The transition to college represents a unique stage of life. Most American college students pursue educational and career goals while postponing relational goals such as marriage (Hamilton & Armstrong, 2009). These students also commonly describe the college years as a time to "party" and "let loose" (Bogle, 2008, p. 51). Because they may be postponing relational goals and socializing with limited adult supervision, many students making the initial transition to college may engage in casual sex--sex without love, commitment or expectations for the future. Although little research is available about new college students' casual sexual experiences, such research may offer critical insights about emerging adults' sexuality during an important developmental transition. Such research also may also offer insights about both gender similarities and differences in typical experiences of casual sex.
"Hook ups" are one common type of casual sexual experience in studies of traditionally-aged White American heterosexual college students (e.g., Bogle, 2008; Flack et al., 2007). Paul and Hayes (2002) define a hook up as "a sexual encounter (that may or may not include sexual intercourse) between two people who are strangers or brief acquaintances, usually lasting only one night, without the expectation of developing a relationship" (pp. 642-643). Paul, McManus, and Hayes (2000) found that 78% of students reported hooking up at least once during college. Hook ups may begin early and may involve a range of sexual behaviors. Fielder and Carey (2010) found that 33% of students engaged in oral sex and 28% had vaginal sex during a hook up during their first full semester. It is unknown, however, how often hook ups occur during the initial transition (i.e., the first two months) to campus and how often new students encounter unwanted, possibly coercive sex during hook ups.
In this study, we considered potential areas of similarity and difference between women and men as well as different levels of analysis suggested by contemporary gender scholarship. According to Vanwesenbeeck (2009), some researchers over-emphasize differences between women and men while glossing over similarities and ignoring confounds based on age, context, or other factors. At the same time, some researchers overlook important conceptual and empirical reasons for making gender-based distinctions (e.g., in studies of unwanted or coercive sex). Sex researchers must theorize about gender at multiple levels; for example, gender operates both at an individual level and at a social level, shaping how people interact and how they interpret each other's behaviors. We therefore developed hypotheses comparing women and men as individuals and as students collectively affected by normative beliefs about gender and heterosexuality.
Gender Similarities in College Hook up Experiences
Most research on hooking up has identified individual characteristics of college students who hook up (e.g., Fielder & Carey, 2010; Owen, Rhoades, Stanley, & Fincham, 2010; Paul et al., 2000). Women and men hook up at similar rates, challenging simplistic stereotypes about women's interest in commitment and men's interest in sexual pleasure. In fact, Meston and Buss (2007) found that the three most common reasons for sex reported by both college women and men were "I was attracted to the person," "I wanted to experience the physical pleasure," and "It feels good." (p. 481). Furthermore, college women and men alike take part in a campus-related "hook up culture" (Bogle, 2008, p. 50) where large numbers of potential sexual partners characteristically gather. Because students often live within walking distance of such events, couples easily relocate to hook up.
In a campus setting, attitudes about casual sex may predict both new students' hook up behaviors. Despite individual differences in adherence to permissive sexuality, many young people in the Western world believe that sex is no "big deal" (e.g., Gavey, 2005, p. 107). To the degree that students accept or value casual sex, they are more likely to hook up (Paul et al., 2000). Although college-aged men tend to endorse more sexually permissive attitudes than women (Peterson & Hyde, 2010), permissive attitudes are especially common among first year college students (Lindgren, Schacht, Pantalone, Blayney, & George, 2009), including women (Hamilton & Armstrong, 2009). As such, we expected permissive sexual attitudes to be positively associated with the hook up behaviors of both women and men during their initial transition to college.
Descriptive social norms also may affect new students' hook up behaviors by creating pressure to conform. Descriptive norms refer to the perception of how common a behavior is in one's peer group (Carey, Borsari, Carey, & Maisto, 2006). Students generally over-estimate how many other college students hook up (Lambert, Kahn, & Apple 2003; Paul et al. 2000). Regardless of the accuracy of such descriptive norms, these estimations affect student behavior and may affect women and men who are new to college. In an ethnographic study of a female residence hall, 90% of first year students attended parties involving heavy drinking and hook ups; the few who opted out were socially ostracized (Armstrong, Hamilton, & Sweeney, 2006). Accordingly, we expected a significant positive association between descriptive social norms for hooking up and the hook up behaviors of women and men during the initial transition to college.
College students in the US typically inhabit a sexualized campus environment in which hooking up may benefit both women and men. For example, hook ups provide potential opportunities for sexual pleasure, for developing new relationships, and for a sense of belonging with one's peer group. These and other positive consequences may account for the finding that both women and men typically report positive emotions following a hook up encounter (Owen & Fincham, 2011). Nevertheless, there are also important gender differences in hook up experiences. Compared to men, women students report that hook ups are less enjoyable (Owen et al., 2010), and women are more likely to report regret or disappointment (Paul & Hayes, 2002) or other negative emotions (Owen & Fincham). Among first year college students specifically, Fielder and Carey (2010) found that penetrative hook up sex predicted emotional distress among women but not men. This finding suggests a specific need for research on the potential negative consequences of hooking up.
One way to understand gender differences in hook up experiences is to consider the differential power commonly afforded to women versus men in heterosexual encounters. Western conceptions of sex between men and women traditionally have promoted different standards for behavior. As described by Holloway (1984), heterosexual interactions occur in the context of the male sexual drive discourse ("real" men are always eager for sex and have urgent needs for sexual release) and the have/hold discourse (women give sex to men but only in committed relationships for men's pleasure). Despite individual resistance to such ideas, expectations related to these discourses continue to affect young peoples' sexual attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Bay-Cheng & Eliseo-Arias, 2008; Hamilton & Armstrong, 2009; Milnes, 2010) and social information processing (Marks & Frayley, 2006). These discourses mistakenly imply that only boys and men experience sexual...