Last week, you probably saw the Internets get its panties in a wad about a New York Times story called "Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too," which focused on female students at U-Penn.
In her 4,000-word dispatch, writer Kate Taylor revealed shocking details about how college women love “hooking up" and having casual sex, because they’re waaay too busy to bother with a relationship. As feminist pundits and media-watchers have been pointing out since the piece first ran, there's a lot of ARGHHH there.
But the story did shed some welcome light on the complicated relationship between alcohol and sex -- specifically, how some college ladies feel they need to get wasted before hooking up, because “they were ... too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk.”
All the lively discussion fueled by the article got me thinking about my own college experience -- i.e., the heady, youthful, disgusting days when my own drinking took off (I eventually gave up alcohol at age 29). Ah, the horrific New England frat parties I convinced myself to attend because they were part of the "college experience.” All that Goldschlager. All that puking. All those migraines. All those (wait for it) hookups.
But when I was 19, something happened. Something humiliating, but eye-opening: I got caught stealing a pregnancy test. (Though I’d been caught shoplifting a couple times in the past, pocketing a pregnancy test felt almost unbearably pathetic and trashy. Partly because I wasn't totally sure whose kid I might be pregs with. More on that in a minute.)
Some back-story before I touch on the preg heist: It was the ‘90s. I was a student at UMass-Amherst. I'd dabbled in pro-choice stuff since I was 12-ish, going to rallies and sending $25 checks to NARAL (I loved their purple bumper stickers). But when one of my best college friends, Karen, introduced me to riot grrrl, making me mix tapes full of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Excuse 17, I was bowled over. This kind of feminism felt different: so raw and personal.
The music reached my darkest places, offering a comforting retort to all the shitty cultural cues I’d internalized. And as a super-shy, insecure kid who’d grown into a clinically depressed teenager and undergrad, I internalized plenty of 'em -- that I could only be happy with the help of a guy; that it was literally impossible to be too thin; that sex was a dark, scary forest where every woman was forced to play either Virgin or Whore. Riot grrrl gave me hope -- I wanted to reclaim my sexuality and scream about systemic oppression from the nearest mountaintop.
But I went through some confusion when it came to the whole reclaiming-my-sexuality bit. Before freshman year, I’d only dated a little, and had never really drawn much attention from guys. (I'd had sex for the first time at 18, with my first real boyfriend, soon before I left for college.) That all abruptly changed the instant I got to campus. (Call me naive, but I hadn't been expecting the COLLEGE SUPER-SEXUAL DUDE ONSLAUGHT.) Suddenly guys were all over me, all the time -- and some of them I was (gasp) actually attracted to!
I was like a kid in a self-serve fro-yo joint, jumping from random guy to random guy. I wanted to play, and practice, and flaunt my 18-year-old-ness, but what I wanted most was all the physical validation I’d been missing in high school.
So I slept with the dudes. A lot of dudes (one kid on my hall thoughtfully dubbed me the “slutty blonde girl”). Hey, I obviously have no judgment about ladies indulging in casual sex -- for lots of us, youthful experimentation is a rite of passage, and I don't think it's a big deal when it's safe, mutually consenting, and driven by genuine attraction. But it wasn't always like that for me -- I realize now that I wouldn't have slept with 95 percent of those guys if I hadn't been rip-roaring wasted at the time.
And I didn't quite love the actual sex, either; I was too amateur to have a clue what I was into yet. I mainly loved my effect on these guys, how they made me feel: grown-up, powerful, deliciously capable of inciting passion. I rolled around in this false approval, ate up their lust like it meant something real, something honorable, about me. And I consistently ignored the nagging, nauseous feeling in my gut when I woke up in another strange bed with another strange guy whose name I barely remembered.
So yeah. Not surprisingly, I was sleeping with a couple different guys when I tried to steal the aforementioned pregnancy test. Neither man was particularly interesting, or interested, and I certainly wasn’t in love with them, either.
My newfound riot grrrl freak-flag had given me a sense of purpose —- I'd started a zine, was taking Women’s Studies classes, and had gotten a job as the women’s issues editor at my school paper. I told myself bed-hopping was no big deal -- I was adventuring, “taking lovers.”
But stealing a pregnancy test was something else altogether. I wasn’t poor; my parents sent me fun-money every month. So what, exactly, possessed me to shove that garish pink-and-white box into my sweatshirt pocket at the Stop ‘n Shop one mild May evening?
I hadn’t planned on swiping it. But suddenly, the idea of carrying it to a register and, y' know, actually handing it to a cashier felt too mortifying to endure. One minute it was in my hand, the next it was in my pocket.
Then, right as I slipped past checkout and reached for the door, a security guard grabbed me and led me into a little room, where a gray-haired man in oversized glasses sat peering at a security screen. “We have you on camera trying to steal. What’d you take?” Feeling like the slimiest slug that ever slinked the face of the earth, I pulled the box from my pocket. “It’s, uh, a pregnancy test,” I offered meekly, cheeks aflame.
He asked for my license, copied my info, and dismissed me with a stern, “We usually prosecute people like you, but just this once” warning. I promptly went home to cry.
I could write a thousand heartfelt op-eds about the importance of a woman’s right to candid sexual expression -- especially in a misogynistic culture that both trivializes and demonizes the choices we make about our own bodies. I believe that type of sexual expression -- learning what we like, having fun, trying stuff -- is crucial, especially for younger women. But at 19, I wasn’t ready to be myself in the bedroom, because I didn’t even know what my self was. As a newbie feminist, I was more invested in promoting other women’s empowerment than I was in fostering my own! And beyond the icky validation factor, what I was doing in bed with all those dudes usually left me feeling empty and alcoholic.
Like I wrote (and mean!) above, I have no judginess about what other women, in college or anywhere, do between the sheets, or in the library stacks, or on the back stairway of the dining hall. Our sexualities shift and evolve as we do, obvs, and experimenting is fun (though for me, now, experimenting is done sober).
Looking back, I’m glad I got caught stealing that preg test, as over-the-top cringe-inducing as it was. Why? Because it helped shine a light on behaviors that weren't serving me. Hooking up wasn't the problem; the problem was how I compulsively relied on alcohol to help satisfy my bottomless need for male approval.
Epilogue: It turned out I wasn't knocked up (phew), so I could get back to what mattered to me: driving around with Karen, yelling along to Crass. Writing. Road trips. Building my budding feminist empire. And, of course, reclaiming my sexuality — but in my own way, in my own time. Hopefully the college ladies in that New York Times piece are finding a way to do the same.
Now that I've splashed my college-era guts all over your little screen, it's only fair -- I'd love to hear about your college days and how "hookup culture," sex, and alcohol played into them.