The signs of summer surround us: Plastic pools dot front lawns, ice-cream trucks make mid-day rounds, and minivans packed with kids and picnic baskets trundle towards beaches. Here in Washington, D.C., an influx of interns is as much a part of the summer landscape as tourists and humidity. Young men and women from college campuses across the country have descended on Capitol Hill for three-month tours of opening congressional mail and playing softball on the National Mall.

Once the life of a D.C. intern was no more intriguing to outsiders than a summer as a camp counselor or life guard. But this town’s junior staffers now have earned notoriety. First, there was Monica, the rubenesque White House vixen who nearly brought down a president through her thong-snapping seduction. Chandra was the next intern to captivate the country. Her affair with a congressman was unearthed during the investigation into her murder, which remains unsolved. Low-level Senate aid Jessica Cutler reinforced the sexually charged stereotype when her Internet blog detailing her sexual escapades became public. She lost her job, but leveraged her “fame” into a lucrative book deal.

Americans watching the media-hyped coverage of these scandals can be forgiven for thinking the Beltway an over-sexed cesspool, where powerful politicians prey on too-willing young women. Parents may hesitate to send their kids to the nation’s capital, no longer a symbol of public service, but rather one of decadence and immorality.

Yet does the popular image of licentious Washington match reality? The Independent Women’s Forum commissioned a poll to gauge the real-life experiences of Capitol Hill interns. The findings suggest that most interns come to Washington focused on advancing their careers, but that Congress is indeed a sexually charged environment.

As one might expect, three quarters of the 200 interns surveyed reported flirting among interns. But half had also seen it between interns and staff, and more disturbing, nearly one in ten had witnessed flirting between an intern and an elected official. One percent claimed to be aware of an intern’s having an intimate relationship with an elected official– a small percentage, granted, but it is still problematic if such affairs take place at all.

Sleeping with a congressman or senator may be the province of the daring few, but plenty of interns are getting physical during their D.C. summers. Nearly half (44 percent) admitted to having “hooked up”– defined as a casual physical encounter including anything from kissing to intercourse– since arriving in Washington. That’s almost twice as many interns as when this question was asked in a 2003 survey.

Alcohol goes hand in hand with the hook-up culture, with more than eight in ten interns responding that alcohol is “always” (30 percent) or “sometimes” (54 percent) present at social functions. Not surprisingly, the propensity to consume alcohol was linked to an intern’s likelihood of hooking up, and four in ten interns admitted that they’d done things under the influence of alcohol that they wouldn’t have done sober.

Why should anyone care that drinking and hooking up are a part of the typical Capitol intern experience– chalk it up to harmless fun and life experience, right?

Unfortunately, research shows that many young women experience serious regret after engaging in such encounters. While two thirds said they were open to a serious relationship and would consider marriage if they met their perfect mate today, they overwhelmingly recognize that hooking up is unlikely to lead to a meaningful relationship. Moreover, the hook-up culture has largely displaced the traditional dating practices that would give young men and women the opportunity to build the meaningful, lasting relationships that they say they want.

Some may take comfort in the notion that this culture is limited to the seedy world of politics. Our survey says otherwise: In fact, the alcohol-fueled hook-up lifestyle is the norm on campuses across the country.

Few pay serious attention to youth culture on Capitol Hill except when some politician is caught with his pants down. We need to have a running dialogue about the drawbacks of existing traditions and practices so that a healthier culture can develop. After all, Washington’s newly arrived interns may be making copies today, but one day soon they will be running the country.