Conservatives have become worried in recent years about the rise in so-called “hookup culture” on college campuses, where unattached students seek physical gratification without romantic commitment.

But that might all be fake, according to a new study presented at the American Sociological Association earlier this week.

A controversial Kate Taylor article in the New York Times earlier this summer explained that at today’s colleges:

Some women, like A., seized the opportunity to have sex without relationships, preferring “hookup buddies” (regular sexual partners with little emotional commitment) to boyfriends. Others longed for boyfriends and deeper attachment. Some women described a dangerous edge to the hookup culture, of sexual assaults and degrading encounters enabled by drinking and distinguished by a lack of emotional connection.

But that story may not reflect a real trend. As Allie Jones writes over at The Atlantic

The “hookup culture” narrative might be a myth. Martin A. Monto, a professor of sociology at the University of Portland, found in the comparative study “no evidence of substantial changes in sexual behavior that would support the proposition that there is a new or pervasive ‘hookup culture’ among contemporary college students.”

Basically, college kids aren’t having any more sex today than they did in the 1990s…. Monto compared national data on two waves of students who had completed at least one year of college. The first wave was from 1988 to 1996, the second from 2002 to 2010. He found that today’s young people aren’t having sex more often or with more partners than their predecessors did.

Monto, “59 percent of students today… have sex weekly or more often, while only 32 percent said they’ve had more than one partner in the past year.” That’s about the same numbers as in the 90s. There is, in fact, no increase in hookups.

Well maybe. We should be wary of academic attempts to study trends in college social life. Monto is just misusing the term. Or, to be more charitable, his research is limited. This is sort of like attempting to draw conclusions about violence in America by looking only at trends in gun deaths.

I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been any dramatic change in behavior since the 90s, certainly I’ve never seen any real research to indicate otherwise. But this study is pretty limited. Hooking up doesn’t just mean having sex. Hooking up means a whole lot of other things. As Taylor wrote in her article, hooking up is “an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse.” Everything from kissing counts.

I suppose it’s possible there’s been some change in meaning here (or I’ve been wrong since high school) but basically everyone I know uses it to mean any interaction. It’s true that if you meet someone at a party and take her home and have sex with her you have “hooked up,” but you’ve also hooked up if you just made out for five minutes in line for the bathroom or something.

This new study does nothing to capture the prevalence or trends with regard to this second, very common, sort of hookup.

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