At this point, headlining a magazine feature “Sex on Campus” constitutes an act of trolling.
Anyone who’s been labeled with the dreaded M-word — particularly anyone under 25, young enough to have been in school themselves when Kate Taylor’s much-maligned New York Times trend piece of the same name came out in 2013 — knows what to expect from an article with “campus,” let alone “politics,” “genders,” and God forbid, “hookups,” on the cover. By this point, we’ve practically built up antibodies to it: the condescension; the conjecture; above all, the concern trolling.
Which is why it’s so refreshing to read something like this:
And yet, for all there is to worry about — and we old folks love nothing more than worrying about the sex lives of young people — campuses are still filled with college kids excited about one another and the thrill of a night that’s just beginning. To them, college sex isn’t a headline but something real. In an attempt to get past the existing media narratives, and the moralizing that comes with them, New York asked college students what they think about the campus-sex climate. Or, rather, how they experience it.
That’s from the introduction to “Heirs to the Sexual Revolution,” as promising a beginning to a series on The Youth as it’s possible to get in 2015. Co-authored by Lauren Kern and Noreen Malone, who also wrote the foreword to New York’s jaw-dropping cover story on the Bill Cosby accusers from earlier this year, the mini-essay precedes nearly two dozen examples of what’s been missing from so many conversations about 20-somethings, the casual sex they may or may not be having, and What It All Means: actual conversations with students that take them seriously as free agents rather than quote generators, dispensing sensational, context-free statements to be passed around social media.
Above all, Kern and Malone avoid generalizing, summarizing the results of New York‘s survey — which included input from 700 undergrads at schools ranging from ultra-liberal arts colleges to frat-dominated states schools — as “an almost bewildering variety of sexual experiences.” There are students who identify as “nonbinary” and “asexual” who get to explain themselves on their own terms; hookups come up, but there are no blanket statements about the scourge of hookup “culture.” Even Katie van Syckle’s companion piece “Hooking Up Is Easy to Do,” while explicitly arguing that casual sex and sexual assault are related — an argument I vehemently disagree with — presents itself as a case study of Dartmouth rather than a comprehensive investigation and lets students demonstrate their self-awareness (though the conclusion falls well into “quote generator” territory).
The whole feature is worth a read, and not just for students’ stories, which range from the poignant (negotiating a new relationship) to the hilarious (on being told a potential partner “relates” to Holden Caulfield: “I was like, ‘You just told me so much about what this experience would have been like, and I am not interested'”). It’s also a testament to how much more interesting the reality of campus life is than the straw man presented by so much writing about it, and how much better writing that actually tries to capture said reality is as a result.
Bad writing about college students and the changing social values they represent, after all, isn’t limited to sex. It’s a genre unto itself, one that’s been dominated and redefined (but by no means monopolized) over the last couple of years by The Atlantic in the same way that BuzzFeed gave us the modern listicle. There are features on trigger warnings and “The Coddling of the American Mind” that rely almost exclusively on anecdotes; there are complaints that “college students can’t take a joke” that say more about the author’s lack of intellectual curiosity than students’. They’re exhausting, they’re unproductive, and as New York‘s feature demonstrates, they’re unnecessary.
The most gaping flaw in these pieces is their distance from the lived experiences of their subjects, often including only the voices of those who confirm their worst fears — if any at all. New York‘s latest cover is by no means the first story to get its sourcing right; our own Sarah Seltzer wrote about how trigger warnings play out in real college classrooms earlier this year. But it’s a refreshing read nonetheless, and one that hopefully signals more nuanced, and less alarmist, reporting to come.