Americans are having less sex than ever.
Millennials, in particular, report less sex and fewer sexual partners than both their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did at their age, according to a 2016 report in the Archives of Sexual Behavior by University of San Diego researcher and author Jean Twenge.
Despite this data, media and popular culture place millennials at the center of hyper-sexualized programming from pregnant teens to spring breakers, leading to the frequently publicized misconception millennials are sex-crazed and out to ruin the conventional ideas of dating and relationships generations before them enjoyed.
This isn’t entirely true.
Sexologist Brooke DeSipio, the director of gender violence education and support at Lehigh, believes the only real difference is in the terminology.
“Hookup culture is not a new thing,” DeSipio said. “It has been happening for generations, and it has just been called something different for every generation. It was heavy petting, then it was casual sex then hooking up, but it’s the same concept.”
Sociologists who study sex agree casual sex has been happening for as long as people have been having sex, said Sandra Caron of the University of Maine and author of “Sex Lives of College Students: A Quarter Century of Attitudes and Behaviors.” Today, it’s not the idea of sex before marriage that’s different. It’s college students’ attitudes that have changed.
“For most people love and sex are closely linked, except for college students,” Caron said. “Sex isn’t like my mom’s generation when you only had sex with someone you loved.”
So while it’s clear “hookup” doesn’t always mean “love” for students today, it remains unclear what the term does mean.
In a survey of 194 Lehigh students, 17 percent defined hooking up as strictly “sex,” whereas a quarter defined it as strictly “making out” or “kissing.” The largest group of students, around 43 percent, described activities somewhere between the two. The remaining 15 percent used their definitions to emphasize certain aspects of hooking up such as non-committal nature or the locations hookups most commonly occur.
“There’s definitely blurred lines about (the definition),” Ross Zimmerman, ’18, said. “If someone tells me they hooked up with someone, there’s usually a follow up question of, ‘What does that mean?’”
New York University sociologist Paula England, who surveyed more than 26,000 college students nationwide about hookup culture, said the definition is deliberately ambiguous. DeSipio said the ambiguity allows students to decide for themselves what their peers are talking about.
“There is this unspoken rule that men should be having lots of sex,” DeSipio said. “It’s how you prove you’re a good heterosexual man, and women shouldn’t because then they’re a slut. A woman can say, ‘I hooked up,’ and it can be assumed she just meant kissing, whereas a man can hook up, and it can be assumed he had sex. So both parties have their reputation intact without having to go into specifics.”
Because of this ambiguity, DeSipio said, students often have a skewed perception of what their peers are actually doing and how often they’re doing it.
DeSipio said when students are using ambiguous language about hookups, it leads to the perception “everybody’s doing it,” which is common on college campuses and often keeps people talking about it.
As a result, students develop an incorrect perception of how they compare to their peers.
In the survey, just shy of a third of students described the hookup culture at Lehigh as “prevalent,” “pervasive,” “aggressive” or “dominating” campus. And while half of students said they feel hookup culture inhibits the ability to form relationships at Lehigh, with 72 percent reporting they “never” or “rarely” expect their hookups to turn into more, over half of respondents said they have been in at least one relationship during their time at Lehigh.
Zimmerman said he believes this misconception among students comes from social media.
“People are posting pictures and people gather thoughts and form opinions about you or your life rather than getting to know each other,” he said. “People are going to try and act a certain way or fit into a certain box to make sure they’re doing certain things they think everyone else is doing.”
Lehigh seniors do appear to think everybody else is hooking up with everyone.
In another survey of 120 Lehigh seniors, the average number of people students reported hooking up with during their time at Lehigh was between six and seven, which aligns with the national average reported in England’s research. About 38 percent of students said they have hooked up with more than 10 people at Lehigh, and just under half have hooked up with eight or more.
Yet, 68 percent of respondents believe they have hooked up with fewer people than their peers, indicating a clear misconception of what their peers are actually doing.
The one thing students do overwhelmingly agree on, however, is the role of alcohol, with 99 percent of respondents reporting hookups at Lehigh generally involve drinking.
To support this, while only 10 students specified the location of a party or fraternity in their personal definition of the word “hookup,” that number grew by four times as many when students were asked to define Lehigh’s hookup culture specifically, with some students indicating hooking up as their primary motivation when going out to a party.
When it comes to parties and hooking up, Wade highlighted the 1984 change in drinking age from 18 to 21 as a primary shift in the power dynamics of hookup culture.
She said the fact that students could no longer head off campus to bars or party in their dorms, coupled with rules preventing sororities from throwing parties with alcohol, placed the “socio-sexual power” in the hands of “the most privileged men on campus.”
Some men at Lehigh disagreed with her analysis.
“Coming from Greek life, I see people just assume frat guys try to get with all the girls they can and are shocked when I say I don’t ‘hook up’ with people that often,” said one male junior who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I also know most of my fraternity is in relationships, which would be the opposite of ‘hookup’ culture.”
Zimmerman agreed, saying he has personally “never felt pressure to hook up” from his fraternity brothers and said many of his friends are in relationships at Lehigh.
However, one sophomore sorority member said she did connect her experiences in Greek life to how hookup culture plays out on campus. She said because her sorority generally sees the same three fraternities each week, she has to be mindful about who she hooks up with to avoid judgment from a fraternity who decides she has hooked up with too many of its members.
“You don’t want to be the girl who shows up when you’ve hooked up with half of them,” she said. “But yet, if you hook up with one kid a week and you’re here for seven months, it’s like ‘there goes your dignity.’ Boys don’t have that problem. We shouldn’t have to care at all, but that’s kind of the way it works. You just have to learn how to work with it and not screw up too badly that you don’t have to be ‘that girl.’”
This student’s belief that hookup culture can lead to uncomfortable situations on campus is one other students have spoken about as well. England commented on the behavior in her 2017 review of Wade’s book published in Contexts.
“In talking about hookups, they emphasize how drunk they were, as if to put an end to any speculation that they have a romantic interest in the partner,” England wrote. “Another strategy students described is creating some distance after the hookup — if you were friends, act like acquaintances; if acquaintances, act like strangers.”
The No. 1 reason Lehigh students in the survey said Lehigh’s hookup culture made them uncomfortable was the way they were treated after hooking up.
Enter the “Lehigh look away” — a behavior Lehigh students tend to joke about while simultaneously engaging in — rather than make eye contact with or say hello to a recent hookup on campus, look away and pretend not to notice them.
The phrase itself, which also made it into Wade’s book after an interview with a Lehigh student, was referenced on 50 distinct occasions throughout the survey. Wade herself said this behavior derives from students’ need to act like they don’t care.
“Students are treating each other pretty badly,” she said. “They feel compelled to treat each other very dismissively, so we talk about sex being carefree, but it’s really careless.”
Sex is always about the physical performance, but Caron, England, Wade and DeSipio all agreed students’ emotional performances, the need to be “the one who is less interested,” are inhibiting their abilities to enjoy sex both emotionally and physically.
In Caron’s research she looked at the way students reported on orgasms over a 25-year period. According to the data, nearly three quarters of college women have faked an orgasm whereas under a third of men have. Over 25 years, women reporting they had faked an orgasm increased from less than half in 1990 to nearly three quarters of college women faking their orgasms in 2015.
“We’re performing sex,” Caron said. “We’re trying to do something we think we’re supposed to do, because we have an image that we think everybody else is out there hooking up with everyone.”
The only way to cure students of these misconceptions regarding their peers, DeSipio said, is to stop performing and start talking. She said conversations that encourage alternative sexual cultures and make sober sex less taboo are the only way students can gain a real understanding of the culture people want to see on campus.
Wade, England and Caron agreed students need to be willing to take the first step of having honest conversations about what they want from a hookup and how they expect to be treated before, during and after.
“The first thing students need to do is be honest with each other about what they like and what they want,” Wade said. “A lot of ignorance is allowed to persist because students are too afraid to admit what they want.”