College Sex: Yes at Parties, No on First Dates

intimate couple
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NEW YORK — Among college students, hooking up at a raucous party is acceptable, but having sex on the first date is still taboo, a new study suggests.

In the study, nearly 300 college students were asked to explain the behavior of the individuals in the following scenario: a man and a woman meet at a party, and have sex that night. Later, they go on a date, which ends with just a kiss.

Although the question was open-ended, many students gave similar answers, the researchers said. They said it was normal or acceptable to have sex at a party, but not on a first date, even if the couple had previously hooked up and had sex. [See 50 Sultry Facts About Sex]

Students saw the two settings (party versus date) as drastically different, each having their own rules and purposes. About a fifth of the students said that the setting itself was the cause of the hookup or the sexless date. They tended not to mention factors like personality, gender or values when explaining the behavior, the researchers said.

"Our findings suggest that different behavior by the exact same people is really based on the context or the situation…not necessarily just the person, who they are, their values or their desires," said study researcher Gretchen Webber, a sociologist and associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University. "It really shows the dominance of the setting for directing people’s behavior," Webber said.

Many students in the study said that the goal at parties is to have fun, while the goal on dates is to get to know the other person.

Students often assumed drinking influenced the situation. About 40 percent said that alcohol would have been present at the party. In contrast, "A lot of students said the date wouldn’t involve alcohol," said study researcher Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University's department of sociology & anthropology. To students, "Dates suggest interest in a relationship, and involve activities like talking and getting to know one another, which require sobriety," Elliott said.

Some said that having sex on the first date would reflect badly on the people involved, particularly the woman.

Despite concerns about increases in college hookups, the new findings suggest that such a rise does not signal the demise of traditional relationships.

Many students mentioned traditional norms regarding the first date, for instance, one student wrote that at the end of the date "the two only kiss because traditionally a first date ends innocently."

"Even though people are saying, 'today it's totally different,'" the dating scene has a lot of the same, traditional rules it has always had, said study researcher Julie Reid, an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Because the study involved students at one university, the findings may not generalize to the college population as a whole.

The study was presented here Monday at the American Sociology Association’s annual meeting.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.