Sex & Relationships

Why Are Conservatives Obsessed With the Sex Lives of College Kids?

Peering into the bedrooms of grownups and judging their private activities is infantilizing. There are stronger strategies for promoting positive sexual agency.

The media’s freaking out about hooking up. Again.

Joining the media in this collective upset are researchers and culture creators from the conservative right who are busy alerting the public to the alleged dangers of casual sex among young adults. This social commentary on knocking boots occurs with striking regularity. There’s Donna Freitas’ 2008 book, Sex and the Soul, in which the religion professor finds most college students regretting their sexual behavior. In 2010, the New York Times ran a controversial piece about hooking up, garnering copious comments and blog posts from across the ideological spectrum. USA Todaypublished a recent article about college hook-ups on its front page. 

These freak-outs about hook-ups garner front-page attention, but casual sex is nothing new. What’s alarming is not that today’s young adults are having sex because that’s old news. What is truly alarming is the shame, blame and misinformation foisted upon the public under the guise of concern about emotional or physical well-being. 

USA Today reports that hooking up “reflects an emerging paradigm that is altering the nature of sex and relationships among young adults: fewer men than women on campuses.” One obvious problem with this argument is the shady leap of logic. No longitudinal evidence is provided to show that hook-ups are happening more often today than they did in decades past.  

Heather Corinna, author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College and executive director of the sex info site,,is conducting a study about multigenerational experiences with casual sex. Corinna comments, “if anyone thinks that all of a sudden way more college students are having sex than they used to, they're probably mistaking the incidence of reporting [sexual activity] with the incidence of it happening.”  

It helps to keep in mind, Corinna notes, that in the past, “especially before 1950 or so, casual sex was much more commonly framed as pre-marital. It was still happening, and likely just as much, but it was viewed differently since it was more common for marriages to result soon after.”  

In Corinna’s research, 6,000 of respondants were older than 30 (including people born before the 1920s). The takeaway from her findings is that consensual genital sex (grinding, oral sex, fingering, blowjobs) among the over-30 crowd overwhelmingly took place when these folks were young: 67 percent of these first-time experiences happened between the ages of 15 and 18. As for that first time with PIV (penis-in-vagina) intercourse, 41 percent of the older crew report that they were between 16- and 18-years-old. The figures for anyone older than 23 are almost zilch. “By all means, exploring sex with partners in college is nothing new,” Corinna comments. 

An equally problematic aspect of the USA Today-style shock-and-awe reporting is that hooking up is now blamed on women’s successful access to higher education. With female students outnumbering males in college, the flimsy argument about the fuck-and-run is that guys don’t have to wine-and-dine to get some. Now they can allegedly just pick and choose.  

Take, for example,Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin. Regnerus argues that the higher ratio of women-to-men on college campuses contributes to the ascent of hookup culture. Regnerus also claims that college women outnumbering men means that "women wind up competing with each other for access to the men, and often, that means relationships become sexual quicker.” Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked, charges that casual sex damages women. Taken together, these arguments may as well blame women for causing their own (fictitious) emotional downfall on their ambitions and success. 

When Regnerus isn’t publishing in Christianity Today he might just be watching a lot of reality TV. His argument comes straight out of the playbook from shows like "The Bachelor" where women are set up to compete for the prize of the single man. Never mind that so many pundits like Regnerus implicitly presume these students are heterosexual while also ignoring young adults who don’t go to college.  

Others find concern in the Decline Of The Dating Ritual. Justin Garcia, a doctoral fellow at the State University of New York at Binghamton, is researching hook-up culture. According to Garcia, hooking up has eclipsed traditional dating leaving many young adults unsure about how to get a relationship started.  

But when did all this traditional dating supposedly take place? “Before universities went co-ed?” asks filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman, who runs the popular interactive blog, Where is Your Line? Dating hasn’t been a prominent part of everyday young life since whenever and, in any case, part of that so-called tradition was hiding what was really going on between the sheets and outside the normative expectations of heterosexual relationships. Garcia points out, though, that there are some very real issues about comfort levels and pressures to hook-up. “They are not nearly as benign as some people think but, when you say that, sometimes it appears you're being conservative rather than legitimately concerned about the sexual and psychological development of emerging adults, especially since so many or looking for love, but trapped in a world of sexual hook-ups.” 

That sex-in-committed-relationships, which some researchers pine for, may be as illusive as unicorns. In Corinna’s findings, only around 3 percent of respondents reported that their first consensual sex experiences occurred within a marriage. The most common sexual adventures were casual context with an acquaintance (12.3 percent) or a casual context with a friend (16.8 percent). Sex in non-marital romantic relationships lasting between one month and two years clocked in at a rate of about 37 percent. The point is, Corinna’s findings confirm the reasonable hunch that youth hook-ups outside the confines of a relationship are not a new invention. 

As for those inflated concerns that hookups result in remorse and regret, the fact is that young adults ages 18 to 24 who have casual sex do not appear to be at higher risk for psychological fall-out compared to their partnered peers. In so many words, Score! says Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. Research from the University of Minnesota “reveals the truth that neither Hollywood nor the Religious Right want you to know: Casual sex won’t damage you emotionally. Not even if you’re a girl!” 

Although the U of M corrects the quantitative data, what remains among the current spate of misinformation is a conservative bias about controlling female sexual agency. This bubbles to the surface under the guise of concern about fooling around. 

If young women are reporting sexual regret one has to wonder whether they feel like they’re allowed to own up to their sexually adventurous spirits. After all, sexual encounters aren’t one size fits all. Plus we live in a slut-shaming culture that expects women to satisfy men but deny their own entitlement to sexual pleasure.

Schwartzman, who directed The Line documentary asks, “What's wrong with young people acting on their sexual desire without making a big commitment? Being in college is an exciting time to experiment, learn and grow. The college students I speak with when touring the country with The Linewant to talk about victim blaming. The framework is such that after eight years of abstinence-only sex education, students are afraid to be open about their sexual desires, and don't have the tools to facilitate an open dialogue about consent. This creates a toxic climate of guilt, shame and, in worst cases, disrespect and sexual assault. 

Laura Johnson echoes Schwartzman’s point. The 23-year-old recent college graduate from a California Christian college says “more permission is given to guys to talk about hooking up. But for girls? Not so much. So even when you talk about a one night stand with your best girlfriends you might act as if you wanted something more even if you really didn’t because of social stigma.” 

Hookups aren’t new. Nobody cites longitudinal data showing that there's an uptick. But, also, lots of articles misguidedly report that women feel unsatisfied by the fuck-and-run because they crave relationships or because the sex in hookups is supposedly unsatisfactory. "Meh" sex can also happen in committed relationships. Sexual disappointment is not unique to hookups. At the same time, let’s be frank: No-strings or light-strings sex, relative anonymity or non-commitment can fan the flames in lovely ways. In any case, women barely have the option in our slut-shaming culture to say they wanted it, they did it, and they had a good time. So of course college women are going to tell researchers what fits in the dominant, sexually acceptable paradigm, which is a coy sort of distancing from their own sexual initiative.

Occidental College professors Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman additionally note that college hook-ups often involve drinking—and alcohol is a known factor in sexual assault. The links between alcohol abuse and sexual danger demand attention. But this concern must be disentangled from acknowledging the possibilities of consensual casual sex. The real question is to what extent excessive drinking is a normalized social ritual that has become part of overcoming the shame around wanting and asking for sex. “It’s important for college campuses to actively develop alternatives to hook-up culture that enable young people to explore and enjoy sexuality and relationships in a way that makes them happy,” Dr. Heldman points out.

It is entirely reasonable to emphasize cultural shifts that encourage more pleasure and less danger. And lest we forget: College students are adults. Peering into the bedrooms of grownups and judging their private activities is infantilizing. There are much stronger strategies for addressing sexual health and promoting positive sexual agency.

Shira Tarrant, Ph.D., is an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach, and the the author of several books, including Men and Feminism (Seal Press). She is currently writing The Sex Wars: Pole Dancing, Porn and Other Things That Freak People Out. Read more at