Over the years, there’s been an overabundance of conversations at Bowdoin around hookup culture. Whether it’s over brunch after a night of partying, under blinking fairy lights at a group of girlfriends’ weekly wine night or onstage at “RISE: Untold Stories of Bowdoin Women.” It’s been the subject of countless Talks of the Quad and columns in the Bowdoin Orient. Most often, these conversations are had by underclassmen. I remember most meals I had with my friends during my freshman and sophomore years somehow always circling back to “hookup culture.” I experienced dissatisfaction and frustration at the growing realization that I wasn’t going to find the meaningful relationship I came into Bowdoin hoping for.
By junior year, these conversations redirected themselves away from wondering what was wrong with hookup culture to an outright dismissal of it. Soon, my friends and I were over it. We had realized that this weird culture where people slept with each other for months on end while denying they had any emotional feelings for each other or a desire for a relationship was bizarre, and was not a reflection of us. It wasn’t easy to get there, and once I did, I found myself packing up the uncomfortable feelings hookup culture had opened in me when I arrived at Bowdoin as a first year and putting them away.
That was until I read this article by Brooke Vahos ’21 last spring, called “The responsibility of upperclassmen.” In it, she details her experiences navigating uncomfortable hookup power dynamics with upperclassmen, calling out upperclassmen for abusing those dynamics and failing to protect first years. She writes, “Upperclassmen need to have more candid conversations with their underclass sexual partners. … Instances of inequality in sexual encounters … can lead to larger issues of abuse, harassment and, in the most extreme cases, rape.”
This may seem like a huge leap to some—how can an unexciting sexual encounter lead to rape? But as I’m on the heels of my third year in a row developing, writing and producing “RISE” with a team and cast of fantastic women, I have been forced to think about hookup culture as more than just a dissatisfying and unfulfilling way of navigating sexual and romantic relationships. No, the truth of hookup culture is something much darker: its dangerous promotion of casual sex, one night stands and encounters with total strangers creates a climate ripe for sexual assault, rape and emotional harm.
My first year, I was a member of the women’s ultimate frisbee team, Chaos Theory. For the most part, my experiences were positive—I found a nurturing community of women who made me feel at home at a time when I was struggling to find my place at Bowdoin. On the famed “naming night,” when first year rookies received their names and we all signed each others’ team shirts, an upperclassman girl yelled something along the lines of “Chaos! Tonight, if you hook up with a boy, don’t let him take off your Chaos shirt! You have to take your shirt off yourself!” She was saying, basically, to remain empowered in a hookup situation, remove your own clothes. Still, I stood there in a haze (we were all pretty drunk at this point) letting the words roll around in my head. I was reminded of one of the rules the 15-year-old girls of the “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” made for the magic pair of jeans they shared between the four of them: “You must never let a boy take off the pants (although you may take them off yourself in his presence).” After this night of team bonding and women supporting women, we were just going to run over to the boys’ side and hope to hook up with some random guy? Was that the best possible end of a night at Bowdoin? I know the ultimate team has changed a lot since my first year, but after a while I started feeling unsafe and vulnerable in its spaces and chose to remove myself.
The fact of the matter is Brooke was right. As upperclassmen, it is our responsibility not just to protect underclassmen and upset unhealthy power dynamics. It’s our responsibility to, once we reach our junior years and often remove ourselves from the hookup culture, attempt to reform the culture. This means senior men and women of sports teams need to stop throwing parties that center around going home with a potential sexual partner as the ultimate achievement. We need to normalize asking people out on dates or to meals instead of wandering up to the girl you like from class and dry humping her from behind on the dance floor. There’s a lot of work put into Orientation every year to inform first years about how to navigate alcohol, time management and using Bowdoin’s resources. So how come every fall when the “RISE” team and I go through submissions, we read countless sexual assault stories from our Bowdoin community, an alarming number of them from underclassmen?
Bowdoin is failing at keeping each other out of dangerous sexual situations, as an institution and as a community. Women—and I understand my article is very cisnormative, I apologize as that is the experience I feel most qualified to speak to—and those who do not identify or pass as men, are more vulnerable to violence. Not to say that men are not susceptible to gender violence, but it disproportionately affects women. This is indisputable. So when we create and promote a (heteronormative) culture that informs women that they have equal footing with men and encourages them to seek sexual encounters for empowerment, we are doing them and our community a disservice, and we are being dishonest. When we set the bar so low for a sexual encounter, when we furnish alcohol for the most vulnerable members of our community and tell them that it’s safe to get leglessly drunk and go home with a stranger, we are doing our community a disservice. The playing field is not level, not when certain sports teams steal and collect the OneCards of women they’ve hooked up with, not when senior boys take advantage of young and naive first year girls, not as long as “RISE” is still necessary and full to the brim with stories of violence, and not when those of us, disenchanted with the hookup culture, turn our noses and leave our first years and sophomores to fend for themselves.