College Sex: Going Home Alone

By Christopher Beam and Nick Summers
Sunday, September 23, 2007

One year, shortly before graduation, the mother of a friend came to visit him at college. As they walked across campus after dinner, a young woman he knew stopped to say hello and ask where he was going. "He's going home," his mother snapped. "Alone."

Has it really come to this? Has adult obsession with college sex reached such a pitch that a parent assumes that every cordial conversation will, without his or her intervention, end in frantic intercourse?

Actually, we understand parents' alarm. College today is portrayed almost exclusively as a sexual free-for-all, where undergrad action is effortless and frequent, where randy young things not so much leap into the sack as never leave it in the first place.

Rolling Stone calls it "the booze-fueled culture of the never-ending hookup." In her book "Unhooked," The Washington Post's Laura Sessions Stepp sniffs that hookups are as "common as a cold." Bill O'Reilly airs furtive footage on Fox News of "pure debauchery" at Brown University's annual SexPowerGod party. And of course, in Tom Wolfe's impossible-not-to-cite novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons," set on a campus where sex is in the air -- sorry, where the air is "humid with it! Tumid with it! Lubricated with it! Gorged with it!" -- students practically major in "herky-jerky . . . bang bang bang." One envisions RU-486 available at the dining hall salad bar, next to the croutons.

But as the Class of 2011 settles in on campus this month, we're betting that the students are discovering the cold-shower truth: The type of action they're likely to get is more hanky than panky.

We say this at our own peril. As the editors of IvyGate, a blog that dines out on all that is base and scandalous about the Ivy League, we have written about students and sex once or twice. It's hard not to, when even the smallest incidents get hyped to the max.

This year, two weeks before Valentine's Day, we posted an e-mail that the beleaguered master of a Yale residential college had sent to his charges -- subject line: "Shower Stalls are for Showering" -- asking an unnamed intimate couple to please stop clogging the bathroom drain. Hilarious? Absolutely. (The man has a PhD!) Did we give it a second thought? Nah. Not, that is, until a New Haven newspaper got wind of the professor's plea. And then the Associated Press. And then about 130 news outlets worldwide, including the "Today" show.

It wasn't the first time, obviously, that a campus sex story had been blown out of proportion. Last fall, the New York Daily News ran a thoughtful, nuanced article with the headline "WILD SEX 101: S&M Clubs, Nude Parties, Porn, X-Rated Romps Rule at Columbia." Having gone to Columbia, where we had experience with only the third item on that list, we read eagerly. Had the school really become a "playpen for sexual hijinks" in the months since we'd graduated? By e-mail and instant message, we canvassed some friends for our blog: Forget the kinky part; how often are you having sex at all? Here are some of the responses:

"Once every six months. Columbia is a rough world for single people."

"The average in the engineering school is probably like once a semester."

"Either I missed out or everyone else in college isn't having sex at all."

"Random hookups do happen, but it is probably rare for most students. At night people just go back to their rooms and finish their homework, or maybe heat up a Hot Pocket."

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