Though the mainstream media seems to be endlessly fascinated with every facet of millennial life, few outlets are able (or more likely, willing) to capture the nuanced truth that fails to align neatly with sensationalist headlines. One of the most notorious (and mind-numbingly annoying) topics middle-aged journalists like to ignorantly parse out in exchange for social media traction is the trope-infested realm of collegiate "hooking up".
It happens like clockwork. It seems like every few months The New York Times or The Atlantic or some other major publication looks at their collective wristwatch and says: "Looks like it's time to write about the fact that young women have sex for reasons other than reproduction!" Yes, one of the many bullshit double standards young women still have to deal with is the fact that while guys our age are expected and encouraged to have commitment-less sex, when women do it's literally national news.
The problem is "hooking up" as it actually exists is far too messy, too individualized, and too personal to ever be summed up as a cultural trend and be accurately captured by these literary examinations of our behavior. That hardly prevents journalists from trying to present women's sexual activity as breaking news rather than a series of often impulsive and nebulous choices. In fact, they've got it down to a formula, stereotyping women into several all-too-basic groups.
Women can be presented as too busy and ambitious to invest in anything more than casual sex: such tropes of successfully "leaning in" are taken at face value and applauded, the intricate, potentially problematic causes and effects that lead to this type of unbridled ambition that then prevent intimate relationships unquestioned. Women are also frequently depicted as "female chauvinist pigs" (a term coined by Ariel Levy in her 2005 book of the same name), as equating gender equality with matching men's sexual standards by participating in meaningless hook ups and one-night stands. Or there's always the easy explanation: millennials are tech-dependent, minionized robots who can only communicate via machine, the effects of which even extend to the bedroom. Hook-up apps (like Tinder) as well as texting are employed to (somewhat miraculously, although not entirely accurately) shift the blame away from women and onto the digital age: Women aren't to blame for hook-up culture—it's the fact that an entire generation was raised to connect through weirdly abbreviated and/or misspelled phrases instead of full sentences and complete thoughts. How can we have a whole relationship if we can't even complete a sentence?
The truth is there is no universal "trend" to hooking up in college (or, I would imagine, beyond): There are individual human beings with individual sex lives who make their own damn choices. Of course, there is some truth in each of the overarching stereotypes. College-aged women often opt for a "friend with benefits" over a relationship, due to business necessitated by their ambition, the empowering autonomy of the arrangement, or for any number of various, personal reasons. Technology does play a significant role in facilitating a much more casual atmosphere for meeting, getting together and sustaining some form of relationship. There are also certainlyyoung women who try to live up to guys' narrow ideals of female sexual behavior, informed by porn and pop culture, convincing themselves that embodying those ideals is sexually empowering.
But none of these identities is a singular truth: None of them tell the whole story and most young women are still very much trying to figure out what we want, where we fall on the spectrum of these identities and choices. There is no single way women navigate their sex lives because there's no single type of woman—and women overall are still navigating our identities based on few existing models for how to achieve women-defined sexual empowerment and satisfaction. Billion dollar industries like porn are dedicated to shaping and promoting images and scenarios designed to satisfy men, but how often are we exposed to authentic female sexual satisfaction?
Rather than build our own definition of nonmonogamous sexual satisfaction, women are forced to make sexual choices within the context of a hook-up culture based on an impossible, mind-numbingly basic double standard: We can either be the prude—the aspiring mommy, hopeless romantic—or the slut, based on a model of female sexuality intimately tied to shame and control. It doesn't help that the general cultural conversation about women and sex focuses completely on women's behavior in such a dichotomous and accusatory way due to the fear that women may want to exist independently from relationships with men, that women may even want relationships with each other (it's worth noting gay and/or queer women's sex lives are rarely if ever included in these profiles), and that women do have their own, unique definitions of sexuality (which society is hypersensitive about policing).
But one of the biggest (yet largely ignored) realities of women's sex lives is that far fewer college students are even having sex than we're all led to believe. Currently, only 31.6% of college students say they've had sex with more than one person in the previous year and, in fact, about one out of every four college students is still a virgin. A 2013 study conducted by University of Portland sociology professor Martin A. Monto found that college students today are substantially less likely than past college students to have sex more than once a week. He blamed the perceived increase in students' sexual activity on the media's sensationalizing of hook-up culture, noting that between 2000 and 2006, hook-up culture was barely mentioned in scholarly articles, yet the term appeared in 84 articles between 2007 and 2013.
Ultimately, college women are all just trying to make their own decisions and claim sexual empowerment within a context of stereotyped, male-defined female sexuality and a culture of double standards. There really aren't any hard and fast rules for how women approach sex today: Most of us are making it up as we go along, although I'm willing to bet that the majority of college women actually want something in between a super-serious relationship and detached or even demeaning sex. Women are just a group of human beings (always a shocking revelation) trying to navigate one aspect of our lives the best way we know how.
My official College 101 advice on hooking up? Do what makes you happy. It might take some experimentation and a variety of partners, some bad choices and hopefully many good ones, but you'll figure out what works best for you. And if anybody makes you feel bad about it, remember that some people are just small-minded haters, probably influenced by lazy, sexist media portrayals of sex, and focus on yourself. '
This piece is an excerpt from College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year by Julie Zeilinger. republished with permission.
Julie Zeilinger is originally from Pepper Pike, Ohio and is a member of the Barnard College Class of 2015. Julie is the founder and editor of The FBomb, a feminist blog and community for teens and young adults who care about their rights and want to be heard. Julie has been named one of Newsweek's "150 Women Who Shake The World", one of the "Eight most influential bloggers under 21" by Women's Day Magazine, one of More Magazine's "New Feminists You Need To Know," and one of the London Times' "40 Bloggers Who Really Count." Her writing has been published on the Huffington Post, Forbes and CNN, amongst other publications. She is also the author of A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word. Follow her on twitter: @juliezeilinger.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.