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The death knell for dating?

College students find themselves in a cultural bubble, where notions of dating, love and sex tend to be turned on their head, resulting in high rates of hookups and the loss of dating.

Justin Garcia

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Justin Garcia

"I ask students, 'How many of you would like to go to dinner and a movie with someone you meet?' They say, 'Yeah, a date would be cool.' But few college students have done this. They say it just doesn't happen," said Justin R. Garcia, evolutionary biologist and researcher at The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University Bloomington. "They really want a dating culture ... but it's nearly dead."

Garcia and a research team that included a biomedical anthropologist, developmental psychologist and queer theory personality psychologist scoured research involving this unique group of emerging adults -- not adolescents but not quite young adults, either -- to examine how they negotiate relationships and sexuality.

"If we're going to take college health seriously, we have to think of the context in which dating, love and sex occur. This is the context college students are experiencing -- hookups first and then 'maybe' relationships," Garcia said. "We need to understand the physical and psychological consequences, both positive and negative."

The study, published in the Review of General Psychology last year, found that 60 to 80 percent of college students hook up at least once, with half saying they did so with the intent of beginning a relationship. The evidence reviewed suggests most students are having more hookups than first dates, and while many students are only experiencing a few hookups, on average most men and women have several. This clashes with a rapidly changing dating culture in the U.S. that has emphasized dating and relationship building and even marriage before sexual relations.

"Most (college students) aren't dating to find a partner," Garcia said. "Students tell us they do go to the movies together, but it's often after they wake up next to him or her. They do dating-esque things after they've had an uncommitted sexual encounter."

He said this hookup culture coincides with a re-ordering of sexual behavior reported by college students, with greater occurrence of oral sex before more traditional intercourse and higher rates of heterosexual anal sex. In the studies reviewed by Garcia and his colleagues, students described "hookups" broadly, some involving just kissing or oral sex. The various definitions give students wiggle room to either inflate their number of hookups or minimize it.

Garcia said traditional college students are a unique group of people developmentally because they often assume adult responsibilities, such as managing money and time, while their brains continue to undergo developmental changes that lead into young adulthood.

Students uninterested in hookups in college face an abysmal dating scene, Garcia said, but could benefit from better understanding the pressures they face and that they are short-term, that dating culture is alive and well outside the bubble.

"As they move off the college campus, out of emerging adulthood and into the next stage of life, we see people moving into more traditional dating," he said.

Co-authors of "Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review," include Chris Reiber, Sean G. Massey and Ann M. Merriwether of Binghamton University.

Garcia, Common Themes in Reproductive Diversity research fellow at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, can be reached at 812.855.7686 or jusrgarc@indiana.edu

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