This summer, the Institute for American Values (IAV), a conservative women’s group that has been harshly critical of contemporary feminism, released a survey and accompanying report regarding sexual attitudes among women on college campuses.
The authors of the survey suggested the results indicate the sexual revolution has engendered a promiscuous culture of “hooking up” on college campuses. Gone is any previous understanding between men and women that sex is about love and relationships; these days, the report lamented, sex is only about — well, sex.
Conservatives pounced on the results of the survey, particularly those showing 91 percent of college women surveyed indicated “hooking up” (loosely defined as a casual sexual encounter encompassing everything from kissing to sex) occurred “very often” or “fairly often” at their university. Fifty percent had experienced at least one such encounter since coming to college.
One conservative columnist summarized the report’s findings as follows: “These women are out of their minds, and the adults who ought to be teaching them better — parents and college administrators — have pretty much walked away from the job.” (For those of you not fluent in conservativese, allow me to translate: “Men need to lay down the rules of dating and sex for these out-of-control sluts.”)
But what these critics conveniently ignored are some of the study’s equally interesting findings, such as the 49 percent of women who indicated that they are not ready to be in a serious relationship. Or the 88 percent of women who indicated they are happy with the social scene at their school. Moreover, 96 percent indicated that they “have a clear sense of what I should do and not do in my romantic/sexual interactions.” So, my question is this: Do we really have a problem here?
Since UW-Madison was at the forefront of the sexual revolution, I thought it might be interesting to conduct a study of my own to see if the IAV’s results would bear out here.
For this — decidedly unscientific — study, I e-mailed a survey to about 90 of my friends here at UW (I chose not to limit my survey at all; my respondents were male and female, gay and straight, liberal and conservative).
I was trying to find out if 1) We are “dating” the same way our parents did; 2) We are hooking up (defined as any sexual encounter excluding sex) on a regular basis; and 3) We are having casual sex (defined as sex with someone whom you never date) on a regular basis.
Here’s what I found:
We’re definitely not “dating” in the traditional sense of the word. Most of us are hanging out in groups (usually at bars), getting to know each other there, and then eventually going home together. Dinner and a movie is out. The White Horse and hooking up is in.
Hooking up, apparently, has become one of the mainstays of college relationships. One male described hooking up like this: “You go to a bar, get drunk, find some eye candy and then get them to come home with you so you can get in their pants.”
What surprises me is that this culture of hooking up has been derided by so many people. What I found suggests that hooking up isn’t much different than dating back in our parents’ day: it’s hit or miss.
When I asked if hooking up could translate into a relationship, the most common response was “sometimes.”
One female felt it all hinged on communication. “If you don’t talk about ‘hooking up’ before it happens,” she said, “you risk miscommunication (i.e. differing expectations) about what the ‘hooking up’ means to each of you.” Isn’t this what dating is, too?
What we’re definitely not doing at UW is having casual sex. When it does happen, it’s generally alcohol-related, protected and regretted.
What surprised me were the downright mature attitudes most people had about casual sex. Many people mentioned the risk of STDs and AIDS, and almost everyone mentioned the emotional attachment sex entails.
But the fact that we’re not having sexual intercourse isn’t to say we’re not having some form of sex. Almost every survey expressed an extremely casual attitude regarding oral sex.
In response to my question “Is oral sex OK on a first date?” one male said “When is oral sex not OK?” This seems to be the prevailing attitude. We’re having oral sex on first dates, with strangers we meet at bars, in private and, yes, even in public (several people mentioned the Cardinal Bar and, creepily, Memorial Library). Good night kisses are pass?. Oral sex is chic.
What I have found at UW says to me that what the IAV identifies as a “problem” really isn’t. Our culture of going out in groups and hooking up can be just as bewildering as our parents’ culture of dating.
The fact that casual sex is by no means the norm says to me that we’ve embraced the sexual revolution — but on our own terms. The consequence-free environment that gave birth to the sexual revolution has been replaced by one of AIDS and sexual assault, and we have adjusted our behavior accordingly.
My most significant finding was one the IAV also found — but chose to ignore. Eighty-seven percent of the women IAV surveyed “strongly agreed” with the statement “I should not judge anyone’s sexual conduct except my own.”
The IAV would do well to heed its respondents’ advice, and in this spirit I leave you with one UW alumna’s words of wisdom: “College is a time for exploration, take advantage of that. Social norms only exist to oppress. Don’t let them oppress you. Be safe, but have fun.”
Chris McCall ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in German and political science.