One worry conservatives have about higher education is that permissive attitudes toward sex and relationships on campus results in a destructive “hookup culture,” where students happily sail through college engaging in meaningless one night stands without developing real romantic attachments.

How widespread is this? According to a study published last month in the Journal of Adolescent Health, most college sex still seems to take place in the context of a relationship. That’s somewhat reassuring, but what does that really save about hookup culture? According to an article by Adam Hoffman in the Brown Daily Herald:

[The] study surveyed 483 first-year females at Syracuse University and found that sex in the context of a relationship was more common than sex through hookups with a casual partner. Hookups were defined as sex outside of a relationship with “no mutual expectation of a romantic commitment.” Between 7 and 18 percent of respondents had hookup sex in a given month, while an average of 25 to 38 percent of respondents had sex with a romantic partner. Over the course of the year, 40 percent of respondents had oral and/or vaginal sex with a casual partner, while 56 percent had it in the context of a romantic relationship. Ninety-six percent of the subjects were heterosexual.

So the hookups aren’t the majority of sexual encounters. If people are having sex at all, it’s mostly in the context of a regular relationship.

Then again, the study technically seems to indicate that celibacy is far more common than either the hookup or the committed relationship, which is a little surprising. What’s really going on here?

The lead author of the study, Robyn Fielder, told Hoffman that “because we hear more about hooking up, we assume it is extremely common,” but the study doesn’t really indicate that hooking up is uncommon. In truth the study doesn’t really undermine the idea of a hookup culture on college campuses at all.

The trouble is that the author defined a hookup as a causal encounter that results in sex. In fact, that’s not what a hookup is. Come on; a hookup is any physical encounter with someone you’re not dating. That means from a kiss on up. And that, I’ve got to say, appears to be very common on campuses.

The study doesn’t indicate that “hookup culture” isn’t rampant; it means only hookup sex doesn’t occur as frequently as relationship sex.

Well right. But no one was arguing that most sex takes place in the form of hookups. The study just excludes a huge swath of interactions most students call hookups.

Less assume for a moment that there was no overlap between the respondents who had hookup sex in a given month and respondents who had sex with a romantic partner (resulting in the greatest possible number of people). We’ve still only got 56 percent of respondents having sex at all. That’s not surprising, but what are those 44 percent remaining doing on Saturday nights? I guarantee you a lot of them are having some sort of romantic or sexual encounter not captured by the study.

Check out the paper here. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer