Conservative Christians have decried a growing "hookup culture" among America's youth. New data shows they were wrong. - Image courtesy of Marsmet451 (http://bit.ly/152PMEW)

Conservative Christians have decried a growing “hookup culture” among America’s youth. New data shows they were wrong. – Image courtesy of Marsmet451 (http://bit.ly/152PMEW)

For years, conservative Christians have decried the “hookup culture” among young people that they believe is eroding the foundation of our nation. America’s youth, they claim, is having sex more frequently and with more partners. But according to new data, these Christians are wrong.

A sweeping new study conducted by sociologist Martin A. Monto of the University of Portland demonstrates that today’s young people are having no more sex than did their parents and they aren’t having sex with more partners, either. In a paper presented at the American Sociological Association, Monto stated there is “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.”

How did so many Christians get this one so wrong? The answer seems to be a little thing called confirmation bias, which is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their preconceived notions or beliefs.

In response to America’s cultural revolution, conservative Christians in the early 1970’s began to preach about America’s “moral decline” or what Robert Bork famously labeled “slouching towards Gomorrah.” According to this narrative, America was abandoning its moral roots and becoming a more sinful, secular nation. As this narrative penetrated Christian communities, every anecdote of a young person contracting an STD or impregnating their teenage girlfriend fit nicely into the larger story Christians were telling, and coincidently, using to generate fear, raise money and political power.

But there are several problems with the macro-narrative of moral decline. First, those who promulgate this narrative routinely over-exaggerate cultural changes. A good example of this is the idea that “half of all marriages end in divorce,” a line repeated by conservative Christians in the 1990s and early 2000s that has has seen been shown false. Marriage statistics are a tricky thing, and according to the best data, it looks as though divorce rates in the United States are actually decreasing.

Another example of this is the line that “abortion rates are skyrocketing.” Actually, abortion rates held steady in the early 2000s and both the number and rate of abortions have dropped in recent years.

The second problem with the narrative of moral decline is that there is no “moral quotient.” How exactly does one objectively calculate the morality of a society? The answer is, one can’t. The issues one considers to be moral markers and the weight given to each of those markers differ based on one’s political and religious views.

The narrative of moral decline from which the myth of the “hookup culture” has arisen is based on another illusion I call “the myth of the golden era.” It’s the idea that there was or ever has been a moral high point in history. (For most people, the “golden era” seems to not-so-coincidentally coincide the time of their childhood.)

After speaking at a local church recently, an elderly man proceeded to tell me that he believed America’s moral fabric was disintegrating. “I wish we could go back to the 1950’s,” he said. “I lived through that time and that was a really good time.” Of course it was a good time for him, a young white male with a flattop. But I bet there are a few African-Americans who would rather not return to an era when it was legal to discriminate against their entire race. And I’m sure there are a handful of women who are glad they’re no longer living in a decade where domestic abuse was often swept under the rug.

The depravity of humans makes history look less like a moral ski slope and more like a moral game of whack-a-mole. Injustices and evils exist in every era, and about the time we eliminate a few of them, we’re forced to face a whole new set.

Sex among college students isn’t all that different than it has ever been, but this doesn’t mean we live in Shangri-La either. From abortion to unjust war, state-sanctioned torture to abject poverty, we’ve have plenty of problems we must work to resolve. As Christians, we do not merely decry the evils du jour; we also look forward to the day when Christ returns and we can put down our moral mallets because there are no moral moles left to squash.

49 Comments

  1. Sounds a little slanted to me! Of course, it’s just Christians who decry the moral decline, and, of course, it would be just Christians who oppose the hook-up culture. It couldn’t possibly be any other religions, now, could it?

    You are utterly ridiculous.

  2. Michael Worley

    “However, Monto said it is true that sexually active college students from the contemporary era were more
    likely than those from the earlier era to report that one of their sexual partners during the past year was a
    casual date/pickup (44.4 percent compared to 34.5 percent) or a friend (68.6 percent compared to 55.7
    percent), and less likely to report having a spouse or regular sexual partner (77.1 percent compared to
    84.5 percent).”

    That sounds like a hook-up culture emerging to me–and one which is replacing the marriage culture.

  3. The report that underlies the topic of the post is helpful though with necessary qualifications. Notice the sample data:

    “a recent University of Portland graduate with a BA in sociology and psychology, compared responses from 1988-1996 with those from 2002-2010,”

    Those are two helpful years for comparison and certainly if I remember anything from the history textbooks about the 80s, the sexual revolution that had begun in the 60s fully flowered by the late 1980s. In fact, I would say that it is challenging to think that on college campuses, these two eras would be mightily different.

    In fact, it is likely that we can, and should, consider the 1980s well within the same era as we find ourselves today. However, one of the larger issues that the report doesn’t seem to extend to consider is the post-college sexual experiences of American 20somethings. It is during the space between college and marriage (if they choose to get married) where the larger hook up culture explodes.

    Most likely this is due to the sizable shift in the average age of first time marriage which, in the 1980-96 sample, 24 years for women and 25 for men, whereas it is now 27 for women and 29 for men.

    25 years certainly represents a qualified generational distance, but the 6 year separation between collected responses skews the data. Perhaps a better view of the report would be to move the first generational change to the same period for 1955-1967, then a second of 1970-1982, and then the third 1988-1996. In those periods are where we will see the massive shifts generationally. Having a data set that is fairly proximate to the most contemporary generation difficult as it might not produce an accurate representation. I would be intriguing to see the generational difference of the 1985-1996 period matched up with graduates from 2005-2017.

    As I’m encountering couples seeking to get married the reality of the stats stays before me: 90% have had or are having sex in a relationship, 75% of 20somethings are cohabitating before marriage, and 50% of 20something couples are entering into marriage in a blended family situation.

    All of that said: it allows us to practice and apply grace in amazing ways. Forgiveness is a meaningful part of salvation. Thanks for the terrific posts.

    • What I have read in other places is that this is the oldest data set that includes the questions. So it is a limitation of the dataset, more than intent of the researcher. I am sure being able to compare a greater distance would be helpful as well. Although I have seen some research that suggested that couple that were marrying in their 30s in the 1940s were fairly likely have been sexually active previous to marriage (my memory is that around 50%, but this is based on a memory so I could be wrong.)

  4. This study compares two groups, “1988-1996 with those from 2002-2010.” That hardly seems like a large enough study, or even a large enough gap to make a true determination of the assumed conclusion.

  5. There is no difference today than there were 30 years ago. It was wrong then as much as it is now. The real difference is the acceptance in popular culture of these things. The swearing, graphic sex etc is just normal today in entertainment. I think that’s where the outcry comes from.

    People are entitled to make their own decisions and choices. I believe God wants what is best for us, and that is the true purpose of morality, to protect us from calamity.

  6. It is not as if conservative christians are out doing research on these issues and then decrying the moral decline. The media highlights the concept of 50% divorce and a hook-up culture and christians believe it. Where else can they go for information if the media pushes these memes and the academics haven’t done their research yet? These ideas did not originate in the christian community. Why you are faulting christians for believing the media and not taking on the sources- CNN, Slate, Salon, Atlantic and so forth for push factless concepts? You seem to be straining to find a conservative christian whack-a-mole to hit.

    • Marcus Johnson

      It is not as if conservative christians are out doing research on these issues and then decrying the moral decline. The media highlights the concept of 50% divorce and a hook-up culture and christians believe it. Where else can they go for information if the media pushes these memes and the academics haven’t done their research yet?

      Well, they can reserve commenting on cultural trends until they get all the facts. They can also take more responsibility for fact-checking and research themselves. Studies like this have been done over the past 40 or 50 years; if conservatives haven’t found them, it is only because they haven’t been looking.

  7. Perhaps a better term than conservative Christian would be conservative moralist and surveys are always problematic. Are we capable of seeing or measuring any shift objectively with detachment from an ideal of a society which I’m not sure ever existed? It is best to focus on being a follower, loving those around me in such a way that I glorify Christ, and trust that by so doing I can have the greatest possible influence. Discussions about moral slippage might be a warning sign that we need to examine our relationship with Christ and our relationship with others. The value of reading history can help us see the undulating nature of moral trends and remind us that seldom were people able to see what was going on in the time in which they lived. I suspect that judging a group or society as being in decline somehow underpins our religious pride.

  8. Fr. John Morris

    The difference is not that young people engaged in premarital sex in the past.The difference is that there was still a moral consensus in society that sex outside of marriage was immoral. Now, sex outside of marriage is accepted by the media culture which assumes that anyone who is not sexually active before marriage is abnormal.

    • Good point, John Morris. What was once carried on in darkness is now celebrated in public. The disobedient no longer do these things in secret (Ephesians 5:12) but in the open. Not that these things have always been secret; just look at the decadence certain periods in the Roman Empire. But as you say, the moral consensus is that there is now no need to hide, but rather every reason to partake.

  9. Yes, confirmation bias.

    “A sweeping new study conducted by sociologist Martin A. Monto of the University of Portland demonstrates that today’s young people are having no more sex than did their parents and they aren’t having sex with more partners, either.”

    The study does not compare today’s young people to their parents’ generation.

    Yes, earlier generations did have sex before marriage and that is why they ended up marrying the person they married.

  10. Great stuff, Jonathan. Been saying this a while now.

    Beyond the data just not backing up the argument of this progressive moral decline, I wrestle with how an (educated?) Evangelical Christian could subscribe to the idea as well.

    For any educated Christian, there has to be a recognition of the evils and cycles cultures have gone through over the course of centuries. How could the sacrifice of children centuries ago be any better than life today?

    Then, there’s always this idea found in Scripture: that there is nothing new under the sun.

    I find that many have taken on the posture of the “teacher” in Ecclesiastes, and upon looking at it all, declare it meaningless and hopeless, instead of taking on the posture of Christ, who would declare it meaningful and redeemable.

  11. Excellent post. I think the key to this is we now live in an age where we know more about the hooking up, people talk more about it, like on social media outlets so whereas my generation (GenX) didn’t have that outlet, and the baby boomers certainly didn’t have the freedom to air all of their business to everyone all the time. They were hooking up in a time when you just didn’t talk about it even if you were doing it. So, I think that’s why it appears as if hooking up is more prevalent now then it was 20-30 years ago but it’s not.

    BTW: you have “has” twice in this sentence, “2000s that has has seen been shown false” may wanna fix that. I’m the queen of Typo’s so I spot them easily :-)

  12. Wow! Judging from the comments, there are a lot of folks who seem to have vested interests in living in a sexually immoral culture. Now what are they going to screed about? Probably not anything having to do with a good old American way of life for good old white people!

  13. The phrase “hook-up culture” was not created or popularized by conservative Christians. I first read about the hook-up culture on college campuses in the secular media, not in Christian publications. This is a misleading way to characterize this and it seems to show a prejudice against conservative Christians.

  14. I can see some good points to this article. Where we see the “evidence” for a hook-up culture is not so much in individual statistics, but in the popular media of today. No one could deny that media today display a narrative filled with sexual moral decay and present it as pervasive and all encompassing. I have been a teacher for 25 years and definitely see a lack of innocence displayed by my 6th graders that is definitely worse than it was when I began my career. It’s not a huge leap to conclude that this constant bombardment has affected the culture at large, whether the numbers uphold that or not.

  15. I followed the link to the study that Merritt sites and here is who the author of the study credits for popularizing the hook-up culture. This appears at the beginning of the article. Compare this to the beginning of the article above:

    ―Recent research and popular media reports have described intimate relationships among contemporary college students as characterized by a new and pervasive hookup culture in which students regularly have sex with no strings attached,‖ said study co-author Martin Monto, a sociology professor at the
    University of Portland. ―

  16. This study says, “In fact, we found that, overall, sexual behavior among college students has remained fairly consistent over the past 25 years.” It does not address sexual behavior in the 1950’s or the 1940’s or any other time in past American history. Merritt has legitimate points to make, but his manner in making those points will very likely alienate him from the people it seems he is trying to correct.

  17. Aw, c’mon. The issue isn’t sex as such but the dating game, the meat market. It was just as bad half a century ago, before effective contraceptives were readily available. It was the same miserable meat market. There’s nothing any worse in hooking up: given that women no longer have to worry about pregnancy there’s no problem–beyond the fundamental meat market problem.

    I’m quasi-serious: arranged marriages might be a better idea. The amount of time and misery and competition adolescents spend in the meat market makes life miserable and distracts from other activities. And whether it involves sex or not is completely irrelevant.

  18. HA! Saying that there’s no hook-up culture because college students are having no more extramarital sex than their parents [of the 70s-80s] did is like saying french fries are not bad for you because they have no more fat/calories than a blooming onion from Out-Back.

  19. The fact is that both the incidence of premarital sex and the rate of out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed since the start of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. That social revolution was normalized by the 1980s, so to compare current data with the 1980s is transparently deceptive. I guess the point of the article is that things may be bad from an historical perspective, but at least they don’t seem to be getting any worse. Perhaps.

  20. In the 1980s I was part of a nation-wide study of college students at our denominational schools. I was stunned for find that 1 in 6 claimed to have had sex in the last twelve months (higher if you looked at sexual behaviors outside of intercourse). Some time later, a denominational magazine summarized the data by claiming that “fully 80% of our students were virgins” compared to 1/3 of students at state schools. It suggested that making the moral decline argument about the broader society was more important than facing the actual condition of our own subculture.

  21. Mark Baddeley

    I wonder if there’s some confirmation bias in this blog post, making a lot of extrapolations from one survey that seems to give the results that the writer was hoping to see due to his engagement with conservatism.

    There’s four basic problems with the argument that I can see:

    1. It’s *one* survey. You usually need a few to get a better sense of where the reality lies. Grabbing one that tells you what you want to hear and running with it sounds like the very thing he’s decrying among conservatives.

    2. The survey compares students in the late 80s to those in the noughties. While that is a generational shift from Gen X to Millenial, it is a generational change *within* the same basic framework to sex and relationships. More interesting would have been a comparison with the 1960s as the sexual revolution was getting underway and with one or two periods before the sexual revolution.

    3. The survey does indicate some significant changes:

    “However, Monto said it is true that sexually active college students from the contemporary era were more likely than those from the earlier era to report that one of their sexual partners during the past year was a casual date/pickup (44.4 percent compared to 34.5 percent) or a friend (68.6 percent compared to 55.7 percent), and less likely to report having a spouse or regular sexual partner (77.1 percent compared to 84.5 percent).

    ―Contemporary college students are coping with a new set of norms in which marriage occurs later, Monto said. ―This means the idea of waiting until marriage to begin sexual behavior is a less tenable narrative. Courtship and relationship practices are changing, and the implications of these changes present a new unique set of challenges, but this study demonstrates that we are not in the midst of a new – more –era of no rules attached sexuality. In fact, we found that, overall, sexual behavior among college students has remained fairly consistent over the past 25 years.”

    The study states that courtship and relationship practices are changing, marriage is occurring later and hence waiting until marriage for sexual behavior to begin is a less tenable narrative. This shows itself in a greater number of people having sex in a casual or friendship context than even twenty years ago.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, lo and behold I give you….the hook-up culture – apparently not quite so much a figment of conservative Christians’ desire for political power as Jonathan Merritt would have you believe.

    4. It would be interesting to know how much the prevalence of pornography had on this survey. Given that pornography seems to have the effect of reducing desire for actual sex among a substantial swathe of those who get addicted to it, it is *possible* that the numbers are repressed in the contemporary survey by a swathe of people who are not engaging in sexual behavior due to their involvement with pornography – and this compensates for the rest who are engaging in more, and so the numbers are lower overall. This could indicate both a stronger hook up culture among those sexually active, and a sexually dissolute kind of celibacy in another segment, averaging out to numbers roughly similar to the 80s. The 31.6 percent who report having more than one sexual partner in the last year is somewhat suppressed by the segment of college age students who prefer pixels to the real thing, but would most likely be quite okay with multiple sexual partners each year if they were involved *at all*.

    I’m not saying that *is* the case, but from the news release that is linked there’s no reason to eliminate this as a possibility either – this kind of aspect of the change of the last twenty years doesn’t appear to be discussed as to its effect on the results.

    And if it is the case, then that would also suggest a somewhat different picture as well – towards a sexual culture that does not even *esteem* the idea of sex-in-a-committed-relationship let alone sex-in-a-covenantal-relationship. Sex is either virtual and hyper promiscuous or real but as a way of marking time in a moderately promiscuous fashion without commitments until the parties are ready for something more long term i.e. a hook-up culture.

  22. There are many studies to rebut, or at least add very important information to these conclusions. The studies cited in Good Girl Revolution by Wendy Shalit, the data Walter E. Williams regularly writes about in his column, and many current economists’ studies are showing a very different impact. It’s not that the earlier generations were “better”–it’s true that human nature is no worse–but in the U.S., they did adhere to societal expectations in a way that was better for women and children long-term. The hook-up has become a permanent life stage (or decade or two long), and that causes damage to women in many, many ways, and causes men to be less than who they are meant to be–not serving and sacrificing for the women and children in their lives, but stuck in a perpetual state of self-centeredness.

  23. Richard Moore

    Outstanding column. I found it in an issue of the Orange County Register – Faith and Values section. In the same paper’s opinion section, an editorial lamented that education had declined over the decades. Same junk mythology. Thank you for your excellent work, citing real sources. Very refreshing.

  24. Wow, there are some weak arguments in this article. First of all, the recent spike in interest in the hook up culture was not something specific to Christians (as this recent NYT article shows). http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/fashion/sex-on-campus-she-can-play-that-game-too.html?pagewanted=all

    Second, proving that people today don’t have any more sex or sexual partners than their parents doesn’t demonstrate that the culture doesn’t have a serious problem with sexuality. Remember, the parents of today’s college students are largely the baby boomers who came of age in the 60s and 70s… this was a generation of sexual experimenters. At best, this demonstrates that by these two metrics the situation hasn’t gotten worse than then. Of course, there are other metrics like how many children live with both their natural parents which have gotten quite worse over the past forty years. And the social acceptability of the hookup culture is up too.

    Third, the fact that divorce rates aren’t quite 50% (I believe they are in the low-40s, but the author isn’t even brave enough to give a statistic here) is hardly good news. Divorce rates in the 40s% are still shockingly bad. And the ‘divorce rates’ may be dropping for an even worse reason…. ‘marriage rates’ are dropping. This is bad news. At least people used to try to ‘do the right thing’ and get married. Increasingly, people have accepted a mindset that systemic failed relationships are to be expected. So, the divorce rate inches down as only more conservative Americans marry, but the relational failure rate skyrockets.

    Fourth, the author ignores the main criticism of “an elderly man proceeded to tell me that he believed America’s moral fabric was disintegrating. “I wish we could go back to the 1950’s”… by bringing up racism. The man’s point seemed to be that people married and tried hard to stay together and tried to keep sexuality to marriage. In that area, the 50s were a better time for African Americans too… an AA child was much more likely to be born to married parents and live with them long term than today. While segregation was a serious problem, that isn’t the issue we’ve been talking about all column.

    I would list more problems with this article, but I have my own work to get back to….

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  1. […] I am in no way going to attempt to defend the morality of college students in America, but I wonder if it is as bad as we think it is. According to a recent study it is not. We as humans tend to demonize younger generations while thinking highly of our own generation. This is something we need to be aware of. I sometimes will hear people express a desire to return to the 1950′s. In their minds the 1950′s was a time when Christian morals were embraced by society. The problem with this view is that the 1950′s were a time when segregation was still in place and racism was accepted. Many Christian schools would not allow a person of color to enroll. What they are remembering is the good of the 1950′s and not the bad. We tend to look down upon younger generations when their moral shortcomings may not be as bad as we make them out to be or may just be different from the ones we grew up with. Again, I will not defend the moral shortcomings of younger generations, nor will I defend the moral shortcomings of past generations, but I do believe we need to be aware of the prejudices we may hold against generations that are different from our own. Check out Study Dispels Notions of ‘No-Holds Barred’ Sex on Campus Also check out Christians and the Myth of the ‘Hookup Culture’ […]

  2. […] Are Christians gullible? Too quick to believe the worst? More discerning? An interesting question. Perhaps the study cited here is limited in some way, but we seem often to be ready to believe the worst. Perhaps a bit more caution is needed. And certainly some better historic context. Merritt quotes a gentleman: […]

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