What Hooking Up At Penn Is Really About

A Penn co-ed offers five things The New York Times's Kate Taylor gets wrong (and right) about the school's females.

I have met Kate Taylor, The New York Times reporter behind yesterday’s feature, “Sex on Campus — She Can Play That Game, Too.” When I sat down with her at a small panel discussion on Penn’s campus back in September, I offered no name nor information; I just wanted to know what the petite blonde I had seen all over campus was doing here. Although our unrecorded interview was only the beginning of her “research” at Penn, her aim was already distinctly clear: She wanted to know how our career ambitions affected our relationships.

Nearly a year later, the ubiquitous campus figure — spotted at bars, at frat parties, at downtown clubs — has published nearly 5,000 words on her original theory: Penn women’s collective drive to succeed has led us to contribute to, if not control, the university’s “hookup culture.” Here, I break down what Taylor got right — and what she got completely wrong — about me, my friends and the majority of the female student body:

1. Right: “These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn.” $50,000+ a year would be a pretty hefty price for a dating service. Sorry, Susan Patton.

Wrong: “Women at elite universities … saw relationships as too demanding and potentially too distracting from their goals.” Admittedly, this mentality is present among Penn women, but dating and relationships are far from extinct on campus (and not reserved solely for those who do not partake in the hookup culture, as her use of just one relationship example leads readers to believe.) I know several students who have formed meaningful relationships while at Penn, some even stemming from a random hookup. Even more contrary to her claim: Many women, myself included, have maintained long-distance relationships, therefore putting in even more time and effort than a traditional relationship. Why are academic success and serious relationships presented as mutually exclusive?

2. Right: “Their time out of class is filled with club meetings, sports practice, and community-service projects.” Although not unique to the University of Pennsylvania, we (and I’m including male students) consistently overbook ourselves.

Wrong: “The only time they truly feel off the clock is when they are drinking at a campus bar or at one of the fraternities that line Locust Walk, the main artery of campus.” Perhaps Taylor made this judgment call because she wasn’t invited back to students’ dorms for the more glamorous part of our school week: binge eating cookie dough and watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother.

3. Right: “Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s.” True, but this is not  unique to Ivy League students with a job complexes, as Taylor may lead you to believe. A recent national study showed that women, on average, marry at age 27.

Wrong: Taylor’s limited representation of relationships.Taylor’s article makes it seem as if Penn students only see two relationship options: meaningless hookups or relationships that are expected to end in marriage. Let’s not forget the other varieties: friends with benefits, casual dating, open relationships, committed-but-still-figuring-it-out-relationships, etc., and that Penn is not limited to heterosexuals. But here, we’re neatly (and naively) categorized into subsections, including “Independent Women” and “Romantics.”

4. Right: The close relationship between hooking up and drinking leads to confusion and disagreement about the line between a “bad hookup” and assault. There is no denying that hooking up is generally done under the influence of alcohol, and this combination often blurs the boundary of consent. Several universities are revising their sexual assault penalties in response to a series of federal complaints over this past year.

Wrong: The way in which Taylor inserted these women’s assault stories. Sandwiching something as serious as assault between a description of New Student Orientation and the results of an Online College Social Life Survey is concerning at best, damning at worse. The casualness that Taylor — and these Penn interviewees — approaches assault is, quite frankly, frightening, and completely undermines the issue.

5. Right: “Traditional dating in college…[is] replaced by ‘hooking up’ — an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse — without the emotional entanglement of a relationship.” Did she Urban Dictionary that? See also: “difmos.”

Wrong: “Ask her why she hasn’t had a relationship at Penn … she’ll talk about ‘cost-benefit’ analyses and the ‘low risk and low investment costs’ of hooking up.” It’s a shame that the most quotable words of Taylor’s article mean nothing to the majority of Penn women. While Taylor relies heavily on the idea that our careerism drives the hookup culture, she uses only the mysterious “A.” to back up this argument. Yes, we’re concerned about our careers, and yes, we think through a relationship before entering it. But have I ever heard of someone doing a “cost benefit analysis” of a human being? Absolutely not. And that’s not because I’m an English major.

While Taylor’s choice to describe college hookup culture from an entirely female perspective could be seen as empowering, her findings are neither revolutionary nor entirely accurate: Wow, women are going to college not to find boyfriends, but to get a job! But, wrapping the reason for hooking up in a neat bundle of careerism and adaptability is flawed and far too simplified, both for Penn women and women at every other college.  Yes, Penn women “Can Play That Game, Too” — just not quite by The New York Times’ rules.

Amanda Wolkin is a Philadelphia magazine intern and a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s class of 2014.