Keepin’ It Casual: Sociosexuality and What It Means for Compatibility

With the Marriage Pact being a part of the college tradition at over 70 schools now, it’s safe to say that students approach the in-depth, value-based questionnaire from a wide variety of different perspectives and backgrounds.

Seeing as how students’ views on emotional connection, commitment, and intimacy run the gamut, Marriage Pact researchers wanted to find a way to capture students' associations between emotional and physical intimacy to help them find a compatible match. Enter: sociosexuality.

Katherine Luong, a researcher for Marriage Pact’s Relationship Science team, explained that sociosexuality is a measure of one person's willingness and ability to participate in uncommitted sex and sexual relationships.

Katherine first came across the concept of sociosexuality in a research article while reviewing recent literature in relationship and social sciences. While doing background research into how sexuality plays a role in compatibility, Katherine and her team found that there was a way to measure a specific aspect of sexuality. They already knew that a person’s openness to intimacy before an emotional commitment was a factor in long-term compatibility, but now they had the literature to back it up.

Katherine Luong:

So, to put it another way, it's how open you are to casual sex and hooking up. It's measured on a scale from restricted to unrestricted, so a person with a restricted sociosexual orientation is more likely to be turned off by the idea of having a sexual relationship without love, commitment, or emotional intimacy, and a person with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation actively pursues uncommitted and casual sex, and doesn't need that love, commitment or emotional intimacy that is so needed by those who are more restrictive.

Jenna Emerson, MEd, a health and sexuality educator at the University of Vermont, described sociosexuality’s history as being one of the many ways American biologist and sexologist Alfred Kinsey worked to bring a level of objectivity to the study of human behavior.

Jenna Emerson:

What [Kinsey] did, specifically in the 1940s and 50s, is that he looked at sexuality with as much of an unbiased lens as possible. Before that, things were pretty blatantly homophobic, misogynistic, sexist, and transphobic. Kinsey came in, during this time’s morality movement where sex was seen as immoral, especially outside of marriage, and what was he really wanted to see was how people actually behaved. 

He did thousands of interviews. His whole thing, in terms of research, wasn't just observation, it was about really collecting data of actual human behavior from huge sample sizes, trying to be as objective as possible. We know that's not completely true, of course, or possible, but that was definitely, in terms of sex research, some of the best examples of more ethical research for the time.

Following Kinsey’s surveys, Jeffry A. Simpson and Steven W. Gangestad created the Sociosexuality Orientation Inventory, a self-reported survey with a list of five questions that worked to measure your tendency or desire to have uncommitted sexual relationships, in 1991. A revised nine-question version, the SOI-R, was created by Lars Penke and Jens B. Asendorpf in 2008.

Jenna Emerson:

[Sexual attraction] is something that people experience very intimately and inherently, and Kinsey and other sex researchers over the last 80 to 100 years have really worked to quantify it.

Quantifying inherent experiences like compatibility and attraction is the name of the game, and the Marriage Pact has adapted questions from the SOI-R into the questionnaire in a few ways to make our survey all the more all-encompassing.

One of the Marriage Pact questions that relates best to a person’s sociosexuality score is how long do you think is appropriate to wait before having sex, a question the Relationship Science team refers to as a dealbreaker. Students gave their opinions on a scale of one to seven: one being “zero wait” and seven being “until marriage”.


SCU: 2.8, UMass Amherst: 2.9, Vanderbilt: 3.0, UChicago: 3.2, Clemson: 3.3 

Another question states sex should be romantic, with one represented by “nah” and seven aptly represented by “🌹🌹🌹”. A similar question is written inversely on the SOI-R as “Sex without love is OK.” 

socio sex romantic

SCU: 5.3, UMass Amherst: 5.2, Vanderbilt: 5.3 , UChicago: 5.1, Clemson: 5.4

Next up: I'm open to being in a non-monogamous relationship. This question is represented on the SOI-R as “I can see myself being comfortable and enjoying ‘casual’ sex with different partners.”

socio nonmonog

SCU: 1.6, UMass Amherst: 1.8, Vanderbilt: 1.6 , UChicago: 2.0, Clemson: 1.4

Katherine went on to explain that we use sociosexuality in our matching process because it’s used as a proxy for potential commitment to your match. Not only is the concept used to determine a user’s desire for intimacy, but one’s sociosexuality score also correlates with several personal traits used for matching, such as emotionality, conscientiousness, hedonism, and traditionalism—values that impact one’s behavior in and beliefs around relationships.

There are a lot of different aspects of college life that are impacted by one’s sociosexuality score and how we talk about sexuality in general. First and foremost, you can’t talk about someone’s capacity or desire for uncommitted sex without conjuring thoughts of 3 a.m. dating app notifications and lingering glances in frat house basements. In Jenna’s words, college students are busy. 

Jenna Emerson:

There’s not always a lot of time to devote to building and committing to relationships. In that sense, I think engaging in hookup culture could be very appealing. It’s the idea of getting sexual intimacy with another person without commitment. They’re saying “I don't have the capacity for a relationship right now.” This is like a nature-versus-nurture question, right? I don't know if this is the circumstance of being a college student, or if it's a generational thing of young people today, having that disconnection.

Secondly, the reported sociosexuality of college students (and the population in general) reflects trends of how open certain students are allowed to be when it comes to their sexuality. In general, men are less sociosexually restricted, or more willing to engage in uncommitted sex, which brings up different feelings surrounding Jenna’s aforementioned “nurture-versus-nature”. Are women more sociosexually restricted naturally, or does the societal stigma around female sexuality impact their ability to express their sexuality safely and openly?

Jenna Emerson:

There is definitely a double standard, right? Typically, if you’re looking at cis men and cis women, and even more specifically, straight and cis men and women, men who have a lot of sexual partners are seen favorably and women with a lot of sexual partners are not. This stigma can be traced back thousands of years.

wait before sex
sex romantic
non monog

The way in which students of different gender identities answered the three Marriage Pact questions related to sociosexuality was incredibly consistent across schools. On average, female students believe it’s appropriate to wait longer before having sex than their male and non-binary peers, and male students think sex should be more romantic than their fellow students do. 

Non-binary students are more willing than their peers to be in a non-monogamous relationships, though the steep difference in the average answers from the different genders may be due in part to the non-binary student populations at each school being significantly smaller than those of male or female students. 

Throughout her teaching career at UVM, Jenna noticed that women participate in questioning gendered standards around sexuality far more often than men. 

Jenna Emerson:

This is fascinating. Like, we have this standard that men are supposed to be having a lot of sex, and women aren’t, but I teach a human sexuality class at UVM, I have 90 students, and 92% are women.

Whether or not a student is actively participating in uncommitted sex based on their sociosexual orientation, Jenna says they can still be impacted by stigma and the pervasiveness of hookup culture on their campus. 

Jenna Emerson:

You’re still feeling the pressure, you're still feeling the stigma, you're still feeling the need. There’s the idea that the only way to have fun in college or to have the ‘college experience’ is to have all these hookups and sexual experiences. But then I'm met with all these students saying, “Why isn't sex all that great? What is wrong? Why is my relationship not all that great?” And I'm like, “Yeah, that makes sense. You're still learning.”

On a student’s desire or hesitation to engage in casual sex, Jenna states that so long as you’re being safe in every sense of the word, there isn’t any specific right or wrong. 

Jenna Emerson:

There is no morality attached to either the attitude or behavior of casual sex. It doesn't make you a better person or a worse person. So don't play either of those cards. You're not necessarily having more fun or a more authentic college experience with or without. I think it is just so personal, so reserving the judgment of self and others is really important, and just recognizing that everyone likes different things, and is interested in different things is, too.

Whether you’re sticking with the person you met the first day of orientation or your roommates are learning a new name every weekend (or you’re steering clear of both), how much you value the relationship between emotional intimacy and physical intimacy is critical to how you develop and maintain relationships. This is why sociosexuality has found its place on the Marriage Pact survey—no matter what you’re looking for, we're looking to match you with someone on the same page.

Have a topic you’d like us to explore next? DM us on Instagram or Twitter, @MarriagePact.