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Young adults and a hookup culture

By Ian Kerner, Special to CNN
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Thu May 16, 2013
There's a decline in dating culture and a rise in hookup culture among college students, according to a new book.
There's a decline in dating culture and a rise in hookup culture among college students, according to a new book.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new book says college students are hooking up more often
  • The author says the experience leaves them feeling empty, sad and regretful
  • Do students view hookups as an alternative to a relationship?

Editor's note: Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, writes about sex and relationships for CNN Health. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

(CNN) -- For many young adults, college is a rite of passage, filled with experiences ranging from parties to all-night cram sessions to that first serious relationship.

Yet romance may be getting short shrift these days, replaced instead with quick "hookups" devoid of any real emotion. That's the argument of a provocative new book, "The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy."

Not only are more college students hooking up -- kissing, making out and having sex -- but these experiences often leave them feeling empty, sad and regretful, author Donna Freitas argues.

But is this generation's view of sex and love really so grim?

Ian Kerner
Ian Kerner

Freitas's book is partially based on the results of an earlier Internet survey she conducted of 2,500 U.S. college students at secular public, secular private and Catholic universities.

Of the 557 male and female students who responded to a question asking how they felt the morning after a hookup, 41% of those expressed sadness, regret and ambivalence.

The problem, contends Freitas, is a culture that overwhelmingly pressures young men and women to have meaningless hookups -- even though they might not enjoy it.

When your child walks in during sex

It's an intriguing argument, but is it really accurate?

"What has really changed is that among youth we see a decline in dating culture and so most college students have had more hookups than first dates," says Justin Garcia, a sex researcher at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana.

"Our data has shown that one of the greatest contributors to hookup behavior is a desire for sexual pleasure. However, there are also a large number of college students -- around 50% in one of our studies -- that hook up because they are hoping to start a romantic relationship or want emotional gratification."

Additionally, Kristen Mark, a sex and relationships researcher at the University of Kentucky, has found that students tend to view casual hookups as a positive alternative to romantic relationships.

"When we discuss the topic of casual sex and the hookup culture, they talk about it in the context of being too busy now to maintain a relationship or not wanting to make a relationship a priority at this stage in their life," she says. "Without exception, they discuss a long-term monogamous relationship as their desired end goal, but for now, casual sex meets their needs."

But true hookup culture isn't just about sex itself, says Freitas.

"Students define the sexual aspect of the hookup as 'anything from kissing to sex'," she explains. "To equate a hookup with casual sex is to miss the really important part of the conversation, which is that students feel so much pressure to show they are a part of things that they'll count almost anything as a hookup."

Why you should talk about sex before marriage

In other words, today's college culture has turned hooking up into a sport that all the "cool" kids are playing -- or at least talking about -- even if they secretly hate it.

But is hooking up -- and its sometimes bittersweet emotions -- just part of life?

"Although we tend to associate hookups with college students, people of all ages are doing it," says Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and Harvard researcher.

"Many men and women do express regret over some of their past hookups. But this is nothing new -- for as long as people have been having sex, they've had sexual regrets. And it's important to note that people often regret their romantic relationships, too, but we don't take that as a reason people should stop pursuing love."

Freitas says she would like to see college administrators take a role in expanding sexual education programs on campus. She also encourages young people to take breaks from "hooking up," find quiet time to talk to friends about intimacy and go out on real dates.

Emily Nagoski, wellness education director at Smith College, believes a holistic approach is necessary: "To create a culture that fosters satisfying relationships and sex, we must teach students how to live inside their bodies with confidence and joy," she explains. "Sex is part of that, but so are food, physical activity, sleep and mental health. The solution is living inside your body, rather than inside your beliefs about what's expected of you."

What to do after an affair

The good news? The urge to participate in hookup culture might be fleeting.

"As people get a bit older, we also see more traditional dating practices across all age groups," says Garcia. "That will never change -- pursuit of sex and love are at the core of the human condition."

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