The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Sex and Commitment

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When University of Chicago researchers published Sex in America in 1994, the landmark study revealed that married Americans have more sex, and more enjoyable sex, than do single Americans. The party scene may delude the younger set into thinking otherwise, but a study published in the American Sociological Reviewunintentionally confirms the bourgeois results of the Chicago study. By detailing how “hookups” represent a raw deal for coeds, the newer study indirectly indicates that marriage serves the interests of young women far better than does the promiscuous life that Hollywood glamorizes.

Not that the researchers set out to quantify the virtues of monogamy. The team of three sociologists from the University of Michigan, New York University, and Stanford University actually set out to identify what might be called “best practices” when it comes to the sexual activities of unmarried college women. Their study, based upon data representing 13,500 undergraduate coeds who participated in the Online College Social Life Survey between 2005 and 2011, as well as in-depth personal interviews with 85 senior coeds at two large universities during the academic year 2007–08, delves into matters that Emily Post would deem unsuitable for dinner-table conversation. Moreover, the researchers seem to believe—against all evidence to the contrary—that raw sexual pleasure is more important to a young woman’s well-being than a stable marriage.

Nonetheless, their findings make it clear that hookups (defined as liaisons that young women have with men with whom they were not in a “relationship”) are far less satisfying than encounters with men with whom coeds have been in a “relationship” for at least six months. Granted, while the coeds report that just 39 percent of their hookups progressed to sexual intercourse (compared to 80 percent of their dating relationships), they report significantly less satisfaction with “hookup intercourse” than what they call “relationship intercourse.”

Although a limited study, its redeeming factor is its identification of “commitment” and “long-term orientation” as key variables of the sexual well-being of women. Whether in hookups or dating relationships, coeds reported that their sexual satisfaction increased if they anticipated a deeper relationship. If they were interested in a relationship beforehand, coeds were twice as likely to enjoy a hookup encounter, leading the researchers to claim “romantic interests enhanced sexual enjoyment for women.” Satisfaction also increased when women in dating relationships indicated that they were “likely” or “very likely” to marry their boyfriends, who they reported were more attentive to them than the studs they typically hooked up with.

As much as the researchers want to “improve the quality of young adult sex,” they express no reservations about the promiscuous nature of college life, attested to by evidence indicating that senior coeds report a median number of three intercourse partners and that 69 percent of senior coeds report having experienced at least one hookup encounter. The scholars instead hide behind their data, claiming that their “empirical analysis cannot speak” to the appropriateness of “non-relationship sex,” yet they still presume to offer recommendations to enhance the enjoyment of such encounters.

Their findings nonetheless confirm the futility of such recommendations. After all, their own data indicate that commitment to a long-term relationship offers the best context of sexual satisfaction for young women. What is more, if these women scholars would embrace matrimony as the standard for delivering that coveted stability, they would promote the well-being of this generation of young women regardless of what feminist dreamers may suppose. 

(Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison C. K. Fogarty, “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships,” American Sociological Review 77.3 [June 2012]: 435–62.)