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  1. Opinion

Column: Hooking up isn't hot or bothering

Religion and sexuality scholar Donna Freitas tells college students it's "time to stop hooking up." The hookup "culture" — "a lifestyle of unemotional, unattached sex" — is so pervasive and obligatory on college campuses, Freitas says, that it's become the new "conformity."

So she's urging young people to engage in a more radical sexual experiment: Ask each other on real dates, or else abstain from sex altogether.

If only young people's problems could be solved by getting a significant other (or, presumably, a masturbatory aid). First of all, students on college campuses aren't actually hooking up that much.

Sociological Images' Lisa Wade, who has researched hookup culture extensively, has found that "between two-thirds and three-quarters of students hook up at some point during college." Since the term "hookup" can include everything from just kissing (where around 32 percent of college hookups end) to intercourse (40 percent of hookups), that means only that college students are engaging in as little as one makeout every four years.

One study found that among students who did hook up in college, 40 percent did it three or fewer times total (less than one hookup a year); 40 percent did it between four and nine times (one to two hookups a year); and 20 percent did it 10 or more times. Less than 15 percent of college students are engaging in some form of physical contact more than twice a year. It's unlikely that the solution is for students to have even less casual sex.

Wade found that women on campus faced particular difficulty in locating pleasure, meaning, and empowerment in sex. These women wanted to "explore their sexuality in the context of benevolence," not relationships. They "wanted sex to be meaningful," but "they didn't mean that they only wanted to have sex in the context of love." They truly wanted "friends with benefits" — but it ended up feeling pretty antagonistic.

Unfortunately, Freitas' recommendations won't improve the situation. Students who do couple up don't necessarily fare any better than those who hook up. And again, women often fare worse. One 2008 study, which tracked the sexual experiences of a group of college women over the course of a year, found that even the women engaged in more traditional relationships were not totally satisfied, or even safe, just because they had found committed partners.

Women with boyfriends faced the risk of "stalking and emotional abuse," "anxiety or depression," and months wasted "attempting to repair or end a relationship." In a culture where "men's sexual pleasure is prioritized over women's," Wade writes, "women's negative experiences with hooking up may be less related to its casual nature than to the fact that it occurs within a system of gender inequality that makes women vulnerable to men generally." If young women can't find someone they like making out with just once, the solution is not to make out with the same person over and over again.

The environment described by these studies is not a "hookup culture." It's a culture of negativity around sex and relationships generally. Instead of taking the "radical" step of keeping it in their pants, college students should tackle the problem at the source: Make out, but respect the person you kiss. Ask them out, but respect when they doesn't want to date you anymore. Or just don't have sex, but respect the people who do.

© 2013 Slate