students are more likely to report having had sex with a friend (71.0%) compared to past students (55.7%). This tells us that “friends with benefits” are indeed becoming more common; however, despite what movies like No Strings Attached might lead you to believe, millennials did not invent this type of relationship.
While many have argued that today’s college students find themselves on increasingly sexualized campuses where no one dates and everyone just hooks-up, the data simply do not support it. Millennials are not pursuing more sex or more partners. Certainly, there is a lot of sex happening in college today, but that should not be a big surprise — there has been a lot of sex in college for several decades now. In short, the idea that a new “hookup culture” has suddenly emerged and taken hold of students would appear to be nothing but a myth.