4 Reasons We Care So Much About College Sex

A new book puts the sex lives of college students in the spotlight again. Here’s why we can’t seem to leave them alone.

A promotional photo for a party at Yale’s Sex Week.

Talking about sex never really goes out of fashion, but over the past few years, America has been viewing the sex lives of its college students in particular with ever-increasing fascination and concern. The latest topic is the alleged depravity of Yale students and officials, as portrayed in Nathan Harden’s new book Sex and God at Yale. The book accuses Yale of fostering a sexist and pornified environment, largely through Sex Week, a biennial event which sometimes included presentations by porn actors and producters (the program has since been revamped).

Sex and God at Yale has gotten significant attention already, with a rebuttal in the Daily Beast and a New York Times review by Hanna Rosin, whose own piece about college hookup culture just ran in the Atlantic. Last year, both Caitlin Flanagan and Mark Regnerus wrote about the dangers of said hookup culture on campus — and they were far from alone.

Why is college sex such a lightning rod? A few possibilities:

1.

It’s titillating.

Researchers have reported that “youth” is one of the top search terms on internet porn sites, and part of the fascination with the sex lives of undergraduates has to be the fact that they’re quite literally barely legal. That might not be why Harden and others set out to write about college sex, but it could certainly explain why people paid them to do it.

Karen Owen, the Duke student whose “Fuck List” of men she’d had sex with provoked much anxiety about hookup culture.

2.

College students are kids — kind of.

As many a trend piece has taught us, overinvolved helicopter parenting now extends well into college. And even if their moms aren’t calling them every morning to make sure they wake up for class, America at large doesn’t entirely view undergrads as full-fledged adults. Which means they’re fair game for one of our national pastimes: freaking out about kids.

Of course, the sex lives of high school students get their fair share of coverage (cf. sexting), but college students occupy a liminal space where they inspire concern but are rarely under parents’ direct control. They’re having sex and there’s nothing anyone can do about it! Except write books, that is.

3.

They’re elites (sometimes).

It’s one of the great injustices of modern media that the problems of the privileged often receive disproportionate attention, and students at expensive colleges are no exception (though it’s worth noting that in the 2011-2012 school year, over 50% of students at most Ivy Leagues received some financial aid). But there’s more than socioeconomic privilege at work here. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Harden said, “I arrived at Yale with the idea that it was an elite institution, dedicated to serious intellectual pursuits, with the ultimate aim of training our nation’s cultural and political leaders. I never imagined it would be a place where, for instance, corporate interests from the porn industry would be given a platform to market their products in the classroom.”

A lot of the attention devoted to college sex has focused on places like Yale and Duke, in part because they’ve had high-profile scandals, but also in part because they’re supposed to be intellectual powerhouses and incubators of future leaders. At least part of Harden’s frustration seems to stem from his feeling that one of the most selective universities in the country shouldn’t also be hosting porn stars. Of course, America’s leaders have a history of being pretty dumb when it comes to sex — maybe they should learn more about it in school. Which brings us to…

4.

They’re learning.

One reason sex in college is a hot-button issue is that it’s actually important, at least for the students involved. In their critique of Harden’s book, Yale students Kathryn Olivarius and Claire Gordon write, “sex is the site of most of the struggles that women face as women: rape, sexual harassment, reproductive rights, the pressure to be impossibly skinny (so people will have sex with you), the pressure not to be too aggressive or loud or ambitious (so people will have sex with you), the pressure not to have too much sex so you’re not a slut, the fact that so many women never have good sex at all (college women have orgasms half as often as men on repeat hookups).” And, they argue, “Public discussions of sexual culture don’t turn people sexist. They make them less sexist.”

People’s late teens and early twenties are a time when they’re learning a lot about their sexuality and how it relates to other people and society at large, and colleges can help them with this process, often just by offering space and time where they can talk about it with one another. That these discussions will sometimes leak out into the media is probably inevitable — see reasons 1 through 3. And parents and opinionators will probably always worry about them. But that shouldn’t stop the students from talking.

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