Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for sticking with us on The Takeaway. Now, across the country, classes have ended at most colleges and universities. Students are starting internships, flying off for study abroad, or heading home for the summer. For generations of young people, the long hot days of summer have been a perfect environment to incubate a little romance and, well, a lot of sex. Think of the iconic teen narrative Grease. It was those summer nights that first brought Danny and Sandy together.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Or maybe your young adulthood is better captured by The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff in their perennial hit Summertime.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Or maybe it's just Hot Girl Summer that you've got playing on repeat on your summer playlist.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sex and summer, for young people, it seems they go together like sex and summer until into Generation Z. Those young adults in their teens and early 20s who we talked about last Friday during our Gen-Z deep dive. It turns out multiple studies indicate these young people are having less sex than previous generations, so much so that the Zoomers earned the moniker pure teens. Now, according to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, between 2009 and 2018, the proportion of adolescents who reported no sexual activity increased by about 50%.
Jonathan: I'd spoken to a lot of friends that initially thought that they were going to be someone who liked hooking up a lot. Then after having casual relationships or meeting people online without expressing interest in dating, they were like, "Actually, I hate this. I think I secretly love intimacy, and so I'm going to not do this anymore."
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's Jonathan. He's a student at Northwestern University. He spoke with The Takeaway to give us a little insight about dating, sex, and campus culture.
Jonathan: I think hookup culture specifically at Northwestern is almost businesslike. People talk a lot about their schedule and being overworked and how stressful the quarter system is. Trying to find time for everything, like finding time for that work-life balance. In that life part of the work-life balance, there are friends, but then there's also dating. From what I see, hookup culture serves the purpose of like, "Listen, I want a college experience. I want to say that I've done stuff. I also just think people are hot and I'm horny all the time." Enter hookup culture.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is it? Reluctant about romance or hot and horny? For Gen-Z, it may be a bit of both or neither. Listen, people, it's complicated and Gen-Z isn't the first to find college sex complicated. Listen, kids, some of us were coming of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Some of you reached out to tell us about young adult sex during your generation.
Marty in Massachusetts texted us to say, "In 1968 to 1972, it was amazing." We asked why, but Marty left it at that. Alice from Maryland sent us a tweet that really caught our eye. "I went to college in the 1970s. Sex and drugs and rock and roll is a most accurate description. Not certain if it's good or bad that all the debauchery left me unable to remember large blocks of time. You know what they say? If you can remember the '70s, you probably weren't there." Point taken, Alice.
Whether you went to college in the free love era, whether you're a millennial who forgot how to date in favor of hooking up on Tinder, or if you are a Gen-Zier navigating this sexual landscape in college right now, let's try to get some answers.
I spoke with Aditi Paul. She's an online dating researcher, professor of communication studies at Pace University, and author of The Current Collegiate Hookup Culture. We started by talking about how the digital world is informing Gen-Zs' attitudes about sex and their sexual behaviors.
Aditi Paul: When I did my data collection, I saw that when Gen-Z says that they have hooked up, more often than not, they're talking about just making out. Now, if you talk to our generation, if you've made out, we are going to call it a made out session. We're not going to call it a hookup session, but they are calling making out sessions as hookup sessions.
You look at this data and you say, "Oh, yes. Oh, they are so sexually conservative." We are forgetting the other ways in which they can explore their sexuality. For example, we did not have sexting when we were growing up. They have those avenues of expressing themselves sexually without having sex sex, if that makes sense.
If you account for those things, you see that they're more sexually exploratory. Look at the way they are expressing their sexuality, exploring their sexuality without so much as having sex. That is a part of it, but that's not the only part of it when you talk about being sexual.
Another thing that we should take into consideration is the fact that they have huge social anxiety, together with expressing themselves through TikTok, through Instagram, through Facebook, through Twitter, even, on a desperate day, through LinkedIn. You're exposing yourself to a lot of public scrutiny that can impede your confidence in yourself sometimes. You may become very apprehensive in exploring things that we didn't think twice about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about even the definitions of particular words to say that I hooked up. For young adults on college campuses right now, what are some of the key categories of sexual engagement with one another?
Aditi Paul: Let's start with sexting. Right now, being sexual on digital media has become such a rave. One of the terms, I don't know if you're familiar with that, but I think you are. Tell me if you're familiar with the term thirst traps.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, yes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For sure.
Aditi Paul: They do thirst trap. It's like we are birds and bees right now. We are honey trapping, thirst trapping with these pictures online. If you do have somebody you're interested in and you don't want to be too forward about it, and that's something that progressively the world has diverted into, that is the land of non-direct communication, the reliance on subtle cues to show where you stand. Be it letting people know about your political ideology, to your interest sexually in some other person.
Instead of saying, "Hey, I'm attracted to you. Let's have sex," versus you put a thirst strap upon your Instagram story and you hope to God that that one person who you really, really like and would want to go down with is watching you. That's something that Gen-Z has progressively owned.
In intimate relationships or in exploratory relationships, whatever have you, sexting has become a major part of it. More than 40% students said that they sexted. If a student sexts, then statistically speaking, they're more likely to escalate their sexual encounter when they meet this person, versus students who do not sext. If I sext with person A, when I meet this person, then I'm more likely to escalate that sexual encounter from just making out to penetrative sex.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In other words, the sexting acts as first base, as we might have called it in a different generation, right? Once you are actually meeting or encountering one another more regularly in-person, you've already overcome some of those initial queasy obstacles, and we're getting to know each other.
Aditi Paul: Yes, if I can use the word, people say alcohol is the social lubricant, sexting is the sexual lubricant.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What should we understand about consent and about non-consensual sexual practices happening on college campuses?
Aditi Paul: I've talked about this with offices of Sexual and Interpersonal Wellness at Pace University, at NYU, and at Columbia as well. We've all come to the understanding, and I'm sure that you're going to agree to this, is the framework of consent that we work with right now is so black and white and hence so outdated that we do need a reharl of it. When we ask about consent, especially to men and women, both, everybody knows, when you ask them, they'll tell you, "Oh, consent is saying yes, actively saying yes, enthusiastic yes."
What people don't understand is the nuance that happens in this conversation. For example, in heterosexual relationships, if you have said yes to sexting, does that automatically translate into being enthusiastic about oral sex? Is our assumption correct? Just because one is partaking in it, are we sure the intention behind partaking in that sexual act was one of enthusiasm and not one of deescalation? Are we questioning these inherent psychological scripts that we have about sex and then working from there to understand if our understanding of consent is correct or not?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want you to say just one more beat on that because I do feel like this is just crucial in some ways, because, in part, your point about young people know the right answer to give us when we ask the question about consent, but it doesn't necessarily tell us anything, either about their practices or about their own actual experiences of this.
Aditi Paul: Yes. A lot of times what happens is, college students, they self-- I don't want to use the word sabotage, but they self negate themselves. For example, in one of the workshops that I conducted, I said, "If you are inebriated, and the person who is with you has sex with you, is there any circumstance in which this is okay?" This one woman, she raised her hand, and she said, "Yes. I think in certain circumstances, it's okay because if I wake up in the morning, and this person apologizes for this, then I think it's okay." That said a lot about what some of these nuances that we're talking about, it gets lost, right?
I'm so glad that that individual found the safe space in the workshop to say this because a lot of times and this goes back to social anxiety that we're so addicted to giving the politically correct answer, that we shy ourselves from telling the truth of what we actually feel. If we shy away from the truth, we can never heal. We can never get to a point of navigating this already tricky space of sex, especially for young adults.
If we are so wired into giving the socially sanctioned politically correct answer. We need to hold space for these answers that may disturb us but then unpack it and then relearn or unlearn what we have already learned and challenge that and grow from it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, quick timeout. More Takeaway on the other side of this break.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Generation Z or the Zoomers are using technology to access casual sex on college campuses, but Gen-Z is not monolithic. I was curious to hear from Dr. Aditi Paul about the differences that come up in her research in terms of understanding how LGBTQ students and students of color navigate this sexual landscape.
Aditi Paul: One of the most evident ones that I found out was LGB-identifying students, they are more likely to use dating apps to find their hookup partners compared to heterosexual students. The most commonly depicted script that we find on hookups in media is one that happens at parties. If I ask you, Melissa, to explain what does a typical college hookup look like? In your head, how do you picture it?
Melissa Harris-Perry: In my head, I would picture folks who go to some kind of college event, typically a party, maybe they've known each other in some other setting, but this is sort of like the moment you're like, "Oh, okay. Actually, I like you. You like me," and they go back to the dorm room or apartment with one another after the event.
Aditi Paul: That's not the case. Hookups are much more chill, but here's the situation. If it happens through a dating app, it's extremely planned. For example, this person said that, "I had been texting him on Grindr for a couple of hours. We swapped pictures and talked about where and when we could hook up for sex, I then gave him my address. He said he was on his way over. We got there, we had sex, I had condoms."
There is an intense amount of planning that happens. It's not that random. If you are hooking up through dating apps, and this is more for LGB students, you subscribe to what you call the hybrid hookup script, where it's somewhere between a dating script and a hookup script. It's less random than hookups but it also entails the expectation of casual sex.
Now, in terms of race, and this is close to my heart because I am Indian, I'm Asian American in my identity, and one of the stereotypes that we have about Asian Americans is the fact that we are sexually regressive, that we don't have as much sex as our white counterparts. I found that to not be correct. Yes, Asian Americans did report engaging in higher-order sexual acts than their white counterparts but there is a confounding variable to that and that is racial homophily.
Even when, in this day and age where we are all about diversity in terms of race, when it comes to picking our sexual partners, even when they're casual sexual partners, we do tend to pick people from our own race. Now, when you're talking about Asian Americans, they're working with a very short pool. You don't have enough Asian Americans going around in campus to find out a partner to have casual sex with and even when you do, you don't want to squander that opportunity by just keeping it casual, you want to make it more substantial. That's something that previous researchers have also found when talking about the Hispanic community.
Just looking at a racial identity and ascribing a certain level of sexual permissiveness is not correct. We need to look at other factors that could contribute or explain this relationship.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're living in a moment that least seems to be the imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade, or at least certainly the restrictions around the availability of termination services and potentially even birth control. Do you have a sense of what that might mean in the context of college sex culture?
Aditi Paul: I'm an optimist. I should tell you that because Gen-Z is looking at the rage that's on the streets mostly paraded by women in the Gen-X Boomer and the millennial space. They're looking at these examples, and it's doing something to their psyche that, "Okay, yes, I can talk about that one touch that did not feel right. I can insist on a man wearing a condom because I have to bear the consequences." Just going off of that, I am so confident that Gen-Z is going to be more careful than what we were when we were growing up and navigating the casual sexual space.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Aditi Paul is Professor of Communication Studies at Pace University and author of the Current Collegiate Hookup Culture. Dr. Paul, thanks so much for being here.
Aditi Paul: Thank you so much, Melissa, for having me. It was such a pleasure.
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