It's spring in New York, and I invited my old college roommate, Sarah, now in her senior year, to see the city. Over lunch, she started in on the last party she went to: "The theme was Golf Pros and Tennis Hos. The girls wore super-short tennis skirts and heels and we all got incredibly wasted. I wound up dancing with the junior fullback, and we eventually went up to my room — smoked pot, watched the last half of Old School, etc., etc."
That distant rumble you hear? It's the collective dissent from the Board of Concerned Writers of America. Their ears perked up when they heard "Golf Pros and Tennis Hos," but by the time Sarah mentioned the use of marijuana, they were chomping at the bit to decry the desperate state of young collegiate women who engage in "etc., etc." without having first bartered for an Easter dinner with the gentleman's parents.
As a recent graduate, I decided it was my sisterly duty to introduce my friend to these finger-waggers eager to pat her hand (after slapping it) and what they've been saying about her sex life:
Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both (2007). This Washington Post journalist and mother of three weeps tears of pity as she witnesses college girls drinking, dancing, stumbling, and (according to accounts validated by not one, but two, groups of college girls) giving head to strangers. Stepp laments, "Who was reminding [college girls] that sex, in any form, is more powerful when you don't throw it around, more satisfying when it's savored with someone you love? Who was asking them...to consider that having sex with lots of men might limit their ability to sustain a long-term commitment as well as their ability to conceive children?"
Dr. Anonymous, author of Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student (2006). This masked campus psychiatrist was shocked to encounter many depressed girls in her line of work. She denounces AIDS- and HIV-awareness pamphlets at clinics (panic-inducing!), multiple sexual partners (if you have lots of sex, you might get chlamydia, which might return again later in life, and if that happens, you might become infertile) and postponing domesticity for academic achievement (one woman she treated regretted that).
Dawn Eden, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On (2006). There is little more unsettling than Eden's shaky correlation between accepting Christ as your personal savior and having an incredible, sex-free single life. Full disclosure: I tossed the book aside after she advised her readers to buy calf-length skirts.
Caitlin Flanagan, the anti-feminist book critic for The Atlantic, and most recently the reviewer of Lynn Peril's College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now. While critiquing College Girls (a historical account that kindly abstains from moralizing our sex lives) Flanagan pauses to share her own theory, gleaned from Peril's historical accounts: "Girls have a different relationship to home than boys do: They are more sentimental about it as well as more critical of its shortcomings, and they are moored to its routines and rhythms more deeply. Even those girls for whom leave-taking [to college] is more escape than sorrow enter a period of profound self-examination — and often melancholia — when they break out from the home where they were raised."
Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons. Winner of the The Literary Review's "Bad Sex in Fiction" Award. If there's anyone less qualified to talk about college sex than women old enough to be your mom, it's a man old enough to be your grandfather. In one scene, Wolfe describes Charlotte's internal reaction after spying her roommate stumbling home after spending the night with a male co-ed: "As Charlotte peeked behind the curtains, she felt a mixture of sympathy for the weary and heavy-laden, revulsion at what was revolting, and guilt for feeling more revulsion than sympathy after witnessing a drunken slut on her Walk of Shame. Charlotte Simmons alone owns up to the scorn that the other analysts cloak in patronizing concern for our health and mental well-being, and only because Ms. Simmons is a fictional sock puppet designed by an aging Virginian male.
The message behind all of these books is this: my friend Sarah's sex life is offensive. The authors are intent on rescuing college girls like her from the Walk of Shame. Only, they're overlooking one crucial consideration, in my view: Stepp and her cohorts are the only ones who feel any sense of shame. Sarah and her peers are perfectly happy.
College girls of today aren't really fucking college boys more frequently or more desperately; they're just fucking more openly. While young women's sex lives have always freaked out conservative Congressmen and the elderly, the sexpidemic that's allegedly infecting American dorms is now alarming adults of a different breed: the liberal women who fomented the sexual revolution thirty years ago. Flanagan, Stepp, et. al., are falling over themselves to "save" Sarah before someone spots her downing Jell-O shooters and making out with the fullback. I suspect these older feminists fear their right-wing enemies will blame all this crazy young sex on the women's movement. And that's not far off the mark. My generation missed out on the toil of political struggle but showed up in time for the afterparty, plundering the spoils of birth control and Astroglide and sensitive men without so much as a "thank you" for our elders.
So here we are, educated girls who traded in home economics and faux chastity for organic chemistry and vibrators. Our right to birth control is currently undisputed, our miniskirts depoliticized, our sexuality unabashed and on display for all to see. Caitlin Flanagan sums up her generation's torn reaction: "Yes yes yes to female empowerment, but Jesus Christ, why are these women giving blowjobs to men they barely know?"
Sit down, Ms. Flanagan, before you get your panties in a twist.
Feminism, at least among straight white college girls between 1990 and now, has obviously impacted college life, but not necessarily in the apocalyptic way that these authors think. This generation of college girls is free to focus on degrees, seek internships and hold student-council office without worrying about nabbing future husbands. Our most important relationships have shifted from the tight microcosms of same-sex friendships and heterosexual dating to looser, broader networks founded between students and professor, peer to peer, mentor to mentored.
Personally, I had frequent and unsatisfying sex with goateed liberal arts majors who cared more about finding themselves on Kerouacian road trips than locating the clitoris, but they didn't define my academic experience. My friends and I often put nice boys and romantic love on the back burner, because they demanded the time we had already alloted to theses and volunteer programs. Hooking up with someone on a Saturday night didn't require us to follow up with brunch on Sunday, which worked out well, because we had a lot of homework to finish before The O.C. came on.
Of course, there were the girls who trespassed into emotionally damaging territory, doing things they didn't want to do with boys they didn't really like. But blaming those tawdry Saturday nights on a new strain of collegiate debauchery ignores a long history of the coupling between booze and sex. For every girl who disappears behind the door of a different frat-house bedroom each weekend, there is the pious Methodist who attends church groups on Friday nights, the Dean's scholar who swears off boys in favor of graduating early, the serial monogamist who jumps from one steady relationship to another.
One thing Flanagan says is true: "Once girls go off to school, there's no way to protect them." But I'd like to reassure her there's no need — really. We're big girls. Women, even. If most of the sex we have is devoid of rose petals and commitment, that's usually because we're too busy taking advantage of the career opportunities her generation made available to us to have time for more than quickies. It might sound sordid and morally degrading to anyone who remembers the time when American culture channeled the female libido into marriage and baby-making, but young women today weren't around for that. And shouldn't those pundits be happy we never were? Or is what all these new books suggest true: that the worst thing these writers can imagine — worse than abortion becoming illegal, worse than us going to college just to get a Mrs., worse than us not knowing our bodies — that we're having fun without guilt?