File this one under “Heteronormative non-news”

By Caitlin Kelly



The New York Times (yes, for whom I freelance frequently) posted this enormous story (we call ’em ‘heaves’ for a reason), a front-page face-palm over the fact that women at elite colleges (the rest of you, meh) are not having committed sex with their fiances, but are in fact hooking up for fun and…you, know, sex.

Sex (Photo credit: danielito311)

And — because any story about: 1) sex; 2) young women; 3) elite university students; 4) hooking up is going to be fucking catnip for the finger-wagging crowd, the story had gathered a stunning and possibly unprecedented 788 comments within hours.

Here’s some of it:

These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends
(never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their
20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a
bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a
corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through
all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally,
the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early

In this context, some women, like A., seized the opportunity to have sex
without relationships, preferring “hookup buddies” (regular sexual
partners with little emotional commitment) to boyfriends.

And this:

But Elizabeth A. Armstrong, a sociologist at the University of Michigan
who studies young women’s sexuality, said that women at elite
universities were choosing hookups because they saw relationships as too
demanding and potentially too distracting from their goals.

In interviews, “Some of them actually said things like, ‘A relationship
is like taking a four-credit class,’ or ‘I could get in a relationship,
or I could finish my film,’ ” Dr. Armstrong said.

One of the things I enjoy about Broadside is that I have readers from their teens to people their grandparents’ age, some of whom are devoutly religious and for whom pre-marital sex is taboo. I get that and respect that.

But this is for/about people who are going to have sex and beyond the really tedious heteronormative strictures of getting engaged/married/pregnant, certainly right out of college — i.e. by your early or mid 20s.

You actually can be pretty, smart, ambitious and deeply ambivalent about wanting to permanently attach yourself to a man (or woman) before you have a clue who you are! That might mean years, even a few decades of sexual experimentation, travel, graduate study, volunteer work, returning home — or all of these.

You might never wish to marry at all.

You might not want to have children.

This hand-flapping over when, where, how and why young women are having uncommitted sex is — to my mind — pretty old hat. Many of us were having, and enjoying, uncommitted sex in the 1970s when I was in college, long before herpes, then AIDS scared everyone into abstinence or commitment for a while.

Now everyone with a brain uses condoms to protect themselves from both (and HPV, chlamydia, etc.)

The notion that young, educated women are incapable of — the term is accurate, if crude — sport-fucking — is absurd.

It may deeply comfort people to assume that all women, everywhere, all the time, from puberty to death, only want to bonk people with whom they are deeply in love and with whom they are really dying to rush to the altar.

For some, sure.

For others, absolutely not.

We’re not that simple.

We don’t want to be that simple.

Just stop it!

45 thoughts on “File this one under “Heteronormative non-news”

  1. I guess there is an age when you know you want to settle down (or not). But in College, especially now where you can’t predict how your future will be, to get attached to someone who will lower your options in the future is hazardous.

    1. It’s such a personal decision, but it seems to me very premature, for many people in college, to make that choice — while it clearly works very well for some. I could not stand the idea of even being attached to someone long-term in my 20s; when I met my husband at 30 and went out with him for more than six months, all my friends knew this one was serious. I never gave anyone that sort of time before.

  2. I suppose what makes me smile here is that it would be no story if it were about young men. They’re expected to sow their wild oats etc. And yet who do people think the young men are having sex with if not equally young women?
    It’s been the case for a long time and totally hypocritical to expect it of one side, and even turn a blind if not totally disapproving eye, and not of the other side. What the paper could have concentrated on is the fact that this is not an age confined or college confine thing.. I have a friend in his mid sixties who after a few bad choices with marriage ( theirs not his) has decided against further commitment. He has a string of lady friends who for one reason or another have decided against commitment themselves. He sleeps with them and they’re somewhat crudely known as his ‘fuck buddies’. Both sides seem to be enjoying regular sex and neither is stuck with a partner they don’t want. It doesn’t suit everyone but he certainly seems perky enough.
    Ladies or men, young or old seem happy to have a lifestyle that doesn’t crimp their busy schedules. After the freedoms of the sixties and seventies I wouldn’t have thought it merited a front page spread any more.
    xx Hugs xx

    1. Indeed. This bizarre obsession with getting married and settling down (ugh) is very American. Unless sex is tidily confined to legal/normative boxes it seems to scare the horses.

  3. I agree with you. And yet I also worry a little about the health consequences of being normal human beings and actually having sex regularly. Used correctly, condoms are effective about 98% of the time. That doesn’t seem like much, but to put it into perspective 1% of the general population is schizophrenic and about 2% of the US is Jewish. Granted, the 2% of prophylactic failures a sexually active person can expect to have might occur with STD-free partners. You claim everyone with a brain is doing that, but there was this wild time when bare-backing came back in the gay community full-force among young men, and teenagers are inconsistent in using condoms. So, I don’t think it’s so simple. Anyway, I just hope young people are really taking in that message that they need to get tested regularly and that sex without condoms continues to absolutely be stupid. Because 2% isn’t a small enough number to assume it’s something that will happen to someone else, but not you, unless you just aren’t getting that much.

  4. druidwinter

    Reblogged this on winterdominatrix and commented:
    When women have equal oppertunities, they do not depend on men for money and are just as likely to enjoy sex like men in open relationships. It is a win-win for guys.

  5. I am just about to read that article but I did read the first couple of paragraphs. The young woman in question was doing a “cost-benefit” analysis of having a relationship vs. just hooking up because she is busy. Something really cold about that – like what men have been doing for years and we didn’t like it much to be thought of in those terms. I guess I wonder how thinking like that changes you and what chance does love have when it boils down to practicality. I am just a romantic, I guess, although I do not think people in college should be looking for a lifetime mate at this point in their lives.

    1. I really identify with her point of view, sorry to say. I was also at a super-demanding college, building a freelance career at the same time and (which was flattering) had plenty of boys in love with me. I know I broke a few hearts, not intentionally, but I had zero interest in anything that would tie me down and limit my then-burgeoning professional options. They are so hard won as it is.

  6. Loved your text. To me, the worst is how most women’s magazine have sexual tips to have a better relantioship or a better marriage, totally excluding the fact that sexual experimentation is an option.

  7. I so had the same reaction to that article, especially the way it’s based on an entirely unexamined assumption that boys will be boys as if young men (elite and non-elite) of this generation aren’t shaping new social norms as well. My favorite one of the multitudinous comments that followed the article was the person who asked “Scarlet Letter much?” in reference to the young woman with the hookup buddy who is identified only by the initial A. Hilarious and true.

  8. Well, it’s a good thing the Times printed this, so we can A-lert the Au-thor-i-ties. Yet another example of how we’re sliding backwards. To be clear, the backwards part is that this is considered news, not young women deciding relationships aren’t THE most important goal in their lives. Aargh.

  9. I could not agree more. With the change in status of women as self-sufficient, independent providers, their previous dependence on men has diminished. Sex for the pure pleasure of it, and convenience of no need for a further commitment, has opened up the possibilities. While a double standard still exists in some people’s minds, women are just as happy and capable as men in this arena.

    1. I think this piece also really makes much clearer how the “elite” feel the need to pair up quickly to protect their economic advantage — i.e. if you don’t snap up a man “worthy of you” while at an Ivy League school, who knows what riffraff you might later marry?

  10. It is rather absurd to be still talking about this, making it sound common place and has a ‘unfortunate for women’ ring to it… I find it hypocritical, and in parts offensive, especially this comment by Ms. Patton“For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you,”… really ? so now one needs to makes the university learning period a hunting ground for a groom, to be find happiness later! …Not a time to develop oneself, and hence find happiness in oneself.
    Maybe this is a pattern in the US, I do not relate this to the UK. I am not saying there are no women out there who are focused on finding a catch, or a good lay, there are, as much as there are men who are.
    Yes, one is experimenting at the undergrad level, and having fun, at the same time very often one does have meaningful relationships, and one is generally not looking at the campus boys as ‘sex material’ or as ‘potential grooms’, but finding a group of friends one is comfortable with working, travelling, and having fun with.
    Having done one bachelors and 2 masters on different campuses, during these times of intense study (masters), I have found women in my surrounding, no longer seeking short term relationships. Most have either remained with their boyfriends (who very often such as myself, are not from a University) and gone on to marry them after graduating, or taken it slow with their dating/sex life.
    Personally I have found the study period very rewarding and happy time in itself. My Joys and life are linked to the man I am married to, but my happiness is not inextricably linked to him… it is linked to me and what I am, what I learn and choose to be.

    1. Thanks for such a long and interesting comment.

      I attended university in my native Canada and I see it very differently, as you do, as well.

      One of the most distinct differences I’ve seen here between the U.S. and Canada, (might be similar to the UK, e.g. Oxford or France, e.g. ENA, etc) is that elite education is seen as a very powerful sorting mechanism professionally and socially. If you are lucky enough to get into one of the top schools here, your life is going to be quite different from the grads who did not — in my field (journalism), in the Northeast, if you did not go to Harvard/Yale/Brown/Columbia, good luck! It is vastly more difficult, sometimes impossible, to get a good job without that network and acceptance.

      Hence the hysterical insistence on the importance of finding Mr. Right while you’ve got good choices (arguably) in your college classrooms. If you read (as I do) the NYT wedding announcements each week, the most common way these people seem to meet is by attending the same elite schools, grad and/or undergrad. It’s a very clear pattern.

      I do not tie my happiness to being married. I was my happiest, in my 20s, when my career was rocketing skyward, I made good money, had dear friends and traveled. I enjoy being married but did not DIE without that attachment. Such bullshit!

  11. I don’t know if all women could or would want to just have unemotional sex for extended amounts of time. I bet, it all comes down to timing and circumstance or lack of experience with conniving men!

    I think in this time and age there is a reluctance to commit, because people have a far less easy time being honest with one another. I can’t speak for all women but I am sure a majority would prefer to not have multiple one night stands…

    If you can’t find someone dependable, I guess you just take what you can get? That sounds brutal but really…relationships and people are so unpredictable, it can be scary.

    …I know I couldn’t have casual sex, I never did. I was a super late bloomer in that department, mostly because I wanted to meet the right guy and I had my heart on my sleeve. Mike was my first, and I was 26! Long out of school. I trusted my instincts, and knew when to get myself out of hot water (with a potential mate). I knew when I was being used, or about to and would protect myself.

    I think that’s what it boils down to. Timing and trusting your gut…and being open and honest about what you want, and expect from others. This goes for both men and women.

    If life goals revolve around work, money success, and not love and memories….there’s something wrong with this world. Very wrong.

    Un-emontionally charged sex sounds pretty unpleasant to me. What’s the point?

    1. Thanks for weighing in…

      It’s interesting that your perspective assumes it is men who want uncommitted sex and women who are getting hurt by it. I understand you did not want it, but some women absolutely do. I did, for years. Not because I didn’t want a partner or husband — at some point — but I was also very career-driven in a hyper-competitive field. I didn’t want to tie myself down to someone else’s dreams (which would have meant getting stuck in Toronto for the next 40+ years) so if I wanted men in my life, this was my only option — short of abstinence. It was neither heartless or miserable. It was what it was. We knew the deal. I got my heart busted a few times, but that happens to many of us.

      I knew I did not want kids (which impels many women to only date good guys who are husband/father material) nor did I wish to get married for a while…I only began considering marriage at 30 after I finally fell in love (and he, of course, broke my heart by walking out of our 2 yr marriage.) So much for waiting and good judgment! 🙂

      Luckily, later in life, I met a good guy and we’ve had 13 years together. It all worked out. I do not regret my earlier choices.

      1. For me, I couldn’t imagine anything more scary than getting into bed with a complete stranger. That really freaks me out… I don’t know how people do it. I’d be terrified.


        I also made sure not to say “all” women…I just feel that a majority would like a dependable mate. I think having a “fuck friend” can work (there is a special group of polyamourous people) that live on that principal…but it takes a certain type of person to appreciate that life style. My brain just would not cope with that kind of uncertainty.

        I’m so old fashioned in waiting for my mate, but at the same time, I’m still not sure about babies or marriage, and in fact I probably drive myself (and Mike) crazy debating why I don’t want either.

        I’m a bit saddened that a women’s sexual appetite is big news, I know many women are highly sexually driven, but college and young people do sleep around…mostly because of immaturity in relationships, and bad timing. I bet, more often than not women in college would say they would commit to someone on the same journey…

        It’s all in the timing. I didn’t date seriously because they weren’t the right guys…and I wasn’t interested.

      2. Interesting. Terrified of what?

        It’s clear you would only be comfortable with a committed, loving relationship, which is cool. To me it’s as different as being vegan, vegetarian or carnivore. I have zero interest in being vegan, for example, while I can see that many people like it as a lifestyle choice. I see sexual behavior the same way.

      3. Terrified of who the other person is, are they going to be carrying stds, will I feel sad when it’s all over, what if he’s a creep/psycho?

        It’s so primitive, but i guess I’d always abstain (there are other ways to feed the need!) shah.

        Then again all of these things can come into consideration when seriously dating someone!

      4. Well, that’s what condoms are for…sadness…depends what you expect(ed) and creep/psycho….you shld have met my ex-husband when he bailed. That was pretty creepy. In all my days, I met maybe 2 or 3 baddies.

      5. 2 or 3, what did they do? Were they just jerks?

        I guess for me, I have this habit of protecting myself…I’ve dated duds, and have been per sued by many duds… I guess it takes time to learn how to filter out all the crummy ones!

        I’m glad you met a great man… And I’m glad I’ve met mine, even though you and I both took completely different paths.

        Mine cautious… your’s guns blazing take no prisoners. I bet…you’re life was more exciting in the end and you’ve got more stories! : )

        Mine would all be… “and then I ran away”. hahah.

      6. Well, one was a convicted criminal, a con man. That was by far the worst, truly terrifying. The rest were just garden variety schmucks — careless heartbreakers I could not (or refused to) see for what they really were beneath their charm. I’m not sure I could have predicted my first husband bailing out so quickly (and remarrying within a year.) That killed me.

        Stories? Oh, my dear. If you do come to NY, a few martinis and many stories…none for public consumption here! 🙂

  12. Sexuality and sexual relations are inherently complex and any attempt to make absolutes out of these concepts (or constructs) is both ridiculous and dangerous. Any thought or action that comes from the position of ‘all women’ or ‘all men’ is going to make me walk away and do something meaningful…like feed the chooks. Why is it that human beings, apparently the most intelligent entity on the planet (potentially the Solar System), are so inept at dealing with complexity?

  13. Mimi

    to put a different spin on things I think this TED talk is quite fitting:

    – from a 29 yr old looking back at her wild 20s and suddenly looking for it all

    Sent from my iPhone

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