Recent Grad Details How Colleges Promote Hookup Culture
In the opening weeks of fall, a number of colleges now feature what they call “Sex Week,” a week in which risky and irresponsible sexual behaviors are encouraged and even facilitated. It’s a trend many parents will be stunned to learn about—to unpack the phenomenon, today we’ll hear from Kara Bell. Read the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
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Kate Trinko: Joining us today is Kara Bell, who is the public relations officer for the Clare Boothe Luce Center for Conservative Women.
Kara, thanks for joining us.
Kara Bell: Thank you for having me.
Trinko: So, you recently wrote a piece for The Federalist detailing how colleges have “Sex Weeks,” where they promote behavior that’s, well, let’s say not what parents are probably anxious for their kids to learn while they’re away at college.
And you graduated this past December from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where you had your own encounter with a Sex Week-type activity. Tell us about that.
Bell: Stepping onto campus was kind of a shock. Within the second week of being in my freshman dorm, facilitators from the Sex Out Loud student organization, which is university-funded, rounded us all up, boys and girls, and had us sit in the common area and play a little fun game of Sex Jeopardy with a colorful game board, with categories such as sex toys and kink, contraceptives, myths, and sex positions.
I just remember looking around the group and kind of feeling so awkward … And everyone else did, too. It’s obvious with the faces of … my peers how uncomfortable they felt.
I even asked one of my friends recently, “Well, what was the one thing you remember most of this event?” And she said that she recalls that one of the facilitators was kind of elbowing at the guys and laughing along, saying that the best sex position is standing doggy style in the shower. So, it was so uncomfortable for us girls.
I’m from a very small town in Wisconsin. Very small public school, graduating class was 50 people. Our sex ed curriculum consisted of where abstinence was taught. So, going onto a campus where abstinence is seen only as a matter of a preventative measure against pregnancy rather than an option for having that sort of lifestyle, it was very eye-opening. And it was for a lot of my peers as well.
Daniel Davis: Tell us about this group Sex Out Loud. You said it was funded by the college administration. How did they get that sort of status and why did the school think this was a good idea to promote this to incoming freshmen?
Bell: Sex Out Loud is one of the highest-funded organizations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, apart from Badger Catholic or the atheist, humanist, and agnostics group. And the majority of their funding goes towards sexual health-related programs.
But if you look at their table at student organization fairs and the type of programming that they have, that they travel around to freshman dorms and do, it seems as if all their money is spent on condoms. … And that’s the way they kind of promote themselves.
I remember the first month I was at school, we had the fall student organization fair. And there was a table that was at least piled 2-feet-high full of flavored, glow-in-the-dark, and colorful condoms.
I was walking past with some of my friends that I made that first week, and we were prodded into grabbing them. So, we were just awkward and trying to walk past. And the facilitators, which were older men, it was kind of weird, were like, “No, no. Come back, come back.” And they’re trying to put it in our hands. Of course, the freshman guys walking past were stuffing their backpacks full and making jokes.
So, while sex ed on campus is important, colleges should focus more of their attention on preventative measures and teaching students about the resources that are on campus that can help them rather than taking it 300 steps too far and making students feel super uncomfortable and promoting sort of a bizarre sexual behavior.
Trinko: So what are these Sex Weeks and how prevalent are they?
Bell: Sex Week, as I was doing my research and as a student myself, is actually a lot more common than people think.
On publicly-funded universities, … it’s a normal thing, just because there’s a lot of student organizations that do promote this type of education, that do take it many steps too far, all in the name of diversity and inclusion. …
As I mentioned in my Federalist article, universities such as Northwestern University host a Sex Week, an annual Sex Week each year, where they have such activities such as genital cookie decorating, edible lube taste-testing, and a porn panel. And this is not uncommon for other universities to have.
I remember at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there was a lube-testing activity as well. And the University of Chicago, The College Fix actually has a lot of articles about their type of programming, where—this one was the most shocking to me—they included a sexual pain workshop where students tried bondage, light electrocution, and flogging. So it’s like taking “Fifty Shades of Grey” and bringing it to college.
Davis: Wow. And you also said that a student from Georgia College and State University had reached out to your organization to talk to you about her experience in Sex Week. Unpack what happened there.
Bell: She was a part of an honors program that partook in this sort of programming at her school. And being a freshman student, young, just trying to fit in, have a friend group, she felt pressured to go along.
So, the facilitators had informational videos, of course, from Planned Parenthood that talked about sexual health such as contraceptives, the importance of getting tested, important matters like that. But then they also had an informational video about how to schedule an abortion.
… Hearing that from her was so shocking to me. And it only plays into the fact that Planned Parenthood holds such a consistent presence on campus, such ingrained presence on campus. And they’ve infiltrated all sorts of women’s health programming and anything involving sex on campus, almost as like a business model.
After the student reached out to me, we were kind of discussing a little more. And she let me know that at the end of this program, they actually had a relay race of who could put a condom on a banana faster. And of course, the winning team’s prize was a handful of condoms.
Trinko: One-track minds much?
So obviously, what you’re talking about, it’s clear that colleges are encouraging casual sex or, at the very least, not disapproving of it. What does research show about how casual sex, about how this hookup culture affects men and women?
Bell: One thing that a lot of second-wave reminiscing feminists and the left, so-called justice warriors on campus like to blur are the biological differences between men and women.
It is for certain that young women are affected more severely than young man when it comes to casual sex and hookups. In our “Sense and Sexuality” booklet provided by the Center for Conservative Women, we actually list that 91% of women after hooking up immediately regret it and they felt vulnerable and used. And this percentage is not the same when it comes to men.
So, you can see that that feeling of feeling vulnerable and used can contribute to the rising rates of depression among young women, particularly young college women.
Also, it shows that young women, when they are engaging in casual sex, expect some sort of emotional intimacy afterward, although that’s not necessarily the case. Whereas young men usually partake in casual sex as more of a status game amongst their friends. So there is a big difference. And studies have shown that women are affected very negatively.
Davis: In the #MeToo era, there’s been a lot of discussion about consent and sex. How do you think Sex Week in the college culture in general does when it comes to like sexual assault and helping students make sure they’re not taking advantage of somebody?
Bell: … It’s definitely discussed on campus, but it’s not necessarily linked as well to hookup culture in general. It is shown that hookup culture has attributed to the rising rates of sexual assault on campus.
In Lisa Wade’s book about hookup culture on campus, she discusses how the general behaviors that are involved in hooking up and kind of college life, such as binge drinking, excessive use of alcohol, drugs, going to a bar, leaving with someone, that is all attributed to similar behavior as hooking up and of sexual assault.
So, the line between what is OK, what is consensual, and what is not when it comes to hookup culture and sexual assault is often blurred. And it’s actually kind of confusing to a lot of young students, particularly freshmen, who are stepping into this culture without any sort of preconceived notion about it.
Trinko: It just seems obvious to me that if you haven’t met and you’re both drunk or one of you is drunk, how can you say there’s consent? … You barely know each other.
Bell: Yeah. I was in a sorority at University of Wisconsin-Madison, if you can’t tell.
Trinko: I could not.
Bell: And being in a sorority, it was required that we take at least two or three sexual assault courses, of how to recognize if there’s a sticky situation going on at a bar, how to rescue a friend, Green Dot programs, all of these preventative measures.
But then fraternities only needed to attend an event with a speaker talking against sexual assault. That was it. And really the same curriculum programming should be the same for both.
And I think … kind of having a different set of rules or guidelines for either fraternities or sororities and not really being as specific and clear when it comes to consent and sexual assault on campus has really hurt.
Trinko: And you would think, too, that most men certainly don’t want to commit sexual assault. You would think they’d be grateful to get like, “Hey, here are the clear lines. Here’s what you need to watch out for. Here’s signs that a girl is far too wasted to consent.”
Trinko: As we mentioned, you were recently in college yourself. And you work with college kids, it sounds like. … Do you think women are happy with the status quo in college? I ask because I know that as a 14-year-old girl myself, it was never like, “Oh, I can’t wait to go to college and hook up with some drunken guy who won’t recognize me in the morning.” What do women actually think about the status quo?
Bell: I hear this a lot from our students that reach out, and at our summits and campus lectures, this is always one of the main topics of discussion. It’s that a lot of young women feel that the traditional style of dating has been totally lost. And they feel like when it comes to dating, it’s more of just a “Let’s grab a drink” and then you’re expected to have sex with the guy by the third date. There’s always that by-third-date kind of thing, kind of narrative. And that’s really hurt.
Actually, one of the most requested speaking topics or kind of discussion topics we get from our young students is the topic of dating. Can we have a professional speaker come in and talk about the virtues of dating and the virtues of getting to know your partner and not placing so much of an emphasis on sex by the first date? Which is kind of the narrative that’s on campus.
The college administration, a lot of university-funded programs like Sex Out Loud, assume that all students are having sex by the first date. So, they act as if it’s a normal, routine, transactional thing when really that’s not the case.
Davis: What about the young men on colleges? In your experience, how do they feel about the status quo and how things are going?
Bell: I would say a lot of young men are open to more education about consent and sexual assault awareness. Not all men are bad. However, like I said before, it’s blurring the lines between casual sex and sexual assault … that have really attributed to the rise of sexual assault, just because the signs and behaviors are so similar between the two.
Also, like you said before, it’s now kind of a stigma on college campuses that young men, you always hear, fraternity men, all they care about is sex, you know? They count how many girls they’ve slept with with their friends. So, that’s kind of a stereotype. We see that a lot in movies and popular culture.
It’s kind of sad because some high school boys stepping onto campus, particularly high school girls finally stepping onto campus, have that in their head that that’s normal.
Davis: You mentioned the erosion of dating standards. Do you think that is serving men’s interests over women’s?
Bell: I think it’s more beneficial for both parties, traditional dating rather than hookup culture. Because men are affected negatively as well. It’s not just women.
Yes, [women] do experience more depression after a casual hookup. But there’s also still the risk of STIs, STDs that both parties can have. So it is in men’s best interest to bring back traditional dating or just placing more value on sex rather than just a routine, transactional thing.
Trinko: You mentioned porn in your article for The Federalist. What kind of role do you think this has to the overall college culture?
Bell: I think making porn a normalized thing on college campuses has attributed to the kind of shifted reality. A lot of students … expect it or they’re afraid to have sex because they have this thought in their head about what it’s actually like. …
So, university-funded programs like Sex Out Loud and Sex Week also normalize porn. They make it sound as if every single student watches it. It’s a normal thing. And it’s something that’s healthy in a relationship. However, that’s not the case for all relationships, although they perceive it to be that way.
Trinko: And I’m sure we have parents and grandparents listening who are having heart attacks right now and are very worried for their children going to college.
Did your parents give you any advice that you felt really helped you? Would you have any advice to parents, generally, about how do you talk to your kids when they’re still at home before they go off to college and maybe encounter a culture like this?
Bell: Yeah. That’s a good point because my parents didn’t even know about my experience freshman year until I wrote this article. Just because I thought it was normal on college campuses to have something like this and also it’s an awkward topic.
Trinko: Oh, totally.
Bell: I don’t want to bring it up at the dinner table. Also, if I told my dad, he’d be so worried, he’d pull me out.
Bell: … A lot of young students, particularly during freshman orientation, they’re faced with this sort of rhetoric where they are timid about sharing what exactly they’re learning to their parents.
Also, as a freshman girl, you’re stepping onto campus, you’re finally at the college of your dreams, you’re looking up to your professors, the older peers in your class, everything … It seems as if all this is normal and it’s expected, and you would be the odd one out, the close-minded one for saying something, the traditional one for saying something, although that’s not necessarily the case.
So, I would advise parents and grandparents or those related to a college student on campus right now to read the article, read more into this issue, speak to the student about their experience.
The Center for Conservative Women has a resourceful booklet, particularly for young women, young college women, of their guide to safe sex and how to properly care for their bodies. And it’s purely factual, of just, “Here are the facts. This is what you should do,” rather than all the mixed motivations and pressures that colleges and such programs and facilitators have.
Davis: Well, Kara Bell, thanks so much for writing the Federalist piece and for coming in and sharing your experience.
Bell: Thank you for having me.