By Ally Helmers

Casual sex is increasingly described as the normative form of romantic relationships on campuses, said Suzanne Shanahan, associate director of the Kenan Institute of Ethics and assistant professor of sociology.

Shanahan led the presentation “Love on the Quad: Romantic Relationships,” Saturday to an audience of Duke’s Half-Century Club members, who attended the event as a part of Homecoming Weekend activities. In a cross-disciplinary research study, Shanahan examined the changing relationships among students at Duke and other college campuses, along with the concept of a “hook-up” and its effects on student interaction.

“Popular press has become obsessed with the hook-up culture of young people,” she said.

According to a report produced for the Independent Women’s Forum in 2001, 91 percent of college women surveyed on campuses nationwide described their school as having a “salient hook-up culture,” Shanahan added. Other surveys found that approximately 70 to 80 percent of college students engaged in intercourse with a casual sex partner during the previous year.

The study aims not only to define “hook-up,” but also to understand how students’ environments affect their decisions and perceptions of relationships.

“We are just getting underway with our systematic work at Duke-so much is still speculative,” Shanahan said. “[In the winter] we hope to bring the survey findings back to the students to think them through.”

Some Half-Century Club audience members such as Tom Cottingham, Trinity ’37, said they found the statistics “fascinating.” For an audience familiar with the transient relationships of past campus culture, the prevalence of a casual romantic interaction is still surprising, he said.

A few current Duke students said, however, that they are not at all surprised.

“I don’t really know anyone who is in a relationship with someone here,” freshman Jessie Mark said. “There’s drama because one person always wants more.”

Generally, females are more likely than males to prefer a relationship to a “hook-up,” Shanahan said. Her research found that only 40 percent of women surveyed had themselves participated in casual sex during the previous year-a contrast to the percentage engaging in casual intercourse as a whole.

“Right now, I’d rather be in a relationship than not,” Mark said. “I’m not trying to be that crazy girl at Shooters.”

For first-year students like Mark, entering college is like taking a break from your life course, Shanahan said to a crowd of Duke alumni nodding in agreement.

“There’s a periodicity involved in participation,” she added. “Freshman and sophomores tend to participate more than juniors and seniors.”

Nastassja Marshall, a junior, has witnessed her peers move each year from hooking up to entering into relationships.

“Freshman year makes you want to go out and explore,” she said. “By junior year, people have realized what they want in a relationship.”

Jonathan Schwartz, a senior, said he has also noticed the changing ideas of relationships on campus.

“I know a lot of people who got in a relationship after their freshman year,” he said. “They have been together since and are just hoping for that long-term commitment.”

Another cause of “relationship avoidance” is students’ sense that long-term, committed relationships get in the way of other activities in which they want to engage during college, Shanahan said. University students are often over-committed, and they instead anticipate getting into a relationship shortly after graduation.

“Relationships may be too time-consuming and distracting for some people,” Schwartz said, explaining his peers’ preference for non-commitment.

Mark, commenting on her opinion of the campus “hook-up” scene, agreed.

“People are trying to have fun without the complications of a relationship,” she said.