Sex at Wesleyan: What’s Changed, What Hasn’t? An Alumna Asks

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Over 20 years ago, I drove to the small liberal arts college Wesleyan University in my parents’ station wagon, a microwave-size computer and a dot-matrix printer in the trunk. Equally renowned for its academics and its social life, boasting alums like Santigold and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Wesleyan was and is a bastion of radical politics. In the 1990s, the school even inspired a Jeremy Piven comedy about trendy Gen X liberalism (Save the whales! Meat is murder! Gays in the military now!). That film has long since been forgotten, but the first two letters are on the lips of all Americans today: “PCU.”

Like many elite campuses, Wesleyan has more than doubled in price since then, with tuition and fees upward of $50,000 per year, and has been spit shined to brochure-worthy gloss. A sprawling $47 million student center has landed on the grounds, replacing a flying-saucer-shaped cafeteria with an affectionately remembered smoking area.

Yet courtesy of the 20-year nostalgia cycle, the students who will be dragging their luggage up dorm staircases next week will look almost the same. The quad will be awash in Dr. Martens boots, black chokers, Converse sneakers and shoulder-slung mini-backpacks. And not only do these kids look similar, they also talk, urgently, about many of the same issues. Like sex, consensual and not.

In the 1990s, my feminist friends and I had a fervent anti-sexual assault movement, including Take Back the Night marches down frat row and a list of guys to stay away from, furtively scribbled in a bathroom stall. We talked about sexual assault as an affront of the patriarchy, and universities did not like it. At Brown, originator of the bathroom list trend, an administrator smeared the authors as “Magic Marker terrorists” and threatened them with expulsion if caught.

As much as you may read about the angry cries of “social justice warriors” in current news, today’s students discuss sexual assault in a completely new way. Their primary concern is sexual ethics. Debates about what is consensual and what is not, what type of sex is fair and what is immoral, are essential to life at Wesleyan, I learned during visits to the campus a few semesters ago. “There’s a difference between illegal and unethical,” Chloe, a neuroscience major, told me, firmly. “Life is not about doing whatever you can do. It’s about not doing what is traumatic to another person.”

What few older people see in today’s “P.C.” students is their overwhelming urge to be kind to each other. They may have spent their middle and high school years being bullied, or bullying others; for kids in their low-to-mid-teens, the internet is a bullying machine. But by college, their sense of morality has blossomed. And many adolescents want to sort the world categorically into good and bad, at once eager to draw boundaries and empathize with whatever others might possibly feel.

Adults may make fun of trigger warnings, but most kids support them because they’re about extending a hand to others, undergirding an ethic of caring and decency. Calling out “micro-aggressions” among classmates and policing tone on social media appeal to them in much the same way. They don’t understand why older people deride their generation as “crybullies,” in the conservative publisher Roger Kimball’s words, or as “fragile thugs,” a phrase David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, has used.

It’s like 1969 all over again, with smokeless vapes instead of gurgling bong hits; their stodgy, cynical, heartless parents won’t give peace a chance. Sensitive kids of all stripes have joined this movement, including the type of student who would have gone on tour with Phish in the 1990s, or those who listened to moody emo bands like Taking Back Sunday in the 2000s.

Let’s chalk up these kids’ snarky, furiously penned essays for campus newspapers and meanspirited social media posts to the internet’s mob mentality, a 20-year-old’s clumsiness with rhetorical flourishes, and their deep need to be part of a clique. Political radicalism at college is now more vocation than avocation, and anyone who displays a trace of racism, misogyny or sexual predation is suspect.

In this climate, some people can become fiercely self-critical. One white male senior at Wesleyan, with luscious shoulder-length blond hair and wearing a prep’s cable-knit sweater, described his discomfort to me. “I feel privileged, and I have a privilege,” he said. “And I’m fine with girls on campus saying I have a privilege! I apologize that I was born into this form, but I am living the best I can.” He chuckled, but then looked genuinely pained. “I’m not afraid to be me, but I don’t want to come across as being insensitive.”

This heightened ethical sensitivity is being applied to sexual intercourse, an activity whose standards have long been mutable and often lax. My mother’s generation, coming of age in the 1970s, imagined that when a woman went to a man’s apartment, she’d signaled her intent to have intercourse. Twenty years later, I thought I could walk out of that apartment without even an obligatory kiss, but I would never have lain down on a mattress with someone with whom I didn’t plan to hook up. Today, inviting someone into your bed is “cuddling,” usually but not always sexual, and certainly does not have to lead to intercourse.

These types of vague encounters most likely spurred the demand for some rules. Whereas my Gen X friends called weird, awkward and even predatory sexual experiences “bad nights,” today’s students use the label “sexual assault.” If it feels violating, it is violating, and shouldn’t be part of anyone’s formative sexual experiences.

Notwithstanding the kind of talk that has come freely to the nation’s current president, at today’s Wesleyan a smack on the butt, a grab and kiss, and subjection to coercive speech like “I can’t feel anything with a condom on” and “just a couple strokes” are considered potentially offensive and maybe actionable, often for the first time in history. Wesleyan’s students were also not so impressed by my Take Back the Night stories, I was wounded to discover. “We don’t want to change one night, we want to change every night,” one of them told me, emphatically.

The much-mocked 1991 “Antioch Rules,” meanwhile, now seem prescient. At Wesleyan, as at many American universities today — not only the Ivy League and some state universities, but other colleges in New York, California, Illinois and Connecticut — students are expected to abide by some form of an “affirmative consent” standard, colloquially called “yes means yes.”

Silence can no longer be considered consent for sex. “No means no” misses the important question. Getting busy must include a verbal “yes” or some sort of totally-impossible-to-misinterpret moan or groan or high-pitched scream of pleasure. Also, this must be secured before every sexual act, from kissing to going all the way.

At some colleges, this way of having sex is considered ludicrous. At others, like Wesleyan, kids take it seriously. You can think of this the way they do — a high-toned, righteous issue about sexual autonomy — or as a novel courting ritual. It’s not that different from sending an emoji to clarify one’s meaning at the end of a text message.

Most students — and not only the type of aggressive liberal activist once called a “Magic Marker terrorist” — like these standards, perceiving them as a way of making sex more pleasurable instead of less. “It’s attractive to me because he is showing me that he thinks I’m a person,” said Karmenife, a talented writer from Harlem. “I’m not this receptacle. I’m not supposed to lie there and be his object. This is something that we’re doing together.”

Other students said the situation wasn’t so simple. “Sometimes it’s nice when guys ask more questions, sometimes it’s weird,” said a 21-year-old female student. “Some men in college are way too scared now of potentially assaulting people. I hooked up with a friend who was very drunk, and I was not very drunk. I liked him. Afterward he didn’t like me. So I said, ‘I’m upset, I liked you.’”

The young man reeled back, worrying that she was about to accuse him of assaulting her, not understanding that she was saying she was bummed he regarded the night as a drunken hookup and nothing more. “He was very upset about his level of drunkenness, and ‘Did I take advantage of you?’ I said, ‘I’m not saying it was nonconsensual! I liked you.’” She added, in typical millennial patois, “‘You don’t get to be the one, all worried Did I rape you? I’m upset about you passing the friendship line, and you’re hyperventilating about your level of drunkenness!’”

As with all social etiquette, some people will take rules too far. These new sexual standards appeal to the ever-present undergraduate elimination of ambiguity. The need to communicate constantly — very millennial — may also be a naïve belief in explicitness. Nothing should be beyond words, no liminal realms of discomfort can be allowed to exist. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that they’re also about compassion. They’re making sure that the desire of the other is present when gratifying oneself, an attunement to gratifying the other too.

One Saturday afternoon, I stopped by a narrow, chartreuse-painted condo on the outskirts of town. A handful of Wesleyan soccer players were in their driveway, basking in the sun and marking asphalt with chalk for the childhood game four square (they were using a hacky sack as a ball — hark, the 1990s!).

Between chatter about the mechanical failure of someone’s Jeep, the relative merits of Wesleyan’s lacrosse team and who was going to get the keg, I asked them about consent. Do their friends get it in sexual situations? “Um, that’s weird,” a student from Toms River, N.J., said, giving me side-eye and laughing. “I don’t know what my friends ask or don’t ask girls!”

But an economics major from Idaho cradling a Miller Light took a seat beside me. “On a personal level, I will always ask for consent — always! Regardless!” he said. “I say, ‘Hey, is this O.K.? Are you O.K. with this?’ It’s awkward, yeah, but it’s five seconds and it’s over. And if the girl goes to Wesleyan, she recognizes what I’m doing: I’m asking for consent.”

Soon one of his friends waved to him; it was his turn at four square. “I don’t know what it will be like when I graduate from college, though,” he said, tossing his beer into a garbage can like he was dunking a basketball.

“Am I still supposed to ask?” he said, walking away.