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She Wants To, She Wants To Not: Predicting Women’s Casual Sex in College

We’ve highlighted a fair amount of research on casual sex (see here) and hookups (see here) over the past couple of years. Although these studies are incredibly interesting, past researchers typically have not tracked people (and their hookups) over time to identify the factors that signal if hookups are likely to occur in the future. In a new article published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, the researchers do just that, by measuring a range of characteristics among women when they first started college and then tracking their hookups across the next eight months (i.e., their first year of college).1 

Nearly 500 newly-enrolled, mostly heterosexual, college women completed a range of measures at the beginning of the study, and then at the end of each month, the women reported on their hookups during that month. They were asked if they had engaged in oral sex (giving or receiving) and penile/vaginal sex with a “casual partner” defined as “someone whom you were not dating or in a romantic relationship with at the time of the physical intimacy, and there was no mutual expectation of a romantic commitment. Some people call these hookups.”

The researchers calculated overall hookup behavior across the year by adding the monthly tallies: 20-25% of the sample had hooked up (giving or receiving oral sex, or penile/vaginal sex) during the year, and for those who did hook up, they averaged 6 instances of giving oral sex, receiving oral sex nearly 4 times, and having penile/vaginal intercourse almost 7 times. The researchers then looked to see if the various factors measured at the beginning of the study predicted (a) whether the women ever hooked up during that year and, if so, (b) how many times they hooked up.

For the sake of brevity, here’s a summary of the strongest and most consistent findings in this study:

  • Women who had hooked up before college were likely to continue hooking up once getting to college. Social psychologists are fond of saying that “past behaviors are the best predictor of future behaviors,” and that’s certainly the case when it comes to hooking up.
  • When inhibitions and self-control are decreased (see more here), the odds of hooking up increase. In support of this idea, binge drinking and marijuana use were consistently related to more hook-ups.
  • Intending to hook up (i.e., making the decision prior to college that hooking up is something you want to try) was strongly associated with following through (though not with the overall number of times they hooked up; just that they ever did it).
  • Women who tended to pay attention to their friends’ behaviors and compare themselves to their peers were more likely to hook up (similar to the above, this effect was only for ever doing it, not the overall number of hookups; it’s possible that they try it once but didn’t enjoy it).
  • People who put themselves in situations where hookups occur (parties/bars; where others are hooking up; around attractive people who want to hookup) were more likely to follow through.
  • Being in a committed relationship did not keep women from hooking up with new partners, nor did it increase their chances of hooking up. Essentially, relationship status was a non-factor.
  • Other than religiosity, which was consistently related to fewer hookups, other personality variables were inconsistent predictors at best. Essentially, there’s not a personality profile of women who hookup, at least with respect to the variables assessed in this study.

The power of this study is that it identifies the factors associated with casual sex and hooking up over time, such as intentions and past behaviors related to hooking up, party situations and substance use, and comparing oneself to friends. However, it doesn’t address important issues like the positive or negative outcomes related to hookups. Are there psychological benefits to hooking-up? Do women tend to regret hooking up (and if so, what types of hookups are the most regretted)? This study leaves these questions to other researchers.

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1Fielder, R. L., Walsh, J. L., Carey, K. B., & Carey, M. P. (in press). Predictors of sexual hookups: A theory-based, prospective study of first-year college women. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.

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Reader Comments (1)

The problems occur when the girl wants more than just a one night stand. As long as she knows what her and the guy both expect, I see little harm as long as they both play safe.

August 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRelationship Surgery
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