Penn Student Columnists to New York Times: Campus Romance Not ‘Dead and Buried’

Since mid-July, The New York Times and University of Pennsylvania have been fighting over “the game.” 

As I previously postedThe Daily Pennsylvanian and some students at the Ivy League school are passionately pushing back against a Times feature on campus sex that purports the social lives of most female Penn undergrads are filled with alcohol and casual sex — and devoid of romance and relationships.

While confirming certain parts of the report ring true, the DP and separate student critics are decrying it as mainly inaccurate, wholly agenda-driven and often “one-sided and biased.

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The Times piece that has provoked their ire, written by Kate Taylor, focuses on how and why women are now driving the college hook-up culture just as much as men. The headline: “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.”

To get a better handle on this game playing, Taylor interviewed more than 60 female students “from all corners of Penn’s population.” According to Taylor, the large majority of her interviewees cited hook-ups as the only palatable social option during their time at Penn.

Among their reasons: the competing demands of their schoolwork, extracurriculars and internships; lots of alcohol and alcohol-fueled get-togethers; and their lack of interest in settling down with a single partner when someone better might be lurking.

As one young women tells Taylor, “We are very aware of cost-benefit issues and trading up and trading down, so no one wants to be too tied to someone that, you know, may not be the person they want to be with in a couple of months.”

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In response, Daily Pennsylvanian editors were blunt: “Kate Taylor got Penn wrong.” As they argue in an editorial, “In her failed attempt to glimpse a part of Penn’s culture, Taylor drew conclusions that inaccurately represented and overly generalized the university’s student body. . . . We refuse to allow Taylor to misrepresent Penn students in this way.”

Popular Daily Pennsylvanian columnists Hayley Brooks and Ali Kokot — who were both interviewed by Taylor during her reporting — also dived into the debate.

“As Penn ladies we can assure you that we are sick of hearing that romance is supposedly dead and buried,” the pair wrote recently in their regular DP column “Think Twice.” “Though Taylor’s news piece does raise awareness about some of our ugly courtship rituals, we think her article does Penn men and women more of a disservice than anything else.”

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In a brief Q&A building on their piece, Brooks and Kokot — both Penn juniors — explain why they feel a disservice was done and what individuals outside the college sphere fail to understand about student hook-up culture.

From your perspective, why did the New York Times story do Penn students a disservice?

Picture 19We felt like we were being collectively targeted on the front page of the Friday Styles section. Why Penn? The article never really answered that. It didn’t add anything to the already lively conversations happening on campus and in the media about hook-up culture.

Two extremist perspectives were offered … and sandwiched between them were examples of women who had settled for the hook-up culture or had been raped. What kind of message does this send to young men and women at our school and beyond about their ability to pursue healthy relationships despite what everybody else says is cool?  And what about those students at Penn (ahem, us) who are in relationships or happily single?

We already know that the hook-up culture is problematic and for the past two years we’ve been working to empower students to make their own decisions rather than to subscribe to the (ab)norms of college. This piece took us a step back rather than forward. It didn’t contribute to the current dialogue in a novel or productive way.

In spring 2012, you wrote about “the game” you see happening at Penn, albeit one at least slightly different from Taylor’s version. What was the gist of that particular column?

With that column we acknowledged the lack of open dialogue and communication between the sexes at Penn, and stepped in to start that conversation. We rounded up guys and girls on campus and asked them the same set of questions in hopes of clearing up some of the confusion.

We wanted to share that guys are just as confused, insecure and dissatisfied with the status quo as girls are. We found that both sexes were frustrated by the mind games, and that both wished that dating — real dating — was a more mainstream practice.

You rightly point out that the New York Times report is missing the “growing up narrative,” or how students slowly opt out of the hook-up game over time. Why do you think that is? Do students simply grow tired of playing it, genuinely fall in love, see monogamy as maturity or become codependent prior to the graduation leap?

It’s all of these things, and it’s different for every person. We can’t speak to everyone’s experiences, but at least among our friends we’ve seen literally everything you just described happen.

The point is, over the four years of college, a person’s individual physical and emotional experiences and relationships, whatever they may be, will change them and subsequently shape how they view this whole “game.” The overwhelming trend we’ve seen is that as students mature they seek more meaning, in their academic pursuits, in their friendships and subsequently in their romantic relationships.

Whenever adults report on student hook-up culture, they often align it with a slew of negatives such as students being emotionally empty, always drunk, self possessed or career obsessed. From your perspective, what do outsiders fail to understand about hooking up or the hook-up culture’s benefits?

Let’s be clear, we are not here to be the be-all-end-all advocates of hook-up culture. A lot of the time, it is rightly aligned with alcohol or self-consciousness. … But maybe what adults fail to understand is that sometimes college kids just want a no-strings attached physical encounter with one another. The end.

And there is so much gray territory that differentiates a “hooking-up” relationship from a “boyfriend-girlfriend” one. Our generation is afraid of commitment, we know that. Hooking up could mean monogamously seeing someone who is graduating and moving across the country in two months, so you don’t want to take on the boyfriend-girlfriend label because it will just be harder when he leaves.

It could be a transitional term to the big b and g words [boyfriend and girlfriend], a way to protect your emotions and vulnerability (“We’re just hooking up”) — it’s not necessarily sex and no emotional commitment or attachment. And to The New York Times, it certainly isn’t sexual assault, molestation or rape.

Finally, bottom-line, who is in control of the Penn dating and hook-up scenes, men or women?

Ah, the big catch-22 question! If you look at how social life is constructed around campus, generally men have control over gathering everyone together — frat parties, sports games, coming over to a girl at a bar. That’s not new. But it’s on us girls to decide if we’re interested, to SAY NO if we aren’t and to not be afraid to go after what we want. It takes two to tango, and courage of conviction to be smart about “hooking up,” whatever that may mean to you.

Related

Penn Students & Student Paper: New York Times Campus Hook-Up Piece ‘Irresponsible Journalism’

Best Student Newspaper Column of Spring 2012: ‘Think Twice’, The Daily Pennsylvanian

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