Duke Magazine
by Bridget Booher
Are today’s college students only interested in random sexual hookups? Is dating outdated? The answers—culled from one of the most comprehensive surveys of Duke students’ social lives ever conducted—may surprise you..
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern
Michael Morgenstern

Today’s college students have no interest in dating, seek physical intimacy through random sexual encounters, and consider drunken promiscuity the social norm on campus. That’s been the dominant narrative reported by the mainstream media, by college task forces on student life, and, in many cases, by students themselves. Duke undergraduates in particular have received inordinate scrutiny for their sex lives. I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel by Duke parent Tom Wolfe, depicts a campus setting believed by most observers and critics to be based on Duke (though he’s claimed otherwise). In the book, an innocent young woman is debauched by the toxic dynamics of a predominant social (and sexual) order ruled by Greeks, athletes, and spoiled, spiteful rich girls.

In 2006, at the height of the lacrosse debacle, a salacious Rolling Stone article, “Sex and Scandal at Duke,” described the university as a place where “traditional intercourse is common, and oral sex nearly ubiquitous, regarded as sort of a form of elaborate kissing that doesn’t really mean very much.” And in October, a young alumna’s raunchy rankings of her (mostly) drunken sexual conquests became national news..

Duke social scientists S. Philip Morgan and Suzanne Shanahan had heard the rhetoric and reports of damage wrought by the so-called hookup culture, where hooking up is generally understood to be a physical encounter that may or may not include sexual
intercourse. Neither Shanahan’s nor Morgan’s research focuses on the social relationships of college students. Morgan, the
Norb F. Schaefer Professor of international studies and professor of sociology, is an authority on how structural and cultural factors contribute to variations in global fertility rates across populations. Shanahan is associate director of the Kenan Institute
for Ethics and an associate research professor of sociology; her research interests include corporate social responsibility, the effects of immigration on racial violence, and ethical crises in business, higher education, organized religion, and the military.

Still, as social scientists interested in behavioral currents within specific groups of people, they couldn’t help noticing that
none of the dire reports about today’s dissolute youth provided substantive, quantitative data to support their claims.

“When we looked at how academic surveys of the hookup culture were conducted, we found that they were being done in a way that was nonrepresentative of the overall student population,” says Morgan. “Often it would be student volunteers handing out surveys to classes on sex and sexuality. Or the surveys would ask, Have you ever hooked up? without defining what that means.”

Furthermore, the few surveys that had been done only asked about students’ behavior once they arrived at college. Shanahan says she and Morgan suspected that there were patterns of behavior that began in high school (or earlier). “We were curiousabout a trajectory of behavior over time,” she says. “Were people coming to campus with a set of behaviors and continuing them, or, as some people believe, were students showing up innocent and becoming ‘corrupted’ by what they encountered?

So Morgan and Shanahan designed an online survey that they distributed in November of 2007. Geared to two cohorts—freshmen and seniors—the 162-question survey asked a wide range of questions, including general demographic information, frequency and amount of alcohol intake, Greek and athletic affiliation, academic major, and impressions of peer-group behavior.

There were specific, explicit questions about sexual encounters both for those indicating that they had hooked up and for those who said they were in an exclusive romantic relationship. The survey also asked about post-hookup feelings, sexual satisfaction, and feelings of self worth. Finally, the survey polled students about their plan for relationships after graduation, including whether and when they planned to marry and have children and whether they planned to remain faithful to their future spouse.

More than 75 percent of students responded, a significantly high rate indicating results that are statistically representative of
the general student population, according to Morgan and Shanahan. To encourage participation, the survey was distributed via email, so students could respond from the privacy of their dorm rooms, and respondents received a nominal payment deposited directly into their flex accounts. But Morgan observes that people in general are more likely to respond to questionnaires that pertain to something that interests them. (By comparison, a survey by the Center for Instructional Technology on students’ use of the Blackboard teaching tool garnered a 26 percent response rate.)

What emerges, the researchers say, is a portrait of a diverse student body, an image that runs counter to the prevailing accounts of college life. Approximately one-third of all respondents reported that they were in exclusive, romantic relationships. Another third said they had participated in a hookup—which the researchers defined as “sexual activity with someone outside of an exclusive romantic relationship.” But less than one-third of that group had engaged in sexual intercourse (the remaining hookups didn’t go beyond kissing and fondling, or, to use a previous generation’s term, making out). The final third of respondents reported that they neither hooked up nor were in a committed relationship.

Blair Sheppard Data for freshmen and seniors show roughly one-third of students are in exclusive relationships, another third participated in a hookup—defined as some sort of sexual activity outside of a romantic relationship—and final third participated in neither; seniors are more likely to be in a relationship than freshmen.

Other key findings include:
• Nearly 60 percent of freshmen reported that they were still virgins.
• Race and ethnicity play an important role. Asian students were the least likely to be in a relationship or to have hooked
up; Asians, blacks, and those who participate regularly in religious activities were significantly less likely to hook up than white or Latino students.
• Members of Greek organizations were much more likely to hook up than non- Greeks. (This reflects the senior-class
respondents only, as the survey was conducted before rush, and freshmen weren’t yet in a fraternity or sorority.) Contributing to this statistic is the correlation between alcohol and hookups, and the fact that alcohol consumption among members of Greek organizations is higher than in the overall student population.
• Students had bought into the idea that hooking up was the behavioral standard. Most students estimated that at least half of Duke students were active in the hookup scene.
• Both men and women in committed relationships reported the highest level of sexual satisfaction and self-esteem, followed closely by those hooking up. (This contradicts assertions that hookups per se are demeaning to women.)
• Nearly all respondents plan to marry and have children; they said they do not plan to hook up after marriage—even when there is no chance of getting caught.

Shanahan admits she was pleasantly confounded by the results. “I had sort of bought into the notion that there was something about the campus culture that was damaging to young people who came into it,” she says. “At the same time, part of my frustration with what I was hearing and reading was that the conclusions were based on selective stories. Well, if you’re looking at a predefined problem—and you define hooking up as a problem, which is how many journalistic accounts approach it—then you are going to go out and find people who illustrate the worst of that problem. So we saw all this hysteria about hooking up, but when you look at the data, you get a much more subtle and informed picture of what people are actually doing.”

Morgan, an empiricist by nature, was less surprised. “If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in my career, when you look at the data, things haven’t changed as much as people think they have. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a lot of acceptability around sexual experimentation. People had one-night stands. A significant number of Baby Boomers were pregnant when they got married, so premarital sex is not new. There’s historical and cultural continuity to these contemporary behaviors.”

The survey generated a wealth of data, from the influence of religion in students’ lives (nearly 40 percent of students
say it is very important to them) to criteria used for selecting a romantic or hookup partner. Some conclusions confirm results of other, less data-driven studies—students who drink hook up more often than those who do not, and students gravitate to friends and peer groups that share their standards of social behavior.

While there is some overlap among the three categories of relationships, Shanahan’s hunch that past behavior can predict
future behavior proved correct. Freshmen who had hooked up in high school were more likely to hook up once they got to Duke, for example. And students who had friends in exclusive, long-term relationships were more likely to be in an exclusive relationship themselves.

Senior Lindsey Wallace started dating her boyfriend, Tony Tomasello, when both were high-school juniors in Greenville, South Carolina. When it became clear that the two would attend different colleges—he enrolled in the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg—they decided to stay together, despite the difficulty of distance. “We knew it would be hard,” she says, “but we decided to make it work.”

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