The Real Problem With a Story Like ‘Sex on Campus’ Is About Sources

New York Times reporter Kate Taylor's piece "Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too" caused quite a hubbub at this site and many others – so much so that the author is now doing the media circuit, arguing that she's "surprised" by the negative reaction to a story that we've seen time and time and time again.

In an interview with the New York Times's Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, Taylor says:

I feel as if the readers who appear to have read the article carefully – which is important, because it has many layers, not reflected in the snappy headline – have had very thoughtful reactions.

In a roundtable discussion on MSNBC's Morning Joe which featured Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, Daily Beast/Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown, host Mika Brzezinski, some very old white dude who spoke once and Taylor herself, Brzezinski described the piece as "kinda rough." Taylor continued to support her piece, clarifying that the trends she wrote about involving women and hook-up culture are "not everyone at every school." However:

What I came away with...is that this has been a profound social change that has happened over the past several decades and things have really changed since the time when my mom was going to college, when women, even if they were going to college and they were a minority then, kind of expected to get married soon after college and if they were pursuing a career, they were not going to be the breadwinner...

Things have changed since then, as Taylor attempts to diplomatically argue, standing up the piece she worked on for five months, exclusively. But what she either does not realize or doesn't want to realize, is not only is this change not an inherently a bad thing, but that continuing to write "deep investigative pieces" about women's sex lives while interviewing men and lesbians and bisexual women and leaving them out of the piece, makes this a woman's issue, in a way that Salon's Anna North explains is "intended to worry" the audience reading it.

Just listen to Tina Brown's comments on this important breaking news trend:

I found this tragic because it basically says that these girls are completely editing out tenderness, intimacy, excitement, somebody respecting them...

This gross mis-categorization of all women (even if they are clarified as a niche audience of college-aged and highly educated) becoming upset and unhappy about their sex lives – because whatever Taylor says, the argument that comes across in her piece that this is a Problem That Parents Should Worry About – is that it limits the voices of women who we read about in the news. And interestingly enough, according to a study reported in Poynter today, that's an issue that the Times is familiar with.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, students Alexi Layton and Rochelle Richards analyzed hundreds of front-page stories from this past January and February and found "that Times reporters quoted 3.4 times as many male sources as female sources":

In total, only 19 percent (or 465 of 2,411) sources were female.

Political reporter and Obama expert Jodi Kantor told the pair that this might have something to do with a reticence on behalf of women to participate in stories when they are asked:

“I have sometimes found that women — even those who are very accomplished in their fields — are less willing than their male counterparts to speak to reporters."

This is an issue that Taylor told Sullivan that she had a hard time with when reporting her story as well, which explains the lack of full names in "Sex on Campus":

Understandably, students were worried about future employers Googling them and seeing that they once talked about their sex lives. But beyond that, even students who said that they themselves didn’t have any regrets about their sexual experiences were concerned that other people would judge them for being too promiscuous.

These women aren't trustful of the media because the media keeps putting out pieces like Taylor's that imply to a huge audience that they do have something to be ashamed of. These women aren't trustful of the media because they are already represented through a pathetically small number of voices in the stories that are done about them. They're not trustful because Mika Brzezinski's take away from all this is that "we need to talk to our daughters - and our sons!" (sons being the afterthought).

According to Sullivan, Taylor's piece "was fascinating and worthwhile" and that anyone getting upset about it wasn't able to look past the sexy headline:

Like many articles of this nature, which depend heavily on anecdotes and personal experience, this one can’t be seen as definitive, but as a snapshot that gets people talking and thinking. Unquestionably, it did that.

People are talking and thinking about one of two things: 1. How the Times could publish a piece that has been written numerous times previously without acknowledgement of the bevy of "research" into hookup culture published previously and 2. How on earth these poor girls can be saved.

And this is because these are the only stories we get about women, which end up being the things that we subconsciously and then consciously think about women: that they are all victims, that they are in trouble, that what they are doing is bad for them and for society. Just take a look at the best comment to come out of Tina Brown's mouth:

[These women] are crushingly disappointed. And what they are crushingly disappointed about is in the era of electronic media...girls really are just summoned to get oral sex, they come over, they're supposed to like it – they hate it! The fact of the matter is, sex with young men is usually a fumbling disastrous experience. I mean, lets face it: boys are lousy at sex.

And then Brzezinski turns to the old white man on her panel and says to him reassuringly, "That wasn't a nightmare, you okay?" Because he should be so traumatized by having to listen to a discussion about the only women's issue worth caring about for ten whole minutes.

Image by Joe Mercier/Shutterstock.