The Truth About College Students and Casual Sex Revealed

young happy couple
Contrary to popular belief, researchers have now found today's college students do not have more frequent sex or more sexual partners than undergraduates in previous eras. (Image credit: Petrenko Andriy | Shutterstock)

NEW YORK — Contrary to popular belief, college students today aren't "hooking up" any more than in the past, a new study finds.

Recent studies and popular media have painted a picture of an increasingly prevalent hookup culture on college campuses. But researchers have now found today's college students do not have more frequent sex or more sexual partners than undergraduates in previous eras.

"We're questioning whether college students today live in a culture that features lots of no-strings-attached, casual sex, and the general perception that college students today have more liberal attitudes toward sexuality," said study researcher Martin Monto, a sociologist at the University of Portland. Monto presented the work here today (Aug. 13) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. [The Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos and Bizarre Facts]

Tally your sexual partners

The study was based on a nationally representative sample from a survey of more than 1,800 people ages 18 to 25, who had graduated from high school and completed at least one year of college. The survey included questions, such as how many sexual partners a person had since age 18, how many sexual partners per year and how often they had sex. Monto and a colleague compared survey responses from 2002-2010 to those from 1988-1996.

They found that students nowadays don't have sex more often and don't have more partners than in the previous time period. Of the students from 2002-2010, 59.3 percent reported having sex at least once a week, compared with 65.2 percent of students from 1988-1996 (the drop in rate here was not significant from a statistical perspective).

And 31.6 percent of the modern group reported having more than one sexual partner in the past year, compared with 31.9 percent of the other group surveyed. For both groups, about 50 percent reported having more than two sexual partners since they turned 18.

What 'hooking up' means

So why the perception of a hookup culture on today's college campuses?

One possibility, Monto said, is that narratives about dating culture have changed. "The term 'hooking up' is widely used today and it wasn't as widely used in the past," Monto told LiveScience. The term "hooking up" is also ambiguous — it can be used to just mean making out, but these distinctions are sometimes lost in the media, he said.

Furthermore, college students today don't necessarily think of sexual partners as potential marriage partners, Monto said. Sexually active college students of today were more likely to report that one of their sexual partners in the past year was a casual date or pickup — and less likely to report having a spouse or regular sexual partner — compared with students in the previous era.

Attitudes toward other sexual norms have not changed much either. Today's students were no more accepting than their older peers of sexual activity between ages 14 and 16, extramarital sex or premarital sex. One difference was that students today were more accepting of sex between same-sex adults.

But on the whole, contemporary students do not live in a more sexualized culture than before, Monto said.

The research was submitted to a scientific journal but has not yet been published.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.