On-Campus Living

A heavily posted link from my Facebook friends is this New York Times article about the attitudes of women at the University of Pennsylvania towards sex and relationships.  The central premise, based on yearlong interviews with about 60 Penn women, is that the hard-charging environment has rendered relationships non-existent, making sex simply something one does with a guy as needed rather than indicating anything emotional important about the person or the act.  It's ground I've covered before (see "Dorm Food" or "Let Me In," for example) but, at the risk of repeating myself, it's worth another musing.

There's not a lot to be optimistic about here, especially for a father of a daughter who hopes she follows in his footsteps and goes to Penn.  Where to start?  Well, for me the following excerpts were telling:

“'If I’m sober, I’m working.'”  Double ugh.  Ugh that drivenness has crowded out the innocence of finding yourself in college and the cultivation of deep relationships that last a lifeime.  And ugh that getting unsober is seen as the only way to get off the hamster wheel.

"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."  I'm not sure I would go so far as to say the most important thing a woman can do in college is to find a hubby - a Princeton mom recently made news by suggesting this to the school paper - and a romantic relationship is not a necessity during your college years, but you don't even have to be a prude to know that casual sexual encounters are a pretty poor substitute. 

"Ask her why she hasn’t had a relationship at Penn, and she won’t complain about the death of courtship or men who won’t commit. Instead, she’ll talk about 'cost-benefit' analyses and the 'low risk and low investment costs' of hooking up."  I'm not hung up on the use of "cost-benefit analysis" in the context of sex and relationships - in fact, I welcome that line of thinking - but I am saddened that people think casual sex is low-risk and low-cost.

"Paula England, a sociologist at New York University, who led an online survey of 24,000 students at 21 universities called the Online College Social Life Survey, said that women tended to fare much better sexually in relationships than in hookups.  'Guys don’t seem to care as much about women’s pleasure in the hookup, whereas they do seem to care quite a bit in the relationships,' Dr. England said. By contrast, women 'seem to have this idea they’re supposed to be pleasing in both contexts.'"  There's a silver lining here, that the women feel more able to assert their own preferences rather than always being subordinate to the men; but that's swamped by the same old power dynamics when it comes to the sex itself. 

Are there glimmers of hope?  I can find at least two:
"In Catherine’s view, her classmates tried very hard to separate sex from emotion, because they believed that getting too attached to someone would interfere with their work. They saw a woman’s marrying young as either proof of a lack of ambition or a tragic mistake that would stunt her career."  Wait, that doesn't seem very promising.  And it isn't.  But it's followed by a countering point of view that realizes that (1) who you marry is one of the most important decisions you'll make in life (even if you plan to be really successful), and (2) it's harder to do if you've postponed it until after you've built your career and set up your life.  Or, as the author of a recent article in Slate about marrying young puts it, "Marriage wasn’t something we did after we’d grown up, it was how we have grown up and grown together." Again, I'm not applauding the view that a women's top priority in college is to find a man to marry, but rather that a good marriage is so valuable that it trumps other seemingly preferable goals.

"Physically, they had not gone further than making out, Mercedes said, and she thought she might want to wait to have sex until marriage. 'It’s not like I’m doing it because of my reputation,' she said. 'It’s not because a religion tells me to wait. I think of it more as, this is the way I want to emotionally connect to someone, and I think that only a person who deserves me to be emotionally attached to them should have that opportunity to see me in that way.'"  In other words, not hooking up makes sense even if you don't factor in religious upbringing, personal morality, and reputational risk.  If any of those three things matter to you, it makes even more sense.  Interestingly, people of lesser means seem to understand this and live this more frequently than people of greater means: "They found that the women from wealthier backgrounds were much more likely to hook up, more interested in postponing adult responsibilities and warier of serious romantic commitment than their less-affluent classmates. The women from less-privileged backgrounds looked at their classmates who got drunk and hooked up as immature."

I think it's false to say that "we had it easier back then," because the college years and sex and relationships and emotions have always been fraught.  I think it's also false to say that "things were better before" or that "I can't believe how primitive things were before," because there's some good and some bad about how we used to think about stuff.  The fact of the matter is that life is about making good decisions in a minefield of bad advice and bad intentions.  Now if you'll excuse, I'm going to go say an extra prayer for my daughter, that she would make good decisions, and for me and my wife, that we would guide her towards them.   

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