Doing An End Run Around Hookup Culture

December 21, 2012

Correct SpooningThis post is my Christmas present to Megaman, who has patiently asked all the right questions and provided much of the data. 

Reading the anecdotal reports of hookup culture on college campuses, one hears that very few committed relationships may be observed on campus. My own research efforts have turned up similar reports. In addition, the academic research about hookup culture, which began around 2000, consistently indicates that while 70% of students want relationships, and 50% of them hook up to get relationships, only 12% of hookups lead to relationships. Those are pretty grim odds for a hooking up strategy. In Kathleen Bogle’s groundbreaking 2008 book on hooking up, she suggests that there simply is no real alternative – hookups are the pathway to relationships. Lisa Wade, an Occidental College professor and expert on hookup culture found in her small study of 44 students that only 1% maintained a committed relationship. (Don’t ask me how that math works.)

While these numbers appear to be accurate, they do not tell the whole story. Are there students who hook up rarely or not at all and still wind up in relationships? We know that the traditional dating paradigm is dead. Men do not generally pursue women by asking them to dinner and a movie. But if a large number of students are indeed in relationships, there has to be another script for creating them. Culturally, it may be hidden – students do not perceive that it is at all easy to secure relationships. But there is some evidence that Hookup Culture and Pluralistic Evidence notwithstanding, significant percentages of college students are forming monogamous relationships.

“College Marrieds”

One form of college relationship is what is known as the College Marrieds. These are often students who meet at Freshmen Orientation or soon thereafter, join at the hip and hang on for dear life. They share all their meals, study together, and sleep together in one twin bed or the other every night (to the annoyance of many a roommate).

It is not known what percentage of students are in these relationships, which typically last the whole four years. But the phenomenon has been observed across many kinds of campuses.

Real Marrieds

At four-year colleges in the U.S., 12% of undergraduates are married.

Long Distance Relationships

The Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships has reported that 8-9 million college students are in non-marital LDRs at any one time. Out of a total of 21 million American college students, that represents 38-43% of students.

In the study Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder?, it was reported that 20% of students were currently in LDRs, and 37% have been in an LDR.

Exclusive Dating Relationships

On the National College Health Assessment, a survey of over 30,000 students, 47% reported being in a relationship, and a quarter of those are living together.

In the study Casual Sex and Psychological Health Among Young Adults: Is Having “Friends with Benefits” Emotionally Damaging?55% of respondents said that their most recent sex was with an exclusive dating partner, and 25% said it was with a fiance, spouse or spousal equivalent. Only 12% reported a non-exclusive partner, and just 8% reported sex with a casual acquaintance.

Clearly, there is more to the story – significant percentages of students are voluntarily committing to exclusive romantic relationships while in college. In view of the college sex ratio, which is 53% Female, 47% Male, this is an impressive finding. The study  BARE MARKET: Campus Sex Ratios, Romantic Relationships, and Sexual Behavior looked specifically at this effect. They found that the odds of a woman having had a boyfriend in college ranged from 87% with a 60% female population to 92% with a 47% female population. However, they also found that women’s perceptions of male behavior were significantly worse the higher the percentage of women:

As the dyadic power thesis predicts, women who attend college on campuses where they are more numerous tend to view men as less interested in commitment and less trustworthy. They are less likely to expect much from men, find it more difficult to locate the right kind of men, and are more likely to report that their relationships don’t work out and that a woman can’t have a boyfriend if she won’t have sex. If demographic opportunity were the only explanation for why campus sex ratios affect relationships, we would not expect to find these clear associations between the campus sex ratio and women’s assessments of men and relationships. It appears men behave differently in different relationship markets (or at least women perceive their behavior differently).

Such is the power of hookup culture, which in part reflects the gender imbalance in college.

 Are Hookups Replacing Romantic Relationships?




A study of 483 female freshmen revealed that relationship sex was twice as common as hookup sex, even during the first year:








Sex before college34%58%
Sex first year40%56%
Sex prior month7-18%25-38%

Note: I assume that many of these relationships are LDRs held over from high school.

Another study found that 63% of college women hope to meet their spouse in college. 

Students in Relationships Are Happier and Healthier

In a sample of 1,621 college students, individuals in committed relationships experienced fewer mental health problems and were less likely to be overweight/obese. 

Being in a committed romantic relationship decreases problematic outcomes largely through a reduction in sexual partners, which in turn decreases both risky behaviors and problematic outcomes. 

The study also looked at the quality of college relationships:

The vast majority of college dating relationships are satisfying. Unlike marriage, college daters have few if any institutional or legal barriers that mitigate against relationship dissolution. Consequently, if a college dating relationship is no longer satisfying, or if it is inconsistently satisfying, it dissolves (Arriaga, 2001).

Research has demonstrated that college students in committed relationships idealize their romantic partners and ascribe characteristics to them that are more positive than is truly warranted (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996). These positive illusions maintain satisfaction in college dating relationships even when there are threats to the quality of the relationship that might bring about its dissolution.

Participants identified their current relationship status as “engaged or committed dating relationship.” As such, this group could have included individuals who had been dating for a week and individuals who were engaged to be married in a week. It is quite unlikely, in fact, that many individuals in the sample were engaged. An estimate based on a separate sample drawn from the same population (n = 660) suggests that only 4% of students in this population are engaged to be married (Braithwaite, 2006).

If this is an accurate estimate, then the observed beneficial effect was observed in a sample with an overwhelming majority of individuals in self-defined “committed” relationships.

Clearly, while hooking up is often perceived as the primary script and only route to a long-term relationship, many students are finding ways to connect and commit using an alternative approach. It’s not really clear just how this is happening, but it’s encouraging to learn that many students have been doing an end run around a culture that offers so little benefit. 

As proof that terms can be confusing, though, it’s worth noting that in a study of the sexual behavior of Harvard students, 24% reported that they were uncertain whether they were in a romantic relationship.