When American University students returned to school this fall, student newspaper the Eagle greeted them with a warning. In a piece titled “Sex-perimentation defines Welcome Week,” three anonymous sex columnists presented a nightmare college sex scenario:
It’s three in the morning. You have it inside you right now. It kind of hurts. You’ve had one too many cups of jungle juice. You think his name is Andrew, but you’re not really sure. You thought you would never be that girl, but there you are, in your drunken haze.
You wake up the day after to an unfamiliar ceiling, some guy who smells like booze, AXE body spray and, well, something else. He wants to cuddle and you’re starting to think maybe this drunken hook-up [ ________ ].
Reader: How did the AU Eagle complete that sentence?
a. You’re starting to think maybe this drunken hook-up was rape.
b. You’re starting to think maybe this drunken hook-up was a product of society’s shaming of female sexuality, which encourages women to resort to dangerous, heavily intoxicated, and painful sex with strangers instead of openly pursuing empowered, respectful, and satisfying sexual experiences with desired sexual partners.
c. You’re starting to think maybe this drunken hook-up could turn into something.
If you picked choice C, congratulations. That’s right: The Eagle chose to use a woman’s hazy, drunk, and painful sexual experience in order to illustrate the serious on-campus problem of . . . drunk women wanting boyfriends!
“A lot of people think that their first sexual experience in college is something meaningful,” the column continued. “We can tell you that it is not. ” The columnists then informed AU females some strategies they should try next time, instead of painful drunk sex: “lets face it girls, more often then not you’ll have to slow the guy down. That’s more than okay—it adds to your ‘mystique.’ Flirt with them, step in a little bit closer, laugh at all his jokes, flip your hair, basically everything you see in the movies without the sex. I said without the sex.”
So, women who want to get laid on the AU campus can either a) endure drunk and painful stranger fucking, or b) laugh at jokes that aren’t funny, and . . . not have sex. What the fuck? And these are the paper’s sex columnists!
Some readers and on-campus groups agreed that the Eagle‘s sexual scenario posed more pressing questions than “Why can’t the drunk girl find a boyfriend?” Like, “Was that hypothetical girl just hypothetically raped?”
Many members of the campus community argued that she was. AU Students For Choice penned an e-mail to its members calling the piece “alarming,” and describing the opening scene as “an explicit rape.” And in a letter to the Eagle, campus group Women’s Initiative wrote, “This is called rape . . . Not only does the column normalize sexual assault as a drunken hook-up that happens to everyone, but it places the responsibility of stopping sexual assault on women by telling them to ‘slow the guy down.’”
Readers also chimed in on the consent issue. “Next time you write a sex article don’t write it like a date rape story,” wrote one commenter. Wrote another: “If it hurts, and you’re so wasted you don’t know what’s going on, then that is rape. And that’s not okay or normal.”
But others came to the Eagle‘s defense. “How the hell is that rape?” wrote one. “I hear of this kind of stuff happening all the time. We’ve all been there at one time or another when you have drunk sex, so what? Its the people who end up trying to build a relationship off of that who are stupid.”
In its own response to the campus outcry, the Eagle defended the piece as “provocative” and called the outrage “confusing.” “For better or worse, many drunken hook-ups on this campus are completely consensual. Women’s Initiative knows it. AU Students For Choice knows it. Sometimes, people get drunk intending to hook-up!” The Eagle then attempted to shame all members of the campus community who voiced concern about the Eagle‘s strange sex advice. “Baseless charges and unwarranted outrage make these groups look silly,” the retort read. “On issues as serious as rape and sexual assault, they should know better than to cry wolf.”
The students crying “rape!” and the students crying “completely consensual!” will probably have to agree to disagree—-if there’s one thing I’ve learned from sex blogging, it’s that arguments over whether theoretical scenarios constitute rape are rarely resolved. But that doesn’t mean the two camps can’t find a mutually productive discussion somewhere in this mess.
The groups who claim that the Eagle piece “normalized sexual assault,” and those who claim that drunk sex “happens all the time” and that “people get drunk intending to hook up!” aren’t talking past one another—-even though they refuse to agree on rape, they’re still voicing different perspectives on the same problem. If the Eagle finds the question “is this rape?” silly and baseless, why not ask them some alternate questions: Why is it considered normal for women on campus to choose disappointing, painful, hazy sex? Why is it a campus trend for women not to just unexpectedly wake up in a stranger’s bed, but to get drunk with the intention of waking up there? And since when is declaring painful sex “normal” a valid excuse for perpetuating it?
Pandagon’s Amanda Marcotte has got some pretty good answers to these questions. In a post on the Hofstra false rape accusation, Marcotte explains how slut-shaming can lead women to resort to dangerous, heavily intoxicated, and painful sex with strangers—-instead of openly pursuing empowered, respectful, and satisfying sexual experiences with desired sexual partners. She writes:
There is nothing wrong with you if you want to have group sex. Now, I wouldn’t recommend that you go about it as this young woman did. Like it or not, but a single woman in a group sex situation with a bunch of men she barely knows that have been drinking heavily is something that could turn to rape, or even if it doesn’t, it could seem menacing once you’re into it, and therefore you may not feel safe changing your mind if it gets weird. A lot of young men have really mixed-up, fucked-up attitudes about this sort of thing, because the homoerotic element is going to turn them on and then they’re going to get upset about that, and they might get more aggressive to demonstrate that they’re Not Gay. There’s a serious amount of danger there. That said, it’s foolish to assume that some young women aren’t going to have group sex fantasies, and the sheer amount of shame that is placed on them for wanting to act those out will push a lot of them to make really, really bad choices under the influence of inhibition-lowering drugs like alcohol.
The only cure for this is to stop shaming women for being sexual. Without the shame driving people to make rash, dangerous, and foolish choices, you’re going to have a lot more planning of group sex that involves vetting partners and getting consent and creating safe words and all that. And then, you own your choice and take responsibility for it. Which makes you not inclined to say it was rape if the word gets out that you did this. If your reputation isn’t in danger, then you have no cause to do bad things in an attempt to save it.
I don’t mind that the Eagle‘s semester-opening sex column presented rash, drunk, awful sex as a normal college experience—-it can be. But instead of examining why college women have sex they don’t like, or telling college women that they deserve to have better sex, the Eagle told AU’s female population that good girls don’t give it up. That attitude isn’t going to make sex on AU’s campus any better, but it will help to keep it drunk. Hey—-at least it will be “normal,” right?