This Is the Conversation We Need to Have About Sex in College


Tidy narratives that depict an entire generation as technologically dependent, (perhaps sociopathically) busy and ambitious and mutually objectifying obscure a more nuanced truth about the sex lives of college students: There is no universal trend or truth about hooking up in college; individual students, despite a shared context, navigate their sexuality in unique ways. 

This seems to be the thesis of this week's New York magazine cover story, Campus Sex. Several contributors, whose dispatches will be released online over the course of the week, went to the sources themselves: college students with a variety of sexual experiences. From virgins to college athletes and their "jersey chasers" to those who reject labels altogether, the feature offers a complex insight into the truth of what is currently happening behind dorm doors.

There is no "normal" sexuality. Even before they make it to the bedroom, college students are exploring gender and sexual identities that were not as prevalent for their parents. For example, 21-year-old New York University film major Mars Marson rejects "the social construct of gender," they told New York. Marson's peers in NYU's Queer Union embrace identities like agender and genderqueer, and some reject labels altogether.

Bullit Marquez/AP

They're not alone. The increasing prevalence of such identities is perhaps best reflected by the fact that one of the most powerful social networks in the world, Facebook, officially acknowledged dozens more gender options in 2014.

In fact, social media has significantly influenced current college students' sexual identities, according to Robyn Ochs, a former Harvard administrator and LGBTQ advocate at the school.

"I ask young queer people how they learned the labels they describe themselves with," Ochs told New York, "and Tumblr is the No. 1 answer."

For many, these students are still exploring these identities. Nearly 40% of students New York magazine surveyed reported they were virgins. Previous studies have generally backed this up, too: 1 in 4 college students are virgins, according to Kathleen Bogle, author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus.


While feminist notions of sexual liberation have often been associated with quantity of sex, students seem to be embracing the idea that sexual freedom means "people can have sex, or not have sex, in whatever ways they like," Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth, told New York.

Sexual empowerment is another matter entirely. In addition to pushing back on misconceptions about type and quantity, college students are beginning to question the quality of their experiences. As the media has previously revealed, sexual assault is a pervasive reality on campus: An estimated 15.3% of first-year women reported an attempted or completed rape during their first year on campus, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. That number increases to 18.6% when researchers accounted for women who reported more than one event. 

It's a phenomenon some experts posit is correlated with dominant campus sexual norms. 

"It's safe to say that when you are looking at sexual assault, hooking up is a significant risk factor," William Flack, a Bucknell psychologist who has studied the topic, told New York. In fact, Flack found 77.8% of unwanted sexual encounters happened in the context of a hookup, as opposed to 13.9% in relationships and 8.3% on dates.


But the focus on violating consent, though certainly necessary, "has blinded us to the basic issue of quality in sex, both physical and emotional," Lauren Kern and Noreen Malone write in the introduction. "We've gone from safe sex to free sex to consenting sex — will good sex become the next movement?" 

According to contributor Rebecca Traister, whose contribution has yet to be released online, "bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture" may, in fact, be the norm, and that's a problem. While the conversation about sex on campus — and in the feminist movement at large — is often polarized between sex-positive advocacy and anti-rape activism, Traister argued, perhaps it's time to explore new understandings of sexual equality that account for women's unique ways of seeking their own understanding of pleasure.

Ultimately New York's contributors and interviewees seem to argue that it's time to decenter the conversation about sex on campus from policing violations to encouraging enthusiasm and embracing a unique spectrum of possibility.  

While teaching consent and vigilantly exposing the current reality of sexual assault may now be necessary, "consent is not the goal," Maya Dusenbery, editor of Feministing, told Traister. "God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual."