Is no-strings-attached sex OK?

The “hook-up culture” has been the subject of significant controversy in recent years, with pundits arguing that attitudes toward casual sex, especially on college campuses, have become far too lax, while others herald the arrival of less-committed sexual relationships as a sign of liberation and believe concerns about it amount to “moral panic.” Still others either deny its existence altogether or concentrate any concern to the public health consequences of widespread casual sex.61 To a large degree, traditional dating has indeed been replaced by something less clear and obvious to many young adults. College-aged young adults now average more hookups during their college years than they do first dates.62 But are Americans generally accepting of the now normative “no strings attached” sexual relationships, or do most think that sex should involve commitment?

Figure 20.1“It is OK for two people to get together for sex and not expect anything further.”

When we asked Americans if it is okay “for two people to get together for sex and not necessarily expect anything further,” about equal shares agreed and disagreed (36 percent and 35 percent, respectively.) This, of course, leaves plenty of middle ground—people who just aren’t sure. Surprisingly, that neutral crowd was comparable in size at all age groups. Indeed, no obvious age effect even appears.

Gender, however, does matter. Men are more likely than women to approve of casual sex (42 percent vs. 30 percent). We expected those of particular religious affiliations to have more qualms about the practice because of their faith’s doctrine on sexuality, and we find this to be the case. Mormons (80 percent of all Mormons and 89% of those who attend church three times a month or more (See Figure 20.1B in Appendix B)) oppose casual sex the most, while Jewish respondents (54 percent) are the most tolerant of all religious groups. Approval rates for casual sex are highest among those who claim no religious affiliation, with 71 percent of those who say their religious affiliation is “Nothing/Atheist/Agnostic” approving of no-strings-attached sex.

61 Yglesias, Matthew. “Who Will Save College Students from the Scourge of Doomed Campus Relationships?” Slate, July 16, 2013. Retrieved August 26, 2014; Armstrong, Elizabeth et al. “Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women?The Contexts 9, no. 3 (2010) .

62 Garcia, Justin et al. “Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review.Review of General Psychology 16, no. 2 (2012): 161-176.

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