Casual Sex Leaves Many College Women Disillusioned

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 28, 2001 -- The Woodstock generation knew it as free love. To today's college students, it's booty call, hooking up, or friends with benefits. But a new study shows that no-commitment sex -- although rampant on college campuses -- still leaves women in their 20s feeling disillusioned.

The 18-month nationwide study, sponsored by the Independent Women's Forum, looked at sexuality, dating, courtship, and marriage, and involved in-depth interviews with a diverse group of 62 college women on 11 campuses. These were supplemented by 20-minute telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 college women.

"The mantra of the sexual revolution was that women can be just like men," says Kate Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the Independent Women's Forum, the study's sponsor.

That translates today into what's known as hooking up or friends with benefits: "a guy and girl getting together for some form of physical encounter, ranging from kissing to having sex, with no expectations of anything further," she tells WebMD.

In reality, "women are losing out," she tells WebMD. "Women can act like men, but women don't react like men."

MTV relationship expert Drew Pinsky, MD, concurs. "The culture does not allow women to express themselves honestly about their needs. It tells women there's something wrong with you if you can't accept this lack of commitment. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with hooking up. It's not a moral issue. I just don't think women are happy."

It's an age-old problem, Pinsky tells WebMD. College-age men are looking for sex only -- "that's their predominant preoccupation. Women at that age want a meaningful interaction with someone; sex is not their priority. As men approach their 30s, they become very different, give much higher value to real relationships."

Yet over 60% of college women in the study say they would like to meet their future husbands in college, says Kennedy. "Well over a majority view marriage as an important aspiration, and think that they will be able to find that person in college," she tells WebMD. "And that makes sense. Where else are you going to be surrounded with so many opportunities to meet people that you have so much in common with, so many common experiences?"

But the odds are against them, she says. Since 1980, women are beginning to outnumber men on college campuses. "When you throw in this social phenomenon of 'hook-up' culture and no expectation of commitment, then women are losing at the end of the day," says Kennedy.

It's not that women are victims, Kennedy tells WebMD. "It takes two to tango, and that's especially true when we talk about hook-ups. These are intelligent, thoughtful young women who are masters of their own fate, and they're making the decisions to engage in these kinds of actions. Sometimes they're the ones to initiate these encounters. It's not at all the guys' fault here.

"We're seeing a group mentality," she says, "that no one hangs out on a one-on-one basis anymore, that everybody goes out in packs. And there's the presence of alcohol that loosens the inhibitions. People are out in groups at bars, at fraternity parties, and pairing occurs. They go off and do their thing."

Kennedy remembers her own freshman year. "I remember thinking, is this it? Is this all there is? I was taken aback by how superficial it all was, at how intimate the actions were, yet it still remained on a superficial level," she tells WebMD.

For girls especially, deeper feelings sometimes develop from hook-ups, Kennedy says. "It's not that a nice, solid relationship doesn't develop, but it's rare. It's always the girl who ends up asking, 'what are we?' That can be a very frightening question."

"The men are bewildered," Pinsky tells WebMD. "They thought they had a deal: you're a friend, we had sex. How did you let yourself have feelings? How did that happen to you? She says, of course I had feelings. She wants something more intimate, more of a relationship. She just wants to know she's valued."

It's not that dating doesn't exist anymore, says Kennedy. Some couples do pair off: they call it "joined at the hip." But that's rare, she says.

"We found that if a guy has been asking a woman out on dates, they would say 'he's too nice,'" Kennedy tells WebMD. "Well, you need to look in the mirror and figure out what you really want."

Kennedy remembers the few dates she had in college. "They were absolutely nerve-wracking. It was almost as bad as taking a final exam. The stress factor -- oh my gosh, I have to be one on one with this person, we have to communicate, we have to think of intelligent things to say. I can understand why it doesn't occur more often. I can understand why women just want to go out as friends, keep it low-key."

That's the draw of the hook-up, she says. "You don't have to talk. It can be fun.

"We're not here to prescribe any moral solutions but to draw attention to it," says Kennedy. "Girls get so caught up in the pattern of it, that they don't think to question it. It's so pervasive, so prevalent, and there is no alternative, they truly do think this is it. This is all there is. I think that has a lot to do with it."

Her message to young women: "If you're not happy with the scene, and if enough people aren't happy with the scene and if they excuse themselves, then you'd think it might stop and something else would take its place. It can't be done overnight, by just a few college girls. We think of it as a wake-up call. If they start to demand more respect, demand more out of the relationships collectively, as a group, then chances are they'd get it."

College men and women need more social alternatives, says Pinsky. "Joined at the hip, friends with benefits, hooking up -- it's not a sufficient range of choices. It's not healthy.

"Those in the very transient, disconnect hook-up experiences get gratification," he tells WebMD, "but that doesn't give them nourishment. It doesn't build them toward what they really want.

"Women need to start asking for a little more," Pinsky says. "If they're not happy, they need to get things reorganized, establish some different sort of understanding, whether it's just having dinner as opposed to hooking up."