Sex, Love and Celibacy

Are today’s college students only interested in random sexual hookups? Is dating outdated? The answers—culled from one of the most comprehensive surveys of Duke students’ social lives ever conducted—may surprise you..

Today’s college students have no interest in dating, seek physical intimacy through random sexual encounters, and consider drunken promiscuity the social norm on campus. That’s been the dominant narrative reported by the mainstream media, by college task forces on student life, and, in many cases, by students themselves. Duke undergraduates in particular have received inordinate scrutiny for their sex lives. I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel by Duke parent Tom Wolfe, depicts a campus setting believed by most observers and critics to be based on Duke (though he’s claimed otherwise). In the book, an innocent young woman is debauched by the toxic dynamics of a predominant social (and sexual) order ruled by Greeks, athletes, and spoiled, spiteful rich girls.

Duke social scientists S. Philip Morgan and Suzanne Shanahan had heard the rhetoric and reports of damage wrought by the so-called hookup culture, where hooking up is generally understood to be a physical encounter that may or may not include sexual
intercourse. Neither Shanahan’s nor Morgan’s research focuses on the social relationships of college students. Morgan, the Norb F. Schaefer Professor of international studies and professor of sociology, is an authority on how structural and cultural factors contribute to variations in global fertility rates across populations. Shanahan is associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and an associate research professor of sociology; her research interests include corporate social responsibility, the effects of immigration on racial violence, and ethical crises in business, higher education, organized religion, and the military.

Data for freshmen and seniors show roughly one-third of students are in exclusive relationships, another third participated in a hookup—defined as some sort of sexual activity outside of a romantic relationship—and final third participated in neither; seniors are more likely to be in a relationship than freshmen. 

Still, as social scientists interested in behavioral currents within specific groups of people, they couldn’t help noticing that none of the dire reports about today’s dissolute youth provided substantive, quantitative data to support their claims.

“When we looked at how academic surveys of the hookup culture were conducted, we found that they were being done in a way that was nonrepresentative of the overall student population,” says Morgan. “Often it would be student volunteers handing out surveys to classes on sex and sexuality. Or the surveys would ask, Have you ever hooked up? without defining what that means.”

Furthermore, the few surveys that had been done only asked about students’ behavior once they arrived at college. Shanahan says she and Morgan suspected that there were patterns of behavior that began in high school (or earlier). “We were curiousabout a trajectory of behavior over time,” she says. “Were people coming to campus with a set of behaviors and continuing them, or, as some people believe, were students showing up innocent and becoming ‘corrupted’ by what they encountered?

So Morgan and Shanahan designed an online survey that they distributed in November of 2007. Geared to two cohorts—freshmen and seniors—the 162-question survey asked a wide range of questions, including general demographic information, frequency and amount of alcohol intake, Greek and athletic affiliation, academic major, and impressions of peer-group behavior.

There were specific, explicit questions about sexual encounters both for those indicating that they had hooked up and for those who said they were in an exclusive romantic relationship. The survey also asked about post-hookup feelings, sexual satisfaction, and feelings of self worth. Finally, the survey polled students about their plan for relationships after graduation, including whether and when they planned to marry and have children and whether they planned to remain faithful to their future spouse.

More than 75 percent of students responded, a significantly high rate indicating results that are statistically representative of the general student population, according to Morgan and Shanahan. To encourage participation, the survey was distributed via email, so students could respond from the privacy of their dorm rooms, and respondents received a nominal payment deposited directly into their flex accounts. But Morgan observes that people in general are more likely to respond to questionnaires that pertain to something that interests them. (By comparison, a survey by the Center for Instructional Technology on students’ use of the Blackboard teaching tool garnered a 26 percent response rate.)

What emerges, the researchers say, is a portrait of a diverse student body, an image that runs counter to the prevailing accounts of college life. Approximately one-third of all respondents reported that they were in exclusive, romantic relationships. Another third said they had participated in a hookup—which the researchers defined as “sexual activity with someone outside of an exclusive romantic relationship.” But less than one-third of that group had engaged in sexual intercourse (the remaining hookups didn’t go beyond kissing and fondling, or, to use a previous generation’s term, making out). The final third of respondents reported that they neither hooked up nor were in a committed relationship.

Other key findings include:

  • Nearly 60 percent of freshmen reported that they were still virgins.
  • Race and ethnicity play an important role. Asian students were the least likely to be in a relationship or to have hooked up; Asians, blacks, and those who participate regularly in religious activities were significantly less likely to hook up than white or Latino students.
  • Members of Greek organizations were much more likely to hook up than non- Greeks. (This reflects the senior-class
  • respondents only, as the survey was conducted before rush, and freshmen weren’t yet in a fraternity or sorority.) Contributing to this statistic is the correlation between alcohol and hookups, and the fact that alcohol consumption among members of Greek organizations is higher than in the overall student population.
  • Students had bought into the idea that hooking up was the behavioral standard. Most students estimated that at least half of Duke students were active in the hookup scene.
  • Both men and women in committed relationships reported the highest level of sexual satisfaction and self-esteem, followed closely by those hooking up. (This contradicts assertions that hookups per se are demeaning to women.)
  • Nearly all respondents plan to marry and have children; they said they do not plan to hook up after marriage—even when there is no chance of getting caught.

Shanahan admits she was pleasantly confounded by the results. “I had sort of bought into the notion that there was something about the campus culture that was damaging to young people who came into it,” she says. “At the same time, part of my frustration with what I was hearing and reading was that the conclusions were based on selective stories. Well, if you’re looking at a predefined problem—and you define hooking up as a problem, which is how many journalistic accounts approach it—then you are going to go out and find people who illustrate the worst of that problem. So we saw all this hysteria about hooking up, but when you look at the data, you get a much more subtle and informed picture of what people are actually doing.”

Morgan, an empiricist by nature, was less surprised. “If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in my career, when you look at the data, things haven’t changed as much as people think they have. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a lot of acceptability around sexual experimentation. People had one-night stands. A significant number of Baby Boomers were pregnant when they got married, so premarital sex is not new. There’s historical and cultural continuity to these contemporary behaviors.”

The survey generated a wealth of data, from the influence of religion in students’ lives (nearly 40 percent of students say it is very important to them) to criteria used for selecting a romantic or hookup partner. Some conclusions confirm results of other, less data-driven studies—students who drink hook up more often than those who do not, and students gravitate to friends and peer groups that share their standards of social behavior.

While there is some overlap among the three categories of relationships, Shanahan’s hunch that past behavior can predict future behavior proved correct. Freshmen who had hooked up in high school were more likely to hook up once they got to Duke, for example. And students who had friends in exclusive, long-term relationships were more likely to be in an exclusive relationship themselves.

Senior Lindsey Wallace started dating her boyfriend, Tony Tomasello, when both were high-school juniors in Greenville, South Carolina. When it became clear that the two would attend different colleges—he enrolled in the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg—they decided to stay together, despite the difficulty of distance. “We knew it would be hard,” she says, “but we decided to make it work.”

Wallace says her first semester at Duke was by far the most difficult socially. At the time she didn’t drink, and she was turned off by the alcohol-fueled fraternity scene that lured many of her classmates. “Everyone goes crazy freshman year,” she says. “There’s an intoxication of freedom because kids are away from home for the first time without their parents. I think that happens at every college.”

A Benjamin N. Duke Scholar and Truman Scholarship recipient who is pursuing a double major in political science and psychology, Wallace sought out like-minded peers as she acclimated to college life. “Most of my friends are in committed relationships,” she says. “Some are still with people they were dating in high school, and some are in relationships with people they met here. I would estimate that 70 percent of my friends are in committed relationships.”

She says that she and her friends, most of whom are applying to graduate school, put high priority on academics and volunteering or service work. In addition to her course work, Wallace became president of a student organization dedicated to animal welfare and volunteers with an organization that helps recovering addicts with job and personal skills. On weekends, when she and her friends have free time to socialize, she says, they go out dancing as a group or attend Duke University Union events.

Glossary of terms.

As the fall semester got under way, Wallace was completing her application for the Rhodes Scholarship; if selected, she and Tomasello have agreed he will accompany her to Oxford while she pursues a joint degree in public policy studies and law.

While Wallace and Tomasello have been able to maintain a long-term, long-distance romance, the elongated education and career process for today’s twenty-somethings makes it more difficult for many in their generation to do both. Like Wallace, sophomore Michael Kahn dated off and on in high school, but he and his girlfriend decided not to stay togetherwhen they were admitted to different colleges.

As generations before him have done, Kahn engaged in fairly typical first-year student activities—going to parties, testing his own limits, making dozens of new friends in a short period of time, and observing the rituals of his peer group, including treks to parties and off-campus night clubs such as Shooters II, a notorious Durham hotspot. Like spring-break trips to Myrtle Beach, Shooters II is one of those seedy destinations that seem both to repel and attract students in equal measure.”

“Alcohol plays a big part in inhibiting your ability to make a good decision,” says Kahn. “There’s no way around that. So I think a lot of hookups that happen early in the year, especially for freshmen, are due to alcohol.” But Kahn says he realized fairly early on in his freshman year that the party scene wasn’t for him—and that many of his peers felt the same way. ”By the time you come back for spring semester, you’ve had your fun. And I think that’s when people start to look for more serious, longterm relationships.”

That’s what happened to him. Kahn’s best friend had begun dating a classmate, and Kahn realized he aspired to a similar relationship with someone who shared his desire for a partnership based on mutual respect, compatible goals, and relaxed familiarity. “I wanted what my friend had,” he says.


Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

For those who embrace the hookup scene, a multitude of factors can be at play. From a demographic standpoint, young people are delaying marriage, so for most college students, and particularly those at elite institutions like Duke, pursuing jobs and careers is a top priority.

“There’s a new emerging adulthood between being an adolescent and being an adult,” says Morgan. “So if you are a college student who plans to get married in their late twenties or early thirties, hooking up is indicative of wanting to be in a relationship and be sexually active, but not being ready to be married.”

A New York Times Magazine article published this past August outlined some of the significant differences between the current generation and its predecessors. Author Robin Marantz Henig noted that “two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was twenty-one for women and twenty-three for men; by 2009 it had climbed to twenty-six for women and twenty-eight for men, five years in a little more than a generation.”

Shanahan notes that she has heard from students whose parents have made it very clear that college is not the place to court a prospective spouse. “I recently had one student, a senior, tell me that she hadn’t told her parents she’d been in the same relationship for four years because her parents would tell her to stop wasting her time. In other words, there was plenty of time down the road to have a boyfriend, and this was not the time. This was not the first time I heard this parental worry.”

Other students say they welcome the hookup scene as a way to flaunt their burgeoning sexuality or define their sexual
identity. One young woman who graduated last May said that she became a fixture on the party/hookup scene—having sex with more than a dozen male peers in a six-month period—after she discovered her boyfriend had been cheating on her. “I embraced it wholeheartedly and convinced myself I could do it and not have any regrets,” says the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “Part of that was my belief that having sex with anyone I wanted represented true female empowerment. But what I’ve come to realize is that true empowerment is having high self-esteem, not seeing how many guys you can get. Hookups are adult energy expressed in childish ways.”

Tellingly, when students interviewed for this story (not all of whom are included here) were asked what they thought of peers who have multiple, random sexual partners, the word used most frequently was “sad.”

“It used to be that if a girl slept around, she was called a slut, but if a guy slept around, he was supposed to be congratulated,” says Michael Kahn. “But that’s changing. Everyone knows who the promiscuous people are. I think most people, men and women both, want to be able to look themselves in the mirror and respect what they see.”

Sexual activity in most recent sexual encounter by relationship type, seniors and freshmen combined.

One of the most significant and encouraging things that came out of the study, he says, is that “Duke is an incredibly diverse place, and that’s healthy. Students are going to find their own way. As educators, we like to think we are molding the next generation, that what we do here will profoundly shape how these students turn out. But that’s often not the case. Part of college life is experimentation. But the notion that they walk in here one way and the culture\dramatically changes their behavior is not true. There are lots of cultures here.”

Sophomore Michael Kahn echoes the point. Duke offers a wide range of social options, and it’s up to the individual to decide what feels right for him or her, he says. “You can make Duke what you want it to be.

“My advice for a new student would be to meet as many people as you can first semester, because those are the people who will become your friends. They will mean more to you than some random person you hook up with; they’ll be the ones you’ll want to spend your time with—and maybe have a relationship with.”

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