On July 12th, 2013, Kate Taylor offered a piece on The New York Times Fashion and Style page entitled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.” Through the article, Taylor offers a seemingly nuanced look at the ‘burgeoning hookup culture’ among multi-privileged women-identified college students at Penn State University. Taylor describes how these students, who note that the hookup culture is pervasive on campus, are choosing “casual sex” over “meaningful romantic relationship[s]” as a means to survive in a collegiate environment, enrich their academic experience and secure their future careers. Taylor goes on to categorize over 60 students’ experiences with and reaction to hooking up into (overly) simple themes that highlighted how alcohol was often necessarily involved in hookups; how college and the current economic environment precluded and even stigmatized “real” relationships; and how the true “romantic” could not buy into this new sexual and trend.
Ignoring the fact that Taylor only cites a handful of these 60 plus interviews, I want to note the poignant and already-made critiques of Taylor’s article and, more generally, the ‘new’ hookup culture. Research, some of which Taylor cited, has pointed to the fact that most students are not hooking up -– which is a loosely defined term in and of itself -– and that sexual patterns of current collegiates are not too different from previous generations. Eliana Dockterman fleshes out these points in their* recent online Time post. They conclude that the current discussion of the hookup epidemic is exaggerated and fear-mongering, and that it seems like a new thing because we are relatively more comfortable talking about sex in the media than we were before.
This does not explain the fact that many college students report the pervasiveness of the hookup culture. Also, we are only relatively comfortable talking about sex among certain types of people, namely those with privilege — a point which Dockterman does not mention. This brings me to a great Jezebel post by Kate Dries where they* critique Taylor’s portrayal of hooking up as mainly ‘a problem’ among white women in Ivy League schools. Although the statistics seem to suggest that those that are hooking up (as opposed to seeking or preferring monogamous relationships) tend to be those with the most privileged identities, Slate‘s Lisa Wade notes
[W]hat we are seeing on college campuses is the same dynamic we see outside of colleges. People with privilege—based on race, class, ability, attractiveness, sexual orientation, and, yes, gender—get to set the terms for everyone else. Their ideologies dominate our discourses, their particular set of values gets to appear universal, and everyone is subject to their behavioral norms. Students feel that a hookup culture dominates their colleges not because it is actually widely embraced, but because the people with the most power to shape campus culture like it that way.
Dries ties this altogether by noting that Taylor didn’t bring up this discussion of privilege, and instead just perpetuated the same old script: That we should be worried for our young, wealthy white girls because if their morals lapse what will become of society?
What Dries does not point out is that not only does Taylor’s article inadequately address racial/ethnic and class privileges that construct the dialogue but it also manages to strip away agency and certain sexualities from feminine genders all the while prescribing a specific type of lifestyle: that which is monogamous and focused on family over careers. In other words, the hookup culture is not just racialized and classed but also gendered, and those that hold power in race, class, and gender identities (among others) construct the epidemic.
So while Taylor mentions how research has suggested that “hooking up is a functional strategy for today’s hard-charging and ambitious young women, allowing them to have enjoyable sex lives while focusing most of their energy on academic and professional goals,” they* quickly counter with un-refuted reference to Susan Patton’s notion that women-identified individual’s lack of focus on their “hunt for a husband on campus” is disadvantaging them in their pursuit of happiness. Taylor seemed, per my reading, to use certain student accounts to support Patton’s concern for college women’s future happiness. I want to note that I don’t discredit these individuals’ narratives. Indeed, I applaud them for attending to what does and does not satisfy them sexually. However, what I do take issue with is Taylor’s tendency to problematize those women interviewed, such as A, who considered hooking up fulfilling. For instance, when A stated “I’m a true feminist…. I’m a strong woman. I know what I want,” Taylor quickly retorted, “At the same time, she didn’t want the number of people she had slept with printed, and she said it was important to her to keep her sexual life separate from her image as a leader at Penn.” Apparently, one cannot be a feminist and a leader without disclosing their sexual history. Taylor simultaneously managed to essentialize women and feminists, all the while failing to acknowledge the social constructions that punish certain sexualities over others.
Also abhorrent in this article is the blatant fact that Taylor regularly objectifies those interviewed. For instance, I learned that A was “slim” and “pretty”; M, another interviewee, was an “athletic freshman with long legs and a button nose.” I question the veracity of these students’ narratives as they are blatantly laced with Taylor’s opinions of their physical appearances. The big question is what these physical descriptors add to our understanding of the individuals described in the article. I cannot help but wonder if this is yet another way to portray the hookup culture as an affliction of the privileged, as Wade suggests: those that are white, wealthy, educated and ideally attractive.
Reading this article, I am reminded of how important it is for us as psychology practitioners and researchers to be constantly aware of how we structure our language around human behavior and that our work, as Wade and Dries aptly points out, is unavoidably imbedded within scripts constructed through privilege.
* Gender-neutral pronouns were used intentionally so as not to impose gender identification without consent.