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Sex and Sensationalism

Most college students don't partake of the elite's "hook-up culture."
college women 2

My esteemed colleague Rod Dreher has been trolled. Responding to a New York Times trend piece claiming that young women pursue “hook-ups” because they fear serious relationships will interfere with their job prospects, Rod concludes that “[t]he times are evil.” According to Rod, problem is:

…not just that [participants in hook-ups] have passion-free sex, rutting like animals; it’s that they appear to schedule these sessions like yoga classes, or a self-help seminar. The most intimate of all human relations is reduced to a paradoxical combination of animalism and detached managerialism.

Rod’s lament would be more convincing if the piece provided evidence that commitment-free hook-ups are, in fact, the dominant form of sexual relations on campus and beyond. But it does nothing of the kind.

In the first place, as a reader pointed out, the NYT piece describes the very specific culture of Ivy League strivers. Focusing on students at the University of Pennsylvania, it depicts privileged young people whose major concern is building careers as “doctors, lawyers, politicians, bankers or corporate executives like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg or Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer.” These aspiring members of what Charles Murray calls the “broad elite” interest the Times because they’re junior versions of the paper’s editorial staff and the intended audience of its cultural coverage. But they are are not representative of American higher education.

In fact, a majority of American college students are “non-traditional”: over the age of 24, financially independent, and enrolled only part-time. Almost all of these students work, although rarely in glamorous careers. And many are already married, have children, or both. Whatever their implications for sexual conduct, these conditions have nothing to do with the careerism that obsesses the Times and its readers.

Penn students seem to realize that hooking up is an indulgence for those whose futures are basically secure rather than a strategy for getting ahead. The piece points out that “women from less-privileged backgrounds looked at their classmates who got drunk and hooked up as immature.”

Indeed, it’s not clear that regular hooking-up is particularly common even on elite campuses. According to a survey of Harvard seniors that I blogged about a couple of months ago, 72 percent of students enroll at Harvard as virgins and 27 percent graduate without having sex. Of those who do have sex at Harvard, most have just one partner during their four years. Only 7 percent of students have 10 or more sexual partners in college, considerably fewer than the national rate for college students.

The survey sample was not randomly selected, and it’s possible that Penn’s sexual culture is very different from Harvard’s. But these data suggest that the behavior the Times describes is rather exceptional.

In short, this isn’t just a story about a minority of American college students. It’s a story about the minority of a minority devoted to the status competition that defines the modern upper-middle-class. I agree with Rod that this competition, of which sex is only one domain, is spiritually and psychologically damaging. But it’s really not a problem for the vast majority of Americans.



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