Complicating “Sex on Campus”: A More Nuanced Picture

A recent article in the New York Times, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play that Game, Too” reports on the changing sexual preferences of college women, and the benefits and costs they experience in the casual hookup scene. The article gets many things right. Most notably it dispels a popular “battle of the sexes” notion in which women are forced to interact sexually on men’s terms—only hooking up because they cannot extract the commitment they desire. Today’s college women are indeed finding committed relationships greedy of their time, efforts, and energies. Many desire hookups, or casual sexual activity in the alcohol-fueled college party scene. Casual sexual activity may even act as a delay strategy, helping women to postpone marriage until later in the life course, after both partners have established their careers.

The article, however, also suggests that hooking up and committed relationships are mutually exclusive practices: That is to say, women who are hooking up are not engaging in serious dating relationships with men. In my 2009 Gender & Society piece with Elizabeth A. Armstrong, we show that quite the opposite is true. Most women desire a relationship at some point during college and end up in one—as do most men. The problem is that women encounter a relational imperative, or notion that they should always want love, romance, and marriage. This makes it hard for them to turn down men’s relational overtures and justify such action to themselves or others—even when they are not interested in a relationship. Consequently, while very few women limit their sexual activity to hooking up, virtually all engage in relationships. Many cycle back and forth between hookups and relationships, finding both flawed. Our evidence suggests that the college dating relationship is far from dead.

The article also quotes Susan Patton, colloquially known as the “Princeton mom,” who suggests that women should seize the chance to find a husband on campus or—as she noted in a later press release—risk “an unwanted life of spinsterhood with cats.” This notion, that women who opt out of the hunt for the “MRS degree” are doomed to be single, does not comport with statistical evidence. The age at marriage, for affluent youth in particular, has increased. The “quality” of a future spouse thus relies most centrally on the proximity to desirable mates in professional and social circles after college. To a certain extent, these networks may be established during college; however, the search for a mate typically occurs much later. Studies on assortative mating suggest that, if anything, a highly credentialed, high earning Princeton graduate is far more likely to marry, and marry well, than other women.

The complexity of women’s sexual and romantic experiences is often hard to convey, in large part because people’s views on these issues are informed by pervasive double standards. It is taken for granted that women have to make choices (e.g. respect vs. freedom in sexual interactions or a focus on career vs. family during college) that men do not have to make. These pressures are real, and women often experience difficult double binds. However, generalizations, inaccuracies, and a failure to acknowledge that women—like men—often want many things at once simply reify constraining dualities.

It is far more interesting to focus on why women encounter such tradeoffs, what they do to work around them, and where we can locate seeds of change. For example, the briefly mentioned “hookup buddies,” described in the article as “regular sexual partners with little emotional commitment,” may reflect movement away from a problematic casual/ relational divide. In our research, we found that women described these liaisons as “utopia[n]” because they offered sex without burdensome commitment or disrespect. This relatively new social form blurs the line often used to distinguish “good” girls who have the “right” kind of sex in relationships, and “bad” girls who do not, and thus are seen as deserving of mistreatment and labeling as a “slut.” In doing so, what might also be called a “friendship hookup” pushes toward dismantling (or at least questioning) dualities at the heart of the sexual double standard.

In a final point, it is useful to address what we currently know, and do not know, about the classed nature of hooking up. The New York Times piece is set at an Ivy League institution—University of Pennsylvania—and suggests that this practice is the province of the privileged. Yet data from Paula England’s survey of 21 colleges and universities indicates that students at highly selective institutions—who are, on average, from the wealthiest backgrounds—do not hookup more than those at other institutions. Furthermore, students at elite schools are less likely to engage in intercourse during hookups, and leave college with fewer overall sexual partners than other students.

At the same time, the data indicates a small, but significant, positive effect of maternal education on the number of hookup partners, particularly for women. My recent book with Elizabeth A. Armstrong—Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality—offers insight into why this pattern may occur. We conducted a case study of Midwest University, a large mid-tier state school with a robust Greek system, and followed a dormitory floor of women from the start of college and beyond. Here the party scene, in which most hookups occurred, was highly classed—with less privileged women largely excluded. Students who left MU for regional and open-access institutions found less developed hookup scenes, due in part to a more limited Greek presence, and experienced greater social inclusion.

Taken together, these findings indicate that the institutional and social context strongly influences the frequency of hooking up, what students do in their hookups, and who engages in this practice. This suggests potentially large variation across different settings. Yet research has focused primarily on a small minority of young adults—those who attend (specific) four-year residential universities. We actually know very little about how social class shapes the sexual practices of students at other types of schools, or young adults writ large. It is time to start expanding our focus beyond the college gates.

By Laura Hamilton, University of California-Merced

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