If you walk into my house after 11 p.m., know that you will be talked about when you leave.
Every morning after a night out, my roommates and I follow the same sacred ritual: the debrief.
All 12 of us — and any male guests who have dared to stay past 9 a.m. — squeeze together on the couch to recap the night before. Over cups of coffee and pieces of dry toast, we rehash everything from who was talking to who at Rick’s to who got too drunk and had to go home early to which guys were being stand-offish. No one is spared.
Each person in the circle goes around and has their own 15 minutes of fame to tell their version of the night, frequently ending in who they went home with, what they chatted about, how the sex was and whether they’d do it again. Everything is dramatized to the fullest extent. My house actually bought a karaoke machine to add to the fanfare.
An informal Q&A follows with questions ranging from “Was there cuddling after?” to “Did you come?” We laugh at mishaps and awkward moments, talk about positions and scrutinize potential red flags. I rarely venture stories of my own, probably due to the fact that I have a boyfriend more than anything else. So, instead, I throw out questions and give unsolicited advice, half jealous of their random hookup stories and half grateful that I’m not in their position.
Inevitably, someone’s story will outshine the others, like the time, not one, but two of my roommates brought boys home just to make them watch the entirety of “Lemonade Mouth” and then quickly sent them packing.
Of course, we have much more serious conversations about sex at other times of day — conversations about hookup culture and consent and safety — but there’s something so enthralling and even empowering about talking about sex in a way that’s entirely carefree, light-hearted and non-judgmental.
The morning recap is hardly a universal experience, but many female survey respondents and people who I interviewed (who will be referred to by fake names to protect their privacy) recounted similar experiences.
“We all kind of wake up and slowly migrate into the living room one at a time, but eventually we all just kind of talk about how everyone’s night was,” LSA senior Sarah said. “Not just sex-related but like, ‘I lost you here, where did you go? What did you do?’ ”
The first time my boyfriend sat in on the debrief, he was surprised how formal it was, like a “morning support group” he said. I’ve always assumed that’s because the morning recap is a gendered phenomenon, and to some extent, it is.
When asked on The Daily’s 2021 Sex Survey, about 65% of male respondents said they either agree or strongly agree with the statement “I feel comfortable talking to my friends about sex.” In comparison, almost 80% of women said they agree or strongly agree with the same statement.
Even if men are comfortable talking about sex, they do it at much lower rates than women. Eighty-five percent of females said that they discuss sex with their friends “often” or “sometimes,” whereas the majority of men — 75% — said they discuss sex with their friends “sometimes,” “rarely” or “never.”
There’s also a huge gap in terms of what we share. Over half of women said they share everything or almost everything about their sexual encounters with their closest friends. Another third said it depends on the circumstances (which friends they’re talking to and who they had sex with) and only 15% said they rarely, if ever, share details with friends.
On the other hand, two-thirds of men said they share little to no information with their friends. Many responded to the question saying “I don’t kiss and tell.” The other third either said they share a lot of details or are open to sharing details when asked by friends.
Sarah shares virtually everything about her sex life with her friends.
Still, our sexual experiences seem to be very similar. Men and women gave comparable descriptions of their typical one night stand: meet someone at a bar, go home with them, have mediocre sex and never see each other again.
They also cited similar reasons for having sex, the top answers being pleasure, love and to feel wanted.
So, if our experiences are so similar, why do we talk about sex so differently?
There’s the biological answer, that women are more socialized to communicate verbally than men. While men bond through activity, women tend to bond through sharing — a phenomenon particularly pertinent within heterosexual relationships.
“Men are socialized to use language to assert a hierarchy and their place in a hierarchy,” Cynthia Gabriel, Women’s and Gender Studies professor, said. “So they have less practice using talk to establish intimacy and rapport, and so it makes sense that they would talk to their friends less often about it.”
LSA senior Lauren feels comfortable sharing virtually everything about her sex life with her friends because she says they have nothing to hide from each other. She sees their morning recaps as a fun, comfortable space that may even bring them closer.
But maybe it’s also a function of hookup culture. Some social circles (I’m looking at you, Greek life) set very different sexual expectations for men and women. While men are free, even encouraged, to sleep around, the same behavior for women is looked down upon. Obviously, this leads to very different sexual behavior.
As Marcus, a recent Michigan graduate, said, men spend their first few years of college “racking up as many bodies” as possible, while women rarely do the same.
Marcus felt like his friends talked about sex less frequency as college went on, a facet he thinks of the diminishing novelty of sex for men. Most of his male friends came into college relatively sexually inexperienced, so when they started rushing a fraternity, were exposed to an entirely new culture.
He remembers late-night recaps from his freshman year that bear a striking resemblance to my morning debriefs. But, once the novelty of sex was lost, the experiences became a bit more routine, and he found there wasn’t much to discuss. It wasn’t that sex got boring or was any less enjoyable, but sex was just sex.
“One thing that I noticed is that guys like gossip just as much as girls,” Marcus said. “I think it’s just that (sex) as a point of gossip is just not really as disclosed. I don’t really know. It’s definitely true that details are gone over, particularly when things are new, when you’re a freshman, and the whole hookup culture and sex scene is just new. You’re just getting with all different types of girls and things like that. So you’re addressing, you know, ‘This girl was like this, that girl was like that.’ But, then when you get older, people don’t want to hear the same old, same old.”
But, for women, there really is no “same old, same old.” Regardless of hookup culture, the physical act of sex for heterosexual women is more nuanced than it is for men, particularly because the vast majority of heterosexual encounters end when the man finishes. The orgasm gap, the idea that heterosexual men reach orgasm 40% more frequently than their heterosexual female partners, creates more variety in the female sexual experience.
While, of course, there’s more variety to male sex other than whether or not he came, a man saying ‘We had sex’ implies an obvious conclusion where a woman saying the same thing does not.
“For men, a lot of the time it’s the same for them,” Lauren said. “For women (with male partners), there’s so many different things a guy can do, and obviously women don’t finish all the time — sometimes ever. And that’s just like a way bigger deal. I think also women in general, not all the time, think of it as like a bigger deal, like a more intimate thing.”
The fact that women don’t always finish — especially during casual, heterosexual sex — opens a million more doors to a million possible ways the hookup could have gone. She could have finished or she could have thought she was close to finishing or it could have just felt pretty good or it could have felt horrible.
When there’s no assumed conclusion, it’s much more useful to describe a sexual encounter through the details.
Or, maybe, it has to do with sexual education.
Very few schools cover female anatomy, let alone pleasure, in their SexEd curriculums. Because of that, women frequently have to turn to other sources to learn about sex. When asked where they’ve learned the most about sex, five times as many female survey respondents said ‘friends’ as opposed to school. Almost all of my own sexual knowledge has come from listening to my friends describe their hookups and what things felt like for them. I have more than a few friends who learned about blow jobs from a PowerPoint tutorial sent around by my roommate.
Of course, there are women that don’t talk about their sex lives and men who do. LSA senior Amanda has always felt really comfortable sharing details of her sex life but has found that many of her college friends don’t.
“The girls that live in my house barely ever (talk about sex) because they’re all very uncomfortable with it,” Amanda said. “So they don’t have sex often. They’re all very immature when it comes to that stuff, so I just make it a point to never bring it up.”
Business senior Megan was shocked by how openly people discuss sex when she got to Michigan.
“I remember feeling really uncomfortable,” she said. “I wasn’t a sexual person, I was a virgin when I came to school here, so I was just like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how people normally talk about it.’ I view it more as an intimate thing, so even to this day, I get uncomfortable when people talk about it, especially details or (when) people will ask me about my like encounters too. I like to keep it private.”
Megan’s family is fairly religious. They had always treated sex as a taboo and had expected her to wait until marriage. Though she has had sex, she’s still very reserved in talking about her experiences, especially now that she’s in a relationship.
Protecting a significant other’s privacy was frequently cited as a reason why people don’t talk much about their sex lives across the board.
Sometimes, I think back to the way I talked about sex before I had a boyfriend. I’ve never had a one night stand, but I’d participate in the dramatic retellings nonetheless. There was the time I was making out with a guy, and he broke down his bedroom door because it was unexpectedly locked. Or the guy who hid from me the next time I saw him after we hooked up. Or a smattering of dance-floor make-outs (DFMOs) after which I’d detail whether a guy was a bad kisser or whether he’d asked me to go home with him.
In at least a couple of those instances, I remember thinking to myself, I cannot wait to go home and tell my friends this story, before I’d even left the party. The retelling was never the primary motivation for anything I did, but it always felt like an integral part of hookup culture, like part of the fun was being able to gossip about it with your friends. As the saying goes, if you kiss a boy in a sweaty basement and your friends aren’t around to hear about it, did you really kiss that sweaty boy at all?
Now that I’m in a relationship, I speak much less openly about my sex life, not only because I feel like I can’t or shouldn’t share intimate details about my boyfriend, but because it just seems less fun.
The obvious explanation is that without new partners and new experiences, there’s less interesting content to bring to the table. But part of me wonders whether it’s because the sex itself has changed. Maybe my excitement to recap in front of an audience was an effort to create meaning out of something that was, in all other senses, meaningless.
A random sexual encounter — a one night stand, a make-out, a casual fling — has truly no significance on its own. It can make the people involved feel good or bad, but it’s only when you or someone else puts a value judgement on it that it takes on meaning. For women having sex with men, historically, that value has always been negative.
I was probably in high school the first time I heard the term “slut-shaming,” but I didn’t truly understand it until I got to college. You can’t really see your own internal biases and assumptions until you’re shown another way of doing things.
It wasn’t until I heard people talking positively about sex and masturbation that I realized how much internal misogyny I’d absorbed growing up. Even now, as I sit down to write this article, I catch myself worrying about how much of my own sexual history to include, which details a reader might judge me for.
Maybe we crowd around the couch and talk about sex in a light, funny way to fight back against the illogical, nagging feeling that we did something wrong. It lets us put our own value on it before someone else can.
Casual sex typically lacks the emotional meaning that makes sex in relationships “acceptable,” and I think we often feel compelled to legitimize our casual sex either for ourselves or others. Talking through something that can feel so amorphous and undefinable can make it feel more real.
When I’m talking to my friends about their hookups, it feels like we unpack and repack and then maybe unpack it again to the point that we end on a conclusion that’s unrecognizable from the beginning of the conversation. It makes something that initially felt random and chaotic into something meaningful and even sort of intimate — maybe not for the man that scurried out of our house at 4 a.m., but at least for the 12 of us that dissected every detail.
Casual sex and intimacy have such an interesting relationship. On one hand, having sex puts you in an inherently vulnerable position. Beyond the obvious safety concerns and the natural unease of being naked, for most of us in college, there’s still a sense that you’re venturing into uncharted territory. Especially when it’s with a stranger.
But, at the same time, we’re expected to pretend that it isn’t — or convince ourselves that it isn’t. The entire idea of hookup culture is predicated on the fact that it’s fun and low stakes and, most importantly, requires low emotional involvement. We’re expected to detach the act of sex from the vulnerability it creates, a task that is ultimately impossible.
The dichotomy is perfectly summarized by one female survey respondent’s answer when asked to describe her typical one-night stand. She said she typically meets someone at Skeeps, goes home and has average sex with them, then they make small talk in the morning, adding the detail, “sometimes they try to kiss goodbye??? i do not know you.”
I’ve heard similar stories from several of my friends. Somehow, a kiss goodbye can feel much more intimate than the sex itself. I completely understand the sentiment, but it’s hard to describe the reason. A hookup initiated at 2 a.m. in a disgusting bar seems disconnected from intimacy in a way that a goodbye kiss does not.
There’s a whole gradient of gestures that fall in that murky grey area from the forehead kiss to the morning cuddle. It can be hard to know where causal sex ends and intimate sex begins. And where we go from here.
With our college days dwindling, my friends and I often speculate about what sex will look like after college. Once we leave Ann Arbor — and the familiar hunting ground of the college bar — what happens to hookup culture?
Will we all move to different cities and continue the same routine with a new cast of characters? Or, like Marcus, will we eventually get tired of the same old, same old? How much longer will we live in this limbo of intimacy where sex is everything and nothing at the same time?
I’m not sure.
All I know is that, right now, a karaoke machine is calling my name.
Managing Sports Editor and Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.