Because I had a good friend who went there and because it had a (deserved) reputation for being more of a party school than the college I attended in a nearby city, I spent a weekend at the University of Pennsylvania about once a semester. In my friend’s fraternity’s house, on the top of a prominent doorway that you exited as you headed out for the evening, there were painted the words, “Play Like A Champion Today.” This was, to be sure, an homage to Notre Dame football, but I doubt there was a football player in the frat. There was little doubt what was cheekily meant by “playing like a champion.”
The doings of UPenn frat boys are in the news now, with the fall-out from a front-page Sunday article that was like the King Lear of New York Times trend pieces. It contained 4,800 words—the product of months of exclusive reporting by a staff writer—on the sex lives of straight Penn undergrads. The takeaway? Well, here is the nut graf, as we say:
Until recently, those who studied the rise of hookup culture had generally assumed that it was driven by men, and that women were reluctant participants, more interested in romance than in casual sexual encounters. But there is an increasing realization that young women are propelling it, too.
That same “too” appeared in the headline: “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.” It also appeared as an “as well”: “In general, she said, she thought that guys at Penn controlled the hookup culture. But women played a role as well.” The message? Of course young men on campus are using alcohol to have commitment- and relatively emotion-free sex that not infrequently toes the assault line. The news is that women are doing it, too/as well.
As with last week’s overbaked and undercooked Times trend piece on women, the article skimps on the male half of this equation; in fact, no men are quoted at all. The article thus absolves the young men these women are hooking up with of accountability for a trend that the article clearly wants us to think of as negative. Amandas Hess and Marcotte both have good posts on the problems with this. “It takes two (or in the case of some campus dalliances, more!) to hook up,” Hess notes. “By leaving men out of this discussion, Taylor and other hookup chroniclers place the responsibility for maintaining healthy sexual relationships squarely onto college women.”
It’s unfair to women. (Never more than in the ambiguity over how much of these “hook-ups” are actually date rapes. Talking to and quoting men would almost certainly have benefited the piece here especially.) But it’s unfair to men, too/as well!
While I understand the fatigue many women feel at yet another “women’s story,” as Salon’s Anna North calls them, I hope they understand my envy that in these stories women are presented with choices—the choice of whether to engage in hook-ups or commit to a relationship, whether to stay single or get married, and whether to stay at home or try to achieve a balance between personal and professional lives. In contrast, in them men are faceless, uniform automatons: boys who will be boys.
It isn’t so. The young men I knew in that fraternity did not strike me as the hyper-sexualized testosterone containers that articles like this basically imply they are. Some had girlfriends; some wanted them; some didn’t. Sometimes, it is true, they just wanted (or claimed just to want) to get some. They watched lots of Pardon the Interruption. A few were probably gay. (The heteronormativity of the “women’s story” is another subject entirely.) I am positive that at various times some felt uncomfortable walking under the imprecation to “Play Like a Champion Today,” and felt pressured to do just that, and felt ashamed at failing. My anecdotal evidence admittedly dates back several years; other than that, it is exactly as authoritative as the evidence the article marshals.
Kate Taylor, the article’s author, said Tuesday that she did interview some men, though not as many and not as rigorously, and that an earlier draft of the article poured all of those quotes into one section, which then got cut. “Obviously what men want and how men feel is a critical part of the picture, and in my fantasies it might have been a pair of articles, but that wasn’t possible,” she lamented. Not possible? Articles like this are even in their imperfections emanations of feminism, which is the project of expanding and explicating women’s choices. Where those choices require the cooperation of men, then including their stories is not a question of “possible.” It is prerequisite. Even if the author and editors have to squeeze them into 4,800 words.