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UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 2 | Feb. 1, 2007

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

By Bud Mortenson

Tina Turner’s 1984 chart-smashing song asked a good question: What’s love got to do with it? Sex, that is.

Nancy Netting, Assoc. Prof. of Sociology at UBC Okanagan, has been asking that question on campuses for decades now. And she’s finding some intriguing answers.

She led a 20-year study of sexual behaviour among students at the former Okanagan University College in Kelowna, B.C. That work revealed some positive trends in student sexual behaviour, but the most recent analysis goes even further -- it’s beginning to reveal the role love plays in a young person’s decisions about sex and relationships.

“Most students now question potential partners about their past, use condoms with a new sexual partner, and maintain fairly long-term monogamous relationships,” says Netting, who surveyed students at the former college campus in Kelowna -- now UBC’s Okanagan campus -- in 1980, 1990 and 2000.

“Throughout these two decades, there was a steady increase in the commitment level of students’ premarital sexual relationships,” Netting says. “The proportion of committed relationships rose and casual sex declined. While males continued to have more casual sex than females, the trend toward more serious relationships was very clear for both sexes.”

She emphasizes that the findings from her surveys in the Okanagan have proven very consistent with similar surveys of students across Canada and the United States.

The surveys identified three distinct sexual subcultures, which Netting says coexist in fairly stable proportions: celibacy (about 30 per cent), monogamy (about 60 per cent), and free experimentation (about 10 per cent).

“Each subculture has created its own response to the danger of HIV/AIDS,” she says. “Celibates exaggerate the danger they face, monogamists rely on love and fidelity for protection, and free experimenters have increased their use of condoms.”

Netting and her research colleague, Matthew Burnett, now a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, hope to present their latest analysis at a national sociology conference in summer 2007.

“We’re exploring the role of love in students’ sexual decisions,” says Netting. “We are still going through the 2000 data, and we really don’t know if these are subcultures of belief as well as subcultures of behaviour.

“We found that the monogamous individuals believed in love and acted on that belief. And the other two groups -- the celibates and the free experimenters -- each had a core of people who really believed in what they were doing, but they were a minority. Most people were interested in a stable relationship with one partner. It may be that, in their hearts, most people in every group believe in love.”

For celibates, opportunities for sex might not be present, or there may be strong beliefs that support abstaining from sex. Or they might be waiting for love. For free experimenters, it might be that love is rare while sex is easy to find.

“A number of guidelines float around in our culture,” says Netting, citing phrases -- themes -- people use to justify their behaviour. For example: Love conquers all. When you find your true love, you’ll know it. Love hurts. Be careful who you trust. Sex is a gift to give to a friend. Sex is just a game.

“There are many of these themes out there and, depending on your life circumstances, you activate some of them at one time in your life, some at other times,” she says. “They get us through the ups and downs of finding a partner and keeping that person close. Students connect the chapters and eventually settle down to their lives, finding patterns that make sense to them,” says Netting.

She hopes to learn how individuals reconcile opposing themes -- for example themes that support celibacy and free experimentation -- as they move from one subculture to another, and she looks forward to advancing the research in 2010 to reveal even more about sexual subcultures.

“If we could put this idea of three subcultures -- each with its unique themes and beliefs -- into our education programs, it would make those programs more effective.”

Netting notes that many in the monogamous subculture believe monogamy protects them from sexually transmitted diseases.

“Youth are relying on love to be safe,” she says. “They think love will protect them from disease. But they must keep in mind that even if they’re completely faithful now, they still might be infecting their partner unknowingly.”

While romantic feelings lead many monogamous couples to abandon condoms without objective HIV/AIDS knowledge, free experimenters still face the highest risk, Netting says.

“Although they now use condoms more than half the time, their lifestyle -- which involves multiple partners, risky sexual acts, and frequent drug or alcohol use -- clearly remains dangerous,” she says.

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Last reviewed 30-Jan-2007

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