Time to Hookup? Expectations of First Semester College Students

Time to Hookup? Expectations of First Semester College Students

With the fall semester quickly approaching, incoming freshmen throughout the United States are preparing to attend college for the first time. When I started college many of my friends were excited to meet guys and have “no strings attached” relationships. It seems like many college students believe that engaging in hooking up relationships is what it means to get the full college experience. Incoming freshman imagine that hooking up is unavoidable, and quiet frankly, essential. Not only are freshman attending orientation, buying their books, and getting ready to start their first classes, some are also scoping out potential hooking up partners. It seems to be a common thought that hooking up is something that all college students do, and that it doesn’t pose any issues in future relationships. Just like exams, dorm living and lots of homework, hooking up is also viewed by some students as an important part of the college experience.

In a new research study by Spencer Olmstead and his colleagues that University of Tennessee, they focused on first semester college students, both men and women, and what they believe the definition and expectations of hooking up are. This is relevant to our field of research because hooking up seems to sometimes play a part in just talking. Hooking up can be defined as any sexual encounter from kissing to intercourse, between two individuals without any specific expectations of commitment. This can potentially be detrimental to partner if they having differing expectations for the relationship. Not to mention that by not defining the relationship (DTR), this can create great ambiguity regarding commitment and the future of the relationship.

In their research Olmstead et al. (2017) found that there was six variations of how the participants in the study defined hooking up:

  1. Sex – Left Undefined
  2. Making Out
  3. A Range of Sexual Activities
  4. Sex – Defined as Intercourse
  5. The “All But Sex” Continuum
  6. Hanging Out or Going on a Date

These themes are important to keep in mind because as the authors explain, the most common response (55.4% of men and 48.8% of women) regarding hooking is sex left undefined. In other words, hooking up to most emerging adults means engaging in sexual behaviors without the intention of pursuing this person romantically. This can create a substantial amount of ambiguity in the sense that not every emerging adults definition of hooking is the same. This could mean a wide range of sexual behaviors, but an important message to take out of this finding is that most first year college students define hooking up as some kind of sexual behavior with someone they are not committed to.

For Olmstead et al. (2017) gender differences became quite evident in their findings. For example, 38.6% of men rated physical attraction as important in determining possible hook up partners while only 15.3% of women rated that as important. 34.1% of women rated familiarity as being more important in determining possible hook up partners compared to 12% of men. When discussing their expectations regarding hooking up, 46% of men and 15.2% of women discussed that they would participate in hooking up during their college career. In contrast, 40.8% percent of women and 30.0% of men indicated that they had no plans or expectations to hook up in college.  26.4% of women and 14% of men stated that they would never engage in hooking up in college.

Another important point discussed in this research was the sexual double standard. This is the idea that women are discouraged to have multiple sexual partners while men are often praised for having non-monogamous sexual relations.  Due to this standard, this encourages men to participate in casual relationships and shames women who do.

As a research team we focus especially on emerging adult decision-making, and have wondered about if guilt and emotional distress can accompany the hookup culture. We are also concerned about how alcohol is fueling the hookup culture, and according to researchers (e.g. Claxton & van Dulmen, 2013) alcohol is one of the top reasons that hook ups occur.  According to sociologist Lisa Wade and her research, the hookup culture can create regret and shame for many college students. If you are not familiar with Lisa Wade and her research it is certainly worth checking out her book entitled, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.

Going off to college can be a scary and exciting time in an emerging adults life. For a lot of emerging adults, college is a time to explore romantic partners and to “test the waters.” College is commonly associated as the time to experiment with partners and evidently meaning get as much sexual experience as possible before “settling down”. For many incoming freshmen it seems ingrained that hooking up is just part of the college experience. It’s also interesting that most incoming freshmen seem to have a preconceived idea about hooking up, even before entering into college.

The problem with this is that every choice has consequences of that decision. We’ve probably all heard the phrase “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, but is that really true? In an outstanding research report for The National Marriage Project, researchers Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley explored why generating a lot of relationship experience could be detrimental to a future marriage. Their research indicated that the more sexual partners someone has before marriage, the less satisfying and stable a future marriage might be. This is what Rhoades and Stanley (2014) call the Vegas Fallacy. The Vegas Fallacy explains that every choice we make have consequences associated. This seems to be the mind set of some emerging adults who believe that have multiple sexual partners will not effect their future relationships. As Rhoades and Stanley (2014) explain:

Consider sex. The vast majority of Americans—about 90 percent—have sex before marriage (Finer, 2007). Many of them have sex with multiple partners before finding the person they will eventually marry. Do premarital sexual relationships relate to later marital quality? Yes and no. It depends on who you are having sex with. Men and women who only slept with their (future) spouse prior to marriage reported higher marital quality than those who had other sexual partners as well. Further, for women, having had fewer sexual partners before marriage was also related to higher marital quality. This doesn’t mean that sex before marriage will doom a marriage, but sex with many different partners may be risky if you’re looking for a high-quality marriage (p. 5).
It is possible that hooking up is not all that it is cracked up to be? As a research team we certainly think so, and we encourage emerging adults to consider how their decisions are impacting them, and their ability to function in future romantic relationships. For more information about the Vegas Fallacy and how generating a lot of relationship experience prior to marriage can potentially impact someone, I would encourage you to watch this wonderful video of Galena Rhoades on YouTube.


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