Casual sex in college — known colloquially as "hooking up" — gets a lot of attention for supposedly being unhealthy for women. But a new study finds that hooking up may actually allow women more sexual agency than traditional dinner dates.
The researchers don't advocate a world without dates, but they do find that college students often harbor a sexual double standard around dates that is relatively relaxed when it comes to in-the-moment hookups. In hookup scenarios, the study found, students are open to a woman taking the sexual lead. When analyzing a dating scenario, however, the students tended to fall back on traditional gender roles, more often assuming that men were only interested in sex and women in trying not to seem "slutty."
That's not to say that hookups are a paradise for women, said study researcher Sinikka Elliott, a sociologist at North Carolina State University. It's just that dating might not be the refuge that it's made out to be.
"Other hookup literature hasn't often looked at dates but suggests dating is better for women," Elliott told LiveScience. "These findings suggest a more complicated picture."
No strings attached
Indeed, contrasting no-strings-attached encounters with committed relationships is not as simple as it seems. A 2007 study published in the journal The Gendered Society Reader found that 67 percent of students in a long-term relationship had started out with at least one hookup and one date before the relationship became exclusive. And the students weren't hooking up willy-nilly: 47 percent of women and 35 percent of men said they'd harbored interests in a relationship with their last hookup partner before the sex took place.
Elliott and her colleagues originally launched their experiment as a classroom exercise into the sexual double standard — the idea that promiscuous guys are "studs," while women who have sex are "sluts." They asked students to write anonymously about a hypothetical hookup situation, expecting to find harsh judgment for the woman in the scenario and a pass for the man. That's not what happened, Elliot said.
"They talked a lot about 'Girls like to get some too, you know,'" Elliott said. "We were kind of amused, because if you read the responses, it was like they were trying to educate us, like, 'Women get horny, this is how it works these days.'" [10 Facts About the Teen Brain]
Surprised by the results, the researchers analyzed the responses in-depth. A total of 273 undergraduates had read a story in which a man and a woman meet at a party, hit it off, and have "a night of wild sex." The fictional duo then goes on a dinner date the next week, which ends with a kiss, but no more sex.
In half of the stories, the hookup happens at the woman's house, and then the man asks her out for a date. In the other half, the hookup happens at the man's house, and the woman initiates the dinner date.
Next, the students, all undergraduates around the age of 19, were asked to write what happened in the situation from either the man or the woman's point of view.
Hooking up and formal dates
The students' explanations for both the man's and the woman's behavior were nuanced, sometimes echoing traditional gender stereotypes and sometimes breaking with them completely. The most common explanation for the wild hookup for both the hypothetical man and woman was for pleasure and desire. "She probably just wanted to get some," one woman wrote.
Likewise, students broke with stereotypes to point out that men want relationships, too. The most common explanation for the sexless date night — whether from a male or female perspective — was that the person was interested in a relationship and wanted to get to know their partner better.
In other cases, gender stereotypes reigned. Students were more likely to attribute the woman's sexual desire on the night of the hookup to alcohol (even though none was mentioned in the vignette) or a moment of wild spontaneity. The guy's decision to hook up was more often attributed to a "guy instinct" or premeditated plan.
"The guy is obviously a pimp player and knows how to work it with the ladies," one male respondent wrote. "It is always a guy's objective to score with a chick whenever he has the opportunity."
But it was in explaining the no-sex date where stereotypes came out in force. Of the students asked to explain the woman's behavior, 47 percent said she didn't push for sex because she was trying to salvage her reputation from the night of wild sex. In a representative passage, one female student explains that the woman probably regretted her hookup in the morning and was likely surprised when the guy asked her out on a date.
"She didn’t want to screw it up this time, so she decided they would take it slow, and that's why it ended with a kiss," the student wrote.
Only 12 percent of the students suggested that the man would need to salvage his reputation after the hookup.
In another gender split, 41 percent of the students suggested that the date had ended without sex because the man had only agreed to go on the date out of pity.
"He hit it and quit it, used her, felt pleasure, got over the infatuation and moved on," one woman wrote. In contrast, only 8 percent of students suggested that the woman had agreed to the date out of sympathy for the man.
The message, Elliott said, isn't that hooking up is better than dating, especially given research that finds that women are less sexually satisfied than men by these one-night stands. Rather, she said, the take-away is like a Facebook status message: It's complicated.
"Hookups are a pathway to a lot of college relationships," Elliott said. "A lot of hookups are repeat hookups, so the fact that our scenario presents an anonymous hookup doesn't help us to understand that."
The researchers reported their results in the October 2011 issue of the journal Gender and Society.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to indicate that some of the numbers reported were actually percentages.