ISU sociologist studies 'hooking up;' works to promote healthier intimate relationships

AMES, Iowa -- Through her research, Iowa State University sociologist Teresa Downing-Matibag has seen the physical and emotional consequences of college students' "hooking up" with friends, strangers and acquaintances to experience sexual intimacy without investing in relationships. She says national studies now suggest that more than 70 percent of college students will "hookup" -- or engage in intimate behaviors ranging from kissing and fondling to sexual intercourse with a casual partner -- in some form before they graduate.

Because hooking up often involves risky behaviors that can compromise student health, Downing-Matibag is actively promoting healthier intimate relationships among young people at Iowa State. She teaches an "Intimate Relationships" class and also started both a student organization, "Relationships on Campus," and an "Intimate Relationships" learning community. She's worked with Raymond Rodriguez, a prevention specialist in ISU's Thielen Student Health Center, to educate students both in and out of the classroom.

And Downing-Matibag's helped to organize campus workshops, like the one being conducted Thursday, Oct. 7, by leaders of Advocates for Youth -- a worldwide organization that focuses on adolescent reproductive and sexual health.

The scientific facts on student hookups

The ISU sociologist knows the facts on hookups all too well. Last year, she published a study with graduate student Brandi Geisinger in Qualitative Health Research on 71 college students' hookup behaviors. They found that students often underestimate their vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) during hookups, placing too much trust in their partners, not discussing use of prophylactics, and/or not understanding the STD-related risks of certain sexual practices.

Downing-Matibag says students need to become better aware that they're engaging in risky behavior that could have serious life consequences.

"I want to promote a movement on campus that encourages students to be more reflective about the decisions they're making and the longer term implications of those decisions for their well-being," she said. "And I'm not just talking about their sexual well-being, I'm talking about well-being in their future families and longer-term relationships."

In fact, Downing-Matibag says recent University of Washington research has found that the nation is seeing rising rates of infidelity among both young married men and women. She sees a possible connection with the hookup college culture.

She's also observed a narrowing of the gender gap when it comes to hookups. In an interview study of 46 college students, Downing-Matibag found that men and women cited similar reasons for hooking up. Although the women subjects were more likely than men to indicate an interest in dating their recent hookup partners, the majority of women in the study, similar to the men, were not seeking committed relationships.

That all translates to society's more permissive view when it comes to casual sexual intimacy.

"I think it's been within the last decade that students developed the language to talk about casual sex and we decided to call it 'hooking up,'" Downing-Matibag said. "And I think having that language and talking openly about it has made us more aware of the fact that it's happening. But it's also, in some ways, made it appear more normative. Even so, we haven't done a good enough job of educating students about the risks. The United States has the highest rates of sexually transmissible diseases in the developed world."

Making a difference with students

Her educational message about healthier relationships is making an impact on a growing number of students at Iowa State.

"Education like this is really important," said Samantha Jenkins, a senior psychology major from Plymouth, Minn., who is the peer mentor for the Intimate Relationships learning community. "I feel like I've had a lot of friends who weren't in the healthiest relationships and they really weren't aware of it until they got out of them. So for me personally, it's been important to learn what kind of relationships are going to be the most fulfilling and make you the happiest."

Downing-Matibag is planning a future service-learning project as part of a campus-wide awareness initiative through the learning community.

She encourages students interested in joining either her learning community or student organization -- which meet together each Thursday evening from 6 to 7 p.m. -- to contact her.