Fifteen years ago, the very first question Carrie Bradshaw “couldn’t help but wonder” was simple, provocative, and in its own way, progressive: Can women have sex like men? That query was questionably relevant even a decade and a half ago, when Sex and the City sought to answer it for 30-something urban professionals. Unbelievably enough, we’re still having that conversation, except writers have turned their sights from themselves and their peers to a different group entirely: college-aged women. “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” Kate Taylor’s lengthy study of Penn undergrads for The New York Times’ Styles section, isn’t the first subtly judgmental, distressingly inaccurate portrait of the supposedly post-feminist, post-relationship college dating scene. Sadly, it probably won’t be the last. But the practice of telling college-aged women how we should lead our romantic lives is patronizing, condescending, and — above all — needs to stop.
Taylor’s article is, of course, yet another Times trend piece that misses the mark. But it’s also shockingly similar to Hanna Rosin’s “Boys on the Side,” an excerpt from The End of Men published in The Atlantic that touts collegiate hookup culture as “an engine of female progress… harnessed and driven by women themselves.” Taylor quotes The End of Men in her own article, which asserts that young women are “propelling” hookup culture rather than acting as “reluctant participants.” Both articles depict casual sex and traditional dating as mutually exclusive on college campuses, where they claim the former has totally supplanted the latter. Both ostensibly entertain the idea that hookup culture may actually be a result of young women’s choice rather than their exploitation.
When it comes to the reasoning behind their shared thesis, however, both Rosin and Taylor start to go off the rails. “Boys on the Side” and “Sex on Campus” argue that women who participate in hookup culture are simply too busy for relationships. Rosin characterizes monogamous relationships as a risk: “For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.” To Taylor, they’re more like a bad investment: “Keenly attuned to what might give them a competitive edge, especially in a time of unsure job prospects and a shaky economy, many [female students] approach college as a race to acquire credentials…Their time out of class is filled with club meetings, sports practice and community-service projects,” not dating. Hookups, according to this interpretation, are what’s left over when time is subtracted from the typical college equation of young people, independence, and hormones.
At first glance, Rosin and Taylor’s argument seems to grant female students the agency denied them by traditional takes on hookup culture as a product of men’s desires and women’s passivity. But they also ignore the possibility that hookups could be desired in and of themselves, instead of as a hasty solution to the problem of how to date when long-term monogamous relationships aren’t an option. Women still aren’t allowed to play the role traditionally filled by men, who we assume desire casual relationships because they believe it’s best for them personally, not professionally. Which means that, according to the Rosin / Taylor view of hookup culture, women aren’t emotionally empowered at all. They’re simply forced to prioritize their professional lives over their love lives. If women are choosing to have casual sex, it must be because they have to — right?
Beneath its stated thesis, however, Taylor’s article also expresses alarm at, even disapproval of, this supposedly new hookup culture. Some of these objections are valid, particularly the exploration of the relationship between alcohol and consent. Others seem less like necessary qualifications than active attempts to prove to young women that hookup culture isn’t nearly as fulfilling as they think it is. A sociologist argues that casual sex is less pleasurable for women than it is for men; several interview subjects then claim the dominance of hookups is due to men after all. These damning details take up more than half of Taylor’s piece, effectively functioning as her rebuttal to one subject’s claim of being a “strong woman” who knows what she wants — namely, hookups. Taylor essentially ends up making exactly the straw man argument her article is supposedly rebutting: hookup culture is just boys being boys by taking advantage of girls.
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic takes this heavily implied criticism of hookup culture and makes it into a full-blown blog post. “Young People Who Sacrifice Romance for ‘Unencumbered Striving’” is just as disapproving as it sounds, pleading with young women everywhere to relinquish hookups and recognize the value of serial monogamy as, essentially, a trial run for marriage. “Experience, self-knowledge, and wisdom…can’t be gleaned from years of ‘unencumbered striving,’” Friedersdorf tells us, urging young women to stick with serious relationships: “I’d have been so much dumber at 28 if, till then, I’d only had no-strings hookups.” Taking Taylor’s portrayal of the college dating scene as hookups-only at face value, Friedersdorf tells all us respectable young ladies to start practicing for a husband, just like we’ve been doing all these decades before hookups entered the scene. It’s what’s good for us.
Friedersdorf’s analysis of young women’s romantic lives is wrong in a different sense than Taylor’s or Rosin’s, but it’s wrong nonetheless. Here’s what all three authors get wrong about college-aged women like me: hookups aren’t the end-all, be-all of our dating lives. They’re merely one option on one end of a spectrum. Even Taylor admits this is the case: buried deep into “Sex on Campus” is the sheepish admission that “campuses are not sexual free-for-alls” after all. In fact, almost a third of students never hook up at all, while only about two in ten had hooked up with more than ten people. See? One end of a spectrum, not menace to society.
What’s happening here isn’t the complete abandonment of traditional relationships in favor of total non-attachment. It’s the recognition that said relationships aren’t automatically the best thing for all people at all times. Monogamy isn’t off the table entirely; it’s merely one of a host of options, including more informal relationships and, yes, casual sex. And just like even pre-hookup-era coeds could alternate between being single and committed without sending shockwaves through the national media, college women these days can alternate between serious, casual, and no sexual relationships over the course of their young adulthood.
Participating in hookup culture doesn’t mean we’ve been deluded into thinking of our own exploitation as sexual freedom. It means we’re thinking critically about what we want instead of plunging straight into the relationships women are repeatedly told — by Taylor, by Friedersdorf, by society — we should desire for ourselves. And that’s what makes it so hard for Taylor, Rosin, and others to accept that we might be participating in hookup culture voluntarily, not to make time for resume padding: we want something different for ourselves than what our parents’ generation wants for us. Like most generational differences, it may well be irreconcilable. But at the very least, Taylor and her peers owe it to women my age to take us at our word when we say hookup culture is something that we want — not just pretend to.