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College Hookup Culture: Myth or Reality?

Feb. 21, 2011
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On Valentine's Day, the Tool Shed participated in a Sextival at UW-Milwaukee organized by Planned Parenthood and Advocates for Choice (A4C). In addition to helping A4C distribute safer sex supplies, we collected questions for SEXpress.

One anonymous Sextival-goer asked, "Why does it seem that most college students aren't hooking up?"

There has been a lot of hype over the past few years about the "college hookup culture." Neoconservative writer Laura Sessions Stepp published her book Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both in 2007, followed shortly by Kathleen Bogle's somewhat more balanced Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus in 2008. Just last year, Denice Ann Evans produced the filmSpitting Game: The College Hook-Up Culture, evidence that our fascination with this topic shows no signs of slowing.

However, national pop-culture trends may or may not manifest themselves at any particular college. Each school has its own culture, and within that culture, certain behaviors may be perceived as "normal" or as something "everyone's doing" when this is actually far from the truth. The question above may have been asked by someone who heard the hype about college hookups, came to UWM expecting to see lots of people hooking up, and either isn't seeing much of this particular behavior in his or her social circle or isn't seeing it at UWM in general.

When I lead workshops at colleges about hooking up, one of the first things that we do is try to define the term. While students sometimes, but not always, agree that some type of sexual activity is involved, beyond that it gets fuzzy. Some people define hooking up as "everything but" vaginal or anal sex; others include penetrative sex as part of hooking up. Students generally agree that you would not say that you "hooked up" with a serious boyfriend or girlfriend, but outside of this type of relationship, anyone could potentially be a hookup partner, from someone you just met to an old friend to someone with whom you have an ongoing sexual, but not romantic, relationship.

Twice a year, the American College Health Association (ACHA) works with universities across the country to collect anonymous survey data about students' health-related behaviors. In the Spring 2010 ACHA National College Health Assessment, about 52% of survey respondents say that they are in a relationship. In the same survey, about 50% of respondents say that they have had vaginal sex within the past 30 days, 45% say they've had oral sex in the past 30 days, and about 5% say that they have had anal sex in the past 30 days. While data doesn't tell us everything, the number of students who say that they're having some type of sex is not vastly different from the number who say that they're in a relationship. Some students in relationships are not having sex, of course, and some who are not in relationships are. But at first glance, these data don't seem to support the theory that there's a huge amount of extra-relationship sex going on.

So if you don't see other students at your school hooking up, it could be because you define "hooking up" differently than they do. It could be because students in general are not having as much sex as our culture leads us to believe. Or it could be because your particular campus has its own culture that is not particularly hookup heavy.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to
laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the
Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.


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