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Why Are Conservatives Obsessed With the Sex Lives of College Kids?

Peering into the bedrooms of grownups and judging their private activities is infantilizing. There are stronger strategies for promoting positive sexual agency.

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As for those inflated concerns that hookups result in remorse and regret, the fact is that young adults ages 18 to 24 who have casual sex do not appear to be at higher risk for psychological fall-out compared to their partnered peers. In so many words, Score! says Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. Research from the University of Minnesota “reveals the truth that neither Hollywood nor the Religious Right want you to know: Casual sex won’t damage you emotionally. Not even if you’re a girl!” 

Although the U of M corrects the quantitative data, what remains among the current spate of misinformation is a conservative bias about controlling female sexual agency. This bubbles to the surface under the guise of concern about fooling around. 

If young women are reporting sexual regret one has to wonder whether they feel like they’re allowed to own up to their sexually adventurous spirits. After all, sexual encounters aren’t one size fits all. Plus we live in a slut-shaming culture that expects women to satisfy men but deny their own entitlement to sexual pleasure.

Schwartzman, who directed The Line documentary asks, “What's wrong with young people acting on their sexual desire without making a big commitment? Being in college is an exciting time to experiment, learn and grow. The college students I speak with when touring the country with The Line want to talk about victim blaming. The framework is such that after eight years of abstinence-only sex education, students are afraid to be open about their sexual desires, and don't have the tools to facilitate an open dialogue about consent. This creates a toxic climate of guilt, shame and, in worst cases, disrespect and sexual assault. 

Laura Johnson echoes Schwartzman’s point. The 23-year-old recent college graduate from a California Christian college says “more permission is given to guys to talk about hooking up. But for girls? Not so much. So even when you talk about a one night stand with your best girlfriends you might act as if you wanted something more even if you really didn’t because of social stigma.” 

Hookups aren’t new. Nobody cites longitudinal data showing that there's an uptick. But, also, lots of articles misguidedly report that women feel unsatisfied by the fuck-and-run because they crave relationships or because the sex in hookups is supposedly unsatisfactory. "Meh" sex can also happen in committed relationships. Sexual disappointment is not unique to hookups. At the same time, let’s be frank: No-strings or light-strings sex, relative anonymity or non-commitment can fan the flames in lovely ways. In any case, women barely have the option in our slut-shaming culture to say they wanted it, they did it, and they had a good time. So of course college women are going to tell researchers what fits in the dominant, sexually acceptable paradigm, which is a coy sort of distancing from their own sexual initiative.

Occidental College professors Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman additionally note that college hook-ups often involve drinking—and alcohol is a known factor in sexual assault. The links between alcohol abuse and sexual danger demand attention. But this concern must be disentangled from acknowledging the possibilities of consensual casual sex. The real question is to what extent excessive drinking is a normalized social ritual that has become part of overcoming the shame around wanting and asking for sex. “It’s important for college campuses to actively develop alternatives to hook-up culture that enable young people to explore and enjoy sexuality and relationships in a way that makes them happy,” Dr. Heldman points out.

It is entirely reasonable to emphasize cultural shifts that encourage more pleasure and less danger. And lest we forget: College students are adults. Peering into the bedrooms of grownups and judging their private activities is infantilizing. There are much stronger strategies for addressing sexual health and promoting positive sexual agency.

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