The saying “Why do they call it love when they mean sex?” is often used when a person feels a strong physical attraction toward another person and they camouflage it as love or a special connection. Though it’s common, the opposite phenomenon, where sex means love, also exists and it’s slowly becoming more common, especially among young people.
In one of the most extensive scientific reviews on the characteristics and determinants of so-called “hookup culture” (uncommitted sexual encounters), the Kinsey Institute’s Justin García cites a survey of 500 college students in which 65 percent of women and 45 percent of men confessed that during their last hookup, they were actually hoping the encounter would lead to a steady relationship. In fact, 51 percent of women and 42 percent of men said they openly discussed that possibility with their lover after the hookup despite its supposedly casual nature.
García also cites a survey of 681 college-aged adults that he and colleagues carried out in 2010, in which 63 percent of the men and 83 percent of the women said they’d prefer to be in a traditional romantic relationship instead of a sexual relationship without commitment.
In “Hook-up behavior: A biopsychosocial perspective,” a study published in 2008, García and a colleague asked 507 undergraduates what motivated young adults to seek hookups. Eighty-nine percent of men and women said it was physical gratification, but 54 percent also cited emotional reasons and 51 percent said it was for the purpose of starting a romantic relationship.
“The normalization of casual sex among young adults is one of the most notorious recent changes in sexual behavior in western society,” García says. “But in reality, during those sporadic encounters something more than simply sex is desired.”
Beginning in the 1950s casual sex became less risky with the arrival of the birth control pill, the near elimination of syphilis thanks to penicillin, and wider availability of condoms. This led to the sexual revolution of 1960s, which freed an entire generation from fear and secrecy. But the AIDS outbreak of the 1980s caused a rapid decline in the number of people having casual sex with strangers. So it’s fair to ask: Is there more casual sex happening today than ever?
According to García the answer is undoubtedly yes, at least in the U.S., and he points out two phenomena associated with a new sexual revolution among today’s youth. Firstly, not wanting to give up the possibility of numerous sexual partners during their prime energy years, the age at which men and women say they are ready to establish a long-term emotional commitment has been delayed until much later in life. Secondly—and more significantly, according to García—is a wider acceptance of casual sex portrayed in the media and in popular culture.
When people say that American culture is highly puritanical because it doesn’t allow nudity on television, it’s not entirely true. “Contradictory” would be the better adjective. While its true that most television series and reality shows will never show you a breast or buttocks, you will be exposed to a complete display of casual sex as if it were something normal, positive and desirable, regardless of gender. This is a significant change with respect to previous decades. Messages aimed at young women today encourage them to act freely without the patriarchal restrictions of the past and to consider casual sex without feeling ashamed about it.
A curious study published in 2012 reinforces this hypothesis: 160 female undergraduate students were recruited and separated into two homogenous groups. One group was asked to read articles about sexual relationships excerpted from the magazine Cosmopolitan, while the other group read entertainment articles that lacked sexual content. These women were examined sometime later and it could be seen that those who were exposed to Cosmopolitan’s content were more likely to support the idea that women should seek sexual satisfaction however they wished to, while they also saw less risk in having sporadic sexual encounters.
Although it was a small study and its conclusions can be criticized, it reinforces García’s basic argument: The messages the media and society are sending to young people today about casual sex are very different from those expressed decades ago, a factor that’s contributing to the expansion of hookup culture and the shrinking difference in attitudes between women and men.
“One of our most significant discoveries was the small difference in attitudes between the sexes,” explains García, referring to polls indicating that men’s and women’s views toward casual sex were much more similar than they had expected. It seems there is a growing number of women seeking sexual satisfaction without commitment, while more men say they desire an emotional component connected to casual sex.
As an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, García argues that our sexual instincts are strongly conditioned by natural selection, but he also recognizes that evolutionary logic is tremendously simple and fails to fully explain the diversity and complexity of sexual behavior in western societies.
In a study published in 2010, of 832 university students surveyed, 49 percent of women and 26 percent of men reported having a negative emotional reaction to their last hookup, while only 26 percent of women and 50 percent of men declared being satisfied. The author of the study wanted to explore the motives behind those differences, so he followed 394 university students during a school semester. He found that for people who suffered from feelings of loneliness or depression, casual sex improved their state of mind; while those with a richer social life and less tendency for depression found hookups caused them to feel worse.
Overall, García believes that hookups tend to have a more positive than negative effect by improving one’s sense of well being and level of satisfaction. But he warns that emotions can be conflicting, citing a study where 72 percent of female university students said they had regretted a hookup on at least one occasion, while 23 percent had never regretted a hookup and 3 percent had regretted several.
According to García, three out of four planned sexual encounters labeled as strictly casual lead to a longer-term relationship. An explanation that’s often given for these “fortuitous” love feelings is that when the sex is good, large quantities of oxytocin are released after orgasm. This substance is called “the love hormone” because when secreted it creates a sensation of well being and fosters attachment to the person you have at your side.
There’s no doubt that chemistry has a lot to do with it. But, according to García’s data, it seems evident that behind the pretension of sex with no strings attached there already exists a predisposition—consciously or unconsciously—to create stronger ties. So why do they call it sex when they mean love?