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."
Tantalizing! Having eaten a Hot Pocket or two ourselves, we will vouch that there's a lot more truth to these kids' answers than what you see on CollegeHumor.com. Statistics bear this out. In a 2000 Zogby poll, 40 percent of students nationwide reported that they were not "sexually active" -- a term left vague enough to include everything from kissing to soliciting strangers in a Minneapolis airport men's room. At the country's top schools, the dry spells approach levels not seen since 1930s Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Harvard's health department reported last year that 47 percent of students there said they had not yet had vaginal intercourse. (Numbers not adjusted for homosexuality, apparently.) At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 2001 survey found that only 51 percent of undergrads had lost their virginity; at Princeton the same year, the student body was 44 percent pure.
Parents and other interested parties often confuse having had sex with having sex regularly. One landmark 2000 study found that kids have an average of 10.8 hookups in college. That seems like a lot. But the math works out to only 1.35 hookups per semester -- and remember, some of these incidents are merely make-out sessions. This is what we're getting so worked up about?
More devastating to the idea that everyone is constantly hooking up is the evidence that students hugely overestimate the notches on their classmates' mortarboards. In 2005, a survey of four universities found that while 80 percent of students had had one sex partner or fewer in the previous year, only 22 percent thought that the average number of partners was that low. In a similar survey in 2002, most guessed that three or more was the norm.
Even the MD/PhDs of college nookie -- sex columnists at student newspapers -- often talk the talk rather than walk the walk (of shame). At Yale, prototypical sex-scribe Natalie Krinsky parlayed her "Sex and the (Elm) City" column into a prominent profile in the New York Times and a book deal. "Chloe Does Yale," a peek into "what goes on behind these proper ivy-covered walls," was published in 2005.
Funny thing about that sex column, though: It contained very little sex. Krinsky's topics included first dates, shopping for vibrators and even a saucy question about oral sex, but never explicit material from her own life. Her skills were playing reporter and confidante, not exhibitionist. Krinsky knew that her scandalous material was mostly talk. "You are young, you are hip, you are beautiful, and you are smart," she wrote in one column, a letter to incoming Elis, "and if you're anything like any one of your classmates, you are ready to bonk. You are ready to bonk a lot. Well freshmen, you have come to the wrong place. At Yale, it seems we discuss sex far more than (admittedly) we actually have it. This is essentially the reason for my job. I talk about sex. A lot."
Some people will no doubt be thrilled to hear that college chastity levels remain high. A new book by Wendy Shalit, "Girls Gone Mild," follows up on her 1999 tract, "A Return to Modesty," which argued that the sexual revolution of the 1960s has overshot its original goals of liberation and turned into its own kind of oppression. Instead of feeling empowered, Shalit now writes, young women feel pressured to act "bad" and sexy at increasingly early ages. The solution: good old feminine purity. Not the repressed, Victorian kind but a new, deliberate sort. A student group at Harvard called True Love Revolution has a similar goal: premarital sexual abstinence. The group made headlines earlier this year for merely existing, and commentators -- mostly conservatives -- greeted it as evidence of a backlash against college "hookup culture."
Indeed, chastity is as rampant as ever -- at least at the more privileged schools, where for the most part, it's not intentional. In 2001, David Brooks profiled "The Organization Kid" -- the happy young workaholic who, between hockey practice, a cappella rehearsal, problem sets, SAT tutoring, Model U.N., AIDS research, human genome mapping, clerking for appeals court justices and cutting a debut solo album, has little time for the "character building" that used to occupy university life.
Brooks touches on the social repercussions of this omnivorous lifestyle, such as friends penciling in appointments with one another. But what he doesn't mention is how the hyper-commitment of college life means that kids end up doing everything but "it." For one thing, there's the time factor. As one male friend told us, in response to our query about the Daily News expos¿, "I've kind of got a girl right now, but we're both too busy to actually have sex. I think a lot of people are in my boat, and they deal with it by commoditizing and scheduling time for sexual pleasure as they would a meeting with their adviser."
Improbably, it's a recent comedy -- a movie whose plot turns on vomit, penis art and a fake ID issued to one Mr. McLovin -- that gets it right. Next to "I Am Charlotte Simmons," "Superbad" is nothing less than a documentary of our time. The story of two best friends on the eve of college, it nails how our generation's culture really is based on drinking and hookups -- but also how at the end of the night, even with girls who are eager and boys who score booze, sex remains elusive.
Sometimes it doesn't happen because the guy is uncomfortable; sometimes it's because the girl doesn't like the guy. And sometimes sex does happen for dweebs who've just ridden in a police car, fired a Glock and been punched in the face by a robber. (Okay, that last one may be unique to the movie.) If there's a sequel -- "Superworse"? -- all of these characters will hook up in short order at college, and then every now and then until they graduate.
In other words, they'll be gettin' some. Literally -- some. As in, a medium amount.
Christopher Beam and Nick Summers co-founded the blog IvyGate.