And that's where the columnists come in—putting up a brave front, pretending to knowledge and experi- ence that they don't necessarily have. Natalie Krinsky, a former Yale Daily News columnist who made a name for herself with a much e-mailed piece about oral-sex etiquette, admits that her columns were loosely based on things she had overheard, adding that "people in college talk about sex ninety-five percent of the time" but "we always talk far more than we do, as a rule." Her column persona, too, bore at best a glancing relationship to reality. "I think that in my columns I was a lot more ballsy and sarcastic and confident than I necessarily am in real life, because I needed to be," she says. "You needed to be witty and poised, or at least appear that way, because you want to be relatable but you want to be credible."
Eitches had a similar experience at Berkeley. "At my school discourse about sex is very open in general," she says, "so in order for me to have something to write about, I did have to push the envelope a little bit and look for article topics that might surprise some people. I've been asked before, 'Why don't you write about an average college-student sex life, and things that pertain to that?' And I just didn't think that would be too interesting or fun to do research about. I think it was more, Oh, I'm curious to know what that's about." Eitches also says that she felt an obligation to address some more-obscure topics because students obviously had questions about things they'd heard or read about (she received many e-mailed queries), and didn't know whom else to ask.
The constant search for fresh material to satisfy a voyeuristic audience helps explain why reading these columns, especially in large batches, is so wearying. There are, after all, only so many ways to contort the human body; even the outlandish scenarios in the Penthouse letters all lead to the same short list of outcomes. In the words of one student sexpert, "You get to your fifth column and you're like, Oh, my God, how much else is there?"
So the search for novelty leads, paradoxically, to conformity. If Yale and the University of South Florida have vastly different social scenes, you wouldn't know it to read their sex columnists. While the micro-details may be different, students at both schools are revealed to be interchangeable consumers of the American university product, coping with bizarre roommates, drunken athletes, text-message flirting, rivers of alcohol. The faces change, but the sexual concerns remain the same: pornography and orgasms; the pros and cons of virginity and abstinence; sampling adult toys, "ex-sex," and sex with friends. And the columns return again and again to the oldest and most banal campus challenge: juggling a roommate and a sexual partner.
Even the columnists themselves have something fundamental in common: they're almost all women. It has been fashionable of late to suggest that documenting one's intimate life in explicit detail is somehow a realization of the feminist agenda—or at least the part of it that assumed that women were clueless in the bedroom until the sexual revolution came along. But writing as a woman about sex has become positively mainstream; it seems that there's no easier way for young women to get attention these days than by recounting their orgasms and those of their friends in either fictional or nonfictional form. (It's certainly the easiest way to attract a male readership, since men seem to prefer reading about sex when the author is a woman.) Meanwhile, established women writers with other areas of expertise complain of being called upon to discuss sex all the time.
The healthy demand for first-person sex writing can bring notoriety to female undergraduates on campus and in the world beyond. This spring, a year after graduating, Krinsky published a chick-lit novel based on her column, titled Chloe Does Yale, and now she plans to write screenplays; her success has made her a model for college-age women writers everywhere, inspiring further imitators at other schools and what seems like resigned acceptance by college administrators and parents that the genre is here to stay.
Given its conventions, it was a bold move when the student editor of the Daily Nexus, at UC Santa Barbara, appointed David Franzese, class of 2005, to produce the paper's sex column this past school year. For the most part Franzese demonstrated that a male columnist can be just as shallow about sex as his female counterparts. But in February he came up with one of the most radical sexual suggestions put forth all year: "That's right," he wrote, "I'm talking about having sex while you're sober for once."