This Saturday afternoon, while absentmindedly scrolling through memes on Twitter, my heart dropped at the sight of a New York Times headline that I had been hoping I would never have to see: “Kavanaugh Is Sworn In After Close Confirmation Vote in Senate.” I stared at the screen for so long that those 10 words remained seared into my eyes after I shut them.
Later that night, I donned a pair of black jeans and a black lace crop top and headed to a fraternity party with my roommates, trying to drink enough to drown out the sting of the day’s news. As I danced in the middle of a crowd of people either chugging alcohol, grinding on one another or screaming out the lyrics to “Mo Bamba,” a surreal feeling came over me.
Just a few hours ago I was reading think pieces about how deplorable it was for the Senate to confirm someone who had engaged in alcohol-fueled sexual misconduct during his college years. Now, I was standing in the backyard of a fraternity house where the same behaviors Kavanaugh was accused of might be happening in one of the rooms upstairs.
In some ways, the UCSB community has made great progress in identifying and openly criticizing the extent to which sexual harassment and assault permeate college campuses. Freshmen receive a mandatory crash course on consent and boundaries. We all know that “yes means yes” and that inebriated or unconscious people cannot make informed decisions about sex in the moment. The recent #MeToo movement has prompted dialogues in classrooms, dorm lounges and apartments about the ongoing epidemic of sexual violence.
Simultaneously, the rates of reporting rape and domestic violence at UCSB have increased dramatically in the past few years. There is no way of knowing whether this statistic is due to a rise in the number of crimes or if a higher percentage of survivors are choosing to come forward, but my bet would be on the latter.
It seems that in our cultural moment, survivors and advocates no longer feel that silence is an option. Now more than ever, concerned individuals feel an imperative to speak out about consent, empathy and safe sex. The change is starting to show.
Despite all of the productive discourse and education we have accomplished thus far, many elements of rape culture remain so commonplace at UCSB that barely anyone points them out. We may have mastered the basics, but the problematic nuances of UCSB’s sexual landscape are completely lost on many Gauchos.
I.V. hookup culture is a free-for-all in which grinding and making out happen openly on the dance floor, girls are encouraged to dress and behave as provocatively as they please and one-night stands are a common topic of discussion at Bagel Cafe brunches on Saturday mornings. No one has to apologize or feel ashamed for their actions; this is what college is all about.
To some, this unrestricted love fest may be liberating. Sex positivity is a concept that modern feminists have been advocating for years. These activists assert that instead of shaming women and making them feel like they’re violating a sacred moral order for expressing their sexuality, society should adopt a “live and let live” attitude and empower them to make their own decisions and have fun doing it.
I used to be one of these free love enthusiasts myself. Two years ago, I wrote an opinion article celebrating I.V.’s no-strings-attached sexual norms and encouraging female students to get out there and claim the exciting, novel experiences they deserve. At the time, I had recently gotten out of a relationship and was diving head-first into the drunken sex paradise, as I was unable to partake in until then.
As I enter my senior year, my idealistic fervor for hookup culture stands amended in the wake of many troubling patterns I have observed and experienced first-hand. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with casual sex, but the way it is typically initiated and executed is devoid of empathy and favors male desires while dismissing female comfort and pleasure.
The problematic nature of I.V. hookup culture begins at parties or bars when any form of sexual contact is initiated. It is common for men to approach women from behind on a loud, crowded dance floor and start dancing in a sexual manner without introducing themselves or asking for permission to rub their genitals on a complete stranger who is simply trying to dance with her friends. This and other forms of invasive sexual initiation happen to me and girls around me on a regular basis, and it can be frightening to figure out what to do when the room is too loud to voice your discomfort and too crowded to physically remove yourself.
The headache doesn’t stop there. If you do consent to dancing and it progresses to a hookup, these hookups are usually centered around the man’s wishes with little consideration for safety or mutual pleasure. In the vast majority of hookups I have engaged in, I was expected to give oral sex without receiving anything in return and the whole encounter was over as soon as the guy finished. In addition, most guys have incessantly pressured me to have sex without using a condom or any form of protection.
No institution, from the fraternity house where I partied this Saturday to the White House where our country’s most important legal decisions are made, is immune to systemic male privilege.
I don’t want to over-generalize these observations; I have not conducted a survey of the entire student body, so my descriptions are based on my own experiences and numerous conversations I have had with friends. I have certainly had some experiences that counter the narrative I just described, and many other students have as well. I am not claiming that every single hookup happens in this way. However, based on the experience and knowledge I do have, I believe that encounters like these are fairly typical for UCSB students who participate in hookup culture. That needs to change.
I see two main problems with these normative patterns. First of all, most of these behaviors would be considered acceptable or, at the very least, not punishable under the “yes means yes” affirmative consent model. Aside from unwanted groping on the dance floor, most encounters in which I felt uncomfortable or slighted were technically consensual. The instructions for obtaining consent are overly simplified and do not involve nuanced discussion of pleasure or ensuring that both partners are comfortable beyond the simple dichotomy of “yes” or “no.”
What if I want to consent to sex but not to sex that is unsafe or only enjoyable to one party involved? Many men seem to believe that once they have found a partner who is okay with having casual sex, this means they have a golden ticket to proceed in whatever way they choose.
The second, more complicated problem is that according to the narratives of sex positivity and female empowerment, this is what women are supposed to want. Slut shaming is a thing of the past; women now have complete freedom to dress provocatively, grind on the dance floor and have casual sex as often as they please. Unrestrained sexual expression is no longer restricted to men. It is now being presented as an olive branch of equality for women.
But the pendulum has swung so far that casual sex feels more like an imperative than an option. Paradoxically, women must go along with the sexist scripts of hookup culture if they want to be a “bad bitch” and prove their liberated status. It feels as if we’re playing a game in which everyone loses.
The current political climate only serves to throw salt on the wound that this convoluted culture has left on my psyche. With sexual abusers occupying the titles of president and Supreme Court justice, the overwhelming power that men possess over me and my body feels all the more imminent and dangerous. No institution, from the fraternity house where I partied this Saturday to the White House where our country’s most important legal decisions are made, is immune to systemic male privilege.
As college students, we do not have the power to throw Trump or Kavanaugh out of office. We do not have the power to stop them from passing legislation that will transform our country into something that resembles The Handmaid’s Tale. We do have the power, however, to draw a critical eye to the problematic sexual landscape that permeates our own campus.
I urge the men reading this article to take a long look at the ways you go about initiating and implementing sexual encounters and to think about the possibility that you may have hurt someone without even realizing it. I urge the women to be kind to yourselves, to realize that you do not have to consent to sexual behaviors you don’t enjoy for the sake of performing empowerment. We have a long road ahead of us as we try to fix the problems embedded in our country, but for now we can start by examining those embedded in our campus.
Laurel Rinehart implores Gauchos to practice mindfulness and empathy when they’re getting it on.