April 20, 2010

Tough Crowd? College Students’ Attitudes Toward Casual Sex

Some young people and scholars have begun celebrating the emergence of the new "hook up" culture. A new study indicates these celebrations may be premature.

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Some young people and scholars have begun celebrating the emergence of the new “hook up” culture.  But, the celebrations may be premature, considering the findings of a recent study on college students’ attitudes toward casual sex.

Casual Sex And “Hooking Up”

For a long time now, casual sex, or sex that occurs outside of a long-term relationship, has been a concern, primarily in terms of sexual health.  The rationale has been that individuals who have many sexual partners may be putting themselves at higher risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other undesirable consequences of sex (e.g., unintended pregnancy, sexual assault, decreased self-esteem).  As the United States has become more open about sex and sexuality in the past few decades, more people seem to be open to casual sex, especially the generation of young adults today (age 18-30).  Specifically, among college students, a new phenomenon of casual sex, called hooking up, has been said to have replaced the traditional dating patterns of past generations of college students.

What’s Wrong With Hooking Up?

New research has challenged the notion of negative consequences of casual sex and hooking up.  For the most part, as long as people are practicing safe sex strategies and maintaining open communication with their sexual partners, there seem to be few red flags to raise about hooking up.  Or, few that have not already been raised about relationships and sex in general.  For example, a few researchers who have investigated the new culture of hooking up have found that heterosexual hookups often focus on men’s sexual pleasure and orgasm.  What is called the “orgasm gap” highlights that women are less likely to achieve orgasm through hookups and many hookups are simply instances of a woman performing oral sex on a man, but not the reverse.

New Concerns About Hooking Up

One of the reasons many have so quickly celebrated the openness to hooking up is the potential for women to freely enjoy their sexualities without facing a stricter standard than men – the sexual double standard.  While there is greater openness to hooking up, at least judging by young adults’ own hooking up practices, it seems the sexual double standard has changed but not disappeared.  The preliminary findings of the online College Social Life Survey have revealed that women and men who have many sexual partners are judged harshly by young adults:

A majority of college men still judge their female colleagues more harshly than they do fellow male classmates for the same sexual behavior: 63% of men say they lose respect for women who hook up frequently, and only 41% say they feel the same way about men who engage in the same behavior. But the majority of women hold a reverse double standard, assessing men’s casual sexual behavior more harshly then other women’s. More than 70% say they lose respect for men who engage in casual sex, while less than 60% lose respect for other women.

The researchers, Rachel Allison and Barbara Risman, are still collecting findings for their survey online.  (You can take the survey here.)  I assume that they will published their findings when the project concludes in the near future.