In the distant past, most people’s first experience of sex happened within a romantic relationship, but today it often happens in a casual encounter. Although the rise of “hook up” culture is causing a moral panic among parents, schools and the media, it hasn’t stopped most young people from entering into sexual relationships of one type of another by the age of 16 or 17.
For women in particular, this shift in culture has brought forth a host of conflicting messages. Women continue to be held up as paragons of virtue, and as the gatekeepers of sexual activity. And the people around young women – from their parents, to their classmates and friends – often tell young women that having sex outside of a committed relationship is bad. At the same time, modern culture tells young women that pleasing men sexually is important, even if it is at the detriment of their own sexual pleasure.
As part of a new study at a large public university in the western United States, a team of researchers and I sought to understand how women make sense of all the mixed messages they received as teenagers, once they arrive on university campuses and are suddenly surrounded by pressure to take part in the “freshman experience” – including casual sex.
We interviewed 45 young women who were heterosexually active, between the ages of 18 and 24, attending the university. The women discussed their sexual history and backgrounds, and talked about how they viewed casual sex at university. All our participants felt that casual sex was the norm on campus, but not all women participated in casual sex.
While the young women interviewed did not see a connection between their earlier experiences and their participation (or lack thereof) in hookup culture, the researchers did. In fact, having certain types of experiences as a teenager so clearly affected how women engaged with hookup culture, that we identified five distinct categories.
1. The religious
One group of young women, which the researchers named “the religious”, talked about having sex for the first time with their long-term high school boyfriends. They were still in a relationship with these men at the time we conducted the interviews.
These women all came from religious backgrounds, endorsed traditional gender roles in romantic relationships and had been told that sex before marriage was wrong. Those messages didn’t stop the young women from having sex, but it did mean that they felt they had to defend their behaviour. Oftentimes, they condemned the casual sexual behaviour of their friends, so that they could feel better about their own sexual behaviour within a romantic relationship.
2. The relationship seekers
Another group of young women, which we named the “relationship seekers”, also endorsed traditional gender roles, but were not religious. These young women engaged in casual sex with the express purpose of finding a romantic partner.
They felt ashamed about having casual sex, but justified it to themselves and others by framing it as something they had to do to convey their interest in a relationship to men. But men didn’t seem to get the message, and none of these women were successful in finding relationships.
3. The high school partiers
The “high school partiers” came from backgrounds in which teen pregnancy and teen motherhood was common. They enthusiastically participated in casual sex in adolescence, and by the time they reached university they intended to stop having sex altogether.
They also felt some relief that they had made it to legal adulthood without experiencing a pregnancy. When they did arrive at university, they had casual sex anyway, and quickly became involved in romantic relationships, although they were not seeking them.
4. The late bloomers
A few young women, the “late bloomers” were late to sex. They had no interest in sex earlier in adolescence and both their parents and friends were silent on the subject. Yet, despite their earlier lack of interest, when they hit the university setting where casual sex was the norm, they jumped in.
Despite embracing hookup culture, they felt some shame attached to casual sex, and some confusion given the earlier silence on the subject of sex among their communities, schools, parents and even peers. As a result, they compared themselves favourably to other young women whom they felt had “too much” sex – that is, more sex then they had.
5. The career women
The fifth category we identified was the “career women”. When they were teenagers, sex was talked about positively in their their schools, among their friends and by their parents. These young women saw sex as natural and had no trouble engaging in casual sex. In fact, they used casual sex as a way to engage in some level of intimacy without taking time from their studies, while they saw romantic relationships as taking too much time from their own development and future goals.
The young women we interviewed all saw their behaviour in university as independent from their earlier experiences as teenagers. But it was clear to us researchers that the way sex was talked about at home, in schools and among peers – as well as the sexual experiences women had in their adolescence – all shaped how they responded to or engaged in hookup culture at university.
How we talk to young women about sex has long lasting implications for their self esteem, their sexual behaviour, and potentially even their relationships as they navigate the complicated sexual terrain they encounter as they begin university as young adults.