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Study Casts Skeptical Light on Campus ‘Hookup Culture’

New York—The photo depicts a young woman in bed, one bare leg exposed, under the headline: “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.” This recent story in The New York Times is the latest addition to the stack of articles and scholarly studies that examine the “hookup culture” on college campuses.

To Martin A. Monto, a professor of sociology at the University of Portland, the hookup discussion conveys a sense of moral panic—and an impression that young people are having more no-strings-attached sex than their predecessors.

A new study, which Mr. Monto will present here today at the American Sociological Association conference, challenges that picture. The paper finds “no evidence of substantial changes in sexual behavior that would support the proposition that there is a new or pervasive ‘hookup culture’ among contemporary college students.”

By comparing national survey data on two waves of young adults who had completed at least one year of college—the first wave from 1988 to 1996, and the second from 2002 to 2010—Mr. Monto found that today’s young people are not having sex more often or with more partners. They do not report having sex with more people over the past year than earlier students did. And they were substantially less likely to have sex once or more a week.

“In many generations, there’s a sense that sexual behavior is changing or becoming more liberal, or we’re in some brave new era,” Mr. Monto, a top expert on the customers of street prostitutes, says in an interview. “I was a little skeptical about that myself. Because I was alive during the ’80s, and it doesn’t seem all that different.”

What has changed, Mr. Monto argues, is the language and narrative around hooking up. From 2000 to 2006, hookup culture featured in only a handful of scholarly articles, he says. Between 2007 and 2013, it appeared in 84 articles. (The term “hookup” is ambiguous and easily sensationalized: It can refer to sex, but also to simply making out.)

Another change: Surveys show that today’s sexually active young adults are more likely to report that one of the people they had sex with over the past year was a friend or someone they hooked up with via a pickup or casual date, according to Mr. Monto’s paper, which he co-wrote with a student of his, Anna Carey. Today’s young people are also less likely to be married or to have a regular sexual partner.

The phrase “dating is dead” is an exaggeration, Mr. Monto says, but “fewer students today are dating.”

Still, while Mr. Monto framed his study as a challenge to perceptions about hookup culture, one scholar whose work has spread that term finds his results unsurprising.

Kathleen A. Bogle wrote the 2008 book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. Ms. Bogle, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University, points out that Mr. Monto’s study identifies 2002 to 2010 as the purported “hookup era” and compares students from this group with the 1988-to-1996 cohort. Yet the phrase “hooking up,” along with the behavior associated with it, “has been in place for decades,” she says in an e-mail.

“The term hooking up has been widely used on college campuses since the mid-1980s,” Ms. Bogle says. “So, it does not surprise me that there were not dramatic changes in sexual behavior between the two cohorts.”

So how much sex are contemporary students actually having?

Here are the data: Fifty-nine percent say they have sex weekly or more often, and 32 percent say they’ve had sex with more than one person over the past year.

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