A recent USA Today article discusses a study conducted by Amanda Holman, a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Dr. Alan Sillars of the University of Montana. This study has caught the attention of universities and media, and raised an eyebrow or two. And why not? Sex sells. Even if it turns out people aren’t really having any.
Amanda Holman’s study “Talk About ‘Hooking Up’:The Influence of College Student Social Networks on Nonrelationship Sex” focuses on a small group consisting of 274 students, seventy-seven percent of which were freshmen or sophomores at a large public university. Not only is her sample group lacking in diversity but her data is further biased by her use of ambiguous language that even her conclusion cannot and does not define. “Hooking up,” according to Holman, is engaging in sexual activities that are outside of an exclusive relationship. Holman is making claims based off of a biased study and calling it research.
When alcohol is thrown into the mix, according to Holman, this behavior is even more prevalent–making “hook ups” no longer about casual sex but whether or not the activities are consensual. While underage drinking and safe, healthy sexual behavior is a serious matter, Holman’s claim that talking about sexual experiences with friends will encourage risky alcoholic promiscuity holds no merit. The truth is that some students are going to drink. Some are going to have sex. Some students are even going to talk. But then some are also going to lie, unfortunately, to their friends or a survey looking at what ‘average’ sexual behaviors college students engage in.
“It is concerning that sexual communication among peer networks may normalize risky sexual script,” Holman said to USA Today. But blaming communication among peer networks for promiscuity among college students is absurd. If peer pressure encourages students to engage in risky sexual behavior, her findings would have shown a higher incidence of self-reported “hook ups.” Ninety percent of students were overestimating their classmates’ ‘extra-curricular’ activities. Instead of a healthy dialogue about sex, students are stretching (or shrinking) the truth to avoid stigma, judgment and criticism. Using vague language about “hooking up” allows people to avoid all of these as well as having to define or give intimate details.
Another article that examines Holman’s study in the Huffington Post thinks ambiguity is a good idea. I agree, it is a strong rhetorical decision. Without having to compromise your personal boundaries you can still kiss and tell without really telling anything at all. So what if you fell asleep spooning after watching The Notebook? That would take a lot of explanation and, quite frankly, is nothing to brag about. Neither is any other sexual activity. The term itself isn’t even something I would use or hear in regards to relationships.
Communication influences only a small part, our perception. When Holman couldn’t pin down the meaning of “hooking up,” she lumped everyone’s definition together and told us our actions are determined by what our friends say. Her concern that talking about “hooking up” will cause more students to make poor choices is unfounded. What we really have here is a failure to communicate.
Sarah Blackmon is a senior political science and writing major from Fort Worth, Texas.