As the writer of a blog called Sex and the Ivy, Harvard student Lena Chen promotes herself as something of an authority on sex. The 20-year-old sociology major is a minor celebrity around campus for her musings on hook-ups, booty calls and friends with benefits. So Chen, as self-appointed poster girl for what could be called a group of brainy girls gone wild, was an obvious choice to document a week's worth of conquests for a national magazine's online sex diary. Except for the tallies at the end of the week: Total acts of intercourse? Zero.
Chen says she's since broken her dry spell, but the episode illustrates a paradox of modern college life: students are publicly documenting their sex lives more than ever, making it easy to get the impression that elite campuses are an equivalent of the sex club in "Eyes Wide Shut," with a perfect SAT score as the password. But when it comes to actual sexual activity, statistics show that coeds are more likely to be virgins when they enter college, and may be having slightly less sex than in previous years. Despite this, blogs such as Chen's, student-paper sex columns, student-run sex magazines like Harvard's H Bomb, Yale's SWAY (an acronym for Sex Week at Yale) and Boston University's Boink have proliferated. As Dr. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, codirector of the National Center for Children and Families, says, "What's interesting is, why are these journals gaining such popularity even though you're not seeing a big increase in sexual activity among college students?" One answer is that in an era of online exposure, where changing definitions of privacy have shifted sexual mores for the young, enterprising students no longer see a distinction between their bedroom behavior and their publishing activities. Rather than something to destroy upon graduation, they may even consider their magazines, blogs and columns résumé builders.
Apparently, when it comes to sex, write what you know doesn't always apply. "Everyone assumes because of the magazine that I'm sleeping with everything that walks," says Alecia Oleyourryk, editor of Boston University's Boink, who posed nude for the first issue. The magazine claims 40,000 subscribers, and has spawned the new book "Boink: College Sex by the People Having It." "It's not the case. Respective to my girlfriends, I'm the most prudish." Oleyourryk's comments reflect the findings of a new survey by the American College Health Association. When asked to estimate how many sexual partners their peers had had during the past schoolyear, college students guessed three times the number of partners they'd had. "Even people involved in extreme behavior think their friends are more extreme," says Kathleen Bogle, author of "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus." The study also found that for male students, the number of sexual partners in the previous year has dropped, from 2.1 in 2000 to 1.6 in 2006. According to a Centers for Disease Control survey, the number of ninth- to 12th-grade students who have had sex dropped almost 10 percent, to fewer than half of respondents, between 1991 and 2005. And a 2001 study found that 39 percent of freshman college women were virgins, and 31 percent of those women still hadn't had sex by senior year. In 2006, nearly half of Harvard undergrads who responded to a survey reported they had never had intercourse.
The slight decline may be explained by increased awareness of the potential downsides of sex, such as STDs or on-campus abstinence movements such as Harvard's True Love Revolution student group, says Victor Leino, research director for the ACHA. Still, students involved in sex publications say there's a need for more conversation about the intricacies and emotions regarding sex, regardless of how much of it they're actually having. Jenna Bromberg, a Cornell senior who writes a sex column for the school paper, says she wants to spur discussion of the pluses and minuses of hooking up. "A lot of the time I put gross stories in there to get people talking," she says. While Martabel Wasserman, the editor of H Bomb, takes a less confessional approach, she agrees that "there is a hole in our dialogue about sexuality. The idea is that it's a very free time, but it's also a very scary time." After a three-year hiatus due to administrative troubles, H Bomb will resume publishing next month.
These publications are not purely academic exercises: their creators hope they lead to professional opportunities after graduation. "People think it's a stigma, but I think we're in changing times, and it can open doors for me," says Oleyourryk, who recently moved to New York and is looking for work as a waitress while she continues publishing Boink. "I continually tell my mom this is a great résumé builder," she says, though she's vague about what she'll use her résumé for. Though the young sexpert's optimism may seem naive, it's not necessarily misguided, says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington. "Maybe their generation will take this a lot less seriously than we do," she says. In the age of MySpace and Facebook, sex may be just one more way to network. "To me, talking about sex and one-night stands is superficial. What I keep out of the column is the intimate stuff," says Bromberg, adding that she wouldn't write about a serious relationship.
The students' cavalier attitudes may stem from confidence about their futures fostered by the elite institutions they use as publishing platforms. "A lot of these Ivy League students are bright, self-confident, and they have some extra money to get these things started," says Schwartz. "Whether their class origins are protecting them, or giving them more license, I don't know, but class always has an impact." Certainly, the students behind the publications are earnest and articulate, and may be able to land the jobs of their dreams. If they do experience misgivings about their activities, it may be for personal reasons. "The only times I regret writing the column," says Bromberg, "is when I have to look my dad in the eye."