A Penn Grad's Response to the NYT's 'Sex on Campus'

I am upset that yet another article about campus hookups suggests that women's empowerment is being achieved through merely "acting like stereotypical men."
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"Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game," this past Sunday's New York Times cover story, spent time atop their "most emailed" list and was discussed with fervor among my fellow Penn alums.

I graduated (with two degrees) from the University of Pennsylvania. I am a woman. I was a sorority girl. I was a campus writer and peer sexual health educator. Today, I am a sexologist with a Ph.D., and I spoke at Penn's Inaugural Sex Week in April.

It's not that I'm upset about not being quoted per se (though truth be told, it frustrates me immensely that the author asked a woman who is called "Princeton Mom" to comment on sex and relationship etiquette on a campus whose rival is indeed, Princeton). Instead, I am upset that yet another article about campus hookups suggests that women's empowerment is being achieved through merely "acting like stereotypical men."

The author, Kate Taylor, writes:

Because they believed that talking publicly about sex could come back to haunt them -- by damaging their reputations at Penn, their families' opinions of them or their professional future -- the women spoke on the condition that their full names would not be revealed.

Herein lies the first problem. How empowered are we when we cannot own the statements that we make about sex? As a young adult, there is nothing more satisfying that being able to state your beliefs and being accountable to yourself and yourself alone. (Yes, I recognize that parents still take care of their young adults, financially and emotionally.) But true freedom exists when you take control of your body, your desires and your politics. Talking to a reporter about something that you feel proud of (and are boasting about in a New York Times cover story) and requesting anonymity is counterintuitive.

When I was a child, my father always told me that if I believed in something strongly enough to write about or talk about it, I should be comfortable signing my name to it. Anonymity was not an option.

For that reason, when I was a junior at Penn, I wrote columns about female sexuality for the now-defunct women's magazine, Generation XX. I tackled subjects like HIV and the use of the female condom. My most provocative piece was about female masturbation. And yes, I got personal. And yes, I signed my name to it. And yes, my parents (and my grandparents) read it. This was me. And this was the woman that I was becoming.

Now for those of you who may know me from that time, I did write our campus' first anonymous sex advice column, "Ask Mistress Lola." However, most people knew that I was the author and I "came out" in my last column. I have always been proud of what I write and what I preach.

More troubling, however, is the idea that academic and/or professional ambition cannot coexist with romantic and emotionally intimate relationships.

Don't misunderstand me. I do not believe that anyone (man or woman) has to engage in a relationship in order to have sex of any kind. Everyone is entitled to have emotionally unencumbered hookups. But what kind of world are we living in that a relationship is so time consuming that it infringes on our ability to be intellectually successful? That's insane to me.

A good relationship is one that allows each partner to have identities and friends and lives outside of the partnership. Being a partner doesn't mean that you lose your identity or your ambition. What are we teaching young people? It seems like their voice is missing. It appears that young women (according to the NYT piece) don't believe that they can hold their own (be themselves and thrive professionally) in a relationship. I don't buy that at all. More important, how is this anything other than disempowering to women?

It would also be remiss of me to ignore that the author juxtaposed the conversation about women's empowerment with one student's experience of rape. I'm not sure what she was trying to say, but it left many people struggling with this strange notion that sexual assault was to be an expected outcome for this non-traditional sexual experimentation. Let me just say this: "Hooking up" is nothing new and there is no way that rape should be expected outcome of anything. But that appears to be part of the author's assertion.

In the end, the article left me wondering what its real point was. As an old friend and fellow Penn alum wrote to me, "Have STD infections at Penn been on the rise? Are there more incidents of unintended pregnancy on campus?" Why did the author write this? Perhaps a provocative piece about Ivy League women and sex attracts New York Times readers, but sadly, it misrepresented the accomplished, strong and smart women that I know as Penn students, past and present.

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