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The Sexual Organization of the University: Women’s Experiences of Sex and Relationships on Two American College Campuses


This dissertation examines the multi-level processes contributing to the organization and experience of sexual life at two four-year universities in the United States, the University of California Santa Barbara and the University of Pennsylvania. Informed by and responsive to macro-level theories of sexuality and the literature on collegiate hookup culture, this study adopts a unique angle of approach to the study of campus sexual life, applying sexual markets theory to illustrate how a university’s institutional history, structural and cultural features collectively contribute to the development of multiple, highly organized venues coordinating the student search for sexual partners.

Combining archival research on both institutions with in-depth qualitative interviews with fifty-four undergraduate women – twenty-seven at each school – I trace the genesis and experience of three types of campus sexual markets: party markets, student of color markets and queer student markets. I argue the genesis of each market type is rooted in the dual process of organized student action and institutional change. Sexual markets are both constructed by the collective actions of its members and constrained by the structural and cultural conditions of the university environment. This tension, I argue, informs how women experience the search for sexual partners on their respective campuses, and within different market types.

Rooted in the 18th century, when higher education was largely limited to the nation’s wealthy, White male elite, the party sexual market is the largest sexual market at each institution, sustained by its wealthy student populations and organized around sociality, drinking and sexual partnership. As sites primarily controlled by White men, women on both campuses describe the importance of hegemonic feminine beauty, and its association with Whiteness, for unfettered access to parties. The organizing principles of both student of color and queer student sexual markets at UCSB and Penn, while principally designed to provide safe, supportive spaces for these populations, nevertheless reflect the omnipotence of White heteronormativity as these student populations negotiate different market environments and make sexual decisions. These demographic and cultural facets of both Penn’s and UCSB’s campuses were of consequence for how women negotiated the campus writ large, as well as how they came to understand their relationship to student of color and/or queer student communities, respectively. This study’s examination of the sexual partnering strategies and approaches of women of color and queer women identifies the power of a racial and/or queer “authenticity work” for determining membership in minority student communities, with subsequent impacts on the search for sexual partners on each campus. The complex set of processes determining women’s engagement with particular sexual markets reveal how the sexual lives of undergraduate women are doubly informed by the institutional environments they occupy and by their multiple, intersecting identities.

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