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A Different Take on Sex in College

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By Maggie Tennis

The Daily Princetonian ran a controversial letter to the editor in March. Its author, Princeton alum Susan Patton, warned women -- especially female students at elite colleges -- that college is the best time, and possibly the last chance, for them to find the "right partner."

There's not enough room in this column to properly address the many problems with Patton's letter, including the assumptions and stereotypes she makes ranging from the hetero- and gender-normative to the just plain insulting. Patton essentially treats dating and marriage as a numbers game -- an elaborate gambling scheme in which one's odds increase or decrease depending on location and class year. Among her more baffling claims is that senior women can only pick from among the men of their current class year, while those senior men have "four classes of women to choose from." Patton recommends that first-year females be nice to their male classmates early on, implying that this will up their odds of winning one of these male classmates before younger women matriculate. And by this presumption, she basically implies that a 22-year-old could and should be threatened by an 18-year-old, when in reality there is little difference between women of the two ages other than one group's ability to legally obtain alcohol.

Patton paints a picture of an elite college experience where the final prize is two-fold: a diploma and a husband. While in some ways I understand what she is trying to say, that there is a greater chance of compatibility between classmates who shared the critical college years, Patton's message is still conservative, outdated, rigidly practical and dismissive of other aspects even more crucial to finding a partner. Those aspects are chemistry and sexual attraction. Honestly, sex is a lot more important to marriage or any healthy relationship than a mate who is your "intellectual equal."

So let's talk about sex -- sex and college. In July, the New York Times ran an article by Kate Taylor focusing on Penn and the casual sex enjoyed by its female students. In contrast to Patton's letter, Taylor's paints a picture of promiscuity, drunkenness and meaningless hookups. The Penn women purportedly view the process of finding the right guy and building a solid relationship as a burden and a roadblock to their academic and professional goals. While Patton's idea of college gives men power, the culture that Taylor describes puts women in control.

These pieces represent two extremes, but both extremes definitely exist. I've heard many friends talk about their quests to find husbands in college. Some of them will -- at least one is already engaged. I also have friends who have had sex with people the first time they met them, simply because they wanted to, and they have no regrets. But many exceptions exist. For example, one of my closest friends is in a healthy and committed relationship that started with a drunken one-night stand. Another left a relationship that was the envy of all of her friends in order to "explore" without love or emotion. The range of female experiences in college is wide -- much wider than either Patton or Taylor acknowledges. That's the problem with letters and articles like theirs and the reactions that they fuel.

Another problem, of course, is such opinions' focus on heterosexual women. Everyone in college, regardless of sex, gender or orientation, should read pieces like Patton's and Taylor's with skepticism, as well as curiosity and interest. There's no right way to "do" relationships -- or non-relationships-- in college. But the closest you can come to "right" is to do exactly what makes you feel most empowered, while remembering there will always be an argument as to why your approach is wrong. Someone might tell you that searching for a husband in college is old-fashioned, but maybe you believe your greatest chance at long-term compatibility is with a classmate. Or maybe you have priorities other than a monogamous relationship, but you don't see any reason why you can't have a little fun in the meantime. The problem with Patton's letter and Taylor's article is that they seek to define students based on the types of love and sex lives they pursue, not on the people they are.

In choosing how you will approach sex, love and relationships in college, it is okay to be a little bit selfish. Do what is right for you, but try to be considerate of others along the way. Don't let anyone make you feel like you are any one thing for making choices that you've identified as best for you. How you approach sex does not define you as desperate, needy, slutty or a tease, nor does it make you pragmatic, independent, confident or successful. We are who we are because of so many other aspects of our lives. The problem with articles like the ones I've described is that they assume characterizations can be made based on choices concerning love and sex. But it is precisely assumptions like this one that perpetuate name-calling and slut-shaming. Our sex lives should never define us, but so long as writers claim they do, nobody can feel sexually empowered.

Maggie Tennis '14 would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that consensual sex is hot.