The long-term consequences of the hook-up culture
By Colleen Carroll Campbell
Once confined to dorm-room gossip sessions, salacious details about the
culture on today's college campuses have become fodder for serious sociological
No fewer than four books on the topic have been published this year alone.
Among them are sociologist Kathleen Bogle's unflinching investigation of campus
sexual norms in "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus" and
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laura Sessions Stepp's alarming analysis of
promiscuity's emotional costs in "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay
Love and Lose at Both."
In another — "Sex and the Soul" — Boston University religion professor Donna
Freitas probes the disturbing disconnect between students' religious
convictions and sexual choices. And in "Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex
is Affecting Our Children," obstetrician/gynecologists Joe McIlhaney and Freda
McKissic Bush survey the scientific evidence for psychological scars linked to
supposedly strings-free sex.
These authors often differ in their analyses of the hook-up culture's root
causes and costs. Yet the proliferation of similar studies in recent years
suggests an emerging consensus among experts that today's anything-goes campus
sexual mores carry lasting consequences we only have begun to understand. And
those consequences extend well beyond unwanted pregnancies and sexually
While campus safe-sex advocates carefully instruct college students in the art
of applying condoms and quizzing prospective partners about their sexual
histories, most avoid grappling with the emotional, spiritual and moral
consequences of casual sex. University-sponsored "Sex Week" festivities — a new
staple on many campuses that typically blends provocative lectures from
pornographers and "sexperts" with condom giveaways — rarely feature discussions
of how hooking up in college may hinder the search for lasting love after
The transitory, transactional and often anonymous sexual encounters that have
replaced dating on most campuses give young adults the illusion of intimacy
without the hassle of relationships. But those flings may exact a high toll
when today's swinging singles try to become tomorrow's committed spouses.
A new study suggests that the hook-up generation already is showing signs of
marital strain. David Atkins, a research associate professor of psychiatry and
behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, recently analyzed 15 years
of data from the General Social Survey and found a rise in reported infidelity
among young couples. In 1991, about 15 percent of men and 12 percent of women
younger than 35 said they had been unfaithful in their marriages. In 2006, 20
percent of men and 15 percent of women said they had.
There are many possible explanations for that shift, but the habits of heart
cultivated by today's hook-up culture qualify as a leading culprit. It's hard
to imagine better preparation for adultery than years of emotionally detached,
random sexual couplings. And the "marriage-lite" solution embraced by growing
numbers of cohabiting young couples — many of whom are refugees from the
hook-up culture and too skittish for marriage — may exacerbate the problem, as
the temporary mindset they learn in their live-in romances transfers to their
Such long-term consequences rarely occur to a college student fixated on final
exams and Friday night plans. But some students are making the connection
between sexual behavior now and prospects for a successful marriage later.
On such campuses as Princeton and Harvard, students are rebelling against the
culture of promiscuity by launching social clubs that promote chastity and
sexual self-restraint as the keys to finding faithful, lifelong love. Cassandra
DeBenedetto, a founder of Princeton's pro-chastity Anscombe Society, recently
launched the Love and Fidelity Network to help students at other universities
foment their own grassroots rebellions.
Theirs is a decidedly countercultural movement. It also is urgently needed, not
only for the physical health of students today but for the health of their
marriages and families decades down the road.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St.
Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her website is