By Lisa Wade
Lisa Wade is associate professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.
A demographic shift in the late 18th century meant socializing took precedence over studying
Thanks to everything from pop culture to college propaganda, when students arrive on campuses today they expect—with varying levels of inclination and trepidation—to have a really good time. Many assume they’ll encounter, as one student featured in American Hookup put it apprehensively, a “big four-year orgy.” “Like most people I knew,” she wrote, “I believed that college was a wild, sexual party scene, and that to fit in, you had to be into alcohol, weed, and sex.”
It’s taken for granted today that college is supposed to be fun and that sex is part of why. “The best years of your life,” is how another student put it. “Fun takes priority over sleep and rest,” she insisted, forgetting to mention studying altogether. It’s an odd way to think about an institution dedicated to occupational training, if you think about.
How did college become fun? And how did casual sex, of all things, become synonymous with enjoying one’s higher education? To really understand, we have to go back, back three hundred years at least, to when college was not fun at all.
During the colonial era in the U.S., college was, as one historian described it, a “veritable straitjacket of petty rules.” Essentially every detail of students’ lives was controlled: how they kept their room, how they dressed and wore their hair, what they could do, when and what they ate, where they could go and when. There were substantial penalties for deviance and they came swiftly.