A recent New York Times article on “hookup culture” at Penn has garnered much attention, and criticism, from the University’s student body. Some have even gone as far as to call it a “gossip column” that painted a “black and white” picture of Penn culture.
However, New York Times reporter Kate Taylor, author of “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” which ran in the Sunday edition of the Times on July 14, had not initially set out to focus on the role casual sex plays in the lives of Penn students.
Taylor interviewed more than 60 Penn students, both men and women, over the course of the last school year. “When I first started,” she explained in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, “I was interested in women’s college experiences [generally]… but this struck me, it was what I ended up hearing over and over.”
In the end, Taylor chose to focus exclusively on the sexual experience of Penn undergraduate women for the article. During this research, she claims to have discovered a “connection between hookup culture and women’s ambitions [that was] really unexpected,” and that she hadn’t thought she would see “that kind of expression of work-life choice … playing out in college.”
Some of the girls quoted in the article do support Taylor’s assertion. One anonymous girl, who was referred to as “A.”, spoke of her sexual choices in terms of “cost-benefit issues” and saw college relationships as ultimately impractical. Pallavi, a senior who Taylor also interviewed, said that her plans for her own professional future “pretty much precluded a serious relationship.”
Yet other women Taylor quoted seemed to be making their decisions based not on their ambitions, but rather on their expectations of and experiences within Penn’s social climate.
Taylor writes, “some women went to college wanting a relationship, but when that seemed unlikely, embraced hooking up as the best alternative.” While there were women who were ultimately happy with this decision, others recalled experiences that ranged from unpleasant to outright violent.
Ultimately, Penn students interviewed by the DP identified with a range of perspectives. While some agreed with Taylor’s portrayal of the University, most objected. For a variety of reasons, they agreed that Taylor’s arguments applied to far fewer Penn women, or students, than the New York Times article represented.
2013 College graduate Isabel Friedman, former producer of the Vagina Monologues at Penn, voiced this criticism very clearly. “[Taylor] came into campus with a clear agenda … [she] chose women to support her idea rather than coming in with an open mind,” she said.
Rising College junior Heather Holmes agreed with Friedman. She said that while Taylor’s approach is “an accurate representation of a minority of people,” it is a “simplification” of Penn’s culture.
Holmes, who is a member of the Vagina Monologues, was interviewed by Taylor but was not quoted in the article. During their interview, the conversation focused on the distribution of power in college relationships. They also discussed alcohol and sexual assault.
“I kind of got the impression she came into the research of this article with a definite idea of what she wanted to write about,” Holmes said, echoing Friedman.
Holmes is disappointed that the article was “one-sided [and] flat,” adding that “given the fact that I talked to her for so long, I saw it as irresponsible journalism,” she said.
An Engineering junior who wished not to be named added that some girls who do hook up do so because they don’t feel there are true alternatives. “The majority of girls at this school at this point do want a romantic relationship and I don’t know if I can say the same for the male population,” she said.
Rising College and Wharton senior and Undergraduate Assembly President Abe Sutton pointed out that there are many other communities at Penn whose perspectives Taylor neglected entirely.
“The Orthodox [Jewish] community, the Muslim community — this article did not capture their identities and they are vibrant parts of Penn’s campus,” Sutton said. “What about sexual orientation? What about religious identification? They’re not [in the article].”
Rising College sophomore Anthony Castillo, who is gay, met his boyfriend at Penn and the two have been dating for nearly 10 months. Castillo said that he has always preferred relationships to hooking up. “I have always found that I have this void in my heart that I can’t fill by repeatedly hooking up with people,” Castillo said.
In her article, Taylor calls New Student Orientation the “initiation to sexual culture at Penn,” adding that together NSO and Spring Fling constitute the “biggest partying time[s] of the year.”
Additionally, Taylor wrote in a section entitled “The Default is Yes” that “women said universally that hookups could not exist without alcohol, because they were for the most part too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk.”
Penn’s administration is well aware of the dangers of drinking. Penn Vice President for Communications Stephen MacCarthy said in an email statement in response to the article, “the well being of our students is always our primary concern” and that “Penn provides a very wide range of support, counseling and education for students to help them navigate the challenges of early adulthood.”
MacCarthy explained that this support included alcohol awareness initiatives during NSO and a Commission on Student Safety, Alcohol and Campus Life that will “issue a wide-ranging report with action-guiding recommendations by the end of 2013.”
“As young adults there are many factors, including parents and family, that shape the decisions that students make for themselves,” MacCarthy said. “We want them to make positive, ethical, and healthy choices, but when they encounter problems — whatever the cause — the University always will have staff and programs available to help them.”
Both the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Initiatives deferred comment to MacCarthy.
Out of Context
The online version of Taylor’s article includes photos of students “hooking up” in the Quadrangle during Spring Fling and inside Smokey Joe’s, a bar close to Penn’s campus. On the front page of the Sunday print edition of the Times, a photo from the article depicted male and female students hugging in the Quad during Fling.
Rising College junior Alexander Goldman, the male student in the photo, said in an email that the image was taken “completely out of context.”
He had seen the article on Facebook the night before it was published in print. “The next day, I got a text message from my friend in the photo with me and she said, ‘We’re on the cover of the New York Times…’ and she sent me a screenshot of the picture.”
“It was bizarre especially when I realized which article it went with,” Goldman said. He explained that the two have been close friends since their first week at Penn and he is also good friends with the female student’s boyfriend, who was standing outside of the frame of the picture.
“We were excited to have found each other in the sea of people in the Quad during Fling and she gave me a hug. Neither of us had any idea a picture was being taken,” he said. “We’ve never hooked up. Anyone who knows either of us knows how out of context it is.”
MacCarthy added that the University was aware of Taylor’s investigation, but that he was unaware whether the University gave permission for a photographer for the Times to take photos of students in the Quad during Spring Fling. Student Planning and Events Committee President Julie Palomba said that SPEC did not grant permission for any New York Times photographer to enter the Quad.
Taylor explained in an email to the DP that the photographer was let into the Quad as the guest of a student.
Co-Director of Women’s Studies and Penn professor Demie Kurz explained, as students like Friedman and Holmes did, that while “A.”’s story is attention-grabbing, it’s also part of a more complicated picture. “It’s a varied picture and that eventually comes through in the article,” she said, referring to the Online College Social Life Survey cited in the “Opting Out” section of the article.
According to the survey, which included 24,000 students and spanned 21 universities, 20 percent of women and a quarter of men reported they had hooked up with 10 or more people.
Kurz said that it would be interesting to see the final statistics fleshed out. However, she is glad that Taylor pointed out the downside of hook-ups for women in the article. “Women are working harder to give pleasure to and please men than the reverse in these hookups,” she said.
Kurz also referred to rising College senior Arielle Pardes’ column in the DP earlier this year, in which Pardes wrote, “Despite all of the huffing and puffing about hook-up culture, casual sex isn’t the problem. The problem is communication — or rather, lack thereof.”
“Certainly always there’s been sex before marriage,” Kurz said. “What’s new is the view … that women can have hookups and completely divorce their emotions from the hook up and become more like men, and I don’t think that we know the extent to which that is true.”
Ultimately, both Kurz and the students interviewed for this article described a very different hookup culture at Penn than the one Taylor’s article seems to capture. The decision to engage in casual sex seems rarely to be a time management decision or a product of a “cost benefit analysis” like “A.” described. As Friedman summarized, “there’s just a much more varied romantic and sexual culture at Penn.”
News Editor Harry Cooperman and staff writers Ryan Anderson and Jody Freinkel contributed reporting. Multimedia graphics editor Zoe Goldberg also contributed reporting.