In the wake of the annual American Sociological Association meetings, it is always interesting to see what (if any) new research and ideas from the field capture media attention. One topic is fairly predictable: sex. Stories about sex and sexuality get the eyeballs, and sociology is no exception. (Uncomfortable point in fact: sex and sexuality are two of the most common search terms new readers use to find The Society Pages.) The most recent example is an article that originally ran in the Los Angeles Times on “hookup culture” on college campuses.
The story, from a writer named Emily Alpert, reports on recently released research from Martin Monto, a sociologist at the University of Portland. The main thrust of the findings is that, while a new form of sexual intimacy has emerged on college campuses in the last decade or so (intimate physical encounters between friends and casual-but-known acquaintances: “hookups”), this does not mean that college students are having more sex than ever before. Indeed, according to Monto’s work, fewer than one third of college students surveyed between 2002 and 2010 had had sex with more than one person in the preceding year—the same level reported in the 1980s and 1990s. (What is new is that 68% of those who were sexually active were involved with a friend, an increase from 56% in previous periods.) As one headline put it: “Sex on campus has changed, [but] not surged.”
Being both a bit titillating (sex on campus!) and yet reassuring (our kids haven’t gone completely wild—whew), the story definitely has legs. Since it originally appeared in the Times over a week ago (I’m actually not sure if it came directly from the meetings in New York, an ASA press release, or coincidental timing ), I’ve seen a number of references, reprints, and reflections—including, as of this morning, in both of the local papers in the Twin Cities.
It is always good to see sociology in the news, and I find it especially rewarding that this particular piece is based upon concrete, empirical research into social behaviors and trends, one of the things sociologists do quite well in general. But what I find equally noteworthy and promising is how many prominent sociologists are in the piece. Including Monto, no fewer than six (6 !) sociologists are referenced and/or quoted as sociologists in the versions of this relatively brief article I have seen (including TSP’s own online star, Lisa Wade, the founder and author of the TSP Community Page Sociological Images). For example sociologist Kathleen Bogle, the author of one of the first books on the topic, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, is quoted as saying that the emergence of hookup culture indicates a shift in the romantic “scripts” of young adults. The article further suggests, drawing straight from sociology and sociologists, that this sexual intimacy with friends and known acquaintances is connected with larger trends among young people, especially young women, in putting off family and marriage in favor of things like keeping their studies at the fore and limiting distractions, as well as forging careers before partnerships. Still other sociologists (including incoming ASA President-elect Paula England) are referenced to say that hooking up is more common among white, wealthy students and doesn’t necessarily involve intercourse as it’s traditionally defined.
Real cultural shifts that confound popular stereotypes and anxieties and are driven by broader societal trends and forces. Class variations. Different meanings and understandings of seemingly similar practices and activities. These are all important sociological insights and contributions, and I am quite pleased to see Alpert work them into her reporting so seamlessly. (If you want more, in fact, these themes and many others that involve sex and relationships among youth and young adults are explored in an extended feature in the latest issue of the society’s review journal, Contemporary Sociology, as well as in an issue of Contexts our editorial team put out in the Summer of 2010.) Still I can’t help but wonder if these glimpses into the range and complexity of the sociological vision and contribution to societal understandings are fully appreciated by readers. They may not get further than the basic (and perhaps base) connection between sex and sociology. That is one of the ironies and challenges that we face, in terms of getting sociology research and writing to the public: we must to educate and inform publics about what sociology is in the first place.