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Study provides glimpse into sexual behavior of 483 SU women

A recently published study about the sexual behavior of 500 Syracuse University women revealed that while many female students hook up in college, sex in a committed relationship is still more common than sex in a casual one.

Michael Carey, an SU psychology professor when the study was conducted during the 2009-10 school year, was the principal researcher for several studies that surveyed 483 female freshmen about how often they had sex, factors of sexual hookups and change in condom use during their first year at SU. Carey is now a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

After a year of research and some initial controversy, the most recent study, titled “Predictors of Sexual Hookups: A Theory-Based, Prospective Study of First-Year College Women,” was published online May 9.

For the purpose of the study, researchers defined a hookup as three things: “A variety of sexual behaviors, from kissing to penetrative intercourse,” “the partners are not in a committed relationship” and “the interaction is short-term and does not signify that a romantic relationship will begin,” according to the study.

The study looked at various factors and how they might influence a woman’s sexual behavior. Some factors included: her personality, past sexual experience, alcohol use, societal pressures and if her parents were married.

During the course of the 2009-10 school year, 25 percent of the surveyed women engaged in at least one hookup in which they performed oral sex, 20 percent in at least one hookup in which they received oral sex and 25 percent engaged in at least one hookup involving vaginal sex, among a number of other results, according to the study.

These numbers are comparable to the women’s pre-college sexual experiences: 26 percent reported performing oral sex, 21 percent reported receiving oral sex and 21 percent reported having vaginal sex before coming to college.

Women who binge-drank and used marijuana more frequently were more likely to perform and receive oral sex, while just marijuana use led to an increase in vaginal sex hookups. Women with higher self-esteem engaged in all types of hookups less often. The strongest factor in hooking up in college was the frequency of similar behavior before college.

Research revealed that sex happens more often in a committed relationship than in a casual one, and hook-up sex is not as common as most students believe, said Robyn Fielder, a doctoral student of clinical psychology and project coordinator.

“Nonetheless, a significant proportion of college women are hooking up, so it is important to ensure that college students receive the information they need to engage in this behavior in a responsible way,” she said in an email.

Based on these results, the study only occasionally fell in line with the group’s hypothesis, Fielder said. Researchers correctly predicted women had more sex while in committed relationships and that multiple reasons can contribute to a woman’s desire to hook up. However, they were surprised to find that casual hookups did not lead to depression or sexual victimization, she said.

Fielder said the research team was fortunate to work with such a receptive group of women. It would be additionally beneficial to observe other demographics, such as males or high school students, according to the study.

She said researchers decided to look at women because of their minimal presence in health research, even though they are the most vulnerable to various health issues. Studying sexual behavior was also important because of its implications on the body and mind, she said.

In the most recent study, researchers also mention the emergence of a hook-up culture in the media, though research on the behavior did not appear until 2000. Fielder said not much is known about what leads to hookups and their effect on women’s health.

In August 2009, 483 women in the Class of 2013 were recruited for the study. At orientation sessions held within the first three weeks of school, the women were given a baseline survey about their personalities, moods, relationships, and sexual and health behaviors, according to the study. Then, at the beginning of each month for one year, the women completed follow-up surveys about their health behavior within the previous month.

The women were paid for their participation, according to the study.

In 2009, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provided Michael Carey with $219,000 in stimulus funds to finance the research. However, conservatives across the country were quick to disapprove of Carey and the study, saying it was a wasteful use of government money.

In response, Fielder argued that sexual behavior is a normal part of life and important to one’s physical and mental health.

“Research like this allows us to understand the social and behavioral factors that influence health behaviors,” she said in an email, “and to influence the development of health promotion and disease prevention programs that will improve the health of young women.”

Still, Fielder said researchers didn’t go into this project hoping for certain results. They just wanted to learn more about the hook-up culture at SU.

“The study was a success because we have increased our understanding of hooking up and other health behaviors among college women,” Fielder said. “We are happy that we are able to contribute to the research literature in these areas.”

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