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Mayer: Last Chances and Hookups (2/2)

Thumbnail image for Last Chances E-mail.jpgMost people my age will snort at the term “hookup culture” because of the implied presumption therein that the way people in our parents’ generation dated and slept with one another was somehow not itself a product of culture (not to mention the way it frames us as specimens, monkeys whom our confused parents are watching through thick glass, their brows furrowed in concern). We could just as readily call the dominant American sexual practices that predated “hookup culture” a “courtship culture.”

And what happened in courtship culture? Was there not still sex without love? Certainly for men at least there was. Prostitution is, as they say, the oldest profession in the world, and the trope of the secretary-as-mistress is still readily recognizable now as then, even while “administrative assistant” has replaced the term “secretary” in all official capacities and is a position held by men and women alike. My friend and fellow Dartblog contributor Joe Asch himself pointed out that “When the College became coeducational, there was talk that the arriving women would help to tame the savage Dartmouth man (if there ever was such a thing),” acknowledging that Dartmouth men in generations past had pretty wild reputations that it was assumed young women would (or could) never develop.

I’ve read and heard from multiple sources that the Green Books handed out to freshmen when men were the only students at the College contained maps to all the nearby women’s schools. An indispensable feature of our biggest weekends, including Winter Carnival and Green Key, were the busfuls of women from these colleges who would serve as the men’s dates. These dates together were not so innocent or marked by mutual love as a reminiscent romantic might wish to remember them. What of the famed group slumber parties out on the golf course, where couples shared sleeping bags? Did they all go on to marry one another? Is there really any evidence that the men at Dartmouth back in the day cared about the names of the women stepping off of those buses, as they jeered at them and held up signs with numbers from 1-10, ranking their attractiveness?

Men have always been able to participate in hookup culture if they so desired, particularly during college. Women, on the other hand, previously had much less access to meaningless sex for fear of damaging their marriageability value, which was closely tied to appearing chaste and hard-to-get. Of course I recognize that the demonization of “hookup culture” is not likely coming from anyone who would endorse the rowdy boys or cheating husbands having plenty of loveless sex back when “courtship culture” reigned. But I bring these boys and men up because they wielded a power that girls and women didn’t, simple as that. Men were given a free pass to sow their wild oats, and women were not.

It only makes sense that many women who call themselves feminists under the banner of the modern incarnation of the movement are participating in imitative masculinity because the “bro” persona represents, for them, the chance to exist as men have always been allowed to exist: as people whose reputations do not solely depend on their perceived chastity. People who are the subjects of conquests and not merely their objects. The masculine gender role and its accompanying expectations of invulnerability have not changed much over time, but the feminine gender role is nearly unrecognizable today from what it was fifty or sixty years ago.

Women who have rejected the submissive role and who want respect from men and other women understandably turn to the guidelines of respectability set out by the masculine role: Act like you’ve been there before. Never let them see you sweat. Do not show emotion that might make you appear vulnerable. Be funny, but don’t talk too much. Brag. Establish your sexual prowess among your peers. Never, ever care.

All forms of romance are rendered feminine in reaction to this imitative hypermasculinity. The pursuit of courtship requires some measure of vulnerability, and in a culture where women have abandoned vulnerability in order to attain the respect from men that men traditionally reserved only for each other, no one is willing to have their bluff called. They’ll all insist they just want the chicken nuggets even when they don’t. And let me be clear — it’s fine to just want the chicken nuggets. But by senior year, it became glaringly clear to me that plenty of people, both men and women, were tired of not admitting that they cared about one another and looking for something else.

Couple walking.jpgThat’s the real shame here — that there are people who are afraid to admit they want love. There are graduating seniors who put down the names of all their friends onto the last chances website, blitzing each other screenshots or putting them on Facebook, and who take the whole thing as a lark. Those people are cool and many of them were and are my friends. But there are also people who, among the dozen or so names they’re putting down as “jokes” or coming up with last-minute based on an across-the-basement moment of fleeting eye contact, also put down the name of someone with whom they’ve always wanted something more, but never had the courage to show their cards. And in that last week of college, they’re hoping maybe the other person feels the same way, and that maybe once college is over and everyone can stop pretending they don’t care (that’s what happens, right?), they’ll start up something real and go on picnics and to museums and bring each other coffee in the mornings and say “I love you” without being terrified that it means they’re weak or pathetic or unworthy of men’s respect.

Perhaps I’ve gone far beyond the real depth of the topic of Last Chances here, forcing sincerity in a conversation that was always a show, a self-conscious performance of clinging to college despite a recognition that we’ve outgrown the mindset that once defined our experience there. Senior week, for many, is a time of grieving and denial and a lot of confusing urges to say everything you meant to say and do everything you meant to do and put a pretty little bow on it before it’s too late. Of course, it is. Of course. But ’14s (or ’13s or ’12s or ’11s), if you relate to anything written here, try to be ready — when you can — to open yourself up to being hurt, and to being wrong, and to acting with consequence.

Part 1, Part 2

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