Generational gap complicates stats for ‘hooking up’

Mary Lingwall

“The low percentage of students actually having one-night stands may dispel the perception that most college students are routinely having casual sex,” said Jefferson Singer, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, in a news brief released last Monday on the findings of his study on casual sex and college students.

This came as a bit of a surprise to me. It seems that everywhere I look, people are trying to convince me of all the wild, casual sex occurring on college campuses. I’m learning that this is really only because talking heads take every opportunity to reinforce the idea that casual sex is happening in epic proportions on college campuses, not because anything is actually changing regarding the sexual behaviors of young people.

“Guys are less likely to spend their emotional resources when the real transaction cost of sex is plummeting or has hit rock bottom,” wrote Susan Walsh, author of the blog “Hooking Up Smart,” in a March 2009 post on the “relationship recession.”

“They take each day as it comes, seeking short-term gratification in the form of casual hookups,” she added.

But there are pieces of Walsh’s statement that are often accepted as fact but need to be examined further.

First of all, how do we define “casual sex” or “hooking up”? These words refer to a variety of actions and attitudes. The vagueness of their meaning is further obfuscated by the generational gap between those who actively participate in the discourse on casual sex, hooking up and college culture and the actual college students they are talking about.

As verified by my 56-year-old mother, for generations past, “casual sex” has carried the connotation of a one-night stand, and usually an anonymous one. But in contemporary sexual nomenclature, “casual” has taken on more and more nuanced meanings.

After speaking with students and friends, I learned that casual sexual relationships can apparently mean anything from acquaintances who call each other when the bars close to two people who have mutually decided relationships don’t fit in their lives right now but still want to have sex.

By and large, the main facets of a casual sexual relationship seem not to be the relationship’s short-term duration or even lack of emotion, as Walsh would have us believe. For most of the people I talked to, the determiner was the expressed mutual choice to not commit to an official relationship.

“Sex is casual when you aren’t sure that it is going to happen again,” a friend of mine reminded me. “But that doesn’t mean that the sex is going to be bad or emotionless.”

More importantly, the undercurrent of Walsh’s (and others’) arguments against casual sex among college students is based on the assumption that casual sex necessarily correlates with promiscuity or multiple sexual partners.

But the statistics for college sex show a different story. In the course of an average school year, 46.7 percent of UT students reported having intercourse (vaginal, anal or oral) with a single partner, according to the 2008 (the latest available) National College Health Assessment data for UT. Just 11.1 percent of students reported having intercourse with two partners, and only 1.9 percent reported having intercourse with five or more partners.

In stark contrast to these statistics is the myth that students are engaging in a steady stream of casual sexual encounters.

According to a 2001 study by the Institute for American Values, a “nonpartisan” think tank dedicated to the “renewal of marriage,” 91 percent of students report that hooking up is very common or fairly common on their campuses. The study is cited on Walsh’s blog in an effort to create a visceral image of how pervasive “hooking up” is in college.

But continually, self-reporting of sexual activity among college students about their actual behaviors — like that found in the college health data — contradicts the prophesying done by older people.

The numbers of casual sexual encounters aside, gendered expectations regarding casual sex is the crux of Walsh’s argument against hooking up. What has always bothered me about this argument is that it adopts the popular trope that women use sex to get relationships and that casual sex inherently entails a woman’s broken heart.

This simply is not true. Not only does each woman have distinct desires, she has the ability to avoid these kinds of relationships if she decides she doesn’t want to participate.

For some college-aged women, casual sex is not the preferred kind of sexual relationship. Zoja, a recent UT graduate, uses common-sense emotional risk assessment to avoid the potential hurt feelings that come from the fleeting nature of casual sex.

“I’ve always wished I could have casual sex, no strings,” Zoja said. “But if I’m [having sex with] someone that I actually like … then I probably like them on a level beyond just [sex].”

Even more contrary to the popular ideology that women are the only casualties in the casual-sex arena, men are not devoid of the desire for a long-term, committed relationship.

“I have thought something was mutually exclusive only to find out that it wasn’t,” said David, an architecture junior. “I’ve realized that if I’m not outspoken about [what I want], then it is usually taken for granted that I only care about [sex].”

Casual sex happens, with varying frequency and in different groups. The economic model of sexuality, where the availability of casual sex disrupts the relationship market, may very well be true for some of our campuses’ subcultures.

However, the acceptance of the idea that men are only interested in the “cheapest” form of vagina and that women will go to any means necessary to get a boyfriend are a little too outdated. It seems that both men and women who participate in regularly occurring casual sex understand what that kind of relationship means. And even more importantly, the people — both male and female — who do want a relationship still want one, no matter how “cheap” sex is.

So even if Susan Walsh thinks the “cost of sex is plummeting,” I think there is quite a bit more going on in sexual relationships between college students today. Because, as much as some old folks would hate to believe, we are people, too.