Tuesday, July 7, 2015

LIBIDO REDUX: Sex and the Single College Girl

Sex on campus sucks. I wish I’d never done it. But when I first arrived at my medium-size New England college with a youthful outlook and a spring in my step, I thought quite differently.
I didn’t arrive on campus looking to engage in a crash course of Bedroom 101, but it soon became clear that sex and hookups were happening all around me. Despite my M.O. to generally be shy and keep to myself, I felt pressured to fit in. And I wondered what all the fuss was about. Everyone seemed to be having a blast exercising their sexual freedoms, and I was on board with the idea that the sexual revolution put women in the driver’s seat. I had just turned 18, and my life was ahead of me. What better time than now to experiment? What could go wrong?
Now, only a couple years later, I see things differently. I look back on my college sexual experience, and I can see how, overall, it influenced me for the worse. Those years hurt me—in the sexual arena, interpersonal relationships, and general self-confidence. Even as I actively seek to heal from them with therapy and self-care, I still have a long way to go. The repercussions of my campus sexcapades continue to haunt me to this day.
Lest you think I’m being dramatic or simply had a couple less-than-dreamy rendezvous, let me get to the punch. In college I was date-raped with a tranquilizing drug. It’s not just that one incident that makes me chalk up my college years as a bust; it’s that I feel the culture on campus gradually wore down my defenses, making me more vulnerable to that violating experience.
Allow me to give the necessary disclaimers. I told nobody back then, and I’ve told hardly anybody even now. I’m not seeking self-aggrandizement or to “bring any men down.” I have literally no incentive to make this up, as I pen this pseudonymous article. This month The Atlantic includes campus sex among the “big ideas” discussed in its yearly issue, and I thought that now is as good a time as ever to contribute my firsthand account to the national conversation. My only desire is that sharing my story might shed light on some of the issues that make sex on campus a continual issue of national attention.
In the months since the Rolling Stone fiasco of false reporting a frat rape at the University of Virginia, news outlets have been whirring with questions: Can we trust women who say they were raped? Why don’t women report it immediately if they were really violated? I cannot answer all these questions, but my story may offer some insight into why some women don’t always report rape immediately. For me at least, it was because, like a frog in slowly heating water, my sense of self-possession in sexual encounters had been dying over a period of time. By the time the rape happened, my radar was gone. I could hardly distinguish it from any other sexual encounter I had on campus, much less report it as rape.
So what do I mean when I say the college sex scene was fertile ground for my rape to take place? I saw disturbing trends that I found to be conducive to unhealthy views of sexuality, especially for women. For one, there was a palpable sense that men expected sexual pleasure from women as if they deserved it. I can’t tell you how many encounters and near-encounters my girlfriends and I would have when we’d get a look from the guy that meant, “You’re going to follow the script, right?” Get busy pleasing me. My college experience led me to embrace a worldview that male pleasure is king. It goes without saying that a woman’s sexual pleasure was cursory if even applicable in college hookups. Tied up as it is with emotion and patient mood-building, female sexual pleasure (often elusive for those who’ve never been in a long-term monogamous relationship) was rarely found in hookups.
Further, as soon as word got out that I had a sexual encounter with anyone, I got a reputation as being “available” to all of that guy’s friends. I’m not even talking about having sex, which, thanks to my embarrassment at my inexperience, I didn’t engage in until a couple years later. I’m talking about any hookup at all. Early freshman year I had a sober sexual experience with a guy a couple years older than me. For the next few years, all of his friends tried to chum up to me, as if expecting to be next in line. I became a walking billboard for solicitation. The sense of expectation affects you over time, and slowly my sense of self-possession was wearing thin. Surely this couldn’t be the sexual freedom everyone was talking about . . . unless it means free to sexually please men?
Another disturbing trend I experienced in college that I believe contributes to a problematic rape culture is a sense that no doesn’t always mean no. All it took was one late-night study session with a guy friend who encouraged me, “Don’t worry, we’re just friends; it’s not like that,” to see how much it really was like that. After it got late, and I was tired and fell asleep, he decided to put his hands down my jeans.
That was just the first of many encounters and (as I became less naive) near-encounters that taught me that men just can’t help themselves. Real or distorted, this became my view of things: Men may say they won’t go there, but ultimately they will go there. I couldn’t trust that an upfront and clear no would stick. You can sleep here tonight; don’t worry, I won’t make a move. Or, We’re friends; this isn’t a date. After it happens a dozen times, you get the picture that at some point men just can’t control themselves, and you can’t change that. If you want to fit in, you have to get used to it.
Over time, I grew passive in these encounters, letting men have their way with me. Contrary to how the media portrays it, I was never in the driver’s seat. Perhaps it was because I was shy by nature and didn’t have much experience, but when an evening led me to a sexual encounter, whether expected or unexpected, I didn’t know what to do and just went along with it. When I didn’t want it, I’d prefer to get it over with fast instead of having conflict. Any sense of explicit consent was becoming murky.
Even when I wanted to express myself sexually and not be as passive, the campus sex scene educated me with yet another disturbing trend—the idea that pornified sex is the go-to for robust sexual expression. College students need go no further than their campus “Sex Week” (as schools such as Yale have become famous for) to see the adventurous sex toys and apparel that make for exciting times. The message: Don’t be boring. Be like porn stars.
As a result, girls like me who are wondering how to get in the driver’s seat and enjoy sex (because it’s not supposed to suck, right?) are spoon-fed pornified scripts. If you tried and failed to like porn, you’d be like me—a twentysomething who’s passive in bed and has only the quality of being “young and inexperienced” in terms of sexually attractive attributes going for me. Great.
Then just before summer one year, I’m drinking and cavorting with some friendly boys, and I ingest something unexpected. I feel tired and less in control of myself. As my consciousness fades, that boy who was eyeing me all night takes the wheel.
Yes, I was raped that night. But when it comes to me owning my sexuality, that had been worn away slowly for years. I believe it made me all the more vulnerable to that rape. I am still dealing with the sense of violation I experienced that night. But also very powerful and damaging was the campus hookup culture that conditioned me to embrace unhealthy sexual views—that men deserve sex, no doesn’t always mean no, and real life should resemble porn.
My experience with sex on campus was the opposite of what I expected. What I regret the most is that, when it comes to my youthful chance to explore my sexuality in a healthy way, I’ll never have that back. Now I have to start from square one, trying to unlearn the unhealthy habits that campus sex taught me. Wear protection, everyone says, as if that’s all that matters. But condoms didn’t protect my heart, and contraception doesn’t pay my therapy bills. How I wish someone had told me about the need to protect myself from being used.

By Alice Owens