Love & Sex

The Existence of Hook Up Culture Might Not Be Supported by Any Data

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What came first: hook up culture or The New York Times trend piece?

If you have been around a laptop or television screen any time in the last three years, you might have noticed popular media has labeled everyone born from about 1987 to 2000 as part of a pernicious “hook up culture,” a group as maligned as it is misunderstood. While moralistic books and trend pieces might preach that this new practice of hooking up is leaving a generation unhappy and unfulfilled or quickly dismantling women’s sense of self worth, how much data is actually behind this supposedly huge cultural shift?

According to a study published this week in the Journal of Sex Research, not much. Study authors Martin Moto and Anna Carey took data from college students (18-25) who had completed at least one year of college, comparing two different waves of data taken from 1988 to 1996 and then from 2004 to 2012 from the General Social Survey. The main takeaway from their analysis: college students of today aren’t having more frequent sex or collecting anymore sexual partners than their ’90s counterparts. Sexually active millennials, however, are more likely than those from the earlier era to report sex with a casual date or friend and less likely to report it with a regular partner. There’s the rub: we’re not hooking up any more or less than previous decades, we’re just talking about doing it more regularly with our friends.

“We find no evidence of substantial changes in sexual behavior that would indicate a new or pervasive pattern of non-relational sex among contemporary college students,” the study concludes. The study also found modern college students are no more tolerant of teen sex or premarital sex than the earlier cohort. If college parties aren’t suddenly orgiastic free-for-alls anymore than they were when The Wallflowers were still popular, how’d this rise of the hook up culture come to pass? It may not be a matter of data; it’s a matter of communication.

The term “hooking up” hasn’t been around for that long.

When we introduce a new term into a culture, it’s usually because a new behavior has arisen. The idea of hooking up has been around for decades, but records won’t tell you that. A search of EBSCO databases shows that the term “hook up” didn’t fully come into scholarly literature until 2006 onward — that means it wasn’t on any sociologists or psychologists’ radars. And searches for the common phrase “hook up culture” first came into being in late 2010, and according to Google Trends, search interest met its peak in July 2013. Now, in April 2014, hook up culture has taken at least 86 headlines in the last month. All of this hubbub invariably surrounds one curious specimen — the American college student. Google searches will tell you that despite hook up culture’s meteoric rise, it’s pretty much stayed on the U.S. college campus.

If the term “hook up” is relatively new in and of itself, it could be that because what we consider hooking up is fluid and varies person to person. Casual sex has always existed, but teenagers could think they have “hooked up” with people when they simply made out and a man in his 30s could “hook up” with someone and have anal sex. We might not be living in a completely different sexual reality as we were 30 years ago, but we do have completely different ways to broadcast that reality.

Perhaps this new standard of sexual behavior isn’t so much borne out of sex itself, but our freedom to communicate about already existing trends. Once we give something a name, we’re more likely to talk about it. And in 2014, we have every outlet —Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, blogs, texts — to debrief our peers about those hook ups. Modern culture encourages gossip, personal narratives, and frankness: the makings for sex talk. Maybe hook up culture is much more pervasive now than it was a decade ago, maybe it’s not, but when we have a million ways to say “we fucked,” it’s going to seem like we’re doing it even more than ever.

Image via David Martyn Hunt