Sally Quinn on When ‘No’ Didn’t Mean ‘No’

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“The rule at Smith was that if a girl was caught sleeping in a boy’s dorm, she would be kicked out of school.” Photo: Courtesy of Sally Quinn

When I entered Smith College in 1959, no one ever talked about sex. Even among my closest friends — we didn’t know whether anyone had had sex (we presumed not). For me, having sex was entirely out of the question. “Making out” was permissible but also unmentionable. A girl might be attracted to a boy, and even aroused during making out, but she could never appear to want sexual contact; it had to just “happen” — and even then, it was necessary to protest at each new stage. “No” definitely did not mean “no.” I did some petting that I would characterize as “heavy,” but I never went so far that anyone would get the impression that it was okay to go all the way. 

On the weekends, we went to parties or games at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. I had a date at Yale who got too drunk to drive me back to my hotel, so I ended up spending the night in his bed; he slept in the other room. The rule at Smith was that if a girl was caught sleeping in a boy’s dorm, she would be kicked out of school. So that was one of the most dangerous things I did in college.

When I think about it, there was sex going on. There was a cheesy Italian restaurant down the hill. The owner, Carlo, had bedroom eyes, and the word on campus was that he had a room upstairs where he had sex with the Smith girls. One friend of mine had an affair with Carlo — she told me he said she had thighs like a wild mare. 

The only time I ever felt sexually threatened was when a friend and I went with a couple of Harvard guys to a ski house at Stowe. We realized pretty quickly we were in over our heads. The guys got so drunk, and I started to worry that they would come on to us and we wouldn’t be able to fight them off. I realized it was time for us to lock ourselves in our bedroom when one of them started singing, to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” “Let’s all get drunk and get naked.” I didn’t drink in college; I never wanted to make myself vulnerable in that way. 

 Most everyone’s ambition was to get married and raise kids. But the year I graduated, 1963, Betty Friedan came out with The Feminine Mystique, and a lot of people started suddenly reconsidering. After I graduated, when I was 23, I went to Europe. That’s where I first had sex. I followed the advice an older friend had given me: “For your first time, you should elect a person you want to be with, someone you genuinely care about, who is really attractive, and attracted to you, and who loves you, but who you are not in love with.” 

When I went back to Smith for my tenth reunion, I was shocked at how everything had changed. There were guys sleeping in their girlfriends’ rooms! I got up one morning to go to the big communal bathroom at the end of the hall, and there’s a guy at the sink wearing boxers and a T-shirt. In those days, we washed our face with beauty grains, like a mud pack that you’d smear all over. So I’m using my beauty grains, and this guy turns to me and says, “Jesus! What is that crap?” All the mystery was gone. 

*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.