When college life is examined through the lens of popular media, it's often portrayed as newly hypersexualized, a "hookup culture" with an unprecedented level of no-strings-attached sexual behavior. But when researchers from the University of Portland compared sexual activity of current college-age adults against the behavior of the same age group in the late-1980s and 1990s, the image doesn't hold.
"We thought we would find undergraduates having more sex, as well as a generally more sexualized environment," said Martin Monto, study author and professor of sociology at the University of Portland. "We didn't find that."
They did find differences, though, including later and fewer marriages and less expectation that relationships, including sexual ones, would result in marriage.
For the most part, they found sexual behavior has been "relatively consistent" for a quarter century.
Apples to apples
Both Monto and then-undergraduate student Anna Carey had gotten the impression that undergraduate students were more sexual, as was their environment. But they couldn't find any hard data to back it up and decided to investigate. They looked to the General Social Survey, which included data on more than 1,800 adults 18 to 25 who had graduated from high school and finished at least a year of college. They contrasted two time periods, 2002-10 and 1988-96. Those years were selected because both time periods had asked about sexual activity and attitudes toward sex and could be directly compared.
The more recent time frame has often been portrayed as a "hookup" era. But the term has been used broadly, with little consensus of what it actually means or precisely what degree of sexual activity it describes, Monto noted. They did not try to impose a definition, he said, but previous generations might have used the term "heavy making out" through actual sexual intercourse as a range of included behaviors.
Undergraduate students from the modern, so-called "hookup era" did not have sex more often or have more sexual partners either from age 18 or within the past year, he said.
Today's students are no more accepting of sexual activity among teenagers 14 to 16 than were students in the earlier time frame. Nor are they more tolerant of adults having extramarital sex or premarital sex, compared to young adults in the past.
There were, however, some changes. Contemporary students are more tolerant of adult same-sex relationships than were those in the earlier group. And traditional dating is changing. The students described more "transitory sexual interactions between partners who have no expectation of a continued romantic relationship," he said.
While most claimed either a spouse or regular sexual partner, those numbers were significantly less for the more recent group than the earlier students, Monto said.
Of those who reported being sexually active, Monto said that modern young adults were more likely to report having a sexual relationship with a casual date or someone he or she picked up (44.4 percent compared to 34.5 percent in 1988-96) or with a friend (68.6 percent, compared to 55.7 percent). They were less apt to have a spouse or regular sexual partner (77.1 percent to 84.5 percent in the earlier-era group).
The findings were to be released Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
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