To some, college hookups are alluring gateways to instant sexual gratification: brief, casual and platonic, with no strings attached. However, studies suggest that sexual hookups may leave more strings attached than many adolescents perceive, including those on the Montclair State University campus.
“At Montclair State, people love having sex with a lot of people,” said a sophomore justice studies major, Smith. “I know this through my friends and through people talking about someone else’s business.
“I had sex with a girl first semester my freshman year and ended up having sex with her friend first semester sophomore year,” said Smith. “At one point this year I was having sex with both of them. But, emotionally, I didn’t care.”
Other students, like Sarah Malloy, a sophomore family and child studies major, shared similar situations.
“Last year I would just go out and meet guys and make out with them but I wouldn’t be in a relationship with them after that,” said Malloy. “This year, though, I’m going to be more serious with guys. I’m over the immaturity of going to parties to look for guys.”
When asked why the hookup culture might be particularly favorable at Montclair State, a sophomore English major, who wished to remain anonymous because of conflict of interest, attributed the situation to Greek life.
“There’s not much to do here,” said the student, “so Greek life is a huge deal on campus.”
The student continued, “The fraternity boys are good people, but their mentality says, ‘Just because I’m in a fraternity everyone wants me, so I’ll do what I want. I don’t want to be in a relationship so I’ll have as many relationships as possible with as many girls as possible until I’m out of college and then I’ll maybe settle down.’
“I feel like that’s just the mentality in general; it’s just the mentality that they have.”
On April 9, Red Hawk News sent an email to the student body for voluntary participation in a research opportunity for a college sexual experience study.
The 60- to 90-minute online survey, where students anonymously submitted their answers, was created by researchers in the department of psychology aiming to “learn about college students’ sexual experiences and related shame experiences, and how these experiences might relate to students’ emotional well-being.”
One of the researchers is Dr. Sarah Lowe, an assistant psychology professor whose research focuses on long-term psychological consequences of traumatic events, including natural and human-made disasters, community and interpersonal violence and childhood abuse and neglect.
Lowe’s study started in her postdoctoral research at Columbia University, where she met another researcher, Dr. Kate Walsh at Yeshiva University, who focuses on sexual assault among adolescents and college students. “Walsh felt she couldn’t pursue this line of research at Yeshiva because the population there is quite different from most universities,” said Lowe. “Yeshiva is a Jewish university, so many students are very religious. The male and female students are housed separately and take classes on different campuses, so we didn’t think we would see the hookup culture there to the same extent as other universities.”
In turn, Walsh and Lowe decided to collaborate and conduct the study at Montclair State instead.
“The idea behind this study is that we often see sexual relationships as either consensual or non-consensual,” said Lowe. “But there’s a lot of gray area in between, like with situations where people consent to sexual experiences after being pressured or are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.”
She continued, “Although those experiences might not be considered as rape, we think it can still be equally confusing and can lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, complications in intimate and platonic relationships and potential mental health symptoms, like post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) also reached similar conclusions pertaining to mental health implications.
“Among 291 [surveyed] sexually experienced individuals, people who had the most regret after uncommitted sex also had more symptoms of depression than those who had no regret,” said the APA.
In that same sample, the APA also reported women’s, but not men’s, degree of depressive symptoms increased with number of previous sex partners within the last year.
“In a study of 140 (109 females, 31 males) first-semester undergraduates, women, but not men, who had engaged in intercourse during a hookup showed higher rates of mental distress,” said the APA.
The association additionally noted significant influence on self-esteem, stating, “Men and women who had ever engaged in an uncommitted sexual encounter had lower overall self-esteem scores compared with those without uncommitted sexual experiences.”
Although psychological hindrance is a consequence of engaging in the hookup culture, it isn’t the only consequence. Both the APA and Lowe observed physical implications as well.
The APA noted high transfer rates of sexually-transmitted diseases, while Lowe identified potential effects on immune system functioning.
“There’s a lot of new research on how traumatic and stressful life events [like sexual assault, rape, or other negative sexual experiences] can lead to such stress on the body that it affects immune functioning,” said Lowe. “And what they’re finding is people who experience more trauma are more likely to experience a range of physical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, migraine headaches, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and even some cancers.”
Lowe elaborated that although researchers aren’t particularly sure why traumatic events are linked to these physical outcomes, the reason nevertheless could be attributed to the mental health symptoms.
“If someone experiences many traumatic events and is depressed, one might engage in negative health behaviors,” said Lowe. “He or she isn’t eating well, isn’t exercising and so on, because he or she is depressed. This increases the risk of such physical ailments.”
Regardless of the new findings, hooking up isn’t a new philosophy.
The cultural revolution first gained momentum in the 1920s with automobiles and movie theaters were introduced into society. Once the 1960s emerged, sexual liberation among young adults skyrocketed with feminism, birth control and more sex-integrated college parties.
So, although the revolution has been around for quite a while, it just so happens that today, sexual behaviors are becoming increasingly typical and socially acceptable, existing outside scopes of traditional committed, yet romantic, relationships.
In the meantime, Lowe and her team are looking to analyze their data from over 500 students in the summer or next fall, and maybe follow participants over time to see long-term effects of confusing or ambiguous sexual experiences.
Until then, “Think in advance about your goals, and whether you want a serious relationship or just a sexual experience,” urged Lowe. “You may want the sexual experience, but ultimately the outcome might be overwhelming or otherwise negative. The potential negative consequences of hookups might outweigh the excitement of sexual pleasure.”