Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: Love and sex on campus

Feb 10, 2011

Jenna Johnson will be joined by Dan Reimold, Assistant Professor of Journalism at University of Tampa and author of the book "Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy and a Student Journalism Revolution," to chat about love and sex on college campuses.

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson introduces you to ambitious student leaders, journalists, activists, interns and newsmakers from colleges across the country in her blog daily. In her live chat, she'll be answering your questions about college life, on and off campus.

Happy Thursday! With Valentine's Day coming up, I figured it would be a good day to chat about sex on campus.

Obviously, sex has always been a part of college life  -- but in recent years we have seen a boom in the number of student sex columnists, magazines and blogs. Colleges are hosting "sex weeks" to explore topics like sexual health, LGBT issues, the intersection of love and religion, or the "hook-up culture."

Joining me is Daniel Reimold, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa and author of "Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution."

As part of his research, he read more than 2,000 sex columns written by 120 student journalists at schools of all types and sizes. He also runs one of my favorite blogs,  College Media Matters, and can answer questions about student media.

Okay -- fire away with those questions!

A warm hello from slightly cloudy South Tampa.  For my book Sex and the University, I interviewed nearly 150 student sex columnists and read thousands of student sex and relationship columns.  Believe it or not, these columns are redefining journalism-- and also defining the current campus sex and socializing scene.  What's their definition?  As one columnist told me, “We’re not Baby Boomers or part of Generation X.  We’re Generation Sex.”  Where does this leave student dating, monogamy, romance, and Hallmark holidays like Valentine's Day?  Let's talk about it.

How should a student newspaper go about hiring a sex columnist? Is this a position that typically has to be approved by higher ups? Should there be ground rules?

Great question.  Editors at most student newspapers treat it like any other position.  They are looking for student journalists beholden to the same reporting philosophy as others in their newsrooms-- observe, interview, interact, follow-up, triple-check, and share with the world.  Typically no administrative or other outside approval is necessary.  From everything I've come across while writing the book, I'd definitely advise a sit-down with the columnist early on to help nail down how far he or she can go and what topics might be out of bounds-- and to warn them that they will enjoy the perks and downsides of the celebrity that comes from writing about such an intimate topic.

How prevalent is heterosexual anal sex in the college age group?

It's an interesting question.  This area of student sex is still regarded by students in 2011 as the most taboo-- at least in terms of talking about it openly.  The many student columnists with whom I spoke repeatedly referred to anal sex as the most controversial subject they wrote about, the one making their editors most nervous and often garnering the most reader complaints.  It seems to be linked to both a general gross-out factor and the pure "journalism shock" of turning a newspaper page and seeing such an explicit activity being discussed.

To write your book (which I encourage every student editor out there to read), you read more than 2,000 sex columns written by more than 120 students. What makes for a BAD column? And what should sex columnists NOT do?

Excellent question, and of course your compliment is appreciated!  The worst columns are those that rely on the once-tried-but-no-longer-true stereotypes fed into society by everyone from Ann Landers to Carrie Bradshaw.  The best columnists are not outside observers. They are active participants in the same sexual and social universe that their student readers inhabit. As one columnist told me, “We’re in the trenches with other students. We see the world they see, you know, more than any outsider could. When we write, students can identify with us, with what we’re saying. They can say, ‘This is someone like me, writing about me.’”  Don't go just for shock value.  Avoid sexual cliches like the plague.  And do not think you have to simply champion all-sex-all-the-time.  Many columnists, in fact, preach the opposite: Slow down, or at least, step back, think about things, and make sure sex is something you really want.

We live in an age of Google, and what you do in college can now follow you forever and ever. Do any student sex columnists worry about this? Do they ever use pen names?

I advise The Minaret, a wonderful student newspaper at the University of Tampa.  (I promised my editors at least one name drop.)  I absolutely advised both student sex columnists we have writing for the paper this semester to at least consider using a pseudonym-- not because they should hide or run from their work but simply because it WILL follow them after graduation.  Yes, thanks to Google, the sex columnist past/persona is hard to shake.  And the former columnists with whom I've spoken are in no way ashamed of their writing, but it can be frustrating when it comes up endlessly in job interviews, law school entrance interviews, and on first dates. 

There are two guys on our floor who cannot keep their hands off each other. We have become the audience for wrestling matches or skits they work up. Once in a while, it is ok. But this is all the time. They are totally stoked on one another, but don't realize it. How should be go about dissolving their perfect little world?

How do you really know they don't realize it -- and, either way, why is it really any of your business? If seeing two guys wrestling makes you uncomfortable, go to your dorm room and shut the door. If the situation truly is impeding your ability to live and learn, talk to your RA.

Are male or female college sex columnists better received by their fellow students?

Overall, male and female columnists generally tackle the same topics with the same dry wit. Most are beloved or loathed regardless of gender.  It is true though that the more high-profile male sex columnists I have come across favor a slightly more self-deprecating style, especially when addressing their own sexual experiences. Overwhelming misogyny-- even in jest-- seems to be off-limits for male writers. As a whole, the women are more aggressive in attacking the male species and its sexual and romantic shortcomings than vice-versa (with exceptions of course). Most likely, I imagine even the male columnists would agree that the men deserve it.)

Okay, we can't have this chat without at least one Carrie Bradshaw question... Has the popularity of Sex & the City inspired more young journalists to write about love, relationships or sex? (Or do sex columnists get annoyed when they are compared to CB?)

Four letters, one mega-gargantuan pop culture juggernaut: SATC.  Yes, undoubtedly, "Sex and the City" has served as an incredible influence on student sex columnists.  Among the students at the forefront of the sex column craze especially, “Sex and the City” was not a television series. It was not just a brand name. It was a lifestyle.  As one student columnist told me, “I really can’t overemphasize the impact of ‘Sex and the City.’ Every college girl I know is obsessed with that show, like seriously obsessed, like certifiably obsessed.”

I cannot even begin to express my discomfort with what seem to be usual-and-customary practices on many residential campuses, including the most academically prestigious. I work near Georgetown, and it appears that the majority of the undergraduate girls have quite conspicuous ink. The "vibe" shrieks of "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Please help reduce my anxiety!

Well... let's remember that college students have been having sex for generations, so it's honestly not a new problem... and studies have shown that students these days are much more aware of sexual health issues...

But the best thing you can do to reduce your parental anxiety is talk with your kids about healthy relationships. Sure, it's uncomfortable for many families to discuss the ins and outs of safe sex and sexual health issues. But it's easy to talk about the hallmarks of healthy relationships, self esteem and confidence, tasteful fashion and drinking safety. And use things that you have seen at Georgetown as conversation starters with your kids.

I hope that helps!

I imagine it could be a tad intimidating to date a sex columnist, wondering what of your experiences -- or the columnists' inner thoughts -- might end up in his or her column. Have you seen these columns spark problems in the columnists' own relationships? Do columnists set ground rules with their partners about what parts of the relationship might be off-limits for public consumption?

These columns are changing journalism's ground rules certainly about what is private and public and what is OK and still too-taboo to print.  At the same time, as you guessed, they are also changing the relationship game.  The columns, in many ways, work in tandem with the social networking boom: everything now has the potential to be placed out there for the world to see-- or read about.  Most columnists I interviewed said they established ground rules with their partners.  Many use "Mr. Big"-style pseudonyms to describe people they're dating.  Some respected friends' or partners' pleas to stay out of their pieces.  The one thing almost all columnists agreed upon, however: Once the relationship ends, all bets are off.

What are the top three latest "trends" when it comes to love and sex on campus?

1) Dating is dead.  2) Monogamy is dying.  3) Romance is so 20th-century.  (Happy Valentine's Day!) :)  According to the columns published in student newspapers across the U.S. and in Canada, students nowadays exist mainly within a casual-sex-centric or “hook-up” culture. It is a socially ambiguous set-up.  It's filled with people whom students randomly meet, sleep with, and never see again, and individuals on students’ cell phone speed dial lists available for commitment-free sex after a quick “booty call.”

Should you ask your sexual partner to get regular STD tests - even if you are monogamous?

Yes, and you should tell yourself to get tested too.  The acronym nowadays is STI (sexual transmitted infection), but the dangers are the same.  It's interesting that student sex columnists are often criticized for seemingly being the main ones championing a sex-without-consequences lifestyle.  But they are in fact leading the charge on communicating the importance of sexual protection and open communication.

A student columnist at the University of Nebraska's Daily Nebraskan (where I was once editor) resigned this week after another reporter wrote an article about architecture students hooking up. The piece reads: "These architecture students may be unknown to the rest of the student body, because according to them, nearly all of their time is spent suffocating within the studios the building contains. Such isolation is undoubtedly building up high amounts of sexual tension. So, now is the time to release their dirty secrets to the rest of the school."

The piece quotes several students, but doesn't use their full names. Since it ran last week, the paper has received tons of angry e-mails and letters. In a staff editorial, student editors promised more editorial oversight of controversial topics. And a columnist resigned in anger. 

It seems like a lot of sex columnists focus on heterosexual relationships. Have you seen many columns aimed specifically at the LGBTQ community?

Great question.  Student sex columns truly do cover an incredibly wide range of sexual practices and orientations, including polyamory, polygamy, homosexuality, bisexuality, hetero-flexibility (a middle area between being straight and bi), metrosexuality, transgender lifestyles, casual sex, oral sex, cyber sex, abstinence, virginity, etc.  I've even seen a few on sexual "furverts" (people who dress up in animal costumes).  The best part is that the columns, for the most part, don't judge.  They are mainly asking questions, discussing their own experiences, and starting conversations that hopefully can lead people to be more knowledgeable and accepting of areas of sex that fall outside the traditional straight/monogamy scope.

Jenna, I strongly beg to differ. It is a fact that sex has NOT "always" been a part of college life. To the youth of today it may seem that way, but this it not truth. One who knows and remembers well...............

Really!?! College students one, two or three generations ago never ever had sex?!

Joking aside, you do have a point. Thanks for chiming in!

Is it a college thing or has the casual hook-up culture extended beyond the college years and become the new lifestyle for Gen Z?

It does seem to be embedding itself into the twentysomething, post-college crowd as well, at least according to one big recent study.  The key thing to realize about the hook-up culture: It does NOT mean that relationships are entirely kaput.  What's missing is what one student columnist calls "dating with a lowercase 'd.'"  It's what our parents called courting-- the dinners and movies and mini-golf type activities that came after the first kiss but before all-out commitment.  Nowadays, students are jumping right into hardcore marriage-like relationships at a blistering pace, often accompanied by sex at their first or second meet-up.

What's the best college sex columns you've seen? Can you point us to a few articles?

Many columnists have absolutely soared to A-list status on their campuses solely because of their sex writing.  A few have even built whole careers on the backs of their columns.  Amber Madison, a former sex columnist at Tufts University, is now a nationally-respected author and speaker on sexual issues.  New York City's current sex-and-relationship It girl Julia Allison used to be Julia Baugher, a fantastic sex columnist for The Georgetown Hoya.  Amber, Julia, and a number of others were at the forefront of what has become the reality of journalism and media nowadays-- it's all about building a personal brand, filling a content niche, and making the most of your success. 

Do you think columnists have a responsibility to advocate for a moral basis to sexual relationships - as opposed to vewing it solely as a recreational activity?

Issues of morality are sticky.  Because whose morality should student columnists be advocating-- their parents', their church's, their university president's or their own??  From the many, many columns I've read, the best takes on sex are offered by students who do not pretend to have all or even most of the answers.  They do not preach.  They prompt-- asking questions, discussing their own thoughts and perspectives, and fully admitting that others can and should disagree. 

If romance is dead, as you put it, then how big a deal is Valentine's Day on campuses now these days?

Well, on many campuses, any holiday at all is an excuse for great drink specials and house parties. But I think a lot of students will celebrate this Valentine's Day like many adults -- couples will plan a special night out, groups of single girls will gather to watch click flicks and everyone else will try to forget that it's VDay.

BUT, least we worry that romance is completely dead, I was at Virginia Tech this week and spotted a sorority selling roses as a fundraiser.

I second Jenna's thoughts and observation.  Now within the columns, a stronger anti-Valentine's Day push can definitely be found.  In some cases, it's for the classic reason of it being a sell-out corporate holiday.  But more female students also seem to view it as somewhat anti-feminist-- a day built around the idea that (in many cases) men should have to step up and provide for women.  At the same time, I can confirm from chatting with my own students here at UT, it's still a much-celebrated holiday.   A conversation between one student editor and me earlier this week...


Me: What do you think of Valentine's Day?

Student: It's an industrial moneymaker and guilt-tripper, a total waste of time.

Me: Would you still want a Valentine's Day gift if someone got it for you?

Student: Yes. . . . a teddy bear. :)


Graduated in the late 70s, have 3 in college now. Casual hook-ups were NOT considered respectable back then, they were considered trashy. Lots of sex among monogamous couples was considered okay in my day. But even better for a guy... even better than a sexual relationship... the girlfriend who would do laundry.

Ugh, not matter what the generation, no girlfriend should be stuck doing her boyfriend's laundry!

You are right -- casual hook-ups are much more common and casual now than they were back in the day. But I think there's still an element of shame attached, especially for women.

There has been a lot written on this topic. Someone earlier mentioned Tom Wolfe's fictional character Charlotte Simmons, a college freshman who sleeps her way through a prestigious university. On the non-fiction side there's Laura Sessions Stepp's book, "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both."

How much do students think about the relationship between sex and religion? Won't it be one or the other for most faiths? How do they reconcile their traditional beliefs with what they do, especially for the most sexually active?

Sex and religion are absolutely addressed in many columns.  Interestingly, some of the most high-profile student sex columns have been published in student newspapers at religious schools.  Some at the schools consider them groundbreaking.  For example, one prominent column I recall criticized her religiously-affiliated university for not providing condoms at the university health center, leading to a campus-wide debate.  Others of course find the columns satanic.  One columnist at a Jesuit school told me about the day she was called to a priest/administrator's office.  Once in the office, the priest mentioned reading her column-- and then he told her that he was praying for her soul. 

Has the fall of "dating" had any impact on marriages and families after college? Experts say it is taking longer for students to grow up, get a real job, and start a family.

Evermore studies are indicating yes, to a point.  It's an interesting debate.  It's of course easy to see the downsides of such a commitment-phobic lifestyle.  And even the student columnists warn against its dangers-- loneliness chief among them.  One columnist even dubbed the phrase "Carpe Datem!" (Seize the Date) in an attempt to push students to enter into more stable relationships.  At the same time, students see their parents' generation divorcing left and right.  The columnists write about not wanting to make their parents' mistakes.  So are they phobic or simply smart?  Tough call.

So do any schools keep pregnancy data? What happens if a student wants to keep her baby and still be enrolled? Do babies live at dorms?

I'm not sure if there's a uniform way this information is collected -- I think it varies campus to campus. And while pregnancy is a closely monitored issue when students are under 18, it is less monitored at the college level.

I don't know of any traditional dorms that allow babies, but many schools offer apartments for older students or those with families.

Even professors have a difficult time staying on tenure track while raising children. Undergraduate and grad students have an even more difficult time -- especially because they are not usually given maternity leave and childcare is expensive. (I wrote an article last year about University of Maryland graduate students pushing for more family friendly policies.)

What's the deal with the Grindr iPhone app? I hear now there is a hetereosexual version?

For those not familiar, here's an explanation from Grindr's Web site: "The go-to place for gay, bi, and curious guys to meet, the location-based Grindr is free, fast, and fun. It uses GPS technology in your iPhone or BlackBerry and Wi-Fi in your iPod touch or iPad to determine your exact location and instantly connect you with guys in your area."

I don't know of any other versions. Anyone out there who can fill us in?

"Nowadays, students are jumping right into hardcore marriage-like relationships at a blistering pace, often accompanied by sex at their first or second meet-up." There's a lot more to marriage than just sex.

Ah, good point!

So columns like Savage Love are not the way to go then. That columnist preaches a particular view of sex and dumps on anyone at all that disagrees with his particular 'world view'.

Dan Savage has his supporters and critics.  He has earned a rep over time as an expert of sorts.  Students do not follow his lead in part because they know they have not earned the credibility.  They are writing for a semester, maybe a year.  Instead of being an expert, they are simply being themselves.  And their student readers seem to really appreciate that.  It's peer-to-peer communication about one of the most important and popular aspects of student life.  And expertise is not a pre-requisite.  Because in the end, as a student editor told me, "It's not rocket science.  It's sex." :)

Thanks so much to Jenna for inviting me to the chat and to everyone for their questions.  To read more about student sex and (the death of) dating, check out my book.  Happy Valentine's Day!

Lots and lots of wonderful questions -- thank you to everyone who wrote in! And a very special thanks to Dan for making time to help answer questions.

Again -- if you work for a student newspaper, I highly encourage you to regularly read Dan's blog, College Media Matters.

Have a great week. Happy Valentine's Day!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Dan Reimold
Daniel Reimold, Ph.D., is a college journalism scholar who has written and presented about the student press throughout the U.S. and in Southeast Asia. He is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa, where he also advises The Minaret student newspaper. His book "Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution" was published this past fall by Rutgers University Press. His reporting and research on the student press has been published in outlets such as Journalism History, College Media Review, PBS MediaShift, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and American Sexuality Magazine. He is a former Fulbright research fellow who has taught journalism, mass communication, and new media courses at four universities in two countries.
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