Kate Taylor Is (Mostly) Right About Penn’s Hook-Up Culture

But there's a whole lot of grey area between “future husband” and “guy I can’t stand when sober.”

Kate Taylor clearly did not speak to me during her year at Penn. Maybe that’s because we never crossed paths. Or maybe that’s because her New York Times piece on Penn’s hook-up culture had no room for me.

I am a woman who maintained a committed relationship for three out of four years at Penn. Taylor’s exposé doesn’t just omit my relationship. It misses a wide spectrum of nuanced relationships that exist on campus, and in doing so, seriously mischaracterizes Penn’s hookup culture.

To be fair, “Sex on Campus — She Can Play That Game, Too” gets a lot right about Penn’s general culture. As a 2013 graduate fresh off of campus, I know that many of Taylor’s descriptions of my school’s career-centric mindset are almost eerily (and perhaps, sadly) accurate.

So yes, it is true that Penn upholds a culture of privileged and pressured young adults focused on self-development and future prospects. Many students don’t have boyfriends or girlfriends because we’re too focused on academics, clubs, and careers to prioritize a committed relationship. It is also true that the type of hook-ups that Taylor highlights — ones that involve alcohol and easy frat boys — occur frequently on campus, as they do on all campuses.

However, Taylor completely overlooks what many Penn women want and have: consistent hook-ups that fall into the grey area between “almost marriage” and “meaningless sex.” By failing to call attention to these middle-of-the-road relations, Taylor paints an incomplete picture of hooking up at Penn and at campuses across the country.

In constructing an argument that seems to directly counter Susan Patton’s find-a-husband-thesis, “She Can Play That Game, Too” leaves very little room for independent women to choose divergent paths. These articles present us with two extreme options: swiftly finding wedding-worthy boyfriends or engaging in drunken, emotionless one-night stands until we make our way to the top. They give us one choice: lady of the house or ruthless businesswoman.

But of course, these dichotomies are not true, and Quaker hook-up culture is more nuanced and multifaceted than Taylor’s portrayal of it.

For one, Taylor grazes over committed relationships at Penn. I have personally experienced a hook-up transforming into a boyfriend, and a strong relationship growing from there. Likewise, I have witnessed a number of lovely relationships blossom and mature at Penn. This demonstrates that hook-ups are not always lustful, empty liaisons. Moreover, long-term committed relationships go against Taylor’s speculation that hook-ups occur because Penn women are too focused on their futures. They serve as a counter to direct quotes from Taylor’s article, such as, “But there are so many other things going on in my life… that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time.” While a majority of Penn students may not be in long-term relationships, ignoring this perspective leaves an incomplete representation of Penn.

In “She Can Play That Game, Too”, Taylor defines “hook-up buddies” as “regular sexual partners with little emotional commitment.” She quotes a Penn student describing them: “a guy that we don’t actually really like his personality, but we think is really attractive and hot and good in bed.” Even the initial lines of the article quote a Penn woman explaining her hook-up buddy: “We don’t really like each other in person, sober … we literally can’t sit down and have coffee.”

In reality, hook-up buddies are much more diverse than boys who we don’t like but sleep with when we’re blacked out. In fact, although Taylor misses this, consistent hook-ups that provide some form of emotional enjoyment are a significant part of Penn’s hook-up culture.

These hook-ups can last anywhere from weeks to years. Sometimes women will hook-up with one man regularly throughout an entire semester. Some girls maintain multiple steady hook-ups throughout their four years of college. Other hook-ups last for 12 days. Regardless, these connections are not always — or in my experience, even usually — inconsequential or without some mutual congeniality.

Many consistent hook-ups at Penn are various grades of pseudo-relationships. Meaning that the two people involved talk during the day, when sober, and may make each other happy. They might know each other’s friends and generally know what’s going on in one another’s lives. Most importantly, they share a level of comfort with one another, and they don’t actually hate each other’s personalities. They may even hang out frequently in the daylight and have serious conversations. The circumstances will vary widely, but there is a mutual understanding of no commitment.

This is the hook-up culture that I know. This is a grey area that both Taylor and Patton miss. Taylor’s descriptions of drunken one-night stands and meaningless sexual partners only portray one portion of hook-up culture at Penn. Similarly, Patton’s advice to find an eligible bachelor only gives a voice to a limited number of women.

Even outside of the ever-ambiguous hook-up buddy title, the possibilities that exist within hook-up culture are endless. There are women actively seeking committed relationships. There are important homosexual and bisexual narratives to be told. There are many women that are not intensely career-centric. And there are those who are just taking it day by day. These women, and all women in between, add interesting nuances to Penn’s hook-up culture, and they should not go unnoted.

Penn women inspire me every day. While we may be overbooked, we are much too complex to be defined by unrealistic social dichotomies.

Nicole Scott is a Philadelphia native, an editorial intern at Philadelphia magazine and 2013 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.