The XX Factor

How to Write About “Hookup Culture” (Ahem, New York Times)


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In the New York Times this weekend, Kate Taylor went long on the “hookup culture” at the University of Pennsylvania, interviewing 60 women over the course of the school year about their sexual experiences on campus. Taylor’s piece is the latest in a long line of journalistic inquiries into women who attend college to secure more than a Mrs. degree and manage to get laid while they’re at it. And while Taylor’s story claims to move the needle an inch—“Until recently, those who studied the rise of hookup culture had generally assumed that it was driven by men, and that women were reluctant participants, more interested in romance than in casual sexual encounters,” she writes—her story falls into many of the same traps that have plagued this topic for years. Here’s how to advance the discussion:

Don’t just wonder what’s going to happen to women after college. Find some and ask them. Taylor’s story gets to the heart of how elite college women experience sex now. But the discussion is threaded with fears about how these women will navigate careers and relationships once they exit their undergraduate bubble. We’ve now been meditating on the hookup culture for so long that we don’t have to keep questioning what will become of these women post-graduation; we’re capable of hunting down real answers. Laura Sessions Stepp published her booklong investigation into hooking up on the campus of the George Washington University, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both, in 2007. I graduated from that school the year it was published. I’m 28 now, and my college peers and I represent hookup culture all grown up. In fact, men and women have been having sex with one another in college long before we had a word for that “culture.” Instead of fanning fears about what will happen to the young men and women following in our footsteps, journalists could try giving us a call.

Stop generalizing. As Taylor notes, hookup culture is hardly compulsory on college campuses. Four out of 10 college students in America enter their senior year with zero-to-one sexual partners. Three out of 10 students said that they do not hook up. And yet we get this “the way we live now” piece.

Look outside the Ivies. Taylor quotes one study finding that “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.” Which is why the sex lives of well-off women from Princeton to Penn to GWU have been obsessively documented. It’s not clear why their romantic and professional prospects are inherently more fascinating (or universal) than those of the vast majority of young women, other than the obvious—that we care more about rich people just because they’re rich. (Taylor manages to find one financial-aid-assisted student at Penn to represent an alternative perspective.)

Talk to men. Taylor fails to quote any college men in her story, an omission typical to the hookup culture genre. But it takes two (or in the case of some campus dalliances, more!) to hook up. By leaving men out of this discussion, Taylor and other hookup chroniclers place the responsibility for maintaining healthy sexual relationships squarely onto college women. They perpetuate the myth that only women experience emotional complications from sex that require thorough dissection in the pages of the Times. And they consistently leave men off the hook for the sexual assaults that occur at alarming rates on college campuses. Telling both sides of this story isn’t just responsible journalism—the male perspective might actually be helpful to the women who are navigating their sexual experiences in stories like these, and it would help everyone view hooking up as a collaborative relationship between men and women as opposed to an antagonistic one.