At the recent conference on relationships research that many of us attended (see posts here), some folks mused about the increased attention social science is giving to uncommitted relationships, casual sex, and “hooking up,” as if it’s a new thing culturally (when in fact, it may not be). For those who are old enough to remember the 1960s and 70s, those times marked a period known as the “sexual revolution,” and casual sex was very common. So why has it taken so long for scientists to catch up? Or is there something different about our society today?
Some argue that today’s youth is highly sexualized compared to previous generations. This argument comes from research suggesting that, on average, teenagers today are sexually active at an early age and young adults are quick to have sex with a new partner at the start of the relationship (although much of this research lacks comparisons to earlier generations).1 For example, an estimated 60% of adolescents have had sex both within committed relationships and also with partners they were not attached to.2
Did someone put something in the water or the energy drinks that makes young adults behave this way? Well, mainstream media may have something to do with it. There certainly is a lot of casual sex on TV and movies (check out these posts as examples), and while this may not directly influence behavior, it does influence attitudes. Research suggests that college students falsely believe their peers enjoy casual sex much more than they actually do (something we call “pluralistic ignorance”),3,4 and these incorrect beliefs are partially a result of stories and images that people see in the media.5
What about traditional dating? Doesn’t anyone do that anymore? Some research points to negative attitudes about commitment, intimacy, and trust in today’s youth. Take these excerpts, as examples (from a chapter in the Handbook of Relationship Initiation1):
“Commitment isn’t cool…Long-term relationships have a more negative aspect—like it is more of a job…I’m about hanging with my friends, having fun…relationships are a drag.”
“There’s no baggage like there is with my boyfriend. Hookups are disposable relationships.”
“Hookups have made me concerned about future…relationships and whether I can trust anyone. Several girls that I’ve hooked up with…have had boyfriends…this will most likely make me very jealous throughout a long-term relationship.”
Embedded in these statements is the idea that indviduals can easily separate the physical/sexual and emotional aspects of a relationship, and that the sexual aspect (without the emotional) is more fun, light, and comfortable. We’ll return to this idea in future posts. Stay tuned.
1Paul, E. L., Wenzel, A., & Harvey, J. (2008). Hookups: A facilitator or a barrier to relationship initiation and intimacy development? In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 375-390). New York, NY US: Psychology Press.
2Manning, W.D., Longmore, M.A., & Giordano (2005). Adolescents’ involvement in non-romantic sexual activity. Social Science Research, 34, 384-407.
3Reiber, C., & Garcia, J. R. (2010). Hooking up: Gender differences, evolution, and pluralistic ignorance. Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 390–404.
4Lambert, T. A., Kahn, A. S., & Apple, K. J. (2003). Pluralistic ignorance and hooking up. Journal Of Sex Research, 40(2), 129-133.
5Chia, S. C., & Gunther, A. C. (2006). How media contribute to misperceptions of social norms about sex. Mass Communication & Society, 9, 301–320.
Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.