Hill Interns: No Sex in the City

Posted July 23, 2003 at 6:22pm

From Monica Lewinsky to two ex-sweethearts quarreling in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R-Texas) office, Washington interns have a knack for serving up some of the best gossip this town has to offer.

But a new survey shows that these famous figures aren’t necessarily representative of the low-to-unpaid crowd of 20-something laborers who flock to the District each summer.

According to the Independent Women’s Forum’s second annual survey of 221 Capitol Hill interns, the phenomenon of “hooking up” is less common than many might think. The survey, conducted in June by The Polling Co., is scheduled to be released today.

“Approximately one month into their internships, 70 percent of interns — 69 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats — say they have not experienced a ‘hook-up’ since arriving in Washington, D.C,” the study revealed.

That number is nearly identical to last year’s figure of 69 percent, the study noted, proving that Capitol Hill interns are in fact a relatively prude bunch more focused on future success than extracurricular activities.

Moreover, the interns — 41 percent described themselves as single, 25 percent are in a serious relationship, 2 percent are engaged and 24 percent are dating more than one person — seem to hold a more traditional view of dating.

“Despite anecdotal evidence suggesting that traditional dating is ‘out-of-date’ at many of America’s colleges and universities, only 11 percent of respondents said they had not been on a one-on-one date in the past year at school,” the report stated.

“We found there’s been more of a return to traditional dating and traditional relationships and values than we’d seen in the past,” observed Kristen Richardson, the IWF’s campus programs manager.

The conservative group — which states its mission as advancing political freedom, economic liberty and personal responsibility for women — will present the results of the survey today at the IWF’s third annual Capitol Sex and Dating Conference. The conference begins with a free lunch for Hill interns at 11:30 a.m. at the Columbus Club in Union Station; the event will kick off at noon.

Rachel Campos-Duffy — a cast member of MTV’s “The Real World San Francisco” — will be on hand to discuss reality television and the “hook-up” culture.

Richardson said she believes the emotional impact of Sept. 11, 2001, and more recently the war in Iraq might be the reasons that more students are seeking solid relationships.

But political stripes also seem to impact how Capitol Hill interns perceive the concept of the “common” date.

While 52 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats chose “dinner and movie” as the most common date, Democrats were five times more likely than Republicans to describe “just hooking up with someone” as most common — 20 percent vs. 4 percent.

But Democrats also appear to be doing slightly less “hooking up” than their GOP counterparts, at least while they’re inside the Beltway.

While 69 percent of Republicans insisted they have not engaged in such behavior, 72 percent of Democrats denied having hooked up in D.C. Those statistics seem to shift a bit when the interns are back on their college turf, where 38 percent of Republicans admitted they didn’t hook up last year at school, compared with 27 percent of Democrats who made the same claim.

No doubt, Capitol Hill can be a tempting playground for young people, but experts who have worked with interns in the halls of Congress said they’ve noticed a shift in behavior and perceptions over the years.

The Congressional Management Foundation’s Brad Fitch said his organization, which publishes the Congressional Intern Handbook, updated its guide in 2001 to include sections dealing with sexual harassment and other ethical issues, some of which directly relate to the more social aspects of internships.

Fitch, who also teaches ethics at American University and previously worked as an intern supervisor in several Congressional offices, said he tells the interns he works with to mind their p’s and q’s, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned about their sex lives.

E-mail, he believes, is the likeliest culprit to get interns into trouble these days.

On the whole, Fitch said Hill life has changed a lot socially since he was an intern in 1982 for then-Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).

“I’ve kind of seen the scene for over 20 years. There has been a marked shift in the social relationship between interns and staff,” Fitch said, remarking that the most “significant” change occurred when the drinking age went up. That meant that Members of Congress had to be particularly concerned about not being caught in a compromising situation by socializing at local watering holes with potentially underaged staff.

The Lewinsky and Chandra Levy stories, he said, have also “unfortunately put a new image on interns” and as a result, he explained, some lawmakers “are often wary of being seen in social settings, especially with female interns.”

Mack Mariani, co-editor of “The Insider’s Guide to Political Internships: What to Do Once You’re in the Door,” said the vast majority of interns keep their heads on their shoulders and keep their balance.

“The majority of them are looking to make their internship a positive work experience and positive learning experience and they don’t get overly caught up in the social aspects of things,” said Mariani, whose book lightly touches on the the social dynamic of working on the Hill.

“It basically says don’t let fear paralyze you, go out with your friends, but don’t [do something that will] compromise” your experience, he explained.

Richardson said the study looked at a lot more than sex, however, and she believes some of the most important findings about the attitudes and behavior of Capitol Hill interns relate to their experiences back at school with their college professors.

Namely, 51 percent said their professors lean to the liberal side — a mere 28 percent consider their professors to be more conservative — but only 42 percent said they are “very comfortable” discussing their own political views in the classroom when they know that their professors hold different views from their own.

Richardson said she’s concerned that these statistics might show that the political divide between students and their professors may be “hindering the open forum” on campus.

Richardson said she was encouraged, however, by the reasons this year’s crop of interns said they came to D.C.

The majority — 56 percent — said the most important factor in their decision to spend their savings trying to exist in one of the country’s most expensive cities was the “educational and professional opportunities” that await those who come here.

An additional 29 percent said they’re chiefly here to “make contacts that might help in the future.”

Only 2 percent — down from 5 percent last year — said they came to Washington for the “social aspect.”

“When I interned out here, the year after [the] Monica Lewinsky [scandal broke], I remember telling people I was an intern” and being embarrassed, Richardson said, but clearly that stigma is fading.

“It’s good to see that students got away from that,” she remarked.

Last year’s survey focused on other areas not addressed in this year’s survey, including whether it is common for Capitol Hill interns to become involved in intimate relationships with elected officials.

In the 2002 survey, only 2 percent said they had experienced or observed interns having intimate relationships with elected officials, but more than one-quarter — 26 percent — said they had witnessed other staff members flirting with interns, and 15 percent reported observing interns having intimate relationships with other interns.