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Hook-Ups Research

"Hooking up" is defined as a sexual encounter between two people without a commitment. The increasing prevalence of hook-ups on college campuses raises concern with respect to the potential for disease, pregnancy and psychological trauma. Moreover, hook-ups are an evolutionary paradox, at least for women.

Associate Professor Chris Reiber and her students have several studies evaluating the frequency of this phenomenon, its causes and implications. A small pilot study was conducted with a sample (n=38) of college students to assess how common various sexual behaviors are during hook-ups, and to assess the comfort levels of each gender with various sexual behaviors during a hook-up, as well as the accuracy of each gender's knowledge of the comfort level of others of the same and opposite genders. About 85 percent of participants reported having engaged in hook-ups. There was a gender difference in comfort levels with various sexual behaviors; men were more comfortable than women with all types of sexual behaviors. Women correctly attributed higher comfort levels to men, but overestimated men's comfort levels. Men correctly attributed lower comfort levels to women, but overestimated women's comfort levels with some behaviors and underestimated their comfort levels with other behaviors. Both genders attributed higher comfort levels to others of the same gender, creating a pluralistic ignorance effect that might contribute to the high frequency of hook-up behaviors in spite of the low comfort levels reported.

Another ongoing project involves wide-scale surveying across campus to assess trends in hook-up behavior. Research shows that individuals overestimate others' comfort with uncommitted sexual behaviors and assign variable meanings to those behaviors. Misperception of sexual norms drives individuals to behave in ways they do not personally endorse. Negative consequences can include: emotional/psychological injury, sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy and substance abuse. A recent survey of undergraduates (n=507) found 63 percent had "hooked up"; 78 percent overestimated others' comfort with sexual behaviors. In tandem, campus sexual assault reporting has doubled each of the past three years.

We are planning an intervention to reduce the pluralistic ignorance surrounding this potentially costly behavior. Correcting misperceptions of sexual norms will restore individual locus of control over sexual behavior, reproductive rights and personal decision-making. The project goals are to influence attitudes, knowledge and behavior in relation to sexuality by correcting misperceptions through marketing actual behavioral norms. The development and dissemination of educational programs concerning unrestricted sexual behavior will reduce harm and injustice by facilitating a new campus-wide discourse on uncommitted sexual behavior. The project has three stages: 1) development/piloting of a social norms marketing program targeting beliefs and attitudes toward sex, modeled after successful programs that target alcohol use; 2) implementation of the full-scale educational program; 3) baseline evaluation and ongoing assessment of program impact in several key domains linking research and action. Reduction of negative biomedical sequelae (psychological injury, physical injury, STI's, pregnancy, substance abuse) is expected, and will be assessed.

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Last Updated: 8/21/12