Kate Taylor’s article describing the hookup culture at Penn has attracted a lot of criticism, most notably from Penn students themselves, including some who participated in her research. They disagree with her characterization of women as fueling a no-strings sex norm, and reject the featured “mysterious A.” as typical of Penn women. They appear perplexed by her motives, which are rather transparent upon inspection.
However, Taylor’s article is useful in that it does tap into a very real subculture on campuses that offers little support and sometimes actively discourages the formation of relationships in college. Her error is in failing to realize the full array of female attitudes, which offer a nuanced and diverse view of sex and relationships on campus.
Taylor begins by highlighting the largest obstacle to long-term relationships in college, the peripatetic nature of the contemporary college education:
They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine….Moreover, by senior year, the looming prospect of graduation and job applications made many students leery of dating…These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn.
While Taylor exaggerates by focusing on the top 1% here, it’s true that many college students – both women and men – face the threat of a looming expiration date on any serious relationship. Couples are often from different parts of the country, and have limited say in where they may work or live once they graduate. In addition, they prefer to keep their eyes on the prize; they are getting an Ivy League education to maximize their future options and opportunities. Amanda Wolkin, a Penn student who responded to the article in Philadelphia Magazine, remarked:
$50,000+ a year would be a pretty hefty price for a dating service. Sorry, Susan Patton.
It’s no wonder that students feel ambivalent about commitment:
There’s this hypothetical, ‘I would like to be in a relationship, because it’s like comforting and stable and supportive,’ ” a senior, Pallavi, said of her friends’ attitudes. “But then, the conversations that I’ve had, it’s always like, ‘Well, then what do I do when we get to May, because we’re graduating, and so where do we go from there?’ That uncertainty is a huge sort of stop sign.
…Hypothetically, if I were to enter into a serious relationship with someone right now,” she said, “would I honestly say to them: ‘We’re going to spend two years in Philadelphia, and then with some kind of crazy luck I’m going to spend eight years somewhere else? And God knows what you would have been doing for the two years that we were still in Philadelphia — you either would have to up and leave with me, or we’d have to do a long-distance.’ That’s just too much to even ask anyone to commit to.
These concerns are real and shared by a large number of students. However, there are some students, including women, who are clearly not wired for commitment in any case, and here is where Taylor goes seriously off the rails. By generalizing from A., an alpha female who appears to meet the criteria for the Dark Triad cluster of personality traits, she mischaracterizes the culture. Consider the commentary of A., her “typical” female student, as she describes her casual sex arrangement:
“We don’t really like each other in person, sober,” she said, adding that “we literally can’t sit down and have coffee….But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time…As A. explained her schedule, “If I’m sober, I’m working.”
“‘I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together,’ ” she said. “That sounds terrible.
“I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.”
“I definitely wouldn’t say I’ve regretted any of my one-night stands. I’m a true feminist. I’m a strong woman. I know what I want.”
“Ten years from now, no one will remember — I will not remember — who I have slept with,” A. said. “But I will remember, like, my transcript, because it’s still there. I will remember what I did. I will remember my accomplishments and places my name is hung on campus.”
As I highlighted in my most recent post, only 5% of college graduates identify strongly as feminists – A. is anything but typical. That doesn’t mean she’s a problem, though. I see no need for hand wringing and fretting that women like A. are present on campus, or that they enjoy their sex drunk and without small talk. A. and her hookup buddy sound perfectly matched – it’s true assortative mating. Neither would be a suitable relationship partner in any case.
Researchers have found that certain women are prone to seek casual sex from the time they arrive at college. Here is the key finding from a recent study of 500 female freshmen:
Our findings suggest hooking up during the first year of college is influenced by pre-college hookups, personality, behavioral intentions, the social and situational context, family background and substance use patterns – particularly marijuana use.
In my experience speaking with hundreds of college women, a typical sentiment mirrors the one offered by M. to Taylor:
“I could be here for four years and not date anyone,” she said she realized. “Sometimes you are out, and there’s a guy you really are attracted to, and you kind of want to go back home with him, but you kind of have that underlying, ‘I can’t, because I can’t just lose my V-card to some random guy.’ ”
“It’s kind of like a spiral,” she said. “The girls adapt a little bit, because they stop expecting that they’re going to get a boyfriend — because if that’s all you’re trying to do, you’re going to be miserable. But at the same time, they want to, like, have contact with guys.” So they hook up and “try not to get attached.”
In particular, the fear of not having a boyfriend or even a date for the whole four years is one I’ve heard many times. As M. notes, this is precisely how the experimentation with hooking up begins, particularly among freshmen.
Most women find the casual hookup experience unsatisfying – in a recent study of 14,000 college females, women in relationships were much more likely to say they enjoyed their most recent sexual experience “very much,” perhaps because they are far more likely to orgasm than a woman in a casual sexual experience.
How many women in college get to experience relationships? In a 2013 “love” survey of Penn students, about a third of seniors and 20% of freshmen described themselves as “taken.”
Interestingly, Penn students starting out feel optimistic about entering relationships. They certainly don’t appear to be trying to avoid them:
Arielle Pardes, a Penn student who was interviewed by Taylor, responds in Cosmo:
Plenty of us do have boyfriends, or sex lives that we consider meaningful. In fact, when Taylor interviewed me, I told her about how I had been seriously dating someone I met at Penn for the past two and a half years (and I still made the Dean’s List). Weirdly, Taylor doesn’t include any examples of girls with boyfriends in her piece, despite the fact that relationships definitely exist on campus.
Another recent college survey found strong evidence of relationships on campus. At Georgetown, 267 women and 250 men responded to a survey about sex and relationships there. 77% of men and 65% of women reported that they were sexually active, defined as having had sexual intercourse within the past year.
A full 64 percent of Georgetown students report that they are either “often” or “always” in a committed relationship with their sexual partners. Only 11 percent report engaging in exclusively random hookups, although this is a more common phenomenon among men than women.
Near the end of her article, Taylor hedges her bets with this caveat:
For all the focus on hookups, campuses are not sexual free-for-alls, at Penn or elsewhere. At colleges nationally, by senior year, 4 in 10 students are either virgins or have had intercourse with only one person, according to the Online College Social Life Survey. Nearly 3 in 10 said that they had never had a hookup in college. Meanwhile, 20 percent of women and a quarter of men said they had hooked up with 10 or more people.
While Pluralistic Ignorance remains a problem, increasingly students are becoming aware that women like A. are outliers, the alpha darlings of the feministas. (Though the feminists have little use for the alpha douchebags who objectify A. and women like her, and who regard her as slutty even as they bang her on request.)
It may not be easy to find a relationship in college – both women and men fear sitting on the sidelines as the years go by. But the desire is there – plenty of women and men want something real, and meaningful, and all that good stuff.
Let A. and women like her do what they gotta do. Because they probably are well suited to focus primarily on career achievement, their strategy makes sense for them. They probably are the future Sheryl Sandbergs and Melissa Mayers, and more power to them. But when it comes to relationships, they’re a sideshow.
An editorial in Penn’s student newspaper sums up the student response:
We are not challenging every aspect of Taylor’s article, or declaring any of her anecdotes to be fabricated. Some of us may agree with, or fit, the fraction of responses she included in her article. But in the end, we cannot let her depiction of Penn slide, considering the choices she made in selecting the voices to feature in her story. We refuse to allow Taylor to misrepresent Penn students in this way because we each hold unique experiences we have — or haven’t — had with the “hookup culture.” We can play that game, too.
The truth will out, despite efforts to spin and distort it for political purposes.