Credit AJ Duncan

Don’t want no bad romance

By Frances Chorley

The media’s hyperfixation on sex and the uni experience

Popular culture is bizarrely insistent that university students love love. From the glaringly obvious example of the After trilogy, to the more nuanced work of Good Will Hunting, it’s almost impossible to think of a fictional campus in which some form of romantic plotline doesn’t play out. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate a steamy sub-plot as much as the next person, but perhaps it’s time to consider the kind of message this is laying out.

2021 saw the release of HBO’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, a comedy series that traced the highs and lows of the undergrad life, and which yes, predictably, involved sex. To preface, I thought that the show was great, and not just because of Renée Rapp. Dealing with issues of race, disability and sexuality, it invites important questions about navigating the world of relationships as a female student. Yet, with its raunchy title and intimate focus, it also contributes to a well-established tradition of viewing love and relationships as an inevitability of the student experience, and an archetypical aspect of coming of age. From The Graduate, Legally Blonde, Normal People, the pattern is there, and it’s getting a little tired.

This is not to say that university students are universally celibate (ha), nor is it to shut down conversations about intimate topics. I would contend, however, that pop culture relies on sex as a story device in a way that is unhelpful, and frankly a little weird. Case in hand, let us cast our minds back to the third Pitch Perfect movie in which, following the departure of her co-star Skylar Astin, finds Anna Kendrick single for the first time. Rather than letting Becca dominate the world of collegiate acapella alone, the screenwriters churned out a love interest so unnecessary to the plot that he can only have been there to check a box, to fulfil a necessary cinematic trope.

From Easy A, to Normal People, to Gilmore Girls, the list is expansive, and with the noted exception of Monsters University, there aren’t many stories set in and around university in which romance isn’t portrayed as an integral aspect of the student experience. In my first year of university, I struggled with this. Hook-up culture was frightening, and while hinge dates were a fun opportunity to find a new pub or to source a fun anecdote, romance at university didn’t seem to work for me, leaving me at odds with a world that the culture had naturalised. Watching Sex Education that summer, I was struck by a conversation between therapist Jean Milburn and a student who, when asked how sex makes her feel, replies, “I don’t feel anything. I have no connection to it”. Bizarrely, this was the first time I had seen asexuality represented in popular culture, and the scene struck a chord. Although asexuality is uncommon, thought to occur in around 1% of the population, it’s too often neglected by popular culture as a viable way of being. This is particularly true for depictions of university students, whose sex lives are seemingly an eternal point of artistic interest, and often not subtly.

Imposing sex as an integral aspect of coming-of-age is problematic, and not only for those who identify as asexual. It encourages rushed relationships, fraught hook-ups, and builds in those who don’t participate an unsettling sense that they’re missing a crucial stage of growing up. Representation can be a necessary rejoinder to this feeling of alienation and is too often neglected. The scene in Sex Education delivers this effect well, and there is a lot to be said for Dr. Milburn’s closing remark: “sex doesn’t make us whole, so how could you ever be broken?”

When pop culture insists on university romances, it’s easy to worry that you’re missing out on the authentic student experience. But this is only illusory. The same things that make uni a great place for meeting others, cheesy though it might sound, also renders it the perfect time to find yourself. These are the years for understanding your own values, establishing a sense of self, and thinking about where you want to go next. Relationships may be sold as integral to growing up, but it’s not really the case – it’s okay to do university alone.


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