Sex and the College Girl, 1957 vs. 2013

Comparing two articles about relationships on campus, written five decades apart.

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In her recent New York Times article “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” Kate Taylor concludes that college sweethearts are old news. Miss Class of 2014 requires something different from the men on her campus: instant gratification, zero commitment, and a habit of regularly checking text messages around midnight. Fifty-six years ago, Nora Johnson tackled the same subject in “Sex and the College Girl,” an article published in the November 1957 issue of The Atlantic. What’s interesting is that, while these two generations of women face very different realities (today’s college girl is hooking up and most women in 1957 were “going-steady”), they both want essentially the same thing: freedom to define sex and relationships in their own time, on their own terms.

Johnson claimed that, contrary to popular belief, it was the man, not the woman, who yearned for just one partner and a place to put his “pin.”

The average college girl, then, is trapped by the male wish for dating security. If she balks at this at first, she soon accepts—a couple of Saturday nights playing bridge with the girls will quickly teach her what’s good for her. She can’t really manage to keep up a butterfly life for long, unless she is an exception.

But in 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania, men are not so eager to settle down.

“I could be here for four years and not date anyone,” [M.] said she realized. “It’s kind of like a spiral … The girls adapt a little bit, because they stop expecting that they’re going to get a boyfriend—because if that’s all you’re trying to do, you’re going to be miserable. But at the same time, they want to, like, have contact with guys.” So they hook up and “try not to get attached.”

Whether it’s one night of casual sex, or a long-standing relationship, Johnson and Taylor agree that college girls choose partners because they’re convenient. Here’s Johnson:

The depressing aspect of this perpetual twosome is that it is so often based on sex and convenience. It is so easy to become tied up with old Joe, even though he is rather a bore, and avoid those nightmarish Saturday nights home with the girls. But the trouble is, once the relationship with Joe has become an established thing, getting out of it again (when Joe’s conversation begins to have the stimulating effect of a dose of Seconal) is about as easy as climbing out of a mud swamp.

Today’s college women prefer avoiding that mud swamp all together, opting for shallow, late-night encounters that can be easily discarded in the morning.

At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior at the University of Pennsylvania did what she often does when she has a little free time. She texted her regular hookup—the guy she is sleeping with but not dating. What was he up to? He texted back: Come over. So she did. They watched a little TV, had sex and went to sleep.

Having casual sex in 1957 would have meant risking serious social stigma.

Promiscuity … demands a certain amount of nerve. It might be misdirected nerve, or neurotic nerve, or a nerve born of defiance or ignorance or of an intellectual disregard of social mores, but that’s what it takes. Sleeping around is a risky business, emotionally, physically, and morally, and this is no light undertaking.

Generally, today’s college girl with a host of “hookup buddies” doesn’t carry the red letter that would have tainted the same woman in the 1950s.

In such an overburdened college life, she said, it was rare for her and her friends to find a relationship worth investing time in … Instead, she enjoyed casual sex on her terms—often late at night, after a few drinks, and never at her place, she noted, because then she would have to wash the sheets.

At the end of her article, Johnson identifies one secret that a 1950s college woman must “[hold] in reserve,” and not share with anyone—not even her husband. That one secret, Johnson says, is “the dream of things she never did.” In this way, the college girl of 2013 is different. Kate Taylor claims that today’s college women “hook up” to make sure that they never have those same regrets.