November 7, 2013
When I saw the poster advertising Donna Freitas and her talk entitled “Putting the Meaning Back into Sex for the Hookup Generation,” my initial reaction was annoyance that another older white academic was going to talk down to students about the sexual culture on today’s college campuses. I came to the talk expecting Professor Freitas to repeat the same rhetoric that I had become used to hearing from the older generation: that Millennials no longer have meaningful relationships, dating has become extinct, young people are losing their morals and it has never been as bad as it is today.
Stephen Colbert, in a July 2013 episode of The Colbert Report, calls out this simple hypocrisy by referencing a New York Times article titled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.” This article claims that young people are now having more anonymous sex at college than ever before. What Colbert points out is that The New York Times has in fact wrote about this same new trend on campus 13 times since 1904, including the years 1940, 1967, 1972, 1988 and 2008.
However, what truly disappointed me was not that Professor Freitas was preaching the same tired rhetoric of other white academic evangelicals, but that in a one hour talk that included a Q&A, she never once tackled the real questions surrounding college students and this so called “hookup culture.” In the first 50 minutes of her lecture, she never brought up what she felt the problem was, what was causing the dissatisfaction of students’ sexual experience or how individuals could bring meaning back into their sex life. Only very briefly did she start to tackle these essential questions that many students actually have about sex on campus, and her responses were often rather vague and overly simplistic.
She said that students need to ask themselves what meaningful sex is, and that the way to do that is to “take a step back from the culture.” When I asked Professor Freitas what it means to “take a step back from the culture,” her answer was about as general and unhelpful as her entire lecture. While she advocated that people try and pull themselves out of this “hookup culture,” she herself admitted that it is nearly impossible to do so without physically removing oneself from the campus party atmosphere. Her entire talk consisted of anecdotes from some of the initial students she interviewed from 2008. Once in a while, she included a few numbers that showed that many students across the country are disappointed with sex on campus.
For all of the data Freitas has collected during her study, she never offers any empirical evidence that we are not experiencing a “hookup culture.” According to a survey collection of over 20,000 students by Dr. Lisa Wade of Occidental College, less than 15 percent of all college students will hook up more than nine times in a four- year college career. In this survey, “hooking up” meant anything from kissing to sexual intercourse with someone that a student does not know or knows very little about. So for that 85 percent of students, hooking up occurs less than three times a year, not exactly what I would call a pervasive cultural norm. A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire study found that 77 percent of college students think that their peers are having more sex than themselves and that this number increases when male students converse with other male students. Dr. Wade’s study shows that while the frequency of oral sex has gone up over the past 20 years, the amount of females receiving oral sex has actually decreased over the same time period. Combine that with the facts that the rate of women having an orgasm during sex has gone down in that same time period and that women are less than half as likely to have an orgasm as men in a first time hookup, and you can see why women would be sexually disappointed in just hooking up.
These are the real problems today’s youth face: men think they are not having as much sex as other men, and women are getting much less pleasure out of sex than they have had in the recent past. Dr. Wade offers some solutions to this situation, including suggesting that men realize that they are not abnormal for not hooking up every Friday night, because in reality very few really are. And for women, she advocates that getting pleasure out of sex comes from taking control of their own sexual experience, not just worrying about the man being satisfied and ensuring that they themselves are satisfied too.
Professor Freitas wants people to have meaningful sex again but failed to even have a meaningful discussion about sex. I no longer think she is harmful to the sexual culture of college campuses, but I feel now that she is an unneeded and useless distraction to students as they try to make sense of the culture on their campuses.