But college life isn't one big party as our media often portrays it. Indeed, the sensational portraits of college depravity, however well intended, might be doing more harm than good by reinforcing students' misconceptions about college life.
Let's take a look at some popular misconceptions about "hook up" culture, how they might be hurting our students, and how we can confront these misconceptions to enable students to rewrite the hook-up script.
Are Millennials are more sexually active than past generations?
Hook up culture is often portrayed as the crisis of the current generation of college students. The internet is full of accounts of the collapse of morality on college campuses. But scholars who study hook up culture trace its roots back forty years or more.
In her book on campus sexual culture, "Hooking Up," Kathleen Bogle suggests that the shift to hook up culture was already underway by the mid-1970s. She believes hook up culture arose out of the turmoil of the wider cultural and demographic changes of the 60s. In that regard, it's something that both current students and their parents experienced.
Other researchers put the origins in the early 1920s, when "with the rise of automobile use and novel entertainment venues...traditional models of courting under parental supervision began to fade" (Garcia et al.). Now we're talking four generations of hook-up culture!
Indeed, a study presented this year at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting found little change in college students' behaviors or attitudes regarding sex in the last 25 years.
The study compared the answers of two batches of college students, 1988-1996 and 2002-2010, on the General Social Survey. Attitudes and behaviors between the two groups were quite similar. For example, 65% of the first group reported having sex at least once a week compared to 59.3% of the second group. Attitudes regarding sex between minors, cheating on a spouse, and premarital sex also remained largely unchanged.
The researchers concluded, "[o]ur results provide no evidence that there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a significant liberalization of attitudes towards sex."
Is everyone is hooking up?
This summer, the New York Times published a controversial trend piece by Kate Taylor. Taylor reported that campus hookup culture was increasingly driven by young women, who were intent on "building their résumés, not finding boyfriends." In other words, it's not just men who are driving hook up culture: everyone's doing it.
But while hook ups may dominate discussions about campus culture, not everyone is actually hooking up.
Indeed, according to the most recent American College Health Association Survey, over a third of college students have never had sex. And while 46% have had sex in the past month, the vast majority of sexually active students have only had one sexual partner in the past 12 months. In fact, 47% of college students reported being in a relationship.
That doesn't sound like students intent on casual sex and one-night stands.
Why do we talk about hook up culture so much then?
Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental college, suggests that it might have to do with who is hooking
up: white, wealthy, heterosexual students. The status that these students' race, class, and sexual orientation confer allows them and their habits to dominate national discussions of campus culture.
"Students feel that a hookup culture dominates their colleges not because it is actually widely embraced," Wade writes, "but because the people with the most power to shape campus culture like it that way."
Indeed, contrary to Taylor's piece in the Times, Kathleen Bogle found that hook up culture was driven by men. In their interviews with Bogle, women were far less satisfied with hook up culture than their male peers.
In general, women preferred relationships, whereas men preferred casual encounters.
Bogle offered two reasons for this difference. First, the women she interviewed were interested in getting married earlier than the men. Thus many women were actively looking for a long term relationship that might result in marriage. The men simply weren't.
Bogle also pointed to a persistent double standard in campus sexual culture. While men were praised for being promiscuous, women were stigmatized. If they behaved like men and pursued multiple partners, women risked earning derogatory labels like "slut." Indeed, many men confessed that they wouldn't date a woman who had had many sexual partners. Thus in order to protect their reputations, women sought out stable relationships.
So not everyone is hooking up and not everyone wants to. Instead the hook-up elites are imposing a hegemony over campus sexual culture.
What we talk about when we talk about hooking up
The problem with these misconceptions is that they make hook up culture seem inevitable. Indeed, when we press too hard on the prevalence of hook up culture, we might be sending students mixed messages.
On the one hand, we imply that students are randy and oversexed. We insist that hook ups and no-strings-attached sex are endemic to college campuses.
On the other hand, we blandly tell students that they overestimate how much sex their peers are having.
Which message do you think students will remember?
If the vivid image of a college free-for-all is what sticks in students' mind, then we may be doing
them a disservice.
Students do tend to overestimate their peers' sexual activity, making the behavior of a few outliers (the hook up elites) appear to be the social norm. Students then turn to these social norms to guide their own behavior, reinforcing hook up culture.
It is possible that by talking so much about hook up culture (even when condemning it) that we inadvertently reinforce the idea that the outliers are the social norm, that everyone really is hooking up.
Instead of just condemning hook up culture, we need to offer some alternatives. Or better yet, we need to elicit some alternatives from students themselves.
Rewriting the hook up script
According to Bogle, hook up culture is a social script: a set of cultural and social expectations surrounding dating that students internalize and follow. Bogle contrasts the hook up script with earlier social scripts, such as "courting" or "going steady," which were the products of different social and demographic conditions.
Rather than just trying to correct students' perceptions of their peers' behavior or point to the flaws of hooking up, perhaps we might engage with students to write new social scripts, in order to get them involved in rewriting hook up culture.
What might that script look like? It's hard to say. But it can start with conversations about dating, asking what men and women want to get out of their college experience and whether that includes meaningful intimate relationships.
In fact, research suggests that some women pursue hook ups because the risks of a causal encounter are actually less than those of a long-term relationship: "Bad hook ups are isolated events, while bad relationships wreak havoc with whole lives."
The conversation about hook up culture can begin with freshman orientation, and it can continue in classrooms from gender studies to philosophy.
Getting students to see the fact and fiction of campus culture is a laudable goal. Getting them to understand that they aren't simply passive subjects of culture, but active agents who can change it has the potential to make a real impact on campus life.
Students can be so intent on changing the world that they fail to see the change that needs to happen right around them.
There's a well-known parable about two young fish swimming in the sea. An older fish swims up and asks, "How's the water?" After the older fish swims away, one young fish turns to the other and asks, "What's water?"
The point is, students are so immersed in the culture that surrounds them, they don't even know it's there. But it is. And it affects them. Unlike the two fish, however, students have the chance to find new waters.
Start a conversation with students and keep it going. Help them replace the hook-up culture myth with the script that fits their reality.
Awareness is the first step towards changing the "water" around us...some students may not even know they're drowning in it.
Bogle, K.A. (2008) Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. New York: New York UP.
Garcia, J.R., et al. (2012) "Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review." Review of General Psychology, 16, 161-176.