Young adults have casual sex— but compared with their parents and grandparents, LESS.
Since around 2000, young adult college students have stopped dating. Instead, they connect through app-enabled “hook-ups,” some of which become sexual. Researchers have published tons of studies on hook-up culture. Researchers work at colleges. Students are handy subjects. And older adults have always felt fascinated—and threatened—by young adult sexuality.
Recently, sociologists at Clemson University conducted the largest, most inclusive study of hook-ups ever published. The findings break some new ground—hetero and LGBT+ hook-ups are a little different.
Meanwhile, most hook-up research has ignored a key demographic trend. Compared with their parents and grandparents, this generation of young adults is significantly less sexual and considerably more likely to be celibate.
The Largest Study Ever
The Clemson investigators mined the Online College Social Life Survey for data on 10,141 students at 22 U.S. colleges and universities. The huge number of participants lends credibility to the study’s findings. Two-thirds of the participants were women, one-third men (non-binary students were not specified). About one-quarter of respondents were in each year of college, first through fourth. Two-thirds were White, 10 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Black, and 5 percent other. A reasonably representative sample.
The results confirm many previous findings:
• “Hooking up” is a 21st century phenomenon, but aside from connecting through apps, it looks a lot like dating.
• Two-thirds of the heterosexual students reported having hooked-up, 55 percent of LGBT+ students. But not regularly. Most hooked up only a few times a year, just 7 percent weekly or more.
• Compared with other students, campus celebrities hooked up more, notably male athletes.
• Residents of fraternity and sorority houses hooked up more than students in other housing. Greek houses host large parties where alcohol flows. Hooking up is less popular at commuter schools. Commuters spend less time on campus, and meet fewer prospective partners.
• Around 10 percent of reported hook-ups were one-night stands— e.g., spring-break flings. Most involved partners who were acquaintances or friends. They socialized, drank, and one thing led to another.
• Two-thirds of hook-up partners consumed alcohol. Some became blotto. That’s not surprising. In all age groups, sex and alcohol go hand in hand. Alcohol encourages “yes” to sexual invitations.
• “Hooking up” conjures hook-and-eye locks, with the hook slipping into the eye. This suggests intercourse. But only around one-quarter of hetero and lesbian hook-ups involve intercourse or oral sex. Kissing is much more likely (98 percent), with fondling of breasts or genitals fairly common (50 percent). When hook-ups involve oral sex, women provide fellatio considerably more often than men provide cunnilingus. Among gay men, two-thirds of hook-ups involve oral or anal intercourse.
• Pundits have worried that hook-up culture has reduced young adults’ interest in long-term relationships. Actually, while only a small proportion of hook-ups lead to long-term relationships, most young adults who hook up are very interested in committed relationships—eventually—and assess hook-up partners for their long-term potential.
• Young people of all religions hook up, but as religious observance increases, hooking up decreases.
• Critics charge that after heterosexual hook-ups, the men lose respect for the women. Some studies have reported this, but most find that three-quarters of all genders consider hook-ups carefree fun uncomplicated by issues of respect.
• Feminist critics contend that hook-ups are a way for young men to enjoy themselves at the expense of young women, who prefer sex as part of relationships. While women are slightly more likely than men to report hook-up regrets (14 percent vs. 11 percent), studies agree that the considerable majority of all genders rate their hook-ups as sexually and emotionally satisfying. In the new study, half did. Why not a clear majority? Evidently because the new report included more non-whites and less privileged whites—see below.
• The best predictors of hooking up with the same person again? Familiarity and mutual enjoyment.
In addition, the new study includes some findings that have not been previously reported:
• Hook-up frequency depends on students’—especially women’s—academic year. It peaks in year two, and then declines. First- and second-year students want to shed virginity and gain sexual experience. Hook-ups work well for that. But by year three, many students—especially women—become increasingly interested in committed relationships, and hook up less.
• Most hook-ups involve acquaintances or friends. Compared with straight hook-up partners, lesbians tended to be better acquainted. Young gay men were the group most likely to hook up with strangers.
• College students of all races hook up, but it’s most popular among whites at elite universities who envision attending graduate school. They view committed relationships as distracting from their professional goals. They consider hooking-up a good way to have an active social life while avoiding “catching feelings” for a special someone, whose needs might threaten their pursuit of advanced degrees.
• Hooking up is less popular at schools with students from non-white, less privileged backgrounds. After graduation, most want jobs, not more school. Compared with students at elite institutions, they are more interested in finding long-term mates as undergraduates.
• The large majority of hook-ups involve people of the same race. Except for students at traditionally Black colleges, non-whites represent a minority of students on most campuses. They have smaller pools of same-race students to choose from for any hook-ups. Consequently, minority students, particularly Black young adults, say they find hook-up culture less attractive.
What Hook-Up Studies Have Ignored
Meanwhile, there’s more—actually less—to young adult sex than hooking up. Recent research shows that since 2000, in all age groups, partner sex has declined, and celibacy—no partner sex at all—has surged.
Increased celibacy has become particularly evident among American men age 18 to 24. Almost one-third report no partner sex during the previous year. This is a major change. From 2000 to 2002, one in five men (19 percent) were celibate. From 2016 to 2018, celibacy increased to 31 percent—and this was pre-pandemic. For reasons why, see my previous post.
In addition, Americans are marrying later. In 1960, median age at first marriage was 21 for women, 23 for men. Today, it’s 28 and 31 respectively—around seven additional years of singlehood. In 1960, age at first marriage roughly coincided with the college years. Those young people dated during high school, and got serious about marriage in college. They engaged in casual sex, but not for long. Today, young people don’t get serious about marriage until they’re around 30—meaning many more years of hooking up, many more years of casual sex before marriage. Far from destroying interest in committed relationships, hook-ups are a way to have a social life during all the additional years before today’s young people get serious about marrying.
Cultural commentators and the news media have generally focused on—and fretted about—the technology of hood-ups, how they depend on cell phones and various apps, for example, Tinder. The deeper truth is that hook-ups reflect an extended sexual adolescence, an average of seven additional pre-marital years of youthful singlehood during which many young people are celibate while many others experiment with short-term pairings.