Hooking up, putting out and going down

How often do you think about other peoples’ sex lives?

“People think other people are having more sex than they are,” said Lee Scriggins, director of the Community Health organization at the University of Colorado.

In his article on hook-up behavior, Justin Garcia said hooking up “consists of sexual activity between uncommitted individuals”. But 19 year old sophomore Carolyn Sprangers, a communications major, said that hooking up isn’t so easily definable, and the mystery is appealing.

“It’s just vague,” Sprangers said. “That’s why I like using that term, because you don’t really know. I don’t have to explain. You just think whatever you want.”

In a 2008 survey conducted by Garcia, 64 percent of 507 undergraduate students reported “engaging in a hook-up”. But Garcia also cites a study ((Boswell & Spade, 1996; Cates, 1991; Maticka-Tyndale, 1991) that shows this trend is “by no means a product of the 21st century, and uncommitted sexual experiences among college students have been studied without the current “hook-up” frame”. Senior Sophie Levis, a 22 year old studying neuroscience, said it isn’t the behavior that has changed, but the dialogue.

“The values of college culture have changed to be more open minded about sex and different kinds of sex,” Levis said. “Now it’s okay to talk about it. People feel more comfortable being open with sex and with experimenting.”

Sprangers agrees that the current generation has gained a sense of comfort around sexuality.

“Sex is pretty casual in my opinion,” Sprangers said. “I’m comfortable talking about sex and I think it’s just a part of human nature.”

Still others, such as 30 year old sociology doctoral candidate Patrick O’Brien, think the behavior has definitely changed, and for a number of reasons.

“People hook up first and then go from there in terms of dating,” O’Brien said. “It’s much more prevalent now than it ever has been.”

O’Brien, whose dissertation research focuses on the undergraduate party scene, argues that this increase can be attributed to two social trends: the recently common college stage of life and more highly-educated, career-oriented women.

“Adolescence has been extended. The period of time between 18 and 25 is a period called merging adulthood because people are going to college more and putting off family life and job life and adult responsibilities.” O’Brien said. “You also have a trend where you have women who are in much more higher education and much more career oriented and having a boyfriend can hinder that. Oftentimes hookup or casualness in the sexual arena contributes to getting work done.”

But are college students actually hooking up more often? In fall 2010 the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA) surveyed over 30,000 students from 39 institutions of higher education. Of those surveyed, 41 percent said they had only one partner in intercourse (oral, vaginal and anal) in the past 12 months. Less than 15 percent reported more than 2 partners in 12 months.

Sprangers said the frequency of casual sex is characterized by a person’s gender.

“Guys are having more casual sex,” Sprangers said. “They try to poke their thing in anyone and whoever says yes, they’re down. Girls are the entire opposite. Maybe more controlling in a sense.”

Hunter Ray, a 21 year old senior majoring in business, said he thinks just the opposite.

“I think women would probably hook up with people more because they have more opportunities to,” Ray said. “”I think women hold the power. Women can get laid when they want to get laid, but men can’t always just pick a partner.”

O’Brien said this contradiction of perception between genders is the result of societal pressure.

“The way we’re taught with sexuality is men are supposed to get sex and women are supposed to be the gatekeepers,” he said. “Men are supposed to be constantly knocking at the door and women are supposed to be holding back.”

Regardless of who is having casual sex more often, there is definitely a clear intersection between casual sex and consumption of alcohol in the college environment. Scriggins, the director of the Community Health program, said that this intersection is what creates risk, not casual sex alone.

“The risks are sex without consent, sex where you don’t do what you want to do, sex where you intended to use safer STI reduction techniques or pregnancy prevention techniques.” Scriggins said. “That’s a problem, but there is a lot of cultural anxiety about young people and sex. People could have different kinds of sex and choose it freely. You have to make room in your imagination for that.”

Ray agrees that alcohol increases the dangers of casual sex.

“People regret a lot of decisions they make when they’re drunk, but it gives you an excuse to have fun,” Ray said. “I think a lot of people hook up with people they wouldn’t normally hook up with when they’re drunk.”

Kyle Huelsman, a 21 year old junior majoring in ethnic studies and sociology, said that alcohol is used to assuage what is otherwise an unnatural relationship.

“I think the casual sex relationship is a difficult line to walk,” Huelsman said. “Getting into a really intimate position with someone you hardly know is difficult. It’s not something that comes naturally. People feeling the pressure to hook up use alcohol to achieve that. I think alcohol is a means to get to that end.”

Despite these varying perspectives, the dialogue is definitely open. And Scriggins said that from a health perspective, real education and real conversations around sex and sexuality will have only positive consequences.

“A sex positive approach has been shown to reduce all of the harms,” Scriggins said. “People can develop skills and make choices. When people feel they know themselves sexually, they have fewer bad outcomes.”

Unpublished; written for Reporting 3 class.

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