Unraveling the Enigma of College Dating


Learning how to navigate the college dating scene can be intimidating, because college students engage in numerous and diverse forms of relationships. Some students choose to be in long-term, committed relationships, while some prefer to participate in casual hookups and others decide to stay single. Some students tackle long-distance dating and some utilize online tools or apps in order to meet other single people. Read on to learn about the science behind attraction, the common types of dating in college, the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships, the truth about hookup culture, and the different ways sex can affect your health.   


the science of attraction

People find a variety of characteristics attractive, but one commonly overlooked factor in human attraction is how potential partners smell. Chances are, you’ve been around people who try to mask their body odors with strongly scented deodorants, perfumes, and colognes. A person’s natural scent, however, is one of the most crucial attractants for potential partners—more important, in fact, than physical attractiveness. [1]

According to a 2015 review published in Hormones and Behavior, studies have shown that people smelling the worn t-shirts of members of the opposite sex prefer the scent of people with different HLA genes over the scent of people with similar HLA genes. [1] The HLA, or human leukocyte antigen, system is a group of genes that codes for the major histocompatibility complex, a group of proteins critical to immune system function. For the human immune system to function optimally, HLA heterozygosity is best, meaning that parents with different HLA genes will produce offspring with healthier immune systems than parents with similar HLA genes. When a person’s HLA genes are heterozygous, meaning that the mother and father contributed two different alleles for each gene, the person’s immune system is better able to fight off disease-causing pathogens. [1]

A person’s natural odor, therefore, can communicate biological information about the immune health of the children you could potentially have with that person. Many other factors, like physical attractiveness, also reflect a potential mate’s genetic suitability for having children. Next time, you might want to skip the store-bought fragrance and let your natural scent work to your advantage!


what’s common in college

we met online

Websites and apps that allow you to meet potential partners online are a relatively recent phenomenon. A criticism of these dating platforms is that people use them to hunt for sexual rather than romantic partners. One of the most well-known apps that college students use for this purpose is Tinder. A recent Telematics and Informatics study investigated students’ motives for using this app. [2] The study found that more young people are using Tinder to look for love than to look for casual sex. More men than women reported using the app to search for casual sex. Online dating may be a good way to meet someone, whether you are looking for something serious or not. 

texting 24/7

A 2016 study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking looked at how computer-mediated communication (CMC) affects the quality of romantic relationships in college students. [3] CMC includes all communication through text messaging, social media, and the Internet. Texting and the Internet are the most common forms of CMC in college students. These manners of communicating may seem superficial, but the study found that CMC allows college students in relationships to communicate much more frequently than was previously possible, since students can text constantly while they are physically apart from their significant others and communicate meaningful information to one another. The study found that CMC contributes to increased communication and intimacy in romantic relationships, and therefore actually improves the quality of relationships. [3]                  

long-distance can last

You may have heard cynical opinions about long-distance relationships in college, such as the idea that they are unrealistic. This is an issue that many college students face head-on. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy compared long-distance relationships to close-proximity relationships in order to investigate whether or not geographic distance decreases relationship quality. [4] The study found that relationship traits including communication, commitment, intimacy, and sexual satisfaction were much better indicators of relationship quality. [4] This evidence suggests that long-distance relationships are just as likely to be successful as relationships in which partners live close to one another. The increased interconnectivity and easy communication allowed by modern technology may help explain why long-distance dating can be just as successful.

healthy vs. unhealthy dating

However you choose to date, it is important to keep in mind that not all relationships are created equal from a psychological standpoint. A Journal of Adolescence study published in 2008 looked in depth at the differences between healthy and unhealthy romantic relationships in young people. [5] The study noted that healthy relationships possess the quality of warmth, which is conveyed through partners displaying affirming, loving, and nurturing behavior toward each other. On the contrary, unhealthy relationships are characterized as controlling and hostile, shown through behaviors like blaming, attacking, and shutting one’s partner out. These qualities can help you distinguish unhealthy, potentially psychologically damaging relationships from healthy ones.

Furthermore, a 2016 study published in Marriage & Family Review investigated how a person’s individual psychology influences his or her success in romantic relationships. [6] People who experience lower attachment anxiety while dating report being happier. Additionally, people with higher self-efficacy, meaning people who believe in their ability to succeed in a wide array of tasks, report experiencing more happiness in their relationships. People who worry less about what their partner thinks of them also report having higher self-esteem. These results indicate that the more secure you are in yourself, and the less you rely on your partner to make you happy, the better off you will be in a relationship.


the reality of hookup culture

The media tends to portray college students as a highly promiscuous population in which hooking up is a central activity. Are college relationships truly limited to this sexually promiscuous context? Do college students still date in the old-fashioned sense? To read some statistics on how common hooking up, dating, cohabitation, and marriage are in today’s college students, check out "Romantic Relationships in Modern America: Dynamic and Diverse" in Volume 15, Issue 2 of Total Wellness. The truth of the matter seems to be that while hooking up certainly occurs in college students, longer-term romantic relationships are also common.

not everyone’s doing it

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Adolescence looked at female first-year college students and compared the frequency of sex within the hookup context and within the context of romantic relationships. [7] The study found that 40% of participants engaged in hookups where they had oral or vaginal sex during their freshman year, while 56% had oral or vaginal sex in romantic relationships. Perhaps surprisingly, less than 20% of participants engaged in a hookup each month, while in contrast about a third of participants had sex each month in the context of a romantic relationship. [7] These results suggest that sex in romantic relationships is generally more frequent than hookup sex, which is usually an experimental rather than regular form of intimacy.

a measure of pleasure

Interestingly, the nature of a relationship can affect how much pleasure each party receives from sex. A 2012 study published in the American Sociological Review found that college women in relationships experience a greater number of orgasms during sex than those engaging in hookups. [8] The researchers hypothesized that female pleasure is often overlooked in the hookup context, whereas in relationships males pay more attention to pleasuring their partners. The findings suggest that people in committed, long-term romantic relationships may experience greater sexual satisfaction in comparison to people engaging in casual hookups. [8] College relationships are clearly more complicated in reality than in the movies, and different kinds of relationships work for different types of people.


sex and health

the risks of “doing it”

Besides the obvious potential consequence of pregnancy, people engaging in sex should be aware of the serious health risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections, or STIs. The statistics showing STI prevalence on college campuses are sobering. The CDC reports that there are 20 million STI diagnoses every year in the US, and almost half of these occur in people between ages 15 and 24, which should be alarming if you are a sexually active college student. [9] STIs can cause serious long-term health problems, including infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, and tubal scarring in women. [9] The best ways to reduce your risk of getting an STI are to stay abstinent, only have sex with one uninfected partner, and use condoms. [9] If you do choose to have sex, it is wise to get tested yearly—especially for chlamydia, which can cause infertility in women. [9]

Perhaps even more concerning than the high rates of STIs on college campuses, a 2000 study published in the Journal of Adolescence found that college students believe that having sex without a condom increases their pleasure, and that this perceived benefit has more influence on their behavior than their knowledge that condom use decreases their risk of contracting STIs. [10] These findings indicate that college students need to dial up their awareness of the serious health costs of STIs and the fact that condoms are important for preventing these infections—and more importantly, pregnancy. Don’t fall into the same trap as these students who let momentary pleasure cloud their common sense.    

sexy stress relief

A 2006 study published in Biological Psychology found that sexual intercourse lowers people’s blood pressure. [11] Interestingly, other sexual behaviors, including oral sex and masturbation, did not have this same effect—these behaviors actually interfered with the benefits that sex provided. Lowering your blood pressure can reduce your risk of heart disease—this is one health benefit of sex. Additionally, having orgasms during sex causes a release of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress, another boon to both your physical and psychological health. [11]

A 2003 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that couples who hug each other more often experience lower blood pressure and less stress. [12] Couples who hugged beforehand had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure after a stressful public speaking test than couples who did not hug before the test. This study suggests that having a supportive partner aids individuals in coping better with stress, which improves cardiovascular health. Your heart rate increases when you are sexually aroused, beats even faster when you have sex, and peaks during orgasm. [13] Over time, raising your heart rate strengthens the muscles of your heart—this is why cardiovascular exercise, including sex, is so good for your heart. [13]

moderately improved immunity

A 2008 study published in Pyschosomatic Medicine measured levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the saliva of couples. [14] The study found a significant correlation between intimacy and cortisol—happy couples had lower levels of cortisol in their saliva, indicating a lower level of stress. This could be a significant health benefit of being in a stable relationship. Another study, published in Psychological Reports in 2004, found a connection between the frequency with which a person has sex and the effectiveness of their immune system. [15] Student participants in the study having regular sex, once or twice a week, had higher amounts of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), a critical antibody for immune system function, than students who had little to no sex. Perhaps surprisingly, students who had the most frequent sex—more than twice a week—had the lowest levels of IgA, indicating inferior immune system function. However, more studies need to be done in order to illuminate the connection between frequency of sex and immune health.


you are more than your relationship status

Whether you are interested in any of these forms of dating or are happy being single, it is helpful to understand the biological basis of attraction and the differences between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship. You are the best judge of whether online dating or a long-distance relationship is a good choice for you. Contrary to what you might see on TV, not all college students hook up, and plenty choose to be in committed relationships. Remember to keep tabs on both your physical and your mental health, and don’t let dating get in the way of your happiness!


References ▾

  1. “Always follow your nose: The functional significance of social chemosignals in human reproduction and survival.” Horm Behav. (2015).
  2. “Love me Tinder: Untangling emerging adults’ motivations for using the dating application Tinder.” Telemat Inform. (2017).
  3. “Staying Connected: Computer-Mediated and Face-to-Face Communication in College Students' Dating Relationships." Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. (2016).
  4. “Go Long! Predictors of Positive Relationship Outcomes in Long-Distance Dating Relationships.” J Sex Marital Ther. (2015).
  5. “Observing differences between healthy and unhealthy adolescent romantic relationships: Substance abuse and interpersonal process.” J Adolesc. (2008).
  6. Abilities in Romantic Relationships and Well-Being Among Emerging Adults. Marriage Fam Rev. (2016).
  7. “Are Hookups Replacing Romantic Relationships? A Longitudinal Study of First-Year Female College Students.” J Adolesc. (2013).
  8. “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships.” Am Sociol Rev. (2012).
  9. “College Health and Safety.” cdc.gov. (2016).
  10. “Perceptions of the benefits and costs associated with condom use and unprotected sex among late adolescent college students.” J Adolesc. (2000).
  11. “Blood pressure reactivity to stress is better for people who recently had penile-vaginal intercourse than for people who had other or no sexual activity.” Biol Psychol. (2006).
  12. “Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity.” Behav Med. (2003).
  13. “Cardiovascular response to sexual activity.” Am J Cardiol. (2000).

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