College students are no more sexually active these days than they were in the 1980s.
That’s the finding of a recent study by University of Portland sociologist Martin Monto, who says that the media’s portrayal of a new and pervasive “hookup culture” on college campuses is misleading.
Monto examined the responses of 1,800 18- to 25-year-olds who had completed at least one year of college. He compared a first group of responses, taken as part of the General Social Survey between 1988-1996, with a second group who answered the same questions on a survey taken between 2002 and 2010.
College students from the contemporary or “hookup” era did not report having more frequent sex or more sexual partners during the past year than undergraduates from the earlier era, says Monto, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City on August 13. They also did not report having more sexual partners since turning 18.
Among the first cohort, 65.2 percent reported having sex weekly or more often in the past year, compared with 59.3 percent from the second, more recent, cohort. Additionally, 31.9 percent of the earlier cohort said they had more than one sexual partner in the past year, compared with 31.6 percent of the 2002–10 group. “College students overestimate the degree to which their peers are hooking up,” Monto says. “It feels like something new, but they might be surprised to know the actual frequency of sex, the number of sexual partners, etc. don’t appear to have increased from their parents’ generation.”
What has changed, Monto notes, is the language college students use to describe sexual behavior. In a search of eight scholarly social science databases, he discovered that the term “hookup” and its variants (“hook-up,” “hooking up,” etcetera) did not gain popularity until 2006. But, as his results imply, a change in language about behavior does not necessarily imply a change in that behavior.
New York University sociologist Robert Max Jackson, who was not affiliated with the study, says he was not surprised by its findings. Students might be talking more openly about sex than they were in the past, he says, but that doesn’t mean they’re having more of it. “Overall, you have a real sense in talking with students that there is a cultural change that has taken place,” he says, “but it is not a change that is about people having more sex. It really is a change in the way that people talk about it.”