While the perceived notion of U.S. college campuses is that students are having a lot of casual sex, the reality is quite different, a new study finds.
Media reports characterize the college experience by "a new and pervasive hookup culture in which students regularly have sex with no strings attached," said study co-author and Martin Monto, a sociology professor at the University of Portland.
"This implies that the college campus has become a more sexualized environment and that undergraduates are having more sex than in the past," he added. "We were surprised to find this is not the case."
Monto and his team used a nationally representative sample of more than 1,800 18- to 25-year-olds in college, taken from the General Social Survey. Then they compared responses from 1988-1996 with those from 2002-2010, an era often described by a "hookup culture," he said.
Among the 1988-1996 cohort, 65.2 percent reported having sex weekly or more often in the past year, compared to 59.3 percent of college students from the current "hookup era." Also, 31.9 percent of the earlier cohort reported having more than one sexual partner in the past year, compared with 31.6 percent of contemporary college students. Also, 51.7 percent of the earlier group reported having more than two sexual partners after turning 18, compared to 50.5 percent of the 2002-2010 cohort.
In terms of attitudes toward other sexual norms, the researchers found that contemporary university students were no more accepting than those in the earlier cohort of sex between the ages of 14 and 16, married adults having affairs, or premarital sex between adults. But contemporary college students were significantly more accepting of sex between adults of the same sex.
Monto did add, however, that sexually active students from the 2002-2010 cohort were about 10 percent more likely to report that one of their sexual partners during the past year was either a friend or a casual hookup.
Monto presented the findings on Tuesday, Aug. 13, at the American Sociological Association's 108th Annual Meeting in New York.
The study follows another from last year that found that rather than hooking up, sex in the context of romantic relationship is the norm in college. Between 7 and 18 percent of 483 respondents had hookup sex in a given month, while an average of 25 to 38 percent of respondents had sex with a romantic partner. Those findings were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.