Bowdoin College is hookup deficient. Well, not in quantity, but in ideology. A closed dialogue about sex and relationships on campus leaves many students unsatisfied and makes it nearly impossible for change to be enacted. Stories are swapped over brunch and largely forgotten. A couple of FWBs (friends with benefits) may never confess mutual feelings for one another. Awkward glances are exchanged in Smith. Assault may be brushed aside and merely succumb to the label of a “bad hookup”.
As two straight women, we’ve run the gamut when it comes to hooking up at Bowdoin, from bad pickup lines, to averting eye contact in Moulton, and we ourselves are not infallible. But as we’ve grown at Bowdoin, we found it surprising how much harder it is to develop emotional in addition to physical intimacy. This notion of a “hookup culture” instills the false idea that everyone is having casual sex. If that wasn’t bad enough, hookup culture disproportionately favors white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive people, i.e. the traditional Bowdoin student.
In order to subvert these norms, we’re promoting honest discourse about what really goes on behind closed doors, starting with our own experiences.
it was September 2015, the second week of my first year. Like most first years, I’m navigating my relationship with alcohol, and have ended up drunker than I intended to be at Ladd House on a Saturday night, and I’m slumped over on a couch on the sidelines. A boy I had recently befriended comes over to me and sits a little closer than I’m comfortable with. Of course, I don’t say anything, because I don’t want to damage his fragile first year party boy persona. He continues to move closer and eventually his hand is on my knee. I’m obviously too intoxicated to give any kind of consent to what’s happening, but nonetheless he plunges in for the kiss. I—buzzed, sweaty, a little scared—dramatically slump away from him after he makes contact, pretending to be drunker than I am just so that he leaves me alone. It works.
Two weeks later, I’m at Burnett dancing with friends. Another male “friend” has started to move closer to me in this horribly awkward dancing circle, and before I know it he has me cornered against a wall and aggressively goes in for the kiss—I’m trapped. His mouth is already against mine. Instinctively, I employ the same method of crisis aversion as last time, pretending to be drunk and flopping away from him so that he would retreat.
It wasn’t until months later that I realized the problematic nature of these interactions. Why didn’t I feel that I could firmly tell these men to leave me alone? Why did I write these experiences off as normal college house party decorum? Doesn’t everyone get forcibly kissed or cornered into a wall at some point at Bowdoin? As a naive first year, these were the impressions I got of a normal weekend night. I assumed that everyone was inevitably going to have some negative experiences with creepy people and that we almost had to endure these “bad hookups” in order to get to a good one—like a rite of passage.
What messages made these men feel that they could approach this obviously drunk woman that they vaguely knew and take her incapacitated state as an invitation to try their luck at a hookup? Did they just zone out during “Speak About It?” Did they think asking for consent was lame, or did they just see me as an easy target since I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, give them a firm no?
I wanted to share these stories to remind us all, especially first years, that we don’t have to endure any number of “bad hookups” to finally get to a good one. I shouldn’t be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or damaging their fragile masculinity at the expense of my own sexual safety and comfort. I guess what I’m saying is that we don’t have to stand on the sidelines of our own romantic and sexual experiences at Bowdoin, accepting certain saddening realities as truths and not standing up for ourselves when things are dangerous or scary or make us uncomfortable.
But even more important than the power of saying no, is the power of understanding no. We cannot let the people at this school who take “no” as a suggestion off the hook. We must combat the toxic mindset of these individuals: that pressuring others into sexual acts they might not be comfortable with is a healthy way of thinking. In short: even though we can say no, why is it so hard? So often, I hear women at this school say, “Well I didn’t really want to do anything with him, but I didn’t want to tell him to leave or offend him, so we just ended up having sex.” This is such an unhealthy, destructive, pervasive theme in Bowdoin hookup culture that we can no longer sweep under the overarching title of “bad hookup.” We need to address this issue of coercion head on, focus more consent programming on the fact that “no” is not a suggestion up for debate that an incapacitated woman on the couch is not an easy hookup.
During “More than Meets the Eye,” an orientation event centered around personal experience with race and ethnicity on campus, I shared a story about hooking up. It starts like most Bowdoin hookups— in the basement of a college house. Beer is on the floor, a singular Fountains of Wayne song is on repeat, white people are still dabbing.
There is a level of disconnect between the white men that I’ve encountered and my identity. He wonders how my hair does that–FYI it just grows out my head. He tries to run his fingers through my hair, but his hands were made to love white women, and his fingers get caught in the kinks. My own hair has managed to ostracize me.
As the night winds down, my DFMO partner and I get to know each other a little better— hometowns, majors, roommate situation. He then hesitates and picks from a word buffet of internalized racism thinly veiled behind pseudo-compliments. “You look so exotic.” “I’ve never hooked up with someone like you.” “You’re really pretty for a black girl.”
He settles on: “What are you?”
Sometimes it’s hard to see your own privilege. This is especially salient when you’re in a dark basement. But this question struck me in an unfortunately familiar way.
Even though it’s far from the first time I’ve heard this, I’m still taken aback by the words. What are you? And he says it with such mystique, like I’m a Jackson Pollock waiting to be interpreted. ‘Although my robot it pretty convincing, I can safely assure that I am, in fact, a human.’ He mulls over the answer and it’s fine for a few moments until he tries his luck again. ‘But, like, what are you’ because he ‘just had to know.’” As someone who identifies as multiracial, I’ve heard this sentiment a myriad of times, but it still bites. I’m proud of my background and it has largely shaped who I have become as a person, but asking only quells his own curiosity without addressing its importance in my own life, especially when we’ve both been drinking.
It’s hard enough to navigate the hookup scene without stepping outside of our personal social spheres, but it’s important to acknowledge the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality and other identities in compound. When Bowdoin women and men feel isolated and unable to navigate our hookup culture on campus, it is important to face the facts of racial bias in a sexual context. From students in committed relationships, to those who have never been kissed; from the asexual individual, to the casual hookup guru, to the student who has never had an orgasm, we’re here to share the stories that never make it to brunch.