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Category: Sports

Sex and the Single Guys, For Real

| September 8, 2008

With all the excitement of the summer games, you may have missed this juicy bit of “news” from Olympic Village: as soon as their competition ended, the athletes apparently got rather busy themselves.

They had sex.  Lots of it.  So much that organizers in Beijing handed out free condoms, says former Olympian Matthew Syed of the UK’s Times Online. And this year, Syed tells us, the female athletes were as horny as the men.

We’ve long been inundated with images of young men with libido flowing unchecked.  But with sexual insatiability now cast as an equal-opportunity calling, the guys are no longer portrayed as alone.  If all the hook-up hoopla about kids on U.S. campuses is true—the girls have gone wild! the boys can’t get enough!—then the athletes in Beijing were hardly the only modern young men and women engaged in an Olympic-size orgy of never-ending desire.

But wait!  New research and a book released last week by esteemed sociologist Michael Kimmel (Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men) sheds fresh light on the little-asked question of what the guys and gals on campus are actually up to in bed.  The answer?  Sleeping.  Or, rather, kissing and other stuff, but not necessarily intercourse. Surely this is interesting news.

The sex researchers seem to think so, and I for one feel that every evidence-based, well-researched tidbit on teen/early adult sexuality is a gain in a society prone to pathologize the sexual practices of its young.  Noted Deb Tolman, founder of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University, during this spring’s Council on Contemporary Families conference, the emphasis on hooking up has overshadowed the fact that coupledom on campus still exists; couples just ain’t sexy news.  In the same vein, Kimmel’s counterintuitive finding—that many kids who hook up don’t go all the way—is less likely to make the front page than Lindsay Lohan’s latest sexploit.  The media loves its hook ups headlines, just as the moralists love their stories about sexual outbreaks among the young.  Even when they’re not totally true.

For those interested in facts, here’s how it really breaks down:  Since the phrase “hooking up” is ambiguous—it can refer to anything from consensual casual kissing to consensual casual intercourse—everyone thinks everyone else is going farther and getting more.   But that’s simply not the case.

When Kimmel asked guys across the country to guess the percentage of men on their campus who had had sex on any given weekend, the average answer was about 80 percent.  According to the Online College Social Life Survey, a study in which Kimmel was instrumental, the actual percentage is closer to 5 to 10 percent.  In another study by sociologist Kathleen Bogle, students estimated that some of their friends were hooking up (and having intercourse) 25 times every semester.  Again, not so. “It’s always the other student who, they believed, actually had intercourse every time they hooked up,” she wrote.

The overestimation can actually have a psychological affect.  Each time a guy thinks his neighbor is getting more action, his own masculine prowess may come under painful self-scrutinizing attack.   After all, asks Kimmel, how is a guy supposed feel like a man if he thinks he’s the only one who’s not getting laid?

“Our cultural assumption that men only want sex has been as damaging to them as to the women they target,” writes journalist Kathleen Parker in another book published this summer, Save the Males. Title and frequent dips into antifeminist rhetoric aside, Parker has a point.  Kimmel agrees.  “Guys feel a lot of pressure to hook up, a lot of pressure to score—and to let their friends know about it,” he says.

I’ve long felt it’s time for a moratorium on the media stereotype of young women as girls gone wild.  While many young women in this country—including our female Olympians—may have a healthy appetite for sex (and hallelujah for that!), most are not the dull-witted sexual throwbacks that scads of articles and books have painted them to be.  As 24-year-old participant-observers Tracy Clark-Flory and Kristen Loveland independently suggest, the image insults young women’s integrity, demonizes female desire, and homogenizes youthful sexual activity, stripping its actual nuance. Says Clark-Flory, “like innumerable 20-somethings before me, I’ve found that casual sex can be healthy and normal and lead to better adult relationships.” Adds Loveland, “[W]hy are our moral watchdogs so quick to condemn women’s sex-positive behavior as the primary culprit?. . . Self-destructive sex is a symptom of a greater social pathology—not the cause.”

If we’re going to call for an end to the pathologizing of the girls as gone wild, then, while we’re at, it let’s call for an end to the hypersexualized image of young men.  Many of the dudes have feelings.  Not all are only out for sex.  Sexual experimentation is a natural part of college life for many, male and female alike, but it shouldn’t be a Lotharian competition.  Let’s stop feeding the image that makes it, for guys, a contest of Olympic magnitude.