Meanings for Sex and Commitment Among First Semester College Men and Women: A Mixed-Methods Analysis

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to replicate and extend research on the meanings for sex and commitment using a sample of first semester college students (N = 268). We examined responses to a series of open-ended questions about participants’ meanings for sex and how they described these meanings as connected with relationship commitment. Our qualitative analyses replicated those of Olmstead, Billen, Conrad, Pasley, and Fincham (2013). Our largest group was the Committers (sex is indicative of love and trust and occurs after commitment is developed in a relationship), followed by Flexibles (sex can hold deep personal meaning, but can also be purely for pleasure and isn’t always connected with commitment), and then Recreationers (sex is a basic need or purely for pleasure and is not associated with commitment). Groups were then examined based on demographic characteristics and pre-college hookup experience. Groups were found to differ by gender, relationship status and type, religiosity, and pre-college hookup experience. For example, a greater proportion of women than men were in the Committers group, whereas a greater proportion of men than women were in the Flexibles and Recreationers groups. Those in the Committers group had fewer pre-college hookup partners than Flexibles and Recreationers; however, Flexibles and Recreationers did not differ in number of pre-college hookup partners. We then followed up (at the end of the semester) with a subsample (n = 73) of participants to examine whether meanings for sex and commitment remained stable or changed over a brief period of time. The majority (82.2 %) of participants’ meanings remained stable. For those whose meanings shifted, meanings became more consistent with those of the Committers group than the other two groups. Implications for research and sexual and relationship education are discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Allen, K. R., Husser, E. K., Stone, D. J., & Jordal, C. E. (2008). Agency and error in young adults’ stories of sexual decision making. Family Relations, 57, 517–529. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2008.00519.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Arnett, J. J. (2015). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the early twenties (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Asendorpf, J. B., Conner, M., de Fruyt, F., de Houwer, J., Denissen, J. J. A., Fiedler, K., … Wicherts, J. M. (2013). Recommendations for increasing replicability in psychology. European Journal of Personality, 27, 108–119. doi:10.1002/per.1919.

  4. Barry, C., Madsen, S., Nelson, L., Carroll, J., & Badger, S. (2009). Friendship and romantic relationship qualities in emerging adulthood: Differential associations with identity development and achieved adulthood criteria. Journal of Adult Development, 16, 209–222. doi:10.1007/s10804-009-9067-x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bersamin, M. M., Fisher, D. A., Walker, S., Hill, D. L., & Grube, J. W. (2007). Defining virginity and abstinence: Adolescents’ interpretations of sexual behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, 182–188. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.03.011.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  6. Bogle, K. A. (2008). Hooking up: Sex, dating, and relationships on campus. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204–232. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.204.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Byers, E. S., Henderson, J., & Hobson, K. M. (2009). University students’ definitions of sexual abstinence and having sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 665–674. doi:10.1007/s10508-007-9289-6.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Dworkin, S. L., & O’Sullivan, L. (2005). Actual versus desired patterns among a sample of college men: Tapping disjunctures within traditional male sexual scripts. Journal of Sex Research, 42, 150–158. doi:10.1080/00224490509552268.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Evans, R. I., Getz, J. G., & Raines, B. E. (1991, August). Theory guided models in prevention of AIDS in adolescents. Paper presented at the Science Weekend at the American Psychological Association Meeting, San Francisco, CA.

  12. Fielder, R. L., & Carey, M. P. (2010). Prevalence and characteristics of sexual hookups among first-semester female college students. Journal of Sex & Martial Therapy, 36, 346–359. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2010.488118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology, 16, 161–176. doi:10.1037/a0027911.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  14. Grello, C. M., Welsh, D. P., Harper, M. S., & Dickson, J. W. (2003). Dating and sexual relationship trajectories and adolescent functioning. Adolescent and Family Health, 3, 103–112.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Gute, G., Eshbaugh, E. M., & Weirsma, J. (2008). Sex for you, but not for me: Discontinuity in understanding emerging adults’ definitions of “having sex”. Journal of Sex Research, 45, 329–337. doi:10.1080/00224490802398332.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Kaestle, C. E., & Halpern, C. T. (2007). What’s love got to do with it? Sexual behaviors of opposite-sex couples through emerging adulthood. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 39, 134–140. doi:10.1363/3913407.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Katz, J., & Schneider, M. E. (2013). Casual hook up sex during the first year of college: Prospective associations with attitudes about sex and love relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1451–1462. doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0078-0.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Kenyan, D. B., & Koerner, S. S. (2009). Examining emerging adults’ and parents’ expectations about autonomy during the transition to college. Journal of Adolescent Research, 24, 293–320. doi:10.1177/0743558409333021.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Krippendorff, K. (2013). Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  20. LaRossa, R. (2005). Grounded theory methods and qualitative family research. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 837–857. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2005.00179.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Lewis, M. A., Granato, H., Blayney, J. A., Lostutter, T. W., & Kilmer, J. R. (2012). Predictors of hooking up sexual behaviors and emotional reactions among U.S. college students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 1219–1229. doi:10.1007/s10508-011-9817-2.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. Lindgren, K. P., Schacht, R. L., Pantalone, D. W., Blayney, J. A., & George, W. H. (2009). Sexual communication, sexual goals, and students’ transition to college: Implications for sexual assault, decision-making, and risky behaviors. Journal of College Student Development, 50, 491–503. doi:10.1353/csd.0.0095.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  23. Monto, M. A., & Carey, A. G. (2014). A new standard of sexual behavior? Are claims associated with the “hookup culture” supported by general social survey data? Journal of Sex Research, 51, 605–615. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.906031.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Morgan, E. M., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2012). Changes in sexual values and their sources over the 1st year of college. Journal of Adolescent Research, 27, 471–497. doi:10.1177/0743558411432637.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Olmstead, S. B., Billen, R. M., Conrad, K. A., Pasley, K., & Fincham, F. D. (2013). Sex, commitment, and casual sex relationships among college men: A mixed-methods analysis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 561–571. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-0047-z.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Olmstead, S. B., Roberson, P. N. E., Pasley, K., & Fincham, F. D. (2015). Hooking up and risk behaviors among first semester college men: What is the role of pre-college experience? Journal of Sex Research, 52, 186–198. doi:10.1080/00224499.2013.843147.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Owen, J., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2010). ‘‘Hooking up’’ among college students: Demographic and psychosocial correlates. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 653–663. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9414-1.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. Patrick, M. E., Maggs, J. L., & Abar, C. C. (2007). Reasons to have sex, personal goals, and sexual behavior during the transition to college. Journal of Sex Research, 44, 240–249. doi:10.1080/00224490701443759.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  29. Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2010). A meta-analytic review of research on gender differences in sexuality, 1993–2007. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 21–38. doi:10.1037/a0017504.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  30. Peterson, Z. D., & Muehlenhard, C. L. (2007). What is sex and why does it matter? A motivational approach to exploring individuals’ definitions of sex. Journal of Sex Research, 44, 256–268. doi:10.1080/00224490701443932.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. PREP for Individuals, Inc. (2005, October). Within my reach: Participant workbook (Version 2.1). Denver, CO: Author.

  32. Regnerus, M., & Uecker, J. (2011). Premarital sex in America: How young Americans meet, mate, and think about marrying. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Reid, J. A., Elliott, S., & Webber, G. R. (2011). Casual hookups to formal dates: Refining the boundaries of the sexual double standard. Gender & Society, 25, 545–568. doi:10.1177/0891243211418642.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010). Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 543–550. doi:10.1037/a0021008.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  35. Roberson, P. N. E., Olmstead, S. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2015). Hooking up during the college years: Is there a pattern? Culture, Health & Sexuality, 5, 576–591. doi:10.1080/13691058.2014.972458.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Sanders, S. A., & Reinisch, J. M. (1999). Would you say you “had sex” if…? Journal of the American Medical Association, 281, 275–277. doi:10.1001/jama.281.3.275.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  37. Schmidt, S. (2009). Shall we really do it again? The powerful concept of replication is neglected in the social sciences. Review of General Psychology, 13, 90–100. doi:10.1037/a0015108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Shaffer, J. P. (1995). Multiple hypothesis testing. Annual Review of Psychology, 46, 561–584. doi:10.1146/annurev.ps.46.020195.003021.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Simon, W., & Gagnon, J. H. (1986). Sexual scripts: Permanence and change. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15, 97–120. doi:10.1007/BF01542219.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  40. Snyder, T. D., & Dillow, S. A. (2011). Digest of education statistics 2010 (NCES 2011-015). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2006.00418.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation. Journal of Family Issues, 25, 496–519. doi:10.1177/0192513X03257797.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Stepp, L. S. (2007). Unhooked: How young women pursue sex, delay love and lose at both. New York: Riverhead Books.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Wade, L., & Heldman, C. (2012). Hooking up and opting out: Negotiating sex in the first year of college. In L. M. Carpenter & J. DeLamater (Eds.), Sex for life: From virginity to Viagra, how sexuality changes throughout our lives (pp. 128–145). New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Wentland, J. J., & Reissing, E. D. (2011). Taking casual sex not too casually: Exploring definitions of casual sexual relationships. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 20, 75–91.

    Google Scholar 

  47. White, J. M., Klein, D. M., & Martin, T. F. (2015). Family theories (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Spencer B. Olmstead.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Olmstead, S.B., Anders, K.M. & Conrad, K.A. Meanings for Sex and Commitment Among First Semester College Men and Women: A Mixed-Methods Analysis. Arch Sex Behav 46, 1831–1842 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-016-0777-4

Download citation

Keywords

  • Emerging adulthood
  • Sex
  • Commitment
  • Hooking up
  • Casual sex