Throughout this week, the Cut explores college life, from politics and identity to parties, sex, and style.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about a sexual maneuver that plagued the backseats of cars and our freshman dormitories. Hookups from the era when we were first free to copulate as much as we pleased, but had not yet learned pleasing copulation techniques. My friend was describing the terrible mistakes he made in the process of figuring out how to perform cunnilingus. Suddenly, I had a horrible flashback.
“Did you ever do that thing where you put your tongue on a girl’s clit, then shake your head back and forth really violently?”
He promptly fell off his barstool. Yes, he had performed that maneuver. Between jags of horrified laughter, he wondered where the idea came from. He couldn’t remember anyone telling him to do it, and yet he had, and had endured the vertiginous dizzy-brain feeling following his attempts to turn his whole head into a vibrator. (A modern web search revealed that this terrible oral sex technique is discussed with some frequency on message boards where young men trade erotic advice. One 18-year-old lists “vigorously shaking your head back and forth” alongside tonguing the ABC’s or “entire ANSI ASCII set.”) He still remembers the moment, near the end of college, when after years of blind-leading-the-blind oral sex situations (“What do you like?” “Um. That?”) he finally stumbled across something that worked. Suddenly, everything changed. Once a confusing obstacle in the road to getting his dick sucked, cunnilingus became an act he actually enjoyed. It took four years of frequent, compulsive hooking up to learn even the basics — much less figure out what he liked.
When I asked people what they learned about sex during college, the answers came slowly. When I asked what they learned about sex after college, the answers were swift and, more often than not, started with the same word: “Everything.” College sex was fun, yes. Enlightening, eye-opening, life-changing. But by any objective sexual standard, it was also awful.
When we talk about the sex in college, we tend to focus on the kid-in-a-candy-store aspect, imagining an era of gleeful sluttishness when a dozen hookups could occur simultaneously at a single party. Born well into the age of sex-positive feminism, gay-straight alliances, and peer sexual educators, the modern college student faces a paradox of sexual knowledge: Intellectually, they know everything about sex, but realistically they are still teenagers living outside the home for the first time, and they still have no idea what they’re doing. Theoretical knowledge helps, but the physical realities of sex and sexual self-discovery remain a vastly experiential enterprise. Meanwhile, the elaborately constructed and culturally fetishized “campus life” obliges these students to discover themselves while remaining in a sort of hypersocial, privacy-obliterating sub-adult state. If anything, it’s testament to the power of the young-adult sex drive that orgasms ever occur in those horrifying human warehouses we call dorms.
“I was a sex educator in college,” one female friend remembered. “It was a super-progressive program; we handed out lube like candy, did presentations at fraternity and sorority houses, explained clitoral orgasms and the G-spot. Really awesome. But I didn’t myself orgasm until after college.” In college she had dozens of roommates, little privacy, and almost no personal space; she bought a vibrator but never took it out of the box. She wasn’t sure what she wanted, and even though she knew in theory that she could ask for the little she knew she did want, actually doing so was another matter. As a different female friend put it, “You learn all the great and bad things about sex in college, the big lessons about pregnancy and STDs. Awesome drugs. But actual confidence comes later. In order to have enough variety to know what you want, you need the confidence to go for it and, in my opinion, multiple partners and tries. It takes time.”
The combination of minimal privacy and intense socialization makes the imperative to “find yourself” in college — sexually or otherwise — sort of cruel. Though I tend to block out all sexual memories associated with college, I distinctly recall a tragic episode wherein I purchased a vibrator, but because I shared my dormitory bathroom with every other woman who lived in the building, I couldn’t figure out a single moment private enough to wash my sex toy before use. (After some consideration, I now believe I should have stashed it in my shower caddy and washed there. Although the fear that someone notice and conclude that I’d used it in a public shower probably would have deterred me.) Researchers say the “serendipity” of run-ins in shared dorm bathrooms promote “stronger interpersonal bonds,” but at what cost? Recounting the times she accidentally walked in on peers hooking up in communal spaces, another adult friend noted that some grossnesses cannot be unseen.
And there is a limit to how much abandon can be achieved in a twin-size bed with roommates lurking around: Forget maneuvers that are overly messy or require sturdy furniture. One man fondly recalled getting kicked out of a Case Western fraternity after destroying property with exuberantly messy period sex: “I guess we should have tried to clean up the room,” he reflected. “They were just so grossed out. It was a kind of clean-cut, rah-rah frat, no drugs, very conformist. Immediately after I’d been accepted as a pledge I realized I’d made a mistake. So I told them I wanted to quit and my big brother said they hated to lose pledges, tried everything to keep me from quitting. The night after the period sex was when my big brother finally said, ‘Yeah, you know, maybe it is a good idea for you to de-pledge.’”
Real sexual discovery requires a modicum of privacy and sense of freedom. But college campuses — particularly those designed to be socially self-sustaining communities apart from the "real world" — can be as insular as any small town. There is no such thing as anonymous sex on a college campus; you’ll see each other in the cafeteria, at the library, in the quad, at the campus medical center, on Frat Row. The supply of possible partners is limited at best, dwindling at worst. New people are hard to come by, old people are hard to escape.
This is not to say that the much-discussed college hookup doesn’t hold a purpose. “I think I learned more about relationships than sex,” a recent graduate said of her college sex life. She attended a large state university, but her social niche within it seemed tightly bound and limited, anyway. Dating in that closed ecosystem required accountability and morning-after ethics. Her romantic mistakes were inescapable; she had no choice but to learn from them. Running into the same suitors at every party was a crash course in getting over rejection, navigating romantic competition, and balancing friendship with sex. These were, essentially, lessons in the social entanglements that come before and after sex. Lessons about sex itself —what worked for her body, what worked for other bodies, what she really liked — came later. In college, she studied the culture and consequences of sex. Only after college, in her own apartment and atop a full-size bed, was she able to focus on the actual act.
Not that post-college sex is always a picnic, either. After graduation, my head-shaking friend moved to New York. The first time he brought a girl home, it was after a warehouse party in Brooklyn. College was over: He had escaped the sexual terrors of dorm life, and a new set of adventures awaited him. He was feeling impossibly cool, having met and seduced a stranger, then taken her to his brand-new grown-up apartment for passionate grown-up sex. They fell asleep beside each other.
The next morning, he woke up and she was gone.
And she had robbed him.