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‘Marriage’ Is Not a Dirty Word for College Women

Susan Patton, a Princeton alumna, wrote a letter to the campus newspaper last week encouraging undergraduate women to take their personal lives seriously while at the elite university. The furor caused by this bit of motherly advice is absurd, and underscores the zero-sum game—career success or marital happiness—that older women want to impose on a new generation.

As educators, parents, and role models, we encourage college women to prioritize their education and careers because we know how important those accomplishments will be to their well-being. So why is it verboten to offer similar encouragement to prioritize their personal lives? The choice of a life partner is among the single biggest ways we affect our trajectory and ability to create a meaningful life. To suggest that career goals are worthy of discussion and effort, while the personal happiness should “just happen,” sends an inaccurate message to young adults.

Elements of Patton’s letter miss the mark: College women should not feel pressured to marry right out of college for fear that they’ll never find anyone better than the men on campus. Census data clearly show that educated, successful women marry older, and wiser, than their less-educated peers. There are plenty of opportunities—in graduate school, through friends, and at work—to meet and marry a kind, supportive, and smart person.

But that’s not really what’s causing the kerfuffle here. The debate springs from the now-taboo M word. Try this: Read Patton’s letter and substitute the word “career” for the word “marriage.”

For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the career you choose, and you will never again have this concentration of career options available to you.

Suddenly the argument becomes rather pedestrian, huh? To encourage a young woman to take her personal life seriously—and yes, to consider marriage, which remains a consistent goal for young adults, according to opinion data—just as we encourage her to prioritize her career shouldn’t cause such a stir.

The perception of norms has a significant influence on behavior. So when serious relationship formation isn’t something we’re even allowed to discuss with undergraduate women, why are we surprised when the default relationship patterns seem to be hookups and casual sex?

I teach a course on the sociology of marriage at the University of Pittsburgh. We explore the history of marriage, the debate over same-sex marriage, gender roles, and the varying salience of religion and popular culture in establishing norms for what a “happy marriage” should be.

When we get to the section on relationship formation, we talk about old-fashioned courtship, dating, and the current hookup culture on college campuses. Students tell me tales of drunken encounters, text-messaging, “Facebook stalking,” and little or no daytime or sober conversations. Is that the norm for most relationships on campus? I doubt it. But it is the perceived norm—because any admission that you seek a serious relationship that might lead to marriage would mark you as a social deviant.

In her new book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, Donna Freitas argues that college women—and men, too—crave more-substantial relationships, but since that’s too uncool to even speak of, they settle for casual sex as an unsatisfying alternative. Freitas’s book is a welcome counter to Hanna Rosin’s claim that young college women are driving the hookup culture because it helps them avoid the emotional entanglements that might get in the way of future educational and career success.

In his Atlantic review of the book, David Masciotra quotes the George Carlin line that “language always gives us away.” The term “hooking up” is emotionless and empty, just like the act itself. Freitas agrees, as do I. But the language is important here for another reason: Language helps to create norms for behavior as well, and unclear or inaccurate language can lead us astray. You might assume that you—and all college students—know the definition of a “hookup.” It means sexual intercourse with no strings attached, right? Not exactly.

According to the research of the Stanford professor Paula England and my own online and anonymous class surveys, only about a third of students personally define a hookup as sex, but they believe that other people nearly always use the term to mean that level of sexual intimacy. So one student might say, “I hooked up last night,” meaning that she kissed a guy at a bar, while the student listening hears that she had sex with the guy.

College students aren’t having nearly as much casual sex as we fear. But they also aren’t forming and focusing on the healthy long-term relationships we might hope they’d carry forward after graduation.

To bemoan the hookup culture and then criticize a discussion about the importance of young adults’ establishing real relationships sends mixed messages that are frustrating for college students. Marriage is a worthwhile priority in life. So is an office in the C Suite. Today’s college woman is among that fortunate group with access to both. But let’s not limit her options by limiting the bounds of our conversation.

Christine B. Whelan is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Generation WTF (Templeton Press, 2011) and Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women (Simon & Schuster, 2006). She is a Princeton alumna and married a Princeton man eight years after she graduated.

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