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Proven by Science: There Is No Such Thing as "Hookup Culture"

You’d think that sixteen years of Catholic education would’ve inured me to watching middle-aged adults freak out about sex. But even I’m a little frustrated by the media’s morally horrified preoccupation with youth “hookup culture.” (I’m looking at you, New York Times.)

That’s why I’m so glad to see a new study, from Martin A. Monto, a sociology professor at the University of Portland, cast serious doubt on the idea that young people today are magnitudes more promiscuous than their elders. His paper compared two sets of survey data—from 1988 to 1996, and from 2002 to 2010—collected from young adults with at least one year of college education. In doing so, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, he turned up “no evidence of substantial changes in sexual behavior that would support the proposition that there is a new or pervasive ‘hookup culture’ among contemporary college students.” And while relationship rates have declined, they have not dropped so substantially that we should fear the end of courtship is nigh.

Monto—“a top expert on the customers of street prostitutes,” per the Chronicle—presented his paper on Tuesday to the American Sociological Association. It’s doubtful that his findings will discourage future Jane-Goodall-among-the-chimps style anthropologies of the college sex scene. The news has very little regard for scholarship that debunks our favorite cultural myths, and I defy a single study on hookup rates to change that. Especially when stories that invoke tradition-bucking millennials probably sell pretty well.

But at least Monto has illuminated, definitively, that the real trend driving these stories is not an actual change in student behavior. What is driving them? Perhaps, as Kathleen Bogle, a LaSalle University sociologist, suggested to the Chronicle, these stories are the natural result of a culture that merely talks about casual encounters more than we used to. Young peoples’ ability to order up a booty call via text message has certainly proved alarming to their elders, even though booze probably remains the real culprit behind hookups—as I imagine it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Monto himself suggests good-old-fashioned “moral panic,” coupled with the cyclical nature of fretting for the younger generation. Any number of historical kids-these-days quotations come to mind, but I’m going to go with one from Hesiod, a Homer contemporary who once lamented, “I see no hope for the future of our people, if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today.” 

Follow on Twitter @mtredden.

Image via Shutterstock.