A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. —Henry David Thoreau, Walden
A few months ago, a young woman at Stanford University was raped by a virtual stranger, and her rapist received a ridiculously light sentence. The story grabbed headlines everywhere, and caused a firestorm on social media. This “dumpster rape” is being blared about everywhere in the public square while a far more insidious and dangerous threat to women rages on directly under our noses, unacknowledged. This threat is systematically destroying an entire generation of our daughters, sisters, aunts, future mothers, and friends.
The young woman who was raped behind the dumpster has an advantage over most young women today: She knows she was raped. She is angry, and rightly so. She realizes that she has been violated, and she can try to find a way to heal. The young women I encounter every day on the campus of the university where I teach are worse off than this victim because they do not know what has gone wrong in their lives. Nonetheless, something has gone terribly wrong, and on some level, they know it.
In thirty years of teaching, I have come to know thousands of women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. These women are badly hurting. Consider these examples from “the front lines”: a young woman says to me with all earnestness, “This weekend I went to my first college party, and I hit it off with a guy so we went into the back bedroom where the coats were and started kissing, but then he reached down, moved my panties aside and penetrated me, so I guess I’m not a virgin anymore.” Another young woman came to me in tears because her doctor told her that since she has genital warts, she may have trouble conceiving children in the future. She had always assumed she would get married and have a family someday. “And the worst part is,” she wailed, “I’m not even promiscuous. I’ve only had sex with six guys.” This young woman was nineteen when she said this to me.
Once, in a writing assignment about Socrates and the Allegory of the Cave, a student wrote that she decided to make better choices after she woke up one morning in a trailer, covered with scratches, naked, next to a man she didn’t remember meeting. At least she knew there was a problem. All too often, these women come to me in a state of bewilderment. Women have never been more “sexually liberated” than these women are, or so they are told. No more are they shackled by ridiculous bonds like commandments, moral rules, words like “chastity.” They shout: “We’re free!” Yet they whisper: “Why are we so miserable?”
It is no coincidence that the top two prescribed drugs at our state university’s health center are anti-depressants and the birth-control pill. Our young women are showing up to a very different version of “college life” than that of the previous generation. One woman, while in her freshman year, went to her health center because she feared she had bronchitis. In perusing her “health history,” the physician said, “I see here that you are a virgin.” “Um, yes,” she responded, wondering what that fact might have to do with her persistent cough. “Would you like to be referred for counseling about that?” This student came to me to ask if I thought she should, in fact, consider her virginity—at the age of eighteen—a psychological issue. (I said no.)
In a seminar I teach every other year, we discuss the ways that addiction reveals certain truths about embodiment. One of the books we discuss is Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. The students adore this book, and we have fascinating conversations in class. The chapter that generates by far the most passion, however, is the chapter on drinking and sex. Knapp speaks honestly about the key role that alcohol played in her decisions to have sex, sex that she regretted and that made her feel terrible. My students resonate deeply with Knapp’s experiences, and I continue to be struck by how unfree these students feel. Once the culture embraced non-marital sex and made it the norm, women who do not want to have casual sex often feel like outcasts, like weirdos. College is the last place where one wants to feel like an utter misfit; couple that with the fact that first year students are away from home for the first time—lonely, vulnerable, insecure—and you have the recipe for meaningless sexual encounters followed by anxiety and depression.
Why don’t these women just stop it? Rather than get drunk in order to have casual sex, why don’t they put down the glass and the condom? The world we have created for these young people is a world which welcomes every sort of sexual behavior except chastity. Anal sex? Okay! Threesomes? Yep. Sex upon the first meeting? Sure! Virginity until marriage? What the hell is wrong with you? I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the reason so many college-aged women binge-drink is so that they can bear their own closeted sorrow about what they are doing. The woman who got drunk and got raped behind the dumpster is the victim of a toxic culture. But my students are also the victims of a toxic culture. Small wonder that the number of women suffering from eating disorders, addiction, anxiety, and depression is at an all-time high.
I have not been raped, and I did not engage in non-marital intercourse. I did have an encounter early in my life, however, that gives me a glimpse of the shame experienced by women who “hook up.” When I was sixteen years old, my sister took me to a bar near her college campus. The bar was one designated by students as the “easy in” place, because I.D.’s were checked cursorily if at all. Once we were inside the bar, my sister was swept away by a phalanx of her friends, and I lost her in the crowd. A “college man” at the bar noticed me, and came over to ask me if I would like something to drink. I had no idea what to order or how, as I had never been to a bar before. He reassured me that he would take good care of me, and went over to the bartender. When he came back with a Tequila Sunrise, he said it would taste great, like Hawaiian Punch. He was right; it was delicious, and I gladly accepted three more from him. The next thing I remember, I was doing some very intensive French-kissing with this fellow, and he was murmuring a suggestion that we “take this somewhere else.” By the grace of God, my sister’s boyfriend had just entered the bar, saw me, pulled me away from the man, and dragged me to the back of the bar and my sister. That was my first kiss. The next morning, I experienced my first true hangover. As awful as I felt physically, though, my shame was much, much worse. A romantic through-and-through, I had dreamed for years of my first kiss. A drunken slobber with a stranger was the brutal reality I would never be able to undo.
And yet, whenever I tell people this story, they are shocked that I am making “such a big deal” about that night. People drink. They kiss. But for the grace of God and a sister’s boyfriend, they end up in a stranger’s bed with a bad headache, a dry mouth, and an incalculable emptiness. I am often told, “Lighten up!” “You had fun. Big deal!” “Why are you so hard on yourself?” I kept speaking the truth of that awful experience, but my culture could not absorb that truth. I had no words for my sadness; it was only later in my life when I was a stronger person that I was able to say, “You know what? It was a big deal. It wasn’t fun. I did feel ashamed.”
A few years ago, I was online and saw that man’s name come up on a blog that I read. He graduated from the college and became a respected and award-winning journalist. When I told some friends I had found him and he was now famous, they suggested that I “network” and re-introduce myself to him online. I was horrified at the thought of doing any such thing; after more than thirty-five years, I was still deeply ashamed of that night. It was years before I realized how very ashamed he should have been. In fact, given my age and obvious vulnerability, his behavior was predatory and vicious. The fact that he ought to have been ashamed, however, did not mean that I needn’t have been. Had this fellow succeeded in taking me somewhere to do what he intended, I would have felt degraded. The culture of “Sex and the City” and “Girls” would have insisted that I was fine, I was a modern woman, I was “free.” I knew better. Yes, I was sixteen, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to be in a bar that night. I knew I was not of legal age to drink. I knew that accepting drinks from complete strangers is a very bad idea. I never told my mother about that night, but if I had, she would have said, “Anne, you know better.” To say that I had no choices that night is to rob me of the moral agency that I, in fact, had. At sixteen, I may not have known how to articulate that fact, but I do now.
An entire generation of women is wounded yet unable to find the source of the bleeding. There is, indeed, an “unconscious despair” behind their “games and amusements.” They “hook up,” feel awful and have no idea why. It’s hard to heal when you don’t know you’ve been damaged. And the despair and shame that these women who hook up feel is real. Contemporary sexual culture is toxic for young women, and until women stand up and acknowledge that fact, despair, sadness, and regret are going to be the underlying chord structure of their very lives. We fail an entire generation when we withhold from them the “wisdom not to do desperate things.”