COLLEGE
08/14/2013 01:47 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

College 'Hookup Culture' Isn't As Pervasive As You Might Think: Study

"Hooking up" has long been used to describe easy, sleazy college sex. From panicked media headlines to concerned studies by the American Psychological Association, the "college hookup culture" has been painted as a recent and rampant moral epidemic. But could it all come down to a simple, vernacular misunderstanding?

Martin A. Monto, a professor of sociology at the University of Portland, thinks so. Monto and his co-author Anna Carey's conducted research on the sexual habits of 1,800 college students nationwide, and their findings suggest hookup culture doesn't translate into a whirlwind of random sex.

"The alarmist concerns that 'easy sex is rampant on college campuses today’ are not justified and are largely based on cross-sectional research and misconceptions," Monto's study explains.

According to Yahoo News, the research has yet to be peer-reviewed, but if it holds up, it could debunk perception of the "college hookup culture" of one-night stands. Cue the sound of tens of thousands of American parents breathing one big sigh of relief.

Monto and Carey, who presented their findings at the 108th Annual American Sociological Association Conference on Aug. 13, analyzed and compared the sexual behaviors of college students from 2002-2010 vs. those from 1988-1996. The researchers found that sexual habits have been largely consistent over the past 25 years. When they did uncover fluctuations in sexual habits between the two groups, the stats didn't show extreme shifts.

Only 59.3 percent of students in the 2000s set reported having sex weekly, compared to 65.2 percent of their earlier counterparts.

The biggest change in sexual habits wasn't in the quantity of sex college students were having; it was who they were choosing as sexual partners. The study found that contemporary students were more likely to have had sex with a casual dates or pickups then the earlier demographic (44.4 percent in 2002-2010 vs. 34.5 percent in 1988-1996). They were also more likely to bed a friend (68.6 percent vs. 55.7 percent).

Contemporary college students were less likely, however, to have a spouse or a regular sexual partner than in earlier years (77.1 percent compared to 84.5 percent, respectively). Monto attributes much of this shift to the delayed age of marriage, which has reached a historic high for women, at approximately age 27.

It seems that shifts in college courtship haven't yielded the orgiastic bonanza so much as a trend toward fewer consistent romantic relationships. That could be symptomatic of young people's shifting priorities, including the increased number of young women who are prioritizing their careers, as found by the Pew Research Center.

"Our results provide no evidence that there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a significant liberalization of attitudes towards sex," Monto said in a statement released by the University of Portland, adding, "[T]he idea of waiting until marriage to begin sexual behavior is a less tenable narrative. ... [T]his study demonstrates that we are not in the midst of a new era of no rules attached sexuality. In fact, we found that, overall, sexual behavior among college students has remained fairly consistent over the past 25 years."

Monto also attributes some misconceptions about college sex to the haziness of the term "hookup." Not even college students seem to agree on a definition, as a study back in 2011 found. A more recent study of nearly 4,000 students from 30 universities found that casual sex is relatively rare on campus, with only 11 percent of students reporting having a casual sexual encounter in the month prior to the survey.

At the end of the day's frat party, hookup culture may not be racking up notches on dorm room bedposts the way some believe it to be. So next time you hear about college kids hooking up, remember, they might just be necking behind the library.

CONVERSATIONS