Sex, Lies, and Hook-Up Culture: It Seems That Easy Sex Is Rampant on College Campuses Today, but New Research Reveals That Students Really Want Romance

U.S. Catholic, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Sex, Lies, and Hook-Up Culture: It Seems That Easy Sex Is Rampant on College Campuses Today, but New Research Reveals That Students Really Want Romance


When Donna Freitas offered a class on dating and spirituality at St. Michael's College in Vermont, she didn't know her students would want to change the social scene at the Catholic liberal arts school. But when they learned that none of them liked the culture of casual sex on campus, they decided to create a newspaper discussing "hookup culture" and got the whole school talking about it.

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"It was the most extraordinary experience I ever had as a professor," Freitas says. "But I also started to wonder: Is it like this elsewhere?"

Her book Sex and the Soul (Oxford) documents what she found surveying 2,500 students and interviewing 111 about religion and sex at seven colleges--Catholic, evangelical, public, and private.

She found casual sex on all but the evangelical campuses, but she also found that students lie about how much sex they have and about liking the culture of casual sex. Worse, college administrations lie by denying that hook-up culture even exists.

"I just finished my 14th year as a teacher, and in my experience, if students are struggling with something, if there is an unmet need, you come up with resources to answer the need," Freitas says.

The good news, though, is that there is a way out. All it takes, Freitas says, is speaking the truth.

What is a hook-up?

I asked every single person in the study how they defined it, and I learned that a hook-up is any sexually intimate activity--it could be as innocent as kissing or it could be intercourse--but what defines it is that it's casual, unplanned, with no commitment. It often involves alcohol and little talking.

How prevalent is hooking up on Catholic campuses?

The reality is that Catholic colleges are like secular colleges. Everywhere I've been, students say the same thing about hook-up culture. The only exceptions are evangelical schools.

The perception is that everybody hooks up all the time and loves it, but in reality people are hooking up far less than they think others are. A lot of students had one hook-up experience, but that certainly is not rampant. People lie about how much sex they're having and inflate what's going on because the social pressure to hook up is really enormous.

There are a few students who really do love hook-up culture. They are the kings and queens of the school--the purveyors of hook-up culture--especially on small campuses, but they are very few and far between.

Is hook-up culture new?

I graduated from Georgetown in 1994, and I knew about hooking up. But it also meant, "Let's hook up for happy hour." You knew who the hook-up crowd was, but it wasn't pervasive.

Now this Animal House, frat-boy behavior is the norm on many campuses. You don't have to join a frat to go to theme parties where men dress up as "pimps" and women dress as their "whores." When I was in college, we had events like "preppy" parties, but now there are a number of variations on "pimps and ho's," almost all with men in powerful positions and women dressing sexily in subordinate positions. Everywhere I go, students say that everybody goes to these parties.

If most students don't like hook-up culture, what do they want from relationships?

Almost everyone--regardless of gender or sexual orientation--told me they want old-fashioned romance.

When romance came up, students said it's talking--just talking for hours, on a pretty beach, over dinner, under a starry sky. They want communication. With hook-up culture any communication that happens tends to be sexual and drunken. That's not real or romantic to the students.

It's not that they don't want to have sex ever or that they want to save sex for marriage--so, parents, don't get your hopes up. But when they have sex, they want to be in love with that person. They want respect. They want someone to know them. …

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