Having sex at Swarthmore: The myth of hookup culture, deconstructed

53 mins read

“Fifty-four! Ok, that’s not ninety, but still, that’s respectable,” Jane* declares, setting down the napkin on which she’s written down the names of every single person she’d kissed at Swarthmore. We’re having brunch in Sharples on a Sunday morning towards the end of spring semester, and I wouldn’t believe Jane’s estimate—ninety people—until she had actually made a list.

The list included people with whom she’d actually hooked up or had sex, but also plenty of straight female or gay male friends whom she’d jokingly pecked on particularly wild, drunken nights in the basement of Olde Club or on the dance floor at Paces or the frats. Jane’s typically Swarthmorean intelligence and talent, combined with a tremendously outgoing personality, results in an overwhelming magnetism, which probably contributed to her rapid sexual success during her freshman year.

But the names—and the wild nights—had stopped accumulating since Jane had started seriously dating Adam, who’s moving across Sharples toward our window table now.

Jane seems comfortable and settled with her boyfriend. The pair are almost domestic in their easy intimacy, sharing food off a singular Sharples tray or fetching each other glasses of juice. Catching sight of Jane rushing to class, clutching an extra coffee for Adam from the Science Center, or glimpsing the two of them in the dining hall, her clad in one of his slightly-too-big t-shirts, you would never guess the truth about the rest of Jane’s year.

Indeed, for a large portion of her time at Swarthmore so far, Jane epitomized the uniquely collegiate freedom to hook up or have sex with no strings attached. But now, with a serious boyfriend, Jane also represents the sect of Swarthmore students who are in committed, long-term relationships: she’s “Swat married,” as some students term certain long-standing couples. How did she, the girl who kissed 54 people and used to hate relationships, end up like this?

* * *

In high school, David excelled in all of the categories by which one measures teenage success. Bound for an elite college, he lead his school’s newspaper as editor-in-chief and racked up AP credits and debate trophies, but he also served as the senior class president, a position typically reserved for jocks, homecoming kings, and other high school royalty. Weekends in his hometown, an affluent suburb of New York City, found David cruising from one house party to another, hooking up in his friends’ basements.

Near the end of last summer, David packed his car, cued up his “Going to College” playlist, and drove to Swarthmore, where he expected more of the same success. Everyone in David’s family talked endlessly about college and how amazing it would be. His parents, both high-powered corporate lawyers, met at an elite small liberal arts college much like Swarthmore, and spoke about college as though it was “the end-all-and-be-all of their existence,” as David put it. A steady pop-culture diet of movies, books, and music portrayed college to David “as this giant party orgy,” though he knew, headed off to Swarthmore, that things would be slightly more tame.

Still, he expected to both work and play hard (within a few minutes around David, it’s clear that he’s smart and ambitious, and he says he doesn’t enjoy his down time unless he feels like he’s earned it through hard work). A year from leaving for college, David thought he would have hooked up with at least a couple of different people, either seriously or casually. He didn’t expect, David explained, “a sex-filled rager,” but, as he drove down through New York to Pennsylvania, LCD Soundsystem and Nicki Minaj blasting through the speakers, wondering what college would be like, David definitely thought there would be action.

But he was sorely mistaken.

“You know, when I compare my expectations for how freshman year of college was supposed to go to how it actually went, it’s truly amazing how ignorant I was,” David reflected. “And I really shouldn’t have been that ignorant, in retrospect. I’m not a stupid person, and I’m usually pretty good at foreseeing how events go, but I was completely off the mark.”

He isn’t even sure that the one event that could remotely be construed as a hookup—making out with a girl in Sharples on the night of Halloween—actually happened.

* * *

Open relationship. The words were nothing more than a joke to Allison—something you might choose as your relationship status on Facebook with your best friend from high school, not something people actually did. They were never words she thought would apply to herself.

Allison and her boyfriend, Ian, who started dating during their senior year of high school, had fallen more and more in love over the course of the year. After graduation, they faced the question of whether or not to stay together as they began college. They were headed to schools several hours apart on the east coast, and neither had means of transportation beyond trains. Both wanted to lead full lives and have a complete college experience, which they saw as including random hookups with people at their respective schools. But they also still loved each other, and didn’t want to break up.

So they chose to be in an open relationship.

There would be rules: Allison and Ian had to tell each other about the people they hooked up with—not the details, but the basic facts—and they weren’t going to date anyone else. If they found themselves growing too attached to someone else, or drifting apart from each other, they would become exclusive again.

Finally, there would be no jealousy. Allison and Ian reasoned that they were both too intelligent, and that their relationship was too strong, to be affected by jealousy. After all, the hookups would be meaningless, and the two were secure in their love for each other, so there would be no reason for envy.

For summer reading, Allison and Ian both perused the acclaimed guide to open relationships and polyamory, “The Ethical Slut,” which explained that the entire idea of monogamy was based on a starvation-economy model. Love, the book proclaimed, was not something to be rationed or limited—it didn’t run out—but instead could be extended to a theoretically boundless number of people, as long as everyone was honest about their feelings and actions. The couple both considered themselves liberal and sex-positive, and an open relationship fit with this ethos.

“After we read the book and started our open relationship, we felt like we were enlightened or free in this intoxicating new way,” Allison told me. “We had sort of unburdened ourselves of this kind of close-minded, conservative, old-fashioned relationship model.” It seemed like nothing could go wrong.

* * *

This summer, a piece by Kate Taylor in the New York Times, entitled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” went viral. The article was the culmination of months of research by Taylor, who interviewed female students at the University of Pennsylvania about a shocking new phenomenon: casual sex, sought out by women.

“It is by now pretty well understood that traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by ‘hooking up,’ ” Taylor wrote. “Until recently, those who studied the rise of hookup culture had generally assumed that it was driven by men, and that women were reluctant participants, more interested in romance than in casual sexual encounters. But there is an increasing realization that young women are propelling it, too.”

Taylor’s fellow journalists, including some at The New York Times, but also those writing for Slate, The New Republic, Salon, Jezebel, Mother Jones, and even Cosmo, ripped the article and its author apart. Most were offended or bewildered by the tone of shock at the fact that women could enjoy and even initiate casual sex themselves, and charged Taylor with disguising a flashy, shallow trend piece as legitimate journalism. Jezebel labelled the article a “pearl-clutching alert,” intended to alert readers about the “ambitious sluts” overtaking college campuses.

Perhaps most problematic for many was the article’s conclusion, a story of sexual assault, which many saw as a cautionary tale directed at women actively taking part in the supposed hookup culture phenomenon. In a piece for Cosmo, a female undergrad at Penn who was interviewed but not quoted in the Taylor piece questioned Taylor’s understanding not only of campus culture related to dating and sex but also of consent, and suggested that the author had engaged in victim-blaming.

Taylor’s piece painted a picture of college students as largely emotionless bundles of hormones, running amok, texting each other for random sex, and ripping each other’s clothes off. But for me, the article left too many questions unanswered. Besides its conclusion that casual sex sought out by women was negative for female self-esteem and safety, I knew too many peers who didn’t fit Taylor’s model of hookup culture at all.

What about women like Jane, who hooked up plenty and then settled down into old-school dating? What about the students like Allison, who were trying open relationships? And what about boys (male voices were totally absent from Taylor’s piece) who, for no apparent reason, found themselves completely excluded from hookup culture, like David?

And what about the fact that “hookup culture,” as portrayed by Taylor and concerned writers like Ross Douthat of the New York Times, apparently doesn’t even exist? That is, the fact that students these days are having no more sex in college than their parents did in the 80’s, and might even be having less? While there have certainly been changes in sexual behavior over the last 20 or so years, a new paper publicized by the American Sociological Association found “no evidence that would support the proposition that there is a new or pervasive ‘hookup culture’ among college students.”

Martin Monto and Anna Carey, who co-authored the paper, found that students attending college from 2002 to 2010 weren’t having sex more frequently than students who attended college in the late 80’s-early 90’s, nor were they changing partners more frequently than before. The younger students, in fact, were even less likely to have sex once or more a week. All that had changed in terms of the culture surrounding sex and dating was that students were more likely to have sex with a casual date, friend, or “pickup,” as the paper put it.

Actually, Monto and Carey pointed out, the most significant change was in the scholarly and journalistic narrative surrounding hookup culture. From 2000 to 2006, the researchers wrote, the words “hookup culture” appeared in “only a handful” of scholarly articles. But from 2007 to 2013, hookup culture cropped up over 80 times in articles from six databases of scholarly publications, suggesting that the hype may be fueled by media bloviating and shoddy scholarship rather than by actual on-campus behavior.

The truth about sex on campus seemed more complicated to me than Taylor’s depiction, both due to the above statistics and after speaking to three students, Jane, David, and Allison, who all took different approaches to sex and dating at Swarthmore over the past year. There are undoubtedly countless more experiences not represented here, but the stories of these three students certainly help to complicate and add nuance to Taylor’s narrative.

* * *

Swarthmore welcomes its new students to campus each year with a substance-free week of bonding and otherwise-orienting activities. This time period—termed “dry week”—is also one of the only weeks in the school year during which students can get in serious trouble for consuming alcohol or other drugs. The prohibitionary period ends at 6 p.m. on the Sunday before classes begin. New and returning students typically gather outside to watch “The Graduate” on Parrish beach, then spend the rest of the night celebrating the start of the semester, and arrive to classes the next morning happily hungover (though this year’s dry week was extended a further day, and the “Graduate” screening was pushed a week further).

At 6 p.m. that Sunday night last year, Jane and her roommate went out for their first time in college. The pair ran into a few people Jane knew from her athletic team, and the group banded together to find alcohol, ending up in a freshman boy’s dorm room in David Kemp. Jane met plenty of boys, including the one with whom she would later hook up that night (she stole a beer from his fridge when he wasn’t in his room, and the two began flirting when he discovered the theft).

The rest of the night is something of a blur: Jane and her fellow freshmen went back and forth between the two fraternities and Worth Courtyard, playing drinking games. Jane remembers being “miraculously good” at beer pong, sinking the final cup alongside the boy whose beer she’d stolen earlier. The two went back to the boy’s room together and hooked up, and the next morning Jane snuck out at 7 a.m. to get ready for class without saying goodbye (though the two remain on good terms).

The next few weeks passed in much the same way. Jane believes she hooked up with someone new nearly every night she went out. At the beginning of her freshman year, Jane saw Swarthmore as a thrilling whirlwind, the two fraternities an enormous, bustling social center, full of people she didn’t know yet.

Jane grew up in a picturesque liberal college town in New England, attending a Catholic all-girls’ school. She was a model student up until her junior year of high school, when she realized that she could party every night and completely neglect her schoolwork but still succeed. Drugs and alcohol flowed freely in her town from students at the college and their local suppliers. Her parents, both professors, were none the wiser. During senior year, Jane continued the pattern of sneaking out every night and notching straight A’s in her classes. Though she had a serious boyfriend throughout her junior and senior year, the two were on and off, and the second half of Jane’s high school years was replete with hookups and casual sex.

Heading off to college, Jane’s expectations for social life and hooking up at Swarthmore were relatively low. She wanted to party, but was worried that the social scene would be essentially nonexistent, with “a bunch of nerds” barricading themselves in their dorm rooms and refusing to go out. But after the first few nights, she admitted she had been wrong.

After a few weeks, things calmed down to the point when Jane only went out and drank and hooked up once or twice a week. She found “a happy medium,” combining academic and athletic success with a moderate amount of going out and partying.

The hookups weren’t moderate, though. While Jane had something of a steady hookup throughout the fall semester, the two were on and off in terms of exclusivity and Jane had plenty of other opportunities of which she took advantage.

“It seemed like there were so many attractive people to hook up with,” she remembers. “It was all just kind of everyone finding their footing and getting their wild hormones out of their system.”

As fall semester went on, Jane stopped taking calls and answering texts from her high school ex-boyfriend, and realized she had been in varying types of traditional, relationship-type arrangements for several years. “I was like, when did that happen?” Jane said. “That’s not how my life needs to be—I don’t need to be always either chasing someone or with someone.”

Jane loved being functionally single and relished her freedom to hook up with whoever she wanted. “I thought relationships were stupid, especially at this age,” she said. Observing her classmates in long-term or long-distance relationships, Jane recalled, she would judge them: “I’d be like, these people are so stupid. They’re missing out on so much.” She wanted to be as independent as possible, and refused to consider dating anyone seriously.

* * *

Nobody on his hall wanted to go out on David’s first night of college, so he ventured out alone. A year later, he doesn’t remember much about that first night. He walked down to the fraternities and to Worth Courtyard and had a few beers, met freshmen he hadn’t seen before, and chatted with a few acquaintances from orientation. Around midnight, David walked back to his room, moderately tipsy, and went to bed alone.

David’s social life settled into a comforting routine at Swarthmore. On Thursdays, he attended pub nite, where he would play King’s Cup and get steadily drunk with his group of friends, who he described as all budding alcoholics (with the exception of himself). The group would dance with their fellow pub nite goers towards the end of the night, or hang out afterwards and order pizza, or head right to bed. David liked pub nite because it reminded him of the house parties from his high school days—he wasn’t there to get completely wasted, but to get casually drunk and hang out with friends. David enjoyed all of the talking and interaction, and found it relaxing at the end of a long week of schoolwork and extracurricular toiling.

Most Friday nights found David and a few friends getting high, and on Saturdays he would make his way to Olde Club, Paces, and the fraternities—wherever the biggest parties were going on. These kinds of parties were less of David’s scene—while there were places for people to get drunk and mingle, David described the rest of such events as “sweaty bodies in a dark room shoving up against each other” and “not my style.” He usually spent only a couple of hours out on Saturday night, performing what he termed “the awkward white boy” dance in a circle with his friends.

The morning after the Halloween party, typically the fall semester’s biggest social event, David rolled out of bed and shuffled to Sharples, planning to nurse his hangover with orange juice and a phoenix sandwich. He was in for a shock: over brunch, his friends recounted what he had done the night before, “in what can only be described as an incredibly painful experience,” David said.

David remembered part of the night—pregaming the dance with his friends, arriving at Sharples, feeling astounded by all of the people he’d never seen before and by the creativity of the costumes—but the part where he had hooked up or made out with a girl he vaguely knew from a class was completely absent from his memory. David couldn’t even really say what had happened.

* * *

Allison remembers the night that dry week ended fondly. She and a few friends she’d made during the first week of school began drinking right around 6, flitting from dorm rooms to the fraternities to Worth courtyard throughout the night. Allison happily recalls wearing a summery dress, having a beer in her hand nearly the entire night, and meeting countless new people, all of whom were overwhelmingly friendly and seemed genuinely interested in her thoughts on Swarthmore so far. There was also a quick, fun, meaningless makeout with a boy she’d thought was cute for all of Orientation Week, and some promising flirting with another boy who she met that night and then talked to for over an hour.

Thanks to her open relationship, Allison felt none of the guilt she would have experienced had she been exclusive with Ian, and she also didn’t preoccupy herself with thoughts of the other boys. It didn’t really matter to her if it worked out with the boy from Worth courtyard or not—she had Ian. Around 2 or 3 in the morning, as all of the parties emptied out and students across campus fell into bed to catch a few hours of sleep before their first day of classes, Allison walked herself home.

Allison fully embraced all that Swarthmore’s social scene had to offer: on Thursday and Saturday nights, Allison would drink and go out with a few of her friends, and she never went to bed alone unless she wanted to. A quick review of her Facebook pictures show Allison and her friends, red cups in hand, smiling and pinning bedsheets for a toga party, smiling in flannels and jean shorts for the Hootenanny, smiling at Pub Nite, smiling in their Halloween costumes.

Allison talks about these first months almost incredulously, still, as though she can’t believe she found such social and sexual successes. Obviously, she did more than party: Allison found the work challenging but not overwhelming, and was rewarded for long nights in McCabe with academic success. She also achieved at her chosen extracurriculars (she asked me not to name these in the interest of maintaining her anonymity). When Allison went home for fall break and for Thanksgiving, she told everyone that she loved Swarthmore and that she felt she’d picked the perfect school, and she was telling the truth.

As freshman year continued, Allison felt somewhat intellectually superior (at least in one sense) to her classmates, whom she saw as either shackled to their high school relationships, unable to have nearly as much fun, or as somewhat sad, filling their weekends with empty hookups. She thought she had everything figured out, able to have all of the advantages of hookup culture and a steady relationship with none of the downsides. She could go out and hook up as much as she wanted, and then crawl back into her dorm room bed and talk to Ian until she fell asleep, knowing that when she called, he would always pick up the phone.

* * *

Jane noticed Adam in her nighttime chem lab almost immediately. As the semester went on, Jane tried to flirt with him nearly every day, but Adam shot her down every single time. Over Thanksgiving break, the two randomly started texting, and drunkenly, semi-jokingly confessed their attraction to each other. The rejection and ambiguity of their relationship only further intrigued her. Jane began to look forward to chem lab. She was shocked by her feelings for him, telling her friends, Oh my god, I’m so attracted to this guy in my lab and I don’t know why. I don’t even know him.

The first time the two hooked up was on a particularly riotous night across the Swarthmore campus. Olde Club, Paces, and both fraternity formals were shut down by the police around 11:30 p.m., and students choked the paths back to their dormitories, having successfully blown off the last bit of steam before finals. Adam and Jane had gone to a party together that night, but hadn’t spoken for most of the night. Still, Jane showed up in Adam’s room at the end of the night, and they had sex.

Jane woke up slightly hungover, totally alone. Adam had left for an early morning meeting, but he’d left Jane a water bottle and a jacket (it was raining outside). Touched, she was reading the sticky notes he’d left, directing her to take the items, when he walked in.

Unfortunately, everything was horribly awkward. They tried hooking up again, but both were preoccupied by thoughts of all the work they had to do to prepare for finals, and it went nowhere. Jane was relieved when she finally left Adam’s dorm room, and decided she wanted nothing more to do with him.

Unlike the rest of Jane’s hookups, though, Adam didn’t disappear from her life after that night. For some reason, she couldn’t stop thinking about him. They stayed up talking until five in the morning over winter break, and Jane realized that he was one of the most interesting people she’d ever spoken to. Back from winter break, they hooked up a few more times and Adam floated the idea of a relationship. But Jane didn’t like anyone enough to give up her freedom.

* * *

Things hadn’t played out exactly as David had envisioned as he had prepared for college, especially in the arena of hooking up and sex. When I spoke to him on the phone this summer, David told me that he wasn’t sure that disappointed was the right word, but that he would use it anyway.

Within a month or a month and a half of being at Swarthmore, though, David was able to readjust his expectations, and the feeling of disappointment went away. I asked him why he thought he hadn’t been as successful with hooking up in college as he was back at home.

“That is a fantastic question, and it is a question I ask myself once a week or so,” David answered. “Why was college not like that? To be perfectly honest, I haven’t really been able to figure it out, but I do have a couple of theories.” David’s theories were telling in terms of how he views the functioning of hookup culture, both at Swarthmore and as a supposed generational phenomenon.

Primarily, David thinks that his underachievement in terms of hooking up can be chalked up to the formula for success in college. “In high school, hooking up and stuff like that was much less based on your ability to confidently grind up on someone and more on your ability to make conversation,” David postulated. He defines himself as a talker, a writer, and a speaker. “When the format is based on you making conversation and flirting is more than, ‘Hey, do you want to dance? I have muscles,’ I certainly do better,” David said.

Confidence was a recurring topic in our conversations, and David seemed to view it as the key ingredient for sexual and romantic achievement. He broke down the recipe for success as follows: “A lot of it has to do with confidence—your confidence in your ability to go in and pick up a girl, combined with how good you look, how good your quote-unquote ‘game’ is, how lucky you are, and how little shame you have.” David explained that lack of shame, to him, meant the absence of the fear of getting turned down.

David often wonders about this element of hooking up, because he sees himself as a very confident person. “And I’ve been told I’m a very confident person, and more than sometimes I’m told that my confidence borders on arrogance,” he added. But for whatever reason, this confidence, which pervades David’s academic and extracurricular work, does not translate to hooking up.

More than anything, David hates failing, and since he has the luxury of not facing failure in the rest of his life, he simply cannot prepare himself to deal with the possibility of romantic or sexual failure. “I know that’s not a good thing, but it’s not something I can really change,” David reflected. “So I think that’s what hookup culture really is.”

David talked for a while longer about how he had entered Swarthmore already a finished person, the product of his small, tightly-knit high school environment, about how this person didn’t completely mesh with Swarthmore’s culture surrounding sex and dating, and about luck as factors in why he hasn’t found as much success. Finally, he concluded that he didn’t quite have a conclusion. “Really, I don’t know. It could be anything. It’s only the end of freshman year,” he said.

* * *

Around dusk on one of the first truly warm days of spring, several passersby spotted a girl sitting on the bench outside her dormitory, sobbing into her cell phone. It was Allison, breaking up with Ian, though he begged her to stay with him.

The two had survived Thanksgiving and Christmas with each others’ families (Allison’s parents “worship at the altar of Fox News and swear allegiance to Ronald Reagan,” while Ian has four wild younger siblings, both conditions of home life that make family time stressful), each other’s birthdays, Valentine’s Day, and their one-year anniversary, but they ultimately would not make it through freshman year.

Despite the fact that they’d invested countless hours in traveling to see each other and in communicating when they were apart (I thought it was interesting that she put it in such utilitarian terms), Allison ultimately decided to end the relationship for a variety of reasons. She hesitated when I asked her to go into more detail, beyond admitting that there had been some violation of the terms of the open relationship and that she had become emotionally close with one of her hookups to the point that it affected her feelings for Ian.

Additionally, Allison believed that freshman year at Swarthmore had genuinely changed her, intellectually, socially, and emotionally, to the point which she and Ian, who had failed to integrate as successfully at his college, weren’t meant to be together anymore in such a clear way as before.

Does Allison still subscribe to the gospel of the Ethical Slut, despite the fact that her open relationship failed?

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I definitely think that there’s value in not forcing yourself to be monogamous with someone if you don’t want to be, but I’m not as strict anymore on the idea that being in an open relationship is the only way to be honest and actually free of repressive, stifling conventions.”

Ultimately, Allison sees honesty and communication at the core of the demise of her open relationship. “Unless you really communicate about the rules and are honest with yourself and how you feel about your partner and other people the whole time, it just won’t work out,” she said.

Allison cautioned that open relationships aren’t for everyone. “I definitely thought that I was too smart and rational to ever get jealous,” she said. “But I really overestimated my own emotional maturity.” She and Ian had both engaged in “stalker-like” behavior over social media, looking up each other’s hookups on Facebook. “We both got paranoid and would stress out when we saw each other texting or whatever. It was horrible,” Allison recounted.

The stigma of being in an open relationship was also extremely difficult for Allison to deal with. “I’m kind of private, but I felt like everyone suddenly knew about the open thing and thought it was okay to ask me really really personal questions, and treat me like some rare special breed of non-monogamous animal,” Allison said.

She added that some of her friends thought she was being flaky, and that a few of them tried to slut-shame her into either becoming exclusive with Ian or breaking up with him. While she was secure in her decision to be open with Ian, many of her friends questioned her decision.

“Everyone wanted to fit me into their little script—it really threw people off and freaked them out that I wasn’t single and just floating around hooking up all the time, but I also wasn’t in an exclusive relationship,” she said. “Fuck that. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you should be able to make whatever choices you want.”

* * *

The day before Valentine’s Day, Jane and Adam had lunch together with their friends, then walked towards the science center, talking normally. Jane was shocked by the way she felt when they parted, suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that she had serious feelings for Adam. A few minutes later, Adam reappeared and told Jane he thought they should hang out, and she knew that he felt exactly the same way.

Except for going to class, the two essentially spent the next four days together, staying up and talking until the sun rose four nights in a row. On the second night, Adam told Jane he was in love with her, and on the fourth night, she said it back. The two have been inseparable since that night, and, several weeks into sophomore year, are still going strong.

I asked if Jane ever felt like she was missing out on anything due to being in a long-term relationship, or if she missed the freedom to hook up as much as she wanted.

“Not really,” she answered. “The rewards are much, much, much greater, and that’s also because we have a really good relationship, we have really good sex, and we can talk about anything. There’s not any part of the equation I’m missing out on.”

Jane admitted that, occasionally, she “very superficially” felt as though she was missing out when she met or talked to someone attractive. This was sometimes difficult, especially over a long summer of being apart. “It sucked, but it didn’t really suck, because at the end of the day, I knew what I was going home to and it was exponentially better,” Jane explained.

Her philosophy on relationships has changed as well. “I hated relationships until this relationship,” Jane said. She still thinks that some people are wasting their time with long-distance or long-term commitments, but now believes that it varies from person to person.

“If you find someone who you would rather be with than hook up with anyone else, then that means you’re not wasting your time,” Jane concluded.

* * *

Immediately after the breakup, Allison went on what she called “a rebound rampage,” hooking up with at least two people every weekend through the rest of the spring. Summer continued in much the same fashion. Faced with the wreckage of what she had thought was an essentially perfect relationship, Allison couldn’t imagine allowing herself to get emotionally involved with someone again, and started to question whether she had been in love with Ian in the first place.

A few days after moving back in at Swarthmore for her sophomore year, Allison was unpacking and found the shoebox where she’d kept sentimental items from her relationship with Ian. The box contained a receipt from the restaurant where they’d had an anniversary dinner, a baby picture of Ian, pins from art museums they’d visited together, and the countless mixed CDs and letters Ian had sent her.

Allison hadn’t thought about Ian in a focused way for months (they had agreed not to speak until they both felt they were ready for a normal friendship). She had books to buy, boxes to unpack, and countless meetings to attend, like most Swarthmore students at the beginning of the year. Still, she sank down on the bed and sifted through the items in the box.

At the bottom was a tattered postcard that Ian had sent her. He’d bought it at the museum they’d gone to on their first date, then sent it to her months and months later. The front depicted a man standing on his head at the South Pole. I’d stand on my head at the South Pole to spend a minute with you, Ian had written. Luckily, I don’t have to.

Allison started crying. Despite the fact that she didn’t want to get back together with Ian, Allison felt a yearning all of a sudden for her old relationship, for the comfort and ease, for the person always waiting on the other end of the phone.

While Allison, like Jane, has successfully taken advantage of the freedoms offered to her by what Kate Taylor would call “hookup culture,” traditional dating has far from disappeared from her life or her mind. Additionally, Allison doesn’t view sexual and romantic behavior as a binary choice: having casual sexual interactions and being open to the possibility of a more committed, serious relationship are not mutually exclusive in her mind.

“It all depends on the person, on how much I like them, on whether or not we want the same thing for dating or a relationship—there are a ton of factors,” Allison said. “It also depends on where I am in my life, whether I want to spend my Saturday nights grinding on a rando or if I want to stay in and cuddle with someone and watch a movie.”

Since she feels that everyone wants different types of relationships at different points in their lives, Allison is wary of broad categorizations about sexual and romantic behavior such as those found in Taylor’s article.

“You can’t just interview a couple of Penn students and then make generalizations about ‘hookup culture’ or ‘millennials’ or whatever other overtired buzzword you want to whip out that day,” Allison said. “Without a really well-designed, statistically correct survey, you can’t draw conclusions how people are behaving sexually or what they’re thinking about how they want to conduct their romantic relationships.”

* * *

“In my life at Swarthmore in general, yes, I’m happy,” David told me at the end of our final interview this summer. He was happy with his friends, his professors, and his more leisurely pursuits. In terms of sex, while he wasn’t completely satisfied, he didn’t lose sleep over it or let anxiety about it consume his thoughts.

About a week later, at the very end of summer, David attended a small house party in his hometown. He and a high school ex-girlfriend had been exchanging flirtatious text messages over the summer, and she was at the party. The two ended up alone together, Janelle Monae’s song “Q.U.E.E.N.” thumping through the basement walls. For the first time in a long time, David made the first move.

*The names used in this article are pseudonyms.


Correction (January 25, 2014): An earlier version of this article mistakenly used the name “Mary” in some cases to refer to the person we chose to call “Jane.”

Correction (March 10, 2014):  An earlier version of this article used the pseudonym “Eve” to refer to the person now called “Jane.” This change was made in response to concerns about readers’ potentially mistaking the pseudonym for an actual name.


  1. Well-written essay, and definitely more nuanced than that horrendous article about Upenn. However, a few comments:
    – You refer to Eve by two names–“Eve” at the beginning and end, and “Mary” in the middle.
    – It seems like all three cases, although different, seem to come from pretty similar backgrounds. At least David and Eve both seem relatively well-off, from the north-east, and both “partied in high school.” It would’ve been interesting if you included people from more different backgrounds.
    – All seem to participate actively in the small “party” scene Swarthmore has. I know some people who hook up a lot and are not active participants of this scene at Swarthmore. It would’ve been interesting to get their view as well.

    Maybe that will be for a future article.

  2. I don’t know if people normally leave comments on articles here, or if the writer of this article is even in school anymore, but I just wanted to say that I found this really thought-provoking. I’m a rising freshman at Swat (22). This article really epitomizes why I chose Swat – its hyper-intelligent and intellectual but bastioned by a kind of emotional intelligence that provides what I can only describe as a feeling of “truth.” Like I know it’s an article on college hookup culture, but I feel like it touched on the meaning of love at the same time. Like after I read it I stared out the window contemplating my life for a few minutes. Anyways. I’m just trying to say I think it’s a really good article that completely changed my perspective. So, like, really good job.

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