Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

Moving in and Hooking Up: Women's and Men's Casual Sexual Experiences during the First Two Months of College

Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

Moving in and Hooking Up: Women's and Men's Casual Sexual Experiences during the First Two Months of College

Article excerpt


The transition to college represents a unique stage of life. Most American college students pursue educational and career goals while postponing relational goals such as marriage (Hamilton & Armstrong, 2009). These students also commonly describe the college years as a time to "party" and "let loose" (Bogle, 2008, p. 51). Because they may be postponing relational goals and socializing with limited adult supervision, many students making the initial transition to college may engage in casual sex--sex without love, commitment or expectations for the future. Although little research is available about new college students' casual sexual experiences, such research may offer critical insights about emerging adults' sexuality during an important developmental transition. Such research also may also offer insights about both gender similarities and differences in typical experiences of casual sex.

"Hook ups" are one common type of casual sexual experience in studies of traditionally-aged White American heterosexual college students (e.g., Bogle, 2008; Flack et al., 2007). Paul and Hayes (2002) define a hook up as "a sexual encounter (that may or may not include sexual intercourse) between two people who are strangers or brief acquaintances, usually lasting only one night, without the expectation of developing a relationship" (pp. 642-643). Paul, McManus, and Hayes (2000) found that 78% of students reported hooking up at least once during college. Hook ups may begin early and may involve a range of sexual behaviors. Fielder and Carey (2010) found that 33% of students engaged in oral sex and 28% had vaginal sex during a hook up during their first full semester. It is unknown, however, how often hook ups occur during the initial transition (i.e., the first two months) to campus and how often new students encounter unwanted, possibly coercive sex during hook ups.

In this study, we considered potential areas of similarity and difference between women and men as well as different levels of analysis suggested by contemporary gender scholarship. According to Vanwesenbeeck (2009), some researchers over-emphasize differences between women and men while glossing over similarities and ignoring confounds based on age, context, or other factors. At the same time, some researchers overlook important conceptual and empirical reasons for making gender-based distinctions (e.g., in studies of unwanted or coercive sex). Sex researchers must theorize about gender at multiple levels; for example, gender operates both at an individual level and at a social level, shaping how people interact and how they interpret each other's behaviors. We therefore developed hypotheses comparing women and men as individuals and as students collectively affected by normative beliefs about gender and heterosexuality.

Gender Similarities in College Hook up Experiences

Most research on hooking up has identified individual characteristics of college students who hook up (e.g., Fielder & Carey, 2010; Owen, Rhoades, Stanley, & Fincham, 2010; Paul et al., 2000). Women and men hook up at similar rates, challenging simplistic stereotypes about women's interest in commitment and men's interest in sexual pleasure. In fact, Meston and Buss (2007) found that the three most common reasons for sex reported by both college women and men were "I was attracted to the person," "I wanted to experience the physical pleasure," and "It feels good." (p. 481). Furthermore, college women and men alike take part in a campus-related "hook up culture" (Bogle, 2008, p. 50) where large numbers of potential sexual partners characteristically gather. Because students often live within walking distance of such events, couples easily relocate to hook up.

In a campus setting, attitudes about casual sex may predict both new students' hook up behaviors. Despite individual differences in adherence to permissive sexuality, many young people in the Western world believe that sex is no "big deal" (e. …

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