There’s an awful lot wrong with moral panic stories about “hookup culture” on campus (see Anna North, Amanda Marcotte, and Amanda Hess on the latest go-round) much of it focused on a very problematic treatment of gender. But I’m also struck that time and again these stories fail to reflect the very sound basis for engaging in casual sex if you’re a college student, and the folly of pining away for the traditional relationships of yore.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for monogamous relationships and falling in love and getting married. I’ve done it myself. But I got married at the ripe old age of 30—long after I’d left college. It’s not exactly news that over time the labor market has started to put more and more of a premium on education than it used to. That means that many college graduates either pursue advanced degrees or at least give some consideration to the possibility of doing so. It’s less visible in the statistics, but many other college graduates end up doing something like what I did in taking a very low paying first job out of college that was basically a training / skills-building opportunity. People do all this stuff for the exact same reason that a larger share of high school graduates enroll in college than did 50 years ago. The world is changing, and it takes longer to “grow up” economically speaking than it used to.
And yet the process of becoming physically mature adults with sexual interests has not slowed down. So if settling down in your early twenties makes less and less sense, but people don’t want to be virgins until the age of 25 what are they supposed to do?
One sound option is casual sex. The other option is to engage in doomed “serious” romances that will be shortly scuttled on the rocks of reality as it turns out that two smart ambitious people figuring out what they want to do with their lives probably don’t want to make the kind of serious compromises that come with a real relationship. There’s nothing horribly wrong, exactly, with choosing the latter path if you want to. Like with anything else someone does at the age of 18 or 20 it’s likely to lead to some ups and downs, some good times and some bad times, some great moments and some hurt feelings. But it doesn’t really make a ton of sense. Looking to meet your spouse in college is about as outdated as quitting high school to get a job at the local factory, and for roughly the same reasons. Young people should feel free to do what they want with their sex lives, but I think it’s the people who are following neo-traditional visions of dating and romance who are operating with bad information and are more likely in need of guidance.