This article is about young women, college and sex. But I refuse to start with a vignette about college coeds hooking up in a frat. Or about a late-night booty text. Or about a sad senior, sitting in her dorm, reflecting on her previous four years and wondering why she did not find the love of her life, or at least a steady, if mediocre, boyfriend.
That’s the kind of intro you find in most stories about college sex life — and those stories are everywhere. Feature stories in magazines, multipage spreads in newspapers and posts on feminist blogs would have you believe that, first, only white, straight, Ivy League girls are getting laid because they’re the only ones ever quoted in these articles, and second, these girls have replaced relationships with casual sex … and it’s an epidemic.
I’m straight, white and female and have just graduated from an Ivy League school, so these trend pieces are supposedly about me. But they don’t ring true. After a year of reading them, I am exhausted by the media’s obsession with the “hookup culture.” Why, besides the obvious reasons, is this topic so irresistible? Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College who has done extensive research on the subject, explains, “The media is talking about it because we love moral panic.”
As it turns out, there’s not all that much to panic about. If you look at the data, this Ivy League hookup culture exists for only a tiny percentage of college kids. What’s more, the sex lives of most of today’s college students may not be all that different from those of their parents or grandparents at the same age.
So let’s look at the three biggest misconceptions about college kids and sex:
1. College students are choosing random hookups over meaningful relationships.
Well, it depends on how you define a hookup, but in general rampant casual sex is not the norm, despite what the media is saying. Stories about the college hookup culture are so ubiquitous that a recent story in the New York Times made this sweeping statement:
It is by now pretty well understood that traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by “hooking up” — an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse — without the emotional entanglement of a relationship.
But according to the survey quoted in that same Times article, 20% of female students and 25% of male students have “hooked up” with 10 or more people. That sounds like a lot. But wait — 10 or more people over the course of four years in college? That’s only two to three partners per year. Moreover, the definition of hookup spanned from kissing to intercourse. Of those women and men who had hooked up with 10 or more people, only 40% of those instances involved sex.
Crunching the numbers, that means that only 8% of college women who responded to this survey had sex with 10 or more men who they were not dating over the course of four years.
Yes, dance floor make-outs (fondly dubbed DFMOs) and casual sex do happen on campuses. But the hookup culture is far from standard practice. Thanks to all the media hype, students themselves vastly overestimate how much hooking up is going on at their school. A study at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln found that 90% of college students thought their peers were hooking up two or more times per school year, when in reality only 37% of students reported doing so.
2. Most Ivy League girls are too busy and ambitious for relationships.
Nearly every article about hookup culture I’ve read this year has surrounded the Ivies. Hanna Rosin asserted in the Atlantic that the demands of the modern world have left women at these elite institutions with no time for boyfriends, so they are opting out of relationships and into hookups.
One of the girls Rosin interviewed, Raisa Bruner (called by the pseudonym Tali in the article), who graduated from Yale with me in May, was dissatisfied with the conclusions of Rosin’s piece and decided to find out if Yalies were really dismissing relationships for hookups. She wrote in the Yale Daily News:
In a survey I conducted of over 100 Yale students, almost all of the single respondents, ambition be damned, said they were currently seeking a relationship involving dating, commitment or, at the very least, monogamous sex.
I know a number of very successful women — women who are now students at top med schools, analysts at the State Department or Rhodes scholars — who found the time while at Yale to maintain serious relationships with equally as busy boys (or girls). I know many other women who left Yale wishing they had had a relationship in college.
And while I can’t say the sex lives of Yalies represents all college students or even those in the Ivy League, the data from the school about sex is a good reality check. In 2010, the Yale Daily News conducted a sex survey on campus and found that only 64.3% of students had had sexual intercourse over the course of their Yale career. The median Yale student had had only two sexual partners by the time he or she graduated. Promiscuity is not the norm. Not even for men (whom we never hear from in these articles for some reason): 30.5% of Yale men had never had intercourse. Plenty of students are forgoing sex entirely, limiting their sexual partners or engaging in exclusive relationships.
3. The so-called hookup generation represents a radical break from the past.
While everyone’s decrying the end of traditional sexual relationships, it might be worthwhile to take a look at what sex and relationships looked like before this “hookup boom.”
A 1967 study by the Institute for Sex Research consisting of 1,177 undergraduate students from 12 colleges found that 68% of the men and 44% of the women reported having engaged in premarital sex. Not “hookups.” Sex. Compare that with Yale’s current 64.3%. In another study, researchers at Western State University interviewed 92 male students and 113 female students annually from 1969 to 1972 and found that during their freshman year, 46% of the men and 51% of the women reported having had premarital sex. By senior year, the figures were 82% for men and 85% for women.
True, we don’t have cold, hard data from that era about how many people these students were having sex with. “But there’s always been casual sex on college campuses,” says Wade. “That’s been true since before women were there.” And that’s to say nothing of make-out sessions, a hookup staple these days.
Some things have changed with technology. Booty calls are simpler: texting or g-chatting or Facebook messaging a boy to come over for casual sex is a lot easier — and probably a lot less awkward — than calling that boy on a landline to request the same. It’s quick, it’s impersonal, it’s easy.
But what’s really changed dramatically is not what women want or how much sex they’re having; that’s about the same. It’s the amount that we talk about sex and the way we talk about it. Whether it’s Lena Dunham stripping on HBO, students debating whether hookups are sexist or feminist in college newspapers, or magazine writers coming up with trend pieces about society’s moral decline, we are making a topic that was conversationally taboo a few decades ago central to our concerns about the moral decline of the nation.
It’s not a new trend. It’s just a new conversation.
Eliana Dockterman is a recent graduate of Yale University and a reporter for TIME. The views expressed are solely her own.