Warning: The title of this piece is officially my first attempt at search-engine bait. I might actually catch one this time. But I’ll have to kill it quickly, before it chews off its own leg trying to escape. Anyway…
Now that I have your attention, I’m going to talk about sex. And relationships. Mostly relationships. You see, the New York Times decided to investigate, thoroughly and at great length, the sex lives of female students at the University of Pennsylvania.
They did their homework. 60 interviews, with as diverse a slice of the female student body as possible, is nothing to sneeze at. I believe that the quotes they used were more or less representative of the responses received. I believe that the sourcing of Susan Patton made sense and was helpful in putting that whole Princeton debacle in context. I believe that the shapely bare leg in the cover photo will certainly lead to more clicks. I’ll keep that strategy in my notes.
I don’t have the time or inclination to comment on the entire piece. There are issues of sexual violence and the nature of college pre-professional life and whether it’s a good idea to marry in college at all that have been explored elsewhere to an extent well beyond what I could hope to achieve in this post.
But I did spend last night talking over the article with a good friend from Yale, and another good friend from the University of Delaware, and hearing their thoughts on hooking up — or not — in college got my gears turning, and a graduate from the time before Yale had women asked my opinion, so I wrote him a letter, which has been adapted below. Take it as one student’s opinion, based on two years of firsthand experience and a collection of secondhand and thirdhand stories.
Note: Strong opinions ahead. Please don’t get angry if you disagree, unless getting angry will make you feel better, in which case, go ahead. You can yell at me if you want, but I’d also love to hear the reasons you think I’m wrong. My mind is open.
Why Aren’t We Talking About Alcohol?
Hookup culture, at least in this article, seems to be inseparable from alcohol culture. Below, a quote that made me shiver:
“I’m like, ‘O.K., I could do this now,’ ” she recalled thinking. “ ‘He’s superhot, I like him, he’s nice. But I’m not going to expect anything out of it, either.’ ” The alternative, she said, was that “I could take the chance that one night I get really drunk and sleep with someone that I don’t want to sleep with, which probably is what would have ended up happening.”
Alcohol culture is so old and established that it isn’t often noticed (especially by organizations looking for “news”). But if I had to pick one of the two to be concerned about, it would be alcohol — which leads to many different kinds of bad outcome — rather than casual sex, which generally only leads to bad outcomes when alcohol is involved (or the condom breaks, but birth control is so prevalent on campus that I’d think most failures to use it could also be chalked up to impulsive behavior caused by alcohol).
Generally, when smart college kids are sober, sex mostly sorts itself out, and though there may be regrets later, the nightmare situations where someone wakes up and doesn’t remember what happened, or where two students too drunk to give consent have sex and one regrets it in the morning, or… you get the picture.
What’s the Matter With Relationships?
The suspicion of people who get involved in long-term relationships isn’t something I’ve seen at all here, which makes me wonder why it seems so common at Penn. I know many people in long-term relationships, some long-distance, some not, and none of them have seemed especially concerned that they were in over their heads. I’m in a relationship myself, and I haven’t felt anything but support and warm feelings from any other student as a result. The only disapproval I ever hear about comes from Yale parents, often worried that a relationship isn’t good for their child (or that their child is dating the wrong person), but that’s another story.
Exception that proves the rule: My Yale friend told us that he’d had a friend who broke up with a Yale girlfriend because he, quote, “was too in love with her” (and didn’t think this was a good idea in college). However, the boy was then told he was crazy by all his male friends, and was back with the girl within two weeks (they are still quite happily together).
If any readers have been in college relationships that their friends disapproved of for any reason, I’d be curious to hear about it in the comments.
Given that we don’t get married in college much anymore, it makes total sense that seniors would prefer not to start relationships until job stuff is figured out. In high school, it was considered unwise to start something in senior year, and though many students did so anyway, one would expect 22-year-old Ivy League students to be somewhat wiser in that respect. It might be a bad idea not to get married in college, if you believe Susan Patton (I’m not sure I do), but it’s probably a good idea not to have your decision on whether to take a certain job be dependent on a relationship you’ve had going for less than two semesters.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Yale Daily News Polling
Note: the Yale Daily News ["YDN"] is a reputable news source, and though sample bias may exist in the polls below, I’d think it would be in the pro-hookup direction if it existed at all.
A YDN poll from 2010 seems to show that Yalies are actually pretty chaste. About 64% of students are not virgins at any given time. If we assume that more seniors than freshmen are non-virgins, we can assume that about 80% of us have sex before we leave (while we’re at Yale, that is–not counting people who have sex in high school and not in college).
I’d guess that at least a quarter of Yalies have sex only in the context of a relationship (whether long-distance or at Yale), which means that “hookup culture” captures a slight majority of students–most of whom probably only had a few hookups. If we say the average is 60% of Yalies having four hookups while at Yale (ever), that implies roughly 3200 hookups per year. Round up to 3500 if we account for outliers, or even 4000, because I’m aware that some people do have quite a lot of sex.
If we say 4000, this means that, on any given night at Yale, about 26 people are having sex with someone they don’t consider a significant other (friends-with-benefits notwithstanding), which means 13 actual hookup pairs. This seems low, but even if my average hookups-per-year-per-sexually-active-Yalie is way off, there still isn’t all that much one-time casual sex happening on campus, unless it happens to be Safety Dance night I mean Spring Fling. (RIP, Safety Dance.)
Phew. I’m ready for the estimation section of my McKinsey interview, at least. I could make a McKinsey/Alfred Kinsey joke here, but I’ll refrain.
Also, here’s a bonus YDN poll on relationships, which tells us that dating culture is far from dead, unless students in relationships aren’t dating, which would be a problem but hopefully isn’t. (If it is, shame on Yalies. Try Bentara for a great cheap lunch, or East Rock at sunset, or a rental flick from Bass Library.)
Using the same response pool as the last poll (Huh! Maybe there are fewer Yalies hooking up than I thought), we see that, by February, nearly half of the freshman class has been in a relationship. Fewer than a fifth of seniors leave Yale without having been in a relationship. This might be fewer seniors than the number who leave college as virgins!
Also, Relationships Are Awesome
The Penn students interviewed seem to miss the point of relationships, in a few cases. Two quotes:
“Some of them actually said things like, ‘A relationship is like taking a four-credit class,’ or ‘I could get in a relationship, or I could finish my film,’ ” Dr. Armstrong said.
“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” she said. “And I know everyone says, ‘Make time, make time,’ ” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but agreed to be identified by her middle initial, which is A. “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” (emphasis mine).
Finishing the film might be a good idea. Depends on the film. But I’ve taken four-credit classes, and I’ve been in a relationship, and the comparison doesn’t make much sense to me for the following chain of reasons:
- I keep “class time” and “spare time” separate, and so do most of the other students I know. Classes happen no matter what. But if a student has enough time to go to parties and hook up, she has what I call “spare time”. Relationships can totally happen in the amount of time a typical student might spend partying on a weekend.
- My girlfriend lives across campus. For most of the year, our relationship consisted of a few dining hall “dates” per week, some Facebook chats, and one or two evenings per week when we’d kick back with a movie or go dancing. And we could easily have gone a few weeks without spending much time together. We were both busy, and would go through periods when we needed time to work by ourselves. But the business comes in waves, and when it recedes, your partner will be there for you. If you can’t stand the thought of two weeks without seeing someone outside a quick text or Facebook chat, you may need to make a choice, but with a little patience, work should not preclude romance.
- Mutual business can make relationships a strain, but relationships also confer enormous advantages to a student who actually finds someone she likes and wants to spend time with. Being with a long-term partner means that you wake up every day knowing that someone on the same campus cares for you deeply, and that you don’t have to be sucked into the party scene on dull weekends because you know you’ll have someone to watch movies with, and that you don’t have to study alone because you can work in the same room as the person you care for and walk out feeling better because of this proximity. If you pick the right partner, relationships are armor in the video game of college life.
- My relationship is a better use of my spare time than any other use I’ve found in college. My girlfriend gives me an extra reason to be very happy almost all the time, cutting through Econometrics problem sets and New Haven weather and all the other small issues college students encounter. (Had there been any big issues, I suspect that my relationship would have given me much-needed solace when confronting those, as well.) Learning to shape my time and behavior around the needs of another person has improved my lagging emotional maturity. I’ve become friends with several of her friends. She teaches me about medical education and robots and the proper use of epoxy. She gives me back rubs when I’ve had a hard day. Et cetera.
- The risks of breaking up are serious, and emotional risk sucks, and I understand why students don’t want to encounter it. But this doesn’t imply that relationships themselves should be avoided. Instead, they should be formed with caution–but formed nonetheless, with the mutual understanding that the first college relationship probably won’t last forever. I’ve heard it said that one shouldn’t date anyone they wouldn’t be willing to stick with for life, but I’ll pass on that line of argument for now. Just pick someone nice, and fairly sane, and be an important part of their world, but don’t be so important that they won’t be able to survive without you. Think balance. Think zen. In terms a Wharton undergrad might appreciate, think win-win.
All in all, hooking up isn’t as common as some might think and relationships are more common. Hooking up isn’t the end of the world, but relationships are fantastic, and I hope doubters pounce on the next chance they get to form that kind of friendship with a significant other. This was actually a pretty decent NYT trend piece, but polls are important, and if you aren’t a college student yourself, I recommend reading college newspapers closely if you want to get a sense for how college students feel about life.
Also, if anyone from the New York Times is reading this, I have some suggestions as to the topic of your next lengthy piece of investigative click bait. Hit me up!