What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Ivy League Hookup Culture

The sex lives of most college students aren't all that different from those of their parents or grandparents

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This article is about young women, college and sex. But I refuse to start with a vignette about college coeds hooking up in a frat. Or about a late-night booty text. Or about a sad senior, sitting in her dorm, reflecting on her previous four years and wondering why she did not find the love of her life, or at least a steady, if mediocre, boyfriend.

That’s the kind of intro you find in most stories about college sex life — and those stories are everywhere. Feature stories in magazines, multipage spreads in newspapers and posts on feminist blogs would have you believe that, first, only white, straight, Ivy League girls are getting laid because they’re the only ones ever quoted in these articles, and second, these girls have replaced relationships with casual sex … and it’s an epidemic.

I’m straight, white and female and have just graduated from an Ivy League school, so these trend pieces are supposedly about me. But they don’t ring true. After a year of reading them, I am exhausted by the media’s obsession with the “hookup culture.” Why, besides the obvious reasons, is this topic so irresistible? Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College who has done extensive research on the subject, explains, “The media is talking about it because we love moral panic.”

As it turns out, there’s not all that much to panic about. If you look at the data, this Ivy League hookup culture exists for only a tiny percentage of college kids. What’s more, the sex lives of most of today’s college students may not be all that different from those of their parents or grandparents at the same age.

(MORE: Looking for Love: College Students May Prefer Relationship Sex to Casual Hookups)

So let’s look at the three biggest misconceptions about college kids and sex:

1.  College students are choosing random hookups over meaningful relationships.

Well, it depends on how you define a hookup, but in general rampant casual sex is not the norm, despite what the media is saying. Stories about the college hookup culture are so ubiquitous that a recent story in the New York Times made this sweeping statement:

It is by now pretty well understood that traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by “hooking up” — an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse — without the emotional entanglement of a relationship.

But according to the survey quoted in that same Times article, 20% of female students and 25% of male students have “hooked up” with 10 or more people. That sounds like a lot. But wait — 10 or more people over the course of four years in college? That’s only two to three partners per year. Moreover, the definition of hookup spanned from kissing to intercourse. Of those women and men who had hooked up with 10 or more people, only 40% of those instances involved sex.

Crunching the numbers, that means that only 8% of college women who responded to this survey had sex with 10 or more men who they were not dating over the course of four years.

Yes, dance floor make-outs (fondly dubbed DFMOs) and casual sex do happen on campuses. But the hookup culture is far from standard practice. Thanks to all the media hype, students themselves vastly overestimate how much hooking up is going on at their school. A study at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln found that 90% of college students thought their peers were hooking up two or more times per school year, when in reality only 37% of students reported doing so.

2. Most Ivy League girls are too busy and ambitious for relationships.

Nearly every article about hookup culture I’ve read this year has surrounded the Ivies. Hanna Rosin asserted in the Atlantic that the demands of the modern world have left women at these elite institutions with no time for boyfriends, so they are opting out of relationships and into hookups.

One of the girls Rosin interviewed, Raisa Bruner (called by the pseudonym Tali in the article), who graduated from Yale with me in May, was dissatisfied with the conclusions of Rosin’s piece and decided to find out if Yalies were really dismissing relationships for hookups. She wrote in the Yale Daily News:

In a survey I conducted of over 100 Yale students, almost all of the single respondents, ambition be damned, said they were currently seeking a relationship involving dating, commitment or, at the very least, monogamous sex.

I know a number of very successful women — women who are now students at top med schools, analysts at the State Department or Rhodes scholars — who found the time while at Yale to maintain serious relationships with equally as busy boys (or girls). I know many other women who left Yale wishing they had had a relationship in college.

And while I can’t say the sex lives of Yalies represents all college students or even those in the Ivy League, the data from the school about sex is a good reality check. In 2010, the Yale Daily News conducted a sex survey on campus and found that only 64.3% of students had had sexual intercourse over the course of their Yale career. The median Yale student had had only two sexual partners by the time he or she graduated. Promiscuity is not the norm. Not even for men (whom we never hear from in these articles for some reason): 30.5% of Yale men had never had intercourse. Plenty of students are forgoing sex entirely, limiting their sexual partners or engaging in exclusive relationships.

 3. The so-called hookup generation represents a radical break from the past.

While everyone’s decrying the end of traditional sexual relationships, it might be worthwhile to take a look at what sex and relationships looked like before this “hookup boom.”

A 1967 study by the Institute for Sex Research consisting of 1,177 undergraduate students from 12 colleges found that 68% of the men and 44% of the women reported having engaged in premarital sex. Not “hookups.” Sex. Compare that with Yale’s current 64.3%. In another study, researchers at Western State University interviewed 92 male students and 113 female students annually from 1969 to 1972 and found that during their freshman year, 46% of the men and 51% of the women reported having had premarital sex. By senior year, the figures were 82% for men and 85% for women.

True, we don’t have cold, hard data from that era about how many people these students were having sex with. “But there’s always been casual sex on college campuses,” says Wade. “That’s been true since before women were there.” And that’s to say nothing of make-out sessions, a hookup staple these days.

(MORE: Does College Put Kids on a “Party Pathway”?)

Some things have changed with technology. Booty calls are simpler: texting or g-chatting or Facebook messaging a boy to come over for casual sex is a lot easier — and probably a lot less awkward — than calling that boy on a landline to request the same. It’s quick, it’s impersonal, it’s easy.

But what’s really changed dramatically is not what women want or how much sex they’re having; that’s about the same. It’s the amount that we talk about sex and the way we talk about it. Whether it’s Lena Dunham stripping on HBO, students debating whether hookups are sexist or feminist in college newspapers, or magazine writers coming up with trend pieces about society’s moral decline, we are making a topic that was conversationally taboo a few decades ago central to our concerns about the moral decline of the nation.

It’s not a new trend. It’s just a new conversation.

Eliana Dockterman is a recent graduate of Yale University and a reporter for TIME. The views expressed are solely her own. 

104 comments
jimmyjimmyjimmy111
jimmyjimmyjimmy111

85 comments on some article about hook ups. 2 comments about some article on Syria. Yup. America is going down the toilet. 

AliceZindagi
AliceZindagi

It's interesting that you keep referring to the Ivy League when, let's face it, that's a minority of college students. Do I think that the college hookup culture is as bad as the media portrays it? No. But let's just say it wasn't uncommon for me to find condoms in the bushes on the way to class. People hook up. People have sex. What's so wrong with that? Maybe not everyone is ready for a serious, long-term relationship when they're in college, and there's nothing wrong with that:


http://www.abcsofattraction.com/blog/are-you-ready-for-a-serious-long-term-relationship/

Janette
Janette

Eliana, you sound mighty hostile there, girlie. You know, I've heard hostility is a sign of sexual frustration. Just thought I'd throw that out there for ya.

Anyway, behaviour doesn't really change all that much from one generation to the next, only the catch words and phrases for said behaviour change.

One last thing because I know you are very busy; but if you can squeeze out any spare time, try working on that hostility thing of yours.

Xerxes622
Xerxes622

@Janette I think you are projecting.  Between your post and Eliana's article, the person who seems the most hostile is you. I cant see ANYTHING hostile about her article.  But accusing someone of being hostile when they aren't, such as you are doing, is a somewhat hostile act.  Try working on that.

Irishwhistler
Irishwhistler

It isn’t news that today’s sexual behavior is close to what was happening in the late 60’s. The Pill, and the sexual revolution that went with it, had been around for years already. However, the comparison does offer a good look at the result of the continued “hook-up” culture: since the 60s, marriage has declined by a 1/3 and divorce has doubled. For students who are looking for a permanent relationship, there’s an old saying: “Why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?” For many men, there’s little incentive for a man to marry a woman when she’s already having sex with him.

rohit57
rohit57

If you went to an Ivy league school then you should know that the word "media" is plural and not singular.  It is the plural of medium.  TV, radio, newspapers are each a medium.  Together they are the media.

anti-government
anti-government

Here's yet another "story" designed to keep us from focusing on the real problems facing the American people.

College kids like sex. They are just discovering their bodies and have fun with each other. So what? College students in every generation have liked sex and out of touch oldsters have been complaining about it for centuries.

SwalloManimbo
SwalloManimbo

Oh. So putting-out in college was a bad thing?  I'm so confused...

bobbyjfromtheuk
bobbyjfromtheuk

1.  College students are choosing random hookups over meaningful relationships

REALLY??? In other news, a bear sh!t$ in the woods.

chris1jt
chris1jt

Ah wow... How do the so-called sexual "realities" at an Ivy League school have anything to do with sexual habits of all U.S. college students in general. Please tell me Eliana understands the true meaning of a "party school." Tell your friend to take her super-scientific 100-person polls there and see what kind of results she gets.

This narrow-minded article carries all the symptoms of mother-in-law syndrome.

anti-government
anti-government

@chris1jt ALL normal college kids like sex. There's nothing wrong with sex, at Yale or at South Dakota State College. Kids like sex at both places and many of them everywhere will experiment with different sexual partners. So what?

Oldsters have been complaining about sex on campus for centuries. Why not focus on a real problem, such as the increasing concentration of real wealth into fewer and fewer hands, the decline of the middle class, the continuing problems of Americans with disabilities, our militaristic posturing all over the world, and the other problems we prefer to ignore? Oh, I forgot, the powers that be don't want us to focus on real issues.

NathanR.Kelly
NathanR.Kelly

"A 1967 study by the Institute for Sex Research consisting of 1,177 undergraduate students from 12 colleges found that 68% of the men and 44% of the women reported having engaged in premarital sex."

Am I the only one who thinks these numbers are odd?

anti-government
anti-government

@NathanR.Kelly They are too low because so many people are afraid of sex and therefore lie about it.

If you mean is it odd that the % for men and women is different, it's because some people have multiple partners.

eagle11772
eagle11772

And what about all the LGBT college students ?

Stevie_Vargas
Stevie_Vargas

Hmm. I think you are looking at this from your own narrow view. I am a college student that attends a private Catholic University and I often visit my friends at their Universities such as UB, R.I.T, U ofookup  R, Fischer, UCF, UF and many more and I can tell you that the hookup culture is very real and noticed it way before the media started talking about it. Times have changed and now that women aren't attending college merely to find a husband and settle down are more inclined to a hookups or FWB. We are all human and have the urge to have sex, but we now want to do it without making any commitments  and to focus on our studies. It is the best of both worlds. I'm not saying that everyone engages in it or that it doesn't get messy from time to time with people developing attachments, but it is becoming more frequent  and more acceptable. 

Bhhutch88
Bhhutch88

There has always been plenty of sex to go around!  Go talk to your Grandmother about how things went before WW2, or your mom about how many partners she actually had???  Has the attitude about having sex, and talking about sex changed... yes!  Are girls as worried about having sex in this abortion rich and easy culture...NO!  But from my side of the aisle (the Guy)  I think its a big scam that someone sold women...  I mean now you can get casual oral sex, as a substitute for "real sex" from a casual partner????  Or a girl who likes you will send a topless pic or more on her smart phone, just for the fun of it???  Or a girl you hardly know might just "make out with you on the dance floor"  All the way to third base, (showing my age here)  and then never even become a real friend???  It may not be as bad as the mags say, but the fact that we hear it at all, says a lot about how things about sex have changed.  I mean your Grandmother never did those things casually, even though she probably had sex before she got married!  But I guess these dudes today just have it a little better than we old timers did.  But I'm not sure thats a good thing???

ahduth
ahduth

@Bhhutch88 It is a good thing, a very good thing.  While the risk of STDs is of course rather real, if you want to have all variety of sex, it's pretty much open season.  Of course I went to NYU, not Yale, so I'm assuming people having sex in the Ivy League is more newsworthy.  It being a weird combination George Bush-types and geeky gunners, after all.  The amount of sex people were having at NYU was... well I'm from the midwest, and I found it (ahem) exciting.

All in all, a culture where the church has been defanged and both women and men feel free to explore life and enjoy it, is good stuff.

anti-government
anti-government

@Bhhutch88 It's a good thing to demystify sex. which is a natural body function. Sex to have fun is perfectly natural because, after all, sex is lots of fun for most people. Mature people having sex often seek deeper relationships and that too is good. There's no right or wrong way to approach sex or life. It's all what you like and what works for you. Don't be preachy since you don't have any idea what is right or wrong for another person.

jcbbn
jcbbn

When will the media start doing stories on involuntary celibacy?

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I don't get the point of the article.  Is the author trying to say the "hookup culture" doesn't exist because she wasn't part of it?  Seems to me I know the Goth culture exists, but I'm not part of that.  She seems to want to paint the world through her own narrow perspective by writing about something in which she didn't necessarily participate.  Or did she?  What does "hook-up" REALLY mean in today's techy world?

She's talking about intercourse in ALL of her citations - who's a virgin and who isn't.  Hook-ups aren't necessarily "intercourse".  A BJ or HJ IS sex, but they aren't intercourse.  Sexting is masturbation material - no intercourse.  No touching, either.  Sex chat - same as sexting.

It's ALL SEX and with the ubiquitous nature of tech today, it's happening a hell of a lot more than the numbers she provided could possibly indicate.  Yeah, maybe someone only averages one or two REAL stick-it-in, "virgin no more", intercourse partners in a four year college experience.  But you can bet that's not the only time they got their rocks off.  Kids don't see BJ's and HJ's and DFMO's and sexting as SEX - especially the kind of sex the bible thumpers seem to have the biggest issues with.  So naturally, her numbers are reflective of a reality that didn't exist when those studies were done.

Speaking of citations, her personal experiences don't a statistical universe make.  Her "I know many women..." quote is an example of living in a shell that doesn't include the universe about which one is writing.  She was never part of the "hook-up" culture.  I could try writing about the Goth culture with similar effect.  I know a lot of people who don't do Goth.  Practically everyone I know, in fact.  But the fact is that Goth is big in many circles.  The author seems to think she didn't run with the "hook-up" culture because she didn't see a lot of people spreading their legs.  But they had cell phones for phone sex, sexting and sex chat.

Care to take bets she never thought of those as sex?

Goth and vampires and werewolves are all big things these days (Personally, I'm sick to death of them).  Zombies and Steampunk seem to be waiting in the wings for their go at pop culture.  Hook-ups are what kids do today - but the author fails to see the whole picture.  Is sex more prevalent?  Damn straight it is.  You couldn't text someone with a sexual message to get them off fifteen years ago the way you can today.  You couldn't snap a picture of your privates and send it to someone else to enjoy in a sexual way the way you can today.  Promiscuity is in the eye of the beholder.  Sex doesn't necessarily mean touching - at least in some circles.  The availability of a sexual (of some kind) encounter is rampant today - thanks to technology.  No condoms.  No need to worry about VD or pregnancy.  But you can bet people are getting off a lot more today than they were back in the day simply because we have the technology today to do more things sexually with another person than we had then.  Maybe the actual act of vaginal penetrating sex isn't any greater than it was back in the day.

But you can bet a lot more chickens are getting choked (male and female), thanks to a form of personal interaction that didn't exist in the 1980's, than ever before.  

THAT'S the "hook-up" culture today.  I guess she didn't get that memo...

millerm277
millerm277

No, you're just buying into the media "moral panic". College students today have the same definitions of sex, cheating, and everything else as people had 40 years ago too. 

The author cited a number of reasonably reliable statistics to make their point. You've just made a bunch of unfounded conjecture about an age group you clearly aren't a part of.

Sure, people can send sexual messages to each other easily. On the other hand, sending images to someone you don't trust is a great way to have them sent all over the place and posted on the internet forever. Hence, it's only a very small % of people who would consider doing something like that outside of an existing sexual relationship.

flipperz9999
flipperz9999

Oh GOD FORBID we have a "hookup" culture and young attractive college kids actually have fun having sex.  No we should stay old and stodgy and subscribe to Victorian era ideals that brought us such wonderful cultural traits as repressed sexual dysfunction and a 50% divorce rate.

greyngold
greyngold

@Lego.my.eggo What the hell are you talking about?


OK...never mind...not even going to bother feeding you, you moronic troll. Literally not a thing you said here makes sense, has any semblance of grounding in reality, is constructive, and was not hypocitical (how does it feel on that soap box of yours, criticizing the author for discussing a valid and constructive social issue, acting superior while criticizing your perception that she was such?)

silvidi2
silvidi2

@Lego.my.eggo @greyngold Lego, yes your post is more coherent, but it's also mostly inaccurate, rude and a little shallow. I don't think it would make any sense that she was molested as a child and someone who is happy could have wrote this. Usually when someone scoffs at people presenting their vulnerabilities through honest accounts it usually means they're regularly suppressing their own feelings because they're scared of what they might uncovered (i.e. your a homosexual)

postgradlife
postgradlife

@Lego.my.eggo @Lego.my.eggo This is ridiculously judgmental and wrongfully so. Who are you to say these things about Ivy League girls? Engaging in ad hominem, about someone you don't know at all for that matter, is a low blow, and this is a terrible attempt at it. Please take your tastelessness somewhere else.