The recent essay “Changes in American Adults’ Sexual Behavior and Attitudes, 1972-2012” made the news last week (see here, here and here). There were two key take aways from the study based on data from over 30,000 adults in the General Social Survey.
“Millennials (also known as Gen Y or Generation Me, born 1982–1999) were the most accepting of non-marital sex.”
“Number of sexual partners increased steadily between the G.I.s and 1960s-born GenX’ers and then dipped among Millennials to return to Boomer levels.”
In other words, millennials seemed to be ok with hooking up but do not do so as frequently as past generations. This should strike us as odd. If, as we are consistently told, millennials fully embrace hookup culture, why do they not practice it more often?
I think this situation is because something more complicated than stereotypical hookup culture is going on. In fact, I think it indicates that, while millennials are very tolerant of differences in sexual behavior, on the whole they want something more than meaningless hookups. Here are four more studies in addition to the one above that I think point to this.
Only a few practice stereotypical hookup culture. In “A New Perspective on Hooking Up Among College Students,” the authors find that, in their study, “30% of participants accounted for 74% of those reporting hooking up.” It seems that hookup culture is restricted to a few people. Most don’t participate regularly, even if they are tolerant of those that do. Most seem to being saying, “that is ok for them, but I don’t want it.” What do they want?
Most want hooking up to lead to a relationship. In his survey of research on hookup culture, Justin Garcia found that “65% of women and 45% of men reported that they hoped their hookup encounter would become a committed relationship.” This is not just a private wish. People talk about it. 51% of women and 42% of men explicitly asked about relationships after hooking up. So, while hooking up from the outside might look like meaningless encounters, for most it is a strategy for finding and developing relationships. This motive seems to be linked to one of the main reasons for regret in hookup culture.
The lack of “something more” is what often leads to regret after a hookup. In their essay, “Hookups and Sexual Regret Among College Women,” Elain Eshbaugh and Gary Gute note, “When we controlled for age, religiosity, and other sexual-behavior variables, we found that two of the hooking up variables—engaging in intercourse with someone once and only once and engaging in intercourse with someone known for less than 24 hours—significantly predicted sexual regret.” The lack of knowledge and familiarity, the lack of a possible relationship, means that people often were unhappy about the hookup. This sense of regret and the desire for a relationships leads to the greatest indicator of pre-marital sex (which is NOT hooking up).
Sex is more likely in a relationship than in a hookup. In their Premarital Sex in America, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker write that “falling in love is a far greater sexual risk than is a night out on the town. In fact, sustained romance is nearly a guarantee of subsequent sex.” So, it seems that millennials want sex to mean something. They might have sex during a hookup, but this is most often the result of a string of hookups with the same person and most often with the hopes of building a relationship. This is a difficult process and why most do not have sex in a hookup. They seem to prefer it in a relationship, in a context where it means something. Hence, they tend to have a lower number of sexual partners.
These studies indicate a more complex picture of millenials and hooking up. They neither engage in a series of meaningless encounters nor seek to return to the late nineteenth century idea of courtship. Most millennials want something meaningful in their relationships, even though they realize and are tolerant of those who differ.
For those of us in moral theology, this should give us hope. It is a starting point to talk about why people have these desires for something more and what can be done about them. Even more so, it opens up a conversation about religion. The authors of “The Effect of Religion on Risky Sexual Behavior Among College Students” note that religion provides both institutional and social support for delaying sex and having fewer partners. Given the similarity between this and the trajectory noted in the studies above, a conversation between religion and millennials might prove very interesting and fruitful for both.