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Does A Skewed Gender Ratio at College Turn Girls Into Sluts?

March 18, 2010

Does a high ratio of girls to guys on campus turn co-eds into sluts? That’s the conclusion of a recent New York Times article on the subject. I’m not convinced.

The thesis of the article is that as the gender ratio on college campuses gets more and more unbalanced in favor of female students, girls are forced to dress more scandalously, hook up more frequently, and have sex more consistently — all to entice the male college students. The thesis has a strong theoretical foundation: As the relative supply of boys at colleges decreases, the demand for boys will go up. So girls who would normally restrain themselves will now throw themselves at boys. They will take them back to their rooms after just meeting them. They will text them incessantly. And the girls lucky enough to rope guys into relationships will forgive them when they cheat. The paucity of boys at the schools drives the girls CRAZY!!!

The theory does make a little sense. If we assume that men prefer hooking up and women prefer relationships, then it stands to reason that at a school with fewer men, the heterosexual female population will be forced to do more of what the men want, namely hooking up. The girls who hold out for relationships will find that guys can always move on to co-eds who are more amenable, and the guys who are looking to hook up get to choose from a multitude of boy-starved, sex-starved women who know that if they do want a relationship, they’re going to have to pay for it in advance.

But I, like many of you I’m sure, have a real problem with this analysis. Do guys really prefer hooking up to girls? Do girls really want relationships more than guys? Is the only thing keeping Swarthmore cleavage concealed (to the extent that it is) the fact that we have a roughly even gender balance? The analysis seems premised on the usual stereotypes about how all guys want to do is fuck myriad women and all women want to do is find that one sweet guy. In reality, I think there are plenty of girls who enjoy the hook-up culture. And I haven’t met too many guys, who, upon meeting girls they are attracted to and like would say, “I would never envision being in a relationship with her because the single life, and having the potential to lock lips with tons of women, is so appealing.” My guess is that if women do tend to prefer relationships to men, it’s not by that much.

Furthermore, I don’t think that the stereotype the theory assumes is very consistent, because it assumes that men are sex crazed and want it all the time. This second stereotype may well be true. But if it is, then guys shouldn’t want to hook up — they should want relationships! There’s no question that people who are in relationships in college have far more sex than their single brethren. Even if the women are throwing themselves on top of you every night you go out, there is no way guys are finding random girls at parties, taking them back to their rooms, and hooking up with them more than, say, two to three times a week. Could you imagine if you had a single male friend who brought different girls back and had sex with them twice a week on a regular basis? That would be one very successful friend. Now consider some of your friends who are in relationships: they can have sex basically whenever they want to. Really, if all guys are concerned about is sex, they should be getting into relationships as frequently as possible.

The fact that the foundation for the argument seems a little shaky and more than a little sexist should lead us to examine the author’s actual evidence. What behavior did the reporter witness at Chapel Hill, a school dominated by the fairer sex, to convince her of this conclusion? Well, as earlier stated, the reporter found that the girls dressed pretty sluttily, and that some of them were concerned that all the other girls were, well, acting really slutty: grinding up on guys they just met, inviting them into their rooms just after meeting them, and scrutinizing text messages boys had sent them for fifteen minutes. The reporter quotes one female student saying, “I was talking to a friend at a bar, and this girl just came up out of nowhere, grabbed him by the wrist, spun him around and took him out to the dance floor and started grinding.”

I hope this doesn’t sound sexist, but doesn’t that statement sound like it could have been uttered by frustrated women anywhere? And don’t women pore over eligible men’s text messages for fifteen minutes anywhere? (And vice-versa.)

Notably, nowhere does the reporter ever quote a student who admits to acting slutty because of the gender ratio. All she has are women who complain about how promiscuous the other girls are. Could it just be that students at every college complain about how promiscuous the other students are, and that this phenomenon has nothing to do with the gender balance?

The author further acknowledges that at a school with a gender ratio this skewed the students don’t think the hook-up culture is any different that at other schools. The author writes, “Students interviewed here said they believed their mating rituals reflected those of college students anywhere.” Exactly. And considering that these reports are based on nothing but the testimony of a handful of women who, critically, have only attended a college with a skewed gender ratio, it’s hard to understand why the author thinks the hooking up that’s going on at UNC is any different from the hooking up that’s going on at other campuses, and why we should trust the students when they suggest the hook-up culture at their college has everything to do with the male-to-female ratio.

I don’t mean to imply that a skewed gender ratio will not affect interactions between men and women. But I disagree with the claim that the gender imbalance is somehow key to understanding why the hook-up culture is so prevalent at schools like UNC.

  • S@ger FTW

    Sounds like they need some Genderfuck!

  • gawkie

    The girls interviewed also claim their quotes were taken out of context:

  • my2c

    At the risk of making a cliche argument about there being a double-standard regarding sexually active men and women….

    I'd like to know why you used the word "slutty" to describe the women's behavior (dressing in revealing clothes, grinding up on men they just met, etc.) and the word "successful" to describe the hypothetical man's behavior (who could get some multiple times per week)?

    Were you saying that society (or the article's author) PERCEIVES these women as slutty and that if the ultra-laid guy were real, society would PERCEIVE him as successful? Or are you saying that you agree that inviting guys back to your room just after meeting them IS slutty and a guy getting laid multiple times per week IS successful? I agree with the former, I think the latter is a sexist double standard.

    Regardless, even if you intended the former, I think it's important to be careful about using demeaning terms like "sluts." Put it in quotes when you use it to emphasize it's a dubious label, or specify what you mean when you say it (some people, for reasons I don't fully understand, think it's empowering to reclaim "slut"), or do something to acknowledge that the word is morally-laden, gendered, and hurtful — otherwise I think you run into the problem of reinforcing the concepts it promotes by using it uncritically.

    That said, thanks for writing this. I too disliked the New York Times article.

  • social scientist

    One way to begin to test the NYT article's thesis would be to look for a correlation between male/female ratio imbalance and "slutty" behavior (i.e, do women at schools with a greater imbalance exhibit more "slutty" behavior than women at schools that are closer to 50/50?)

  • H

    I'd like to point out how naive your statement, " Now consider some of your friends who are in relationships: they can have sex basically whenever they want to," is. Somewhat unfortunately for their partners, in even the most harmonious long-term relationships, each party is still an individual with different wants, needs, capabilities, and so forth. In other words, it can be pretty common that one partner doesn't want to have sex as often as the other, or doesn't want to have sex at the same times of day or in the same places or in the same ways, or perhaps it's merely just a matter of conflicting schedule. Surely all Swatties understand how frustrating conflicting schedules can be. And it should be no stretch to imagine that two partners with busy schedules can face their heaviest, most exhausting workloads at different times, leaving them more desirous of some fun at totally different times.

    Just something to think about. Maybe those looking for lots of sex are better sticking to random hook-ups. That way you don't fall into monotony quite as easily, either…you're up for it, the partner you just found is up for it, and no one is left sexually frustrated (unless you have no game and can't find a partner to begin with). Monogamy certainly has its perks, but I don't know that easy access to sex is one to be considered a constant.

  • Mycroft

    Also, remember that just because two people are in a monogamous relationship doesn't necessarily mean that they have sex.

    I did generally like your article, Joe, as I think that the benefits and drawbacks of promiscuity are topics that, while very relevant to many college students, don't get discussed academically in a public forum as much as they should. Just remember to keep an open mind!

  • Jon Emont

    Thanks for commenting everyone.

    my2c-I was saying, as you suggest, that society and, likely the author, perceive women who have sex with guys they just met as sluts. I did not put the word "slut" in quotation marks in the column because I didn't wish to imply that the author used the word "slut" in her article. The only reason I used the term "slut" in the first place is because when the author described the UNC students promiscuity, she was clearly passing judgement. She was not remarking objectively on a social phenomenon. She was saying, as far as I could tell, "Remove 20% of the guys from any College in the nation and normal women will transform into slutty women." I was using the word "slut" to demonstrate that this was the word the author may as well have used given the tone of her piece. I'm guessing most readers will have understood my intent and I certainly was not trying to pass judgement on anybody (except, perhaps, the author of the article.) That being said, I definitely could have indicated I was using the word ironically.

    social scientist- yeah, that would be interesting. Another interesting thing would be to find a school where the gender distribution is the opposite, say MIT, and try to determine whether when women are in the minority they hook-up with plenty of different guys, strike up deep and abiding relationships, or do things no differently from students at other colleges.

    H- The point of the paragraph was that it is much, much, much easier to have sex when you are in a relationship than when you are not in a relationship. I stand by this claim. Obviously, not everyone in a relationship has sex the exact amount they would like to. Are you disputing this claim or are you pointing out that my sentence, when pulled out of context, sounds "naive"?

    Mycroft- Nowhere did I suggest that people in relationships always have sex. Merely that people who want to have sex have an easier time acquiring it in a relationship than outside of a relationship.

  • okk

    regarding the argument (is this your only argument?) that if boys want more sex, they should seek relationships, because people in relationships have more sex…

    let's take the premise, that relationship > hookups in terms of sex, as true. still, your conclusion does not follow unless all else (besides frequency of sex) are held equal. obviously, all else are NOT equal, so your simplistic comparison fails.

  • Jon Emont

    Hey okk-

    I assume what you're saying is that guys, say, would prefer multiple partners even if that doesn't mean they would get the most sex, so the author's argument might therefore hold.

    It might, but that’s quite an assumption for the author to make. The point was that the simplistic model the author assumes- that men want to hook-up and women want relationships- doesn’t necessarily make much sense, given some of the author’s other assumptions, namely that men really want to get laid. Obviously this entire theory is overly simplistic- which is why I think this empty “men want this, women want that” theorizing should be discarded.

    And that wasn’t my only argument. I further called the methodology of the author into question and pointed out that she contradicted her entire premise at various points in the article. I also asked whether some of the other stereotypes the author assumes, such as that women are really averse to hooking up, are actually true.

  • dweeks

    lol to which argument has taken off so far.

  • Bob Dole

    What I'm seeing here is that people are finding just as many holes in Jon's article as he found in the original piece… as such, I really take issue with his column name. Not a single article I've read which has claimed to be "The Truth" has actually been that. In my experience, Jon, you use selective facts in order to push your opinions across, even at the expense of the truth. Are you trying to be controversial, or are you just poorly opinionated?

  • G

    #11, I really take issue with your commenter name. Not a single comment I've read which has claimed to be by "Bob Dole" has actually been that. In my experience, "Bob," you use someone else's name in order to get your opinions out there, even at the expense of the truth.

    Did the Spartan warrior not tip you off that the name "The Truth" might be a little tongue-in-cheek?

  • Bob Dole

    Well played, sir, well played. You got me good with that one — I have no witty comeback to match.

    But no, the Spartan warrior did not tip me off… Did Spartans have a reputation for lying or misrepresentation?