Address all correspondence and requests for additional information to Jennifer Katz, Department of Psychology, SUNY College at Geneseo, Geneseo, NY 14454, (585) 245-5218, (585) 245-5235 (FAX), firstname.lastname@example.org
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 ExperiencesMost 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.g., Gavey, 2005, p. 107). To the degree that students accept or value casual sex, they are more likely to hook up (Paul et al., 2000). Although college-aged men tend to endorse more sexually permissive attitudes than women (Peterson & Hyde, 2010), permissive attitudes are especially common among first year college students (Lindgren, Schacht, Pantalone, Blayney, & George, 2009), including women (Hamilton & Armstrong, 2009). As such, we expected permissive sexual attitudes to be positively associated with the hook up behaviors of both women and men during their initial transition to college.
Descriptive social norms also may affect new students’ hook up behaviors by creating pressure to conform. Descriptive norms refer to the perception of how common a behavior is in one’s peer group (Carey, Borsari, Carey, & Maisto, 2006). Students generally over-estimate how many other college students hook up (Lambert, Kahn, & Apple 2003; Paul et al. 2000). Regardless of the accuracy of such descriptive norms, these estimations affect student behavior and may affect women and men who are new to college. In an ethnographic study of a female residence hall, 90% of first year students attended parties involving heavy drinking and hook ups; the few who opted out were socially ostracized (Armstrong, Hamilton, & Sweeney, 2006). Accordingly, we expected a significant positive association between descriptive social norms for hooking up and the hook up behaviors of women and men during the initial transition to college.
College students in the US typically inhabit a sexualized campus environment in which hooking up may benefit both women and men. For example, hook ups provide potential opportunities for sexual pleasure, for developing new relationships, and for a sense of belonging with one’s peer group. These and other positive consequences may account for the finding that both women and men typically report positive emotions following a hook up encounter (Owen & Fincham, 2011). Nevertheless, there are also important gender differences in hook up experiences. Compared to men, women students report that hook ups are less enjoyable (Owen et al., 2010), and women are more likely to report regret or disappointment (Paul & Hayes, 2002) or other negative emotions (Owen & Fincham). Among first year college students specifically, Fielder and Carey (2010) found that penetrative hook up sex predicted emotional distress among women but not men. This finding suggests a specific need for research on the potential negative consequences of hooking up.
One way to understand gender differences in hook up experiences is to consider the differential power commonly afforded to women versus men in heterosexual encounters. Western conceptions of sex between men and women traditionally have promoted different standards for behavior. As described by Holloway (1984), heterosexual interactions occur in the context of the male sexual drive discourse (“real” men are always eager for sex and have urgent needs for sexual release) and the have/hold discourse (women give sex to men but only in committed relationships for men’s pleasure). Despite individual resistance to such ideas, expectations related to these discourses continue to affect young peoples’ sexual attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Bay-Cheng & Eliseo-Arias, 2008; Hamilton & Armstrong, 2009; Milnes, 2010) and social information processing (Marks & Frayley, 2006). These discourses mistakenly imply that only boys and men experience sexual desire or an interest in casual sex. Adolescent girls frequently encounter this missing discourse of female sexual desire in sexual education programs that typically cover reproduction and the potential dangers of sex without a focus on sexual desire or pleasure (Tolman, 2005). The male sexual drive and have/hold discourses also imply that sex is socially acceptable for men with any female partner, whereas sex is acceptable for women within a committed (not casual) relationship to make her partner happy (not for her own pleasure). Because gender operates in a sociocultural context to affect the meanings of sexual behaviors, we hypothesized that college women who hook up may be relatively disempowered compared to men due to greater risk for a negative social reputation and for unwanted sex. This disempowerment may affect students in general as well as those in transition to college.
Negative social reputations.
Evidence for a sexual double standard (in which women are judged more negatively than men for sexual behavior) has diminished in the Western world over time (Crawford & Popp, 2003). Nonetheless, qualitative research suggests that women who hook up remain at risk for developing negative reputations, and “sluts” are considered to be acceptable sexual but not dating partners (Bogle, 2008). After a hook up involving fellatio, one college man in Paul and Hayes’ (2002) study said, “It felt good but I’m glad that I’m not going out with a girl who is slutty like that” (p. 653). In a sexually permissive college context, women experience social pressure to hook up despite potential social condemnation for doing so (Bogle). In addition, it is unclear precisely how active a woman can be or which behaviors she can engage in without acquiring a negative reputation. As such, we expected that students new to campus would perceive that a range of sexual behaviors during hook ups would be less socially acceptable for the average female as compared to the average male student.
Although both women and men may experience bad hook ups and unwanted sex, rates are higher among women. For example, Flack et al. (2007) found that 23% of women and 7% of college men reported one or more unwanted experiences of vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse since starting college. Most unwanted sex occurred with hook up partners. Paul and Hayes (2002) described two types of unwanted sex that affected women during hook ups. Some women described a momentary willingness to engage in acts they did not desire because their partner’s interest made them feel attractive and desirable; others described capitulating to unwanted sex due to partner pressure or force. These two types of unwanted sex reflect sexual compliance versus sexual coercion. Sexual compliance involves a willingness to engage in sex in the absence of sexual desire (e.g., Katz & Tirone, 2010; Sprecher, Hatfield, Cortese, Potapova, & Levitskaya, 1994). In contrast, sexual coercion involves sex compelled by overwhelming verbal or physical pressure or due to incapacitation that interferes with free and willing consent (Koss & Oros, 1982). Our study extends past research on hook ups and unwanted sex (Flack et al.) by differentiating between sexual compliance and sexual coercion, by studying unwanted sex specifically in a heterosexual context, and by focusing on unwanted sex during the initial transition to college, a potentially high risk time for unwanted sex (Flack et al., 2008).
In summary, we predicted that hooking up among new students, both women and men, would be positively associated with permissive sexual attitudes (Hypothesis 1) and descriptive social norms (Hypothesis 2). In contrast, we predicted gender-related differences in the potential for negative social reputations and in actual rates of unwanted sex. First, we predicted that new students would perceive an average female student’s social reputation would be significantly more compromised than a male student’s reputation after engaging in sexual behaviors during a hook up (Hypothesis 3). Finally, we predicted that women would be at greater risk for sexual compliance and sexual coercion than men (Hypothesis 4), that new students who hooked up would be at greater risk for both forms of unwanted sex than students who did not hook up (Hypothesis 5), and that gender would interact with hooking up such that women who hooked up during the transition to college would be more likely to report unwanted sex (Hypothesis 6) than either other women or than men.
Undergraduate students were recruited for a study in October of their first year of college. The sample was restricted to students who self-identified as heterosexual (N = 134; 74.6% female). The average age was 18.10 (SD = 0.33, range 18 to 20). About 79% self-identified as White/Caucasian. About 65% reported past consensual sexual intercourse (oral, vaginal, or anal). About 61% were not dating anyone at the time of study participation.
Hook ups were defined based on the definition used by Paul and Hayes (2002). After reading this definition, participants were asked “Since beginning college, how many times have you “hooked up”?” Those who provided a non-zero response to this question were classified as having hooked up during the initial transition to college.
Sexual permissiveness was assessed with a 10-item scale from the Brief Sexual Attitudes Scale (BSAS; Hendrick, Hendrick, & Reich 2006). A sample item is “The best sex is with no strings attached.” Respondents rated their agreement each item on a 5 point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). Responses were averaged; higher scores reflect greater sexual permissiveness. The authors provide evidence for reliability and validity. In the present study, the estimate of internal consistency was high (Cronbach’s α = .92).
Descriptive social norms for hooking up were assessed with a single item adapted from Fielder and Carey (2010): “What percent of students would you say hook up at [school name]?” Possible responses ranged from 0 to 100%.
Risk for a negative social reputation was assessed with items adapted from Lambert et al. (2003). First, we defined “social acceptability” as behavior which the participant believes “could negatively impact a person’s reputation with his/her peers on campus if others knew about it.” Then we asked participants to consider the “average female student at [school name]” and to rate the social acceptability of “touching above the waist,” “touching below the waist,” “oral sex,” and “sexual intercourse” during a hook up. Next, we asked participants to consider the average male student at [school name] and to rate the social acceptability of the same behaviors during a hook up. Ratings were made on an 11 point scale (1 = very unacceptable, 11 = very acceptable). Estimates of internal consistency across behaviors for the average female (Cronbach’s α = .82) and male (Cronbach’s α = .86) student were good.
Unwanted sex since beginning college was assessed in terms of sexual compliance and sexual coercion involving oral, anal, or vaginal penetration. Directions specified that “sexual intercourse involves any penetration of a vagina, mouth, or anus, no matter how slight, by a penis, regardless of whether ejaculation occurred.” Sexual compliance was assessed with one item from Katz and Tirone (2010). “How many times have you consented to sexual intercourse, even though you didn’t want to? Only consider times when the person you were with was not pressuring you for sex.” Sexual coercion was assessed with the six sexual coercion and completed rape items from the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES; Koss & Oros 1982; Testa, VanZile-Tamsen, Livingston, & Koss, 2004). For each compliance and coercion item endorsed, participants indicated how many times they experienced each event, their relationship to the perpetrator(s), the gender of the perpetrator, their level of school at the time, and if the event occurred during a hook up. Students who indicated one or more experiences of sexual compliance or sexual coercion since starting college were classified as having unwanted sex. We also summed the total number of episodes of sexual compliance and sexual coercion since starting college.
This study was conducted at a small residential public liberal arts college in a rural town in the northeastern United States. All procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board as conforming to APA standards for the ethical treatment of research participants. First year undergraduates enrolled in introductory psychology courses were recruited online from a voluntary department subject pool for a study of First Year College Students’ Sexual Attitudes and Experiences. Data were collected in campus classrooms during October of students’ first year on campus. Participants provided informed consent and anonymously responded to self-report surveys administered by a female undergraduate. To ensure privacy, participants sat in alternating rows. Completed survey materials were submitted to a slotted box. Data sessions lasted no longer than 60 minutes. For compensation, participants received course credit. A full debriefing was provided.
We hypothesized that new students who hooked up, both women and men, would endorse more sexually permissive attitudes (Hypothesis 1) and perceive hooking up as more common on campus (Hypothesis 2) than those who did not hook up. A 2 (college hook up; present or absent) x 2 (participant gender) multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted with two dependent variables: sexually permissive attitudes and descriptive social norms. There were main effects for both hook up behavior, F(2, 126) = 22.96, p < .001, ηp2 = .24, and gender, F(2, 132) = 20.16, p < .001, ηp2 = .27, but no interaction.
Univariate follow up analyses presented in Table 2 show that our first two hypotheses were supported. New students who hooked up endorsed significantly more permissive sexual attitudes (M = 2.69) than those who did not hook up (M = 1.97). New students who hooked up perceived that significantly more students on campus hook up (72.5%) compared to new students who did not hook up (56.5%). Overall, however, new students perceived that hook ups were common. There was also a main effect of gender. Regardless of whether they hooked up in college, women reported less permissive sexual attitudes (M = 1.99) than men (M = 2.99) and women estimated that a greater percentage of students on campus hook up (M = 65.84%) than men (M = 52.66%).
We also expected that students new to college, both women and men, would perceive hook up behaviors to be less socially acceptable for the average female student compared to the average male student (Hypothesis 3). To test this hypothesis, a 2 (acceptable behavior for the average female versus average male student) x 2 (college hook up; present or absent) x 2 (participant gender) mixed MANOVA was conducted. The within-subjects variable was the gender of the average student; in contrast, both college hook up behavior and participant gender were between-subjects variables. The four dependent variables were acceptability of sexual touching above the waist, sexual touching below the waist, oral sex, and vaginal intercourse. As expected, overall, sexual behavior during a hook up was viewed as more socially acceptable for the average male student than for the average female student, F(4, 127) = 47.82, p < .001, ηp2 = .60. Within-subjects contrasts revealed differences in acceptability for touching above the waist, F(1, 130) = 72.29, ηp2 = .36, touching below the waist, F(1, 130) = 95.52, ηp2 = .42, oral sex, F (1, 130) = 154.54, ηp2 = .54, and vaginal intercourse, F(1, 130) = 179.04, ηp2 = .58, all p’s < .001.
As can be seen in Table 1, the mean acceptability scores for all four sexual behaviors by the average male student were above the neutral scale midpoint. In contrast, means for oral sex and sexual intercourse for the average female student were below the midpoint, suggesting such acts could compromise a female student’s social reputation. Sexual touching above and below the waist was typically acceptable (above the neutral midpoint) for both the average female and average male student. Still, both forms of sexual touching were significantly less acceptable for the average female student than the average male. There were no between-subjects differences; that is, the acceptability of the average female or male students’ sexual hook up behavior did not differ as a function of participant gender, own hook up behavior, or any interactions.
We also expected that women who hooked up during the transition to college would be more likely to report unwanted sex during this transition than men (Hypothesis 4). Data were consistent with this hypothesis. All unwanted sex occurred in a heterosexual context. About 13% (n = 17) of the sample reported compliant sex since starting college, and only one was a man. Similarly, about 7% (n = 9) of the sample reported sexual coercion since starting college; five women had sex coerced by verbal pressure, and four women had sex coerced while they were incapacitated. No men reported coerced sex.
Hypothesis 5 was that hooking up would increase new students’ risk for unwanted sex, and Hypothesis 6 was that hooking up would increase risk for women more than for men. Because only one man reported any unwanted sex, we could not test for significant hook up x gender interactions. Still, the observed data were consistent with hypotheses. Among new women students who hooked up, 44.0% complied with unwanted sex and 26.5% reported sexual coercion. Within the female subsample, hooking up and sexual compliance were not independent, X2(1) = 30.30, p < .001. Fifteen of 16 women (93.8%) who reported sexual compliance also reported hooking up, and 75% (n = 12) of the compliant women reported complying with unwanted sex specifically with a hook up partner. Also as expected, hooking up and sexual coercion were not independent, X2(1) = 19.20, p < .001; all nine woman who reported sexual coercion since starting college also reported hooking up, and 89% were coerced specifically by a hook up partner.
This study also compared the hook up experiences of women and men new to college. Similar proportions of women and men engaged in hook ups during the transition to college, mirroring studies of college students more generally (e.g., Flack et al., 2007; Owen et al., 2010). Our results suggest women and men new to college are likely to hook-up to the degree that they view sexual encounters as “no big deal” and to the degree that they perceive hooking up is common at the college. Despite these similarities, our results showed significant differences in the perceived acceptability of women’s versus men’s sexual hook up behaviors. On average, both oral and vaginal forms of sex during a hook up were rated as socially unacceptable for the average female student. These same behaviors were rated as acceptable for the average male student. In addition, although sexual touching was socially acceptable for both genders, it was less acceptable for the average female. Notably, women and men alike perceived that the average female student was at greater risk for a negative reputation than the average male student after engaging in the same hook up behaviors. These negative social consequences may partially explain the more negative emotions reported by women relative to men following hook ups in prior studies with similar samples (Fielder & Carey, 2010; Owen et al., 2010).
Negative emotions reported by women after hook ups might also be related to experiences of unwanted hook up sex. Although unwanted sex during the first two months of college was relatively infrequent, as hypothesized, all but one episode of unwanted sex was reported by women and the vast majority occurred during a hook up. These results are consistent with previous research documenting higher rates of unwanted sex among women than men who hook up (see Flack et al., 2007). Our results also add to the scarce literature on unwanted sex among students, particularly men, specifically during the transition to college. Our study also adds to the literature by differentiating between consensual unwanted sex and sexual coercion. We found that unwanted hook up sex most often involved going along with sex that a female student did not desire rather than being coerced into unwanted sex. This finding might help explain why there is only limited support for the concept of a “red zone” – the initial transition to college when students could be at heightened risk for unwanted sex (Flack et al., 2008). Heightened risk for unwanted sex might primarily affect female students who hook up, and such sex often is seen by young women as consensual.
The present results suggest that although similar proportions of women and men hooked up, women were disproportionately affected by the potential for a negative social reputation as well as the actual experience of unwanted, possibly coercive sex. While conventional Western discourses for heterosexuality privilege men’s sexual interests (Gavey, 2005), including interests during hook ups, these discourses also have the potential to create pressure for men to comply with unwanted sex in order to avoid being perceived as “un-masculine.” This possibility should be explored in future research. Future research might also examine potentially conflicting pressures faced by young women related to social norms and feminine ideals. In Western society, the ideal contemporary college woman is presumed to be a sexually empowered, rational free agent who makes her own choices and is responsible for them (“The Together Woman”; Bay-Cheng & Eliseo-Arias, 2008, p. 387). The sexually permissive hook up culture offers college women opportunities for casual sexual activity in what may appear to be an egalitarian, permissive environment. New women students may therefore be surprised to find that hooking up may lead to negative judgments, unwanted sex, or both. That is, they may not have expected that more conventional feminine ideals might affect how they are treated both by their sexual partners and peers more generally (Bogle, 2008). If she sees herself as a Together Woman, however, a new female student may also blame herself for these negative consequences.
A major limitation of the present study involves the focus on potential negative consequences of hooking up, rather than potential benefits. Although our focus was based on prior research, we acknowledge that our findings present an important but incomplete picture of college students’ casual sexual encounters. As a general trend, sexuality researchers typically study casual sexual encounters in terms of negative consequences (Kalmuss, 2004). This trend may reflect a larger societal bias against the positive elements of sexual exploration among young people, particularly women (Tolman, 2005). Although college student’s hook-ups may present challenges, particularly for women, hook ups also may be a satisfying and beneficial part of the college experience. Furthermore, by acknowledging challenges faced by women specifically, we do not mean to imply that women should avoid sexual exploration outside of committed relationships. Rather, acknowledging women’s vulnerabilities as a function of sociocultural discourses about gender and (hetero)sex illustrates that female vulnerability is socially constructed, not an inherent part of sexuality (Bay-Cheng, 2010). Future studies are needed to examine a wider range of consequences and perceptions of hook up experiences, both positive and negative, to help broaden our understanding of positive casual sex experiences among both women and men.
Other limitations of the present study also should be noted. The use of cross-sectional data precludes any presumptions regarding directionality. Though it is intuitive to assume attitudes (such as sexual permissiveness) are precursors to hooking up, such attitudes might also be a consequence of hooking up. Longitudinal studies may help to disentangle these possibilities. Another limitation is that our sample was relatively small and predominately female, potentially under-representing the range of men’s experiences. Because the sample was homogenous in terms of demographic characteristics, findings may not generalize to more diverse samples of college students. Furthermore, because data were collected from one school in the rural northeastern U.S., findings may not necessarily generalize to other geographic contexts. Because this was a study of the initial transition to college, students were enrolled for only a few months. Studies involving a longer transition (such as the entire first semester or first year of college) may show higher rates of hooking up, unwanted sex, or both.
Despite these limitations, our study has numerous implications for campus programming to promote healthy sexuality for new students. Rather than focusing specifically on safe sex or sexual assault education, our findings suggest the potential utility of a broader approach in which students examine their sexual beliefs, values, and assumptions. Open discussions with resident assistants or peer educators acknowledging both the pleasurable and risky elements of hook ups might support varied levels of involvement in hook up culture. Explicit discussions about negotiating conflicts between individual desires and social (or partner) expectations also might help promote more autonomous sexual choices. Frank discussions about discourses of sexuality and sexual double standards also might assist students in promoting truly egalitarian heterosexual interactions. Finally, social norms interventions might help incoming students who are eager to fit into a new environment. Given the tendency to overestimate others’ hook up behaviors (Lambert et al., 2003) and the association between perceived descriptive social norms and actual behavior, publicizing local rates of hooking up might provide corrective feedback.
In conclusion, we found that students new to a residential campus are more likely to hook up if they hold permissive sexual attitudes and perceive hook ups as common on campus. At the same time, we found that risk for a negative social reputation and for unwanted, possibly coercive sex during hook ups may affect new female students specifically. Hooking up may help some new students feel acclimated to college; at the same time, for some young women, hooking up also may lead to unexpected challenges during an already challenging transition.
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