Peering into the bedrooms of grownups and judging their private activities is infantilizing. There are stronger strategies for promoting positive sexual agency.
The media’s freaking out about hooking up. Again.
Joining the media in this collective upset are researchers and culture creators from the conservative right who are busy alerting the public to the alleged dangers of casual sex among young adults. This social commentary on knocking boots occurs with striking regularity. There’s Donna Freitas’ 2008 book, Sex and the Soul, in which the religion professor finds most college students regretting their sexual behavior. In 2010, the New York Times ran a controversial piece about hooking up, garnering copious comments and blog posts from across the ideological spectrum. USA Today published a recent article about college hook-ups on its front page.
These freak-outs about hook-ups garner front-page attention, but casual sex is nothing new. What’s alarming is not that today’s young adults are having sex because that’s old news. What is truly alarming is the shame, blame and misinformation foisted upon the public under the guise of concern about emotional or physical well-being.
USA Today reports that hooking up “reflects an emerging paradigm that is altering the nature of sex and relationships among young adults: fewer men than women on campuses.” One obvious problem with this argument is the shady leap of logic. No longitudinal evidence is provided to show that hook-ups are happening more often today than they did in decades past.
Heather Corinna, author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College and executive director of the sex info site, Scarleteen.com, is conducting a study about multigenerational experiences with casual sex. Corinna comments, “if anyone thinks that all of a sudden way more college students are having sex than they used to, they’re probably mistaking the incidence of reporting [sexual activity] with the incidence of it happening.”
It helps to keep in mind, Corinna notes, that in the past, “especially before 1950 or so, casual sex was much more commonly framed as pre-marital. It was still happening, and likely just as much, but it was viewed differently since it was more common for marriages to result soon after.”
In Corinna’s research, 6,000 of respondants were older than 30 (including people born before the 1920s). The takeaway from her findings is that consensual genital sex (grinding, oral sex, fingering, blowjobs) among the over-30 crowd overwhelmingly took place when these folks were young: 67 percent of these first-time experiences happened between the ages of 15 and 18. As for that first time with PIV (penis-in-vagina) intercourse, 41 percent of the older crew report that they were between 16- and 18-years-old. The figures for anyone older than 23 are almost zilch. “By all means, exploring sex with partners in college is nothing new,” Corinna comments.
An equally problematic aspect of the USA Today-style shock-and-awe reporting is that hooking up is now blamed on women’s successful access to higher education. With female students outnumbering males in college, the flimsy argument about the fuck-and-run is that guys don’t have to wine-and-dine to get some. Now they can allegedly just pick and choose.
Take, for example, Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin. Regnerus argues that the higher ratio of women-to-men on college campuses contributes to the ascent of hookup culture. Regnerus also claims that college women outnumbering men means that “women wind up competing with each other for access to the men, and often, that means relationships become sexual quicker.” Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked, charges that casual sex damages women. Taken together, these arguments may as well blame women for causing their own (fictitious) emotional downfall on their ambitions and success.