Some high-achieving students come to college with big plans: to edit the school newspaper or join the right sorority, to secure a slot at Wharton business school or a volunteer job in Africa. But a healthy number, mostly women, make their mark, and shock their parents, by starting a sex column.
Raunchy, clumsily titled, and almost universally cringe-inducing, sex columns have blossomed at universities across the country. Students at tiny Craven Community College, in the Bible Belt town of New Bern, North Carolina, briefly enjoyed "Between the Sheets"; The Cornell Daily Sun offered "Cornellingus"; there was "Behind Closed Doors" at William and Mary, "Love Bites" at Swarthmore, "Mouth to Mouth" at Emory. The list has grown dramatically, as if every school newspaper needs a baby pundit opining on subjects ranging from tantric sex to true love.
The dominant mode in such columns is a cheery, shock-the-bourgeoisie frankness. Plain old intercourse usually takes a back seat to Clintonian shenanigans ("On Valentine's Day, nothing says 'I love you' like oral sex," Claire Fuller wrote in Northern Arizona University's The Lumberjack, sparking a minor furor in Flagstaff), auto-eroticism ("I just bought my first vibrator," declared Katie Giblin—a "Biology concentrator," class of 2006—in a column in The Harvard Independent), or exhibitionism ("Sex is exciting, but doing it where and when you're not 'supposed to' is even more exciting. It's a small taste of porn-stardom," Dave Franzese wrote last spring in "The Wednesday Hump," which runs in UC Santa Barbara's Daily Nexus).
The columns vary in their level of explicitness: the Ivy League and the state of California seem to be the best places to test the limits of good taste; the writing there occasionally takes on the clammy feel of "Penthouse Forum" letters, designed to make dorky freshmen feel like they're missing out on crazy erotic adventures. Some columns are written as naughty sex chronicles; others sound like an anatomy lecture; others are milder and more relationship-oriented. But in many respects most are basically the same.
The spirited "Sex on Tuesday," in Berkeley's Daily Californian, is credited with being one of the first collegiate sex columns (it made its debut in 1997), and it remains, in style and substance, typical of the genre. "Sex on Tuesday" was written during the past school year by a young woman named Sari Eitches, who appears full-figured and saucy in her author photo. Eitches seemed fully aware of the odd responsibility that comes with dishing out sex advice to randy twenty-year-olds, and like many of her peers, she tossed an occasional bone to the more staid sexperts at the university's health service, reminding people to use condoms and otherwise do their best to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. But these hints of sexual seriousness aside, her tone was breezy and all-knowing, her prose sprinkled with innuendo and euphemism, as she chided readers not to be prudish.
Indeed, prudishness is the only unforgivable sin for a sex columnist—and as a result there's constant pressure to see how far one can go. In a column titled "Some Like It Rough," printed in March, Eitches urged her readers, "Relax your idea of what constitutes sadomasochistic tendencies," and noted, "If you include not just getting whipped by a leather-clad dominatrix while attempting auto-asphyxiation, but also giving your partner a little hickey during a make-out session, this campus is just crawling with sadistic heathens." In an earlier entry she interviewed a female porn star about her methods of stimulating her leading men. And then there was the obligatory piece championing anal sex, titled … well, never mind.
In some ways college sex columnists are following in the footsteps of the first famous American sex-advice celebrity, the matronly Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose radio program, Sexually Speaking, offered listeners wry expertise from 1980 to 1988, no matter how bizarre the query. (Westheimer also writes a column in which one typical response begins, "It is a bit shocking that, after all that has been written and said about sex, so many people remain sexually illiterate, but you are far from alone …")
But the junior sex columnists owe a greater debt to pop-sex writers such as Dan Savage; Anka Radakovich, who had a widely read column in Details magazine throughout the 1990s; and especially Candace Bushnell, whose meditations on the love lives of restless Manhattanites in the New York Observer column "Sex and the City" inspired the television show of the same name. Like Bushnell and her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw, most collegiate sexologists write their columns as pseudo-diaries, drawing on personal experience to educate readers. And they, too, mix a jaded attitude toward the physical act itself with a wistful yearning for true love, and even a hint of disappointment. ("It is rare for college students to have sex with people they're genuinely in love with," lamented Miriam Datskovsky, a "Barnard College sophomore majoring in Human Rights and French," in the Columbia Spectator's "Sexplorations" last April. "At the other end of the spectrum, random hook-ups allow us to have sex without intimacy.")
An important difference, though, separates Dr. Ruth and Bushnell from their undergraduate imitators: the writer of a college column usually has little experience and no special knowledge. You wouldn't know it from reading the columns, of course: they hint at a fantasy lifestyle filled with hangup-free sexual encounters, without the torment and awkwardness that usually accompany college relationships. After scanning columns from schools across the country, it's easy to come away thinking that torment and awkwardness went out with shoulder pads, and that America's college kids are busy vibrating and videotaping themselves into the stratosphere.
If anything, though, the opposite may be the case. Like harried alpha parents curling up with a Sex and the City DVD, or lonely divorcées thumbing through Cosmopolitan, college students seem to love nothing more than hearing about all the wild sex they might not be having. The number of sex columnists has gone up, but a 2004 survey showed little change in campus sexual activity over the previous four years. "I'm seeing more students abstaining than I did fifteen years ago," says Melinda Myers, a lecturer on human sexuality at Humboldt State University, in northern California, who wrote that school's sex column for many years. "On the other hand, they are more curious about it. They don't really want to have a lot of sex, but they want all the answers."
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."