More college 'hookups,' but more virgins, too
It wasn't until the second semester of her senior year at Fordham University in New York that Kathleen Adams had a college boyfriend.
Kirsten Ellermann and Ryan Fitz attend Iowa State university and have been dating for over a year. Ellermann says hooking up is very common among those who are single and not in a relationship.
"You just don't date at colleges," says Adams, 23, now a Fordham graduate student in urban studies.
But there's no shortage of casual sex on campus, she says — in part because Fordham, like many colleges, has significantly more women than men. Adams says that means guys have the upper hand when it comes to intimacy.
"It's kind of like a competition," she says. "The guys have their choice of whoever they want. So they think, 'Why would I date?' "
The relationship game among college-aged adults today is a muddle of seemingly contradictory trends. Recent studies indicate that traditional dating on campuses has taken a back seat to no-strings relationships in which bonds between young men and women are increasingly brief and sexual. (A new website to arrange these encounters that began at the University of Chicago last month now is expanding to other campuses.)
But even as casual sex — often called "hookups" or "friends with benefits" — is a dominant part of campus life, a new report by the National Center for Health Statistics indicates the percentages of men and women 18-24 who say they are virgins also are increasing.
It all reflects an emerging paradigm that is altering the nature of sex and relationships among young adults: fewer men than women on campuses; a more openly sexual society that often takes cues from media, and a declining desire to make relationship commitments early in life.
Adams' experience is the reality for many of today's college students, says Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin.
His research suggests that the higher proportion of women on campuses has contributed to the ascent of the hookup culture. Overall, women made up more than 56% of the college population in 2009, according to the recent Census data on enrollments; more women are found on many campuses that serve both sexes.
"The women wind up competing with each other for access to the men, and often, that means relationships become sexual quicker," says Regnerus, co-author of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, released earlier this year. It is based on an analysis of four national studies representing a total of 25,000 young people ages 18-23 and more than 200 additional interviews.
"Men don't have to work as hard as they used to, to woo a woman," he says. "I've talked to various interviewees who had never been on a date, which doesn't really make sense, given they're pretty attractive. It's just that less seems to be required to be in the company of a woman."
Justin Garcia, a State University of New York doctoral fellow at Binghamton (N.Y.) University who conducts research on hookups, says this general lack of dating means many young adults don't even know how to get a relationship started.
"For the majority of students, they're not going to dinner and a movie unless they've hooked up with someone. Some physical interaction comes before the dating," he says. Often, "dates happen after a relationship, rather than before."
Many young people are eschewing relationships as too much hassle, especially when they plan to study abroad, leave town for internships or go to graduate school, says sociologist Teresa Downing-Matibag of Iowa State University.
Young adults today want to have their freedom and are not always interested in committed relationships, according to researchers.
"They want to have their freedom and are not always interested in these committed relationships. At the same time, they'll tell you they will not be in a relationship without sex being an important part of it," she says. The down economy has forced many students to work because their parents aren't as capable of funding their education; that means they're juggling school and work and are less likely to have time to devote to a relationship, she adds.
"With the people that I know, there is a fair share of hooking up just to have sex, and the intention is to only do it once and possibly never see that person again," says Rachel Curtis, 22, an Iowa State grad student. "I know a few girls who would like to hook up every weekend, but sometimes the opportunity doesn't present itself. They call that an 'unlucky night.' "
The cryptic nature of what a hookup involves appeals to many young people: They deliberately want to be vague so they can exaggerate or hide their actions from their friends, analysts say.
" 'Hookup' leaves it to the imagination. The ambiguity is intentional," says Michael Bruce of San Francisco, co-editor of College Sex: Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers with Benefits.
"Hooking up is very vague. It can be anything from kissing on the dance floor to you go back and have sex in the room and sleep over," says Leah Reis-Dennis, 19, a Harvard University sophomore from Eugene, Ore.
"It's called hanging out, but it's really hooking up," adds Kirsten Ellermann, 20, a junior at Iowa State University who has been in a relationship for more than a year. "You know what it means when a guys says he wants to come over and hang out. He's not taking you to dinner."
"In a big way, hookups have kind of taken the place of — not exactly eclipsed — relationships, but hooking up is kind of an easier way for college students to act on their sexual desire without making a big commitment," says Reis-Dennis, a history and literature major.
Even so, "it's not like everyone is having casual sex all the time," says sociologist Paula England of Stanford University, whose ongoing research since 2005 has surveyed more than 17,000 students from 20 colleges and universities. "Some people are hooking up a bunch of times with the same person but are not calling it a relationship. Others are never doing anything you would call a hookup."
Her latest data finds that by senior year, 72% of both sexes reported having at least one hookup, with the average of 9.7 for men and 7.1 for women. Just under one-quarter (24%) of seniors say they are virgins, she says.
The percentage of those who claim virginity appears to be increasing, according to a National Center for Health Statistics study released this month of 2006-08 data. Among 18- and 19-year-olds, about one-quarter of men and women said they hadn't had sexual contact with another person, up from 17% of women and 22% of men in 2002. Among those ages 20-24, 12% of women and 13% of men said they were virgins, up from 8% for both sexes in 2002.
"Friends my age have not said they have chosen to be virgins," says Ashley Thompson, 23, who will receive her master's degree in public health from Ohio State University-Columbus in June.
Thompson, of Perrysburg, Ohio, is engaged, but "a lot of my peers, as women, have got a lot of other things going on. I think the fact that young women are able to focus on other life goals such as school or career could change the way they form relationships, which inherently would impact their sexual activity."
Some studies find virgins in even higher numbers. Responses collected from 1,500 Duke University freshmen and seniors at the Durham, N.C., campus in 2007 found that about 53% of women and 40% of the men said they were virgins, says Wendy Brynildsen, a Duke doctoral student who will share that data in a paper at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in August.
"Many people think I'm crazy" for not having sex, says Jon Haron, 21, of Highlands Ranch, Colo., a part-time college student studying aviation technology and air-traffic control. He also works part-time as a flight instructor.
Matthew Staver, Freelance
Jon Haron, 21, is part of a group of friends who have made the decision to not have intercourse until marriage. He says some friends have decided that other forms of sexual actiivity are OK.
"My core group of guy friends — my close friends — we've all made the decision to not have (sexual intercourse) until we're married," Haron says. But several friends, he adds, think it's OK to engage in other sexual activity.
Although the government data offers no explanations for the growing percentage of virgins, there has been plenty of speculation, ranging from more open discussion about the health risks associated with casual sex to the busy lives of young people. Some cite the rise of the abstinence movement, while others point to easy access to Internet porn and an overtly sexualized culture that has made young people somewhat blas
"We're seeing that the choice to remain abstinent is increasingly resonant," says Valerie Huber, executive director of the non-profit National Abstinence Education Association, which will launch a campaign next year to "rebrand the cultural message" and tell young people that "sexual activity as a rite of passage" is no longer an expectation for teens and young adults.
While sexual experimentation is a part of life for many young people, Reis-Dennis, a history and literature major, says there also are many who don't want to have a "throwaway sexual experience."
"Personally, a lot of my friends at school have had sex," she says. "As many, if not more, haven't."
Haron says his circle of friends, which includes about 15 guys, some with girlfriends, all have looked at porn and are trying to stay away from it. "Porn is easy," he says. "I think that's why a lot of guys are drawn to that. It's so easy to get and they're not going to be rejected, so why try with a girl?"
Researchers are well aware how the Internet has made porn and sex websites so accessible and appealing; Downing-Matibag says her students have shown her websites for virtual sex.
"They can go to those websites and have sexual relationships watching a webcam. They can still be a virgin and have 100 different partners online through chat rooms or webcams," she says. "Young people have avatars (on-screen characters representing themselves online) and enter these virtual worlds that involve sexual encounters."
But some of those who work to educate young people about sex say the new data about more virgins could signal change.
"The hookup culture seems to be predominating, but there might be the beginning of a pushback and relationships playing a much stronger role," says James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based non-profit.
Still, most young people are having some kind of sexual contact.
"Humans are biological beings," Garcia says. "We have a sex drive. To not recognize that in talking to young adults is foolish."