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“Guys in frats at Syracuse are in it for the opportunity to hook up with girls, period,” one Kappa Alpha Theta sister told me a couple years ago. “Girls in Greek life at Syracuse have much more sex than people who aren’t in Greek life,” another sister from that sorority said. “We have so much exposure to so many different kinds of guys. Sex doesn’t feel like that big a deal here.”

I was visiting Syracuse University, which had just been rated the nation’s #1 party school by the Princeton Review, with a pen in hand to talk to a half-dozen girls about their college sexual experiences and the way they thought about them. For most American women, college is where we form our sexual identities. And in a lot of cases, our experiences at school involve something that just didn’t sit right with us, whether we call it sexual assault or not. Much of what I heard about sexual politics at Syracuse was complicated. These girls, most with hair as long and sleek as Afghan hounds and waists smaller than possible without extreme calorie restriction (the new euphemism for anorexia), loved to talk about the ins and outs of hooking up and dating, though none of them had been on more than a few dates (the kind involving dinner or a movie) in their college careers. The obsessive precision with which these girls handled their own lives, their schoolwork, their social media profiles, their waistlines, and their never-stained sweatshirts often decorated with Greek letters decorating the front, disappeared when guys were involved.

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In fact, they resisted putting labels on anything to do with sex. Compared to the rigidity of their social lives, which were organized around events in the Greek system, their sex lives were completely casual — and, for many, chaotic. “I know it’s backwards from generations before us, but we see a cute guy at a party, figure out his name, hook up, and then you get each other’s number, and you’re texting every day until you hook up again,” says a Syracuse sorority sister. “Honestly, I don’t know how you would get someone’s number and show interest if you hadn’t hooked up with him first.” Even the casual term hook up isn’t the most popular slang anymore. If one student is sexually active with another, the two tell friends that they are “talking,” an even more casual label.

The attitude toward protection is casual too; fear of AIDS has diminished, STDs are usually treatable, and guys care even less than they used to about contraception, say these girls. “All my friends are on the pill, but I had problems with it, and IUDs gave me cramping,” says a sister from another sorority. “A few weeks ago I went home with someone and asked him to wear a condom, and he rolled over and went to bed. I left the house. It was so rude. And that’s not the first time it’s happened to me at ’Cuse. I don’t get it — don’t you not want a baby too?”

Regarding sexual assault, they identified certain guys as “weird,” “disrespectful,” “icky.” They didn’t call them rapists. But many had had nights that sounded disturbing and familiar.

The first woman I met with was a blogger who goes by the evocative nom de plume Blackout Blonde. We went out for pizza and a glass of wine when she was 23. She was petite, with a small, upturned nose, and neatly applied lip gloss.

Hookups on Planet College are fun, Blackout Blonde told me. After all, if they weren’t, why would so many people have them? At a time when every type of music has been discovered and every pierced and tattooed subculture brought into the commercial fold, semi-anonymous or mostly anonymous sex with someone you barely know is a wild experience, one of the few forms of rebellion left for youth in America.

Blackout Blonde says she is just being honest about what she saw around her: “Our timelines on Twitter are scattered with blurry, dark Instagram photos of our friends and peers passed out in the grass the night before; filled with tweets with hashtags that sound like they belong in Katy Perry’s ‘Last Friday Night,’” she wrote in a column. I hoped she was referring to the more benign lyrics of that song, the ones about riding pink flamingos in the pool, not the ones about finding a stranger in one’s bed, and a “pounding in my head . . . Is this a hickey or a bruise?”

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“Don’t be surprised if you are to us what we have always been to you — a toy, an object.”

At least on the surface, Blackout Blonde is pro-girl, admonishing frat brothers for being cheap and serving warm Keystone beer at parties because they know girls will “dry hump each other on the speaker system” no matter how little they spend on liquor. She parsed the difference between a good and bad “sexcuse” — being on one’s period, good; “Aww, roommate’s home,” questionable — and tells girls to have sex whenever it’s offered because “sex is like pizza, even when it’s bad, it’s still ‘pizza.’” Men needed to accept that women were sexual beings too. “College is the land of the drunken hookups and in today’s society females are on the prowl for hookups just as much as guys are,” she wrote. “You may think that we text or call you asking what your plans are for the evening out of pure interest, or because we are a ‘crazy,’ ‘overly-attached’ species that craves connection after a few rolls in the hay, but that’s simply untrue . . . Drunk, sober, late at night, midday between classes, why not? We enjoy sex just as much, duh, and also find it fun and interesting having something, and frankly someone, to do.” She added, “Don’t be surprised if you are to us what we have always been to you — a toy, an object.”

There’s some support for Blackout Blonde’s contentions. The most comprehensive analysis of sex in college, performed by New York University sociologist Paula England and based on an online survey that has grown to encompass 20,000 students at 21 universities and colleges, has shown that in heterosexual hookups, men and women’s enjoyment is nearly equivalent, though men reach orgasm far, far more often. College women get something out of a casual sex life, whether they come or not, some combination of affection, attention, emotional satisfaction, ego boost, exercise, peer approval, the satisfaction of having the kind of crazy experience every American college girl is supposed to have.

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Blackout Blonde sees this clearly though as she takes minuscule bites of pizza, she does ultimately recount some experiences that belie her pro-hookup line. One time when she was making out with a Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother in an alleyway behind a frat party, he started to squeeze and manhandle her too aggressively. She took off a heel with one hand and hit him on the head with it, then ran down the stairs. As she descended, she called a friend and yelled into the receiver: “I’m like fucking Cinderella escaping the prince!”

Another night had a murkier, more troubling denouement. She was hanging out with a fifth-year senior, a hockey player, at his house — but all she can remember is doing keg stands to a Taylor Swift song. “I was a sophomore, and he was so much older, so that made me really like him and think he was really cool, but I don’t know what happened that night,” she says. In the morning, she woke up in bed with him wearing his boxers. She couldn’t find her clothes at first and then she looked between the mattress and the wall and saw her outfit sandwiched there. That was a weird place for her clothes to be unless the two of them had hooked up, she thought; clothes didn’t usually get smashed between a mattress and wall unless someone pushed them hard off the bed in the middle of sex.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one person to blame, and his name is Jose Cuervo."

“The guy kept saying, ‘Don’t worry. I was too drunk last night to fuck Blake Lively, OK?’ Acting all ‘Don’t flatter yourself.’ Well, (a) I appreciate the comparison to Blake Lively, but (b) I think he at least tried.” She grimaces. “After a ton of searching, I found my phone and I was out of there. I was in such a rush I even forgot one of my layers at his house.” She smirks. “And I was pissed, because that was a nice top from Urban Outfitters.”

I ask if she thinks of herself as a rape survivor. “Fuck no,” she says, taking a swig of wine. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one person to blame in that situation, and his name is Jose Cuervo.”

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The next student I interviewed, Lianna, is tall and blond, a talented writer and a Kappa Alpha Theta sister. She loves her sorority but never liked the way that guys at fraternities looked at her, the way they didn’t treat her as an equal or a friend unless they were expressly introduced to her by a frat guy she was already friends with. “I was fresh meat,” she explains. “Essentially a newborn baby living in a giant pool of giant drunk babies who are, to put it eloquently, trying their best to get their ‘willies’ wet ASAP.”

Whereas Blackout Blonde came out swinging, Lianna, starts off by underlining some sisters’ other points: “There are a lot of girls at Syracuse who are having sex because they want to have sex, but there are a lot of girls who are having sex just because they want someone to talk to them,” she explains. “Here’s the main problem with our generation, hookup culture, and college: Guys are resistant to giving girls a chance, or even getting to know you, unless you have sex with them. But once you have sex with them, most of them are done with you! It makes absolutely no sense.”

This has been a problem for far longer than Lianna’s generation, but still, her conflation of the word talking in collegiate colloquial usage — to mean hooking up — and the way that she uses it here, to imply an emotional need, is what gets my attention. This is another alternate reality in college: “It’s a war of who gives a shit less,” one student tells me about nascent relationships. Today, to be seen swooning, crushing, “catching feelings,” is to be seen as weak. But for many women, love and sex are connected, even if, like Blackout Blonde, they say they are not.

“It wasn’t even that I wanted to say no. It’s just that I didn’t want to say yes."

Lianna’s romantic life didn’t sound like a fairy tale, though it was not as gory as Cinderella bashing her heel over a prince’s head. “There are only a few kinds of relationships at Syracuse, and I’ve had all of them,” she says. “I’ve had a boyfriend, which is hard to do, because you’re looking for a gem in a bunch of really crappy stones. Then I’ve had the two- or three-month fling where the guy texts you on Thursday or Friday night, you have sex, and that’s it, and when you ask, ‘What’s going on here,’ he flees. I’ve had the short relationship where I dated a guy for two months and then it was summer, and when we came back, he freaked out. I’ve had one-night stands. I’ve dipped my toes in all of it. But not because I wanted to” — only because that’s what is available at ’Cuse.

Lianna’s keen perception of the hookup game on campus had yet to encompass rape. “I’ve never felt scared [with a guy],” she says, slowing down a bit to make her point. “I’ve definitely felt pressured. My problem has always been that I didn’t know how to say no. I didn’t know when I wanted to say no. And I didn’t know how to. And I felt bad saying no.” She sighs. “Which is so stupid.” She pauses for a minute, and then puts a finer point on her comments. “I guess I should say that it wasn’t even that I wanted to say no. It’s just that I didn’t want to say yes. It’s not like I was totally opposed! I was thinking, I don’t want him to think I’m not interested at all, but I’m not in the mood, and I’m kind of drunk. Let’s just get it over with, because I’d rather be watching TV.

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In Lianna, I felt that I had met someone who had a lot less armor than Blackout Blonde. She reminded me of a study that I heard about at Lulu, a dating app for women — specifically, college women. Lulu was popular with millions of female students at big party schools, particularly in the South, from 2013 to 2015, after which it went the way of so many apps. Deborah Singer, the head of marketing at Lulu, shared with me what she learned about college women from catering to their romantic needs. “When we initially launched, we had categories for guys that were pretty traditional — he’s an ex, he’s a crush, he’s a friend, he’s a hookup,” says Singer. “And one of the first things we heard back from girls was ‘We need more categories because our relationships with guys aren’t like that: I want friends with benefits, I want we’re talking, I want rather not say, I want a lot more flexibility in defining these relationships.’”

Lulu polled its users about sex, racking up over a million respondents to a set of questions, and Singer shares some of their responses with me. I’m not sure how scientific this data is, but many of these girls’ answers are remarkably close to some of England’s findings.

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When I looked over a spreadsheet, I immediately realized that the users were women from the millennial generation, the tail end of which is in college now, because when they were asked about what they most wanted to know when meeting a new guy, 54 percent said “his relationship with his family,” 26 percent “his last girlfriend,” 9 percent “his ding-dong,” and only 3 percent “his bank account.” These are women who know they don’t need a man to support them financially. They also exhibited the typical millennial dedication to amplified sexiness. Asked if they wore makeup, over half said “never leave home without it,” and for “What kind of garden do you grow?” the same proportion ticked the box for “scorched earth policy, here.”

Lulu’s survey shows that there’s a five-alarm-fire problem with Blackout Blonde’s stance. As we all know, she isn’t telling the whole truth about heterosexual sex. When I wrote earlier about England’s survey demonstrating that the genders were equivalent in pleasure in hookups, I didn’t mean sexual pleasure. The dirty secret is that heterosexual sex is often not pleasurable for the female in the equation, with a large percentage of these empowered, expecting-to-be-financially-independent college women admitting they fake orgasms. And for all the acceptance of super-casual sex culture, a study of 600 undergrads led by a sexuality scholar at the Kinsey Institute found that women were nearly twice as likely to reach orgasm in a serious relationship as in a hookup.

This doesn’t even consider the effects of the types of sex that’s becoming more popular among young students — unreciprocated oral and anal sex. Blowjobs haven’t been shocking for years (unless they happened in the Oval Office), but anal sex used to strike most women as a fetish or a sign of male contempt. Today, for a generation deeply familiar with porn, it’s within the usual bounds of experimentation.

I don’t want to be judgmental about anal sex — it can certainly be pleasurable for women, although that usually involves having it with someone experienced in the art. And the fact is that during college years, oral sex isn’t reciprocated by men too often, and most girls aren’t hiding strap-ons in bedside-table drawers. And when the women in Lulu’s survey were asked “What sex acts make you really uncomfortable?” 56 percent of them passed over tit-fucking, giving head, getting head, and asshole-licking to select anal sex. So not only are women already dealing with the unfortunate anatomical reality that the clitoris is not in the orifice where the penis goes in, but they’re also being asked to engage in some types of sex they may find, a priori, unappealing. As I mentioned earlier, many of the contentious campus rape cases that I heard about involved anal sex. On a mattress, no matter how much we may want them to be, the genders are not equivalent.

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Let’s go back to what Blackout Blonde and Lianna said about those odd nights, the nights with Jose Cuervo, or times they didn’t say “no” but didn’t want to say “yes.” A lot of the other girls told me about this too — “weird things” had happened to them at the beginning of freshman year. As freshmen, they were newbies, ready to party but with nowhere to go. No invitations to cool off-campus parties or upperclassmen’s tiki-torch-lit backyards. The invitations for freshmen during orientation, and for weeks after, are only from the frats. So you go, decked out in your high-school best — slinky pastel dress, high heels, push-up bra — and see where the night will take you.

Sociologists who study sexual assault call the beginning of freshman year the red zone — the riskiest period of a college woman’s life. Jessie Ford, the New York University doctoral student working under the aegis of Paula England, says studies show an unaffiliated female freshman (such as a student before she enters a sorority) is the most at risk for assault.

There might even be data specifically supporting danger for young women in the first year of college at Syracuse, or possibly at a university nearby. In 2015, Kate Carey, a Brown University professor of behavioral and social sciences who’d previously taught at Syracuse, published a survey about the sexual assault experiences of 483 freshman women, 26 percent of the class at a “private university in upstate New York.” I whipped out a calculator. If 483 women is 26 percent of the freshman class in Syracuse’s approximately 15,000 undergrads, and Syracuse is 55 percent female and 45 percent male, that’s, well, right on target. (When I e-mailed Carey to confirm my suspicions, she declined to comment.)

Wherever this institution is, her results are shocking. One in six freshman women surveyed was a victim of either rape or attempted rape, often while she was heavily intoxicated or “incapacitated” from drugs and alcohol, by the end of freshman year. That’s one in six freshmen who checked yes for one or more of the following three parameters:

1. Has anyone threatened to physically harm you or someone close to you in order to . . .

2. Has anyone ever used physical force (such as holding you down) in order to . . .

3. [Did anyone ever], when you were incapacitated (e.g., by drugs or alcohol) and unable to object or consent . . .

A. . . . try to have sexual intercourse with you (but it did not happen) when you indicated that you didn’t want to?

B. Succeed in making you have sexual intercourse when you indicated that you didn’t want to?

C. Make you do oral sex or have it done to you when you indicated that you didn’t want to?

D. Make you have anal sex or penetrate you with a finger or objects when you indicated you didn’t want to?

I don’t find anything other than the syntax unclear in these questions. Still, I mention the criteria in Carey’s study for a specific reason. As in all studies of sexual assault, her study doesn’t ask if someone is a victim, only if she has been subjected to the behaviors above, behaviors that meet the definition of rape and sexual assault. Usually, about half the women who meet these criteria will say no if asked whether they have been assaulted. Some proportion of these women will also say that they didn’t feel the experience was a serious one. They just woke up half naked and didn’t remember anything beyond doing keg stands to Taylor Swift songs. They don’t know quite what to call it.

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I am not saying that everyone needs to label at their bad sexual experiences as assault. I understand that not all of us want to do that. But at Syracuse, the girls who were willing to take that step ended up finding support and solace. On a typically frigid Syracuse afternoon, I sat down with two Alpha Xi Delta sisters, Jacqueline Reilly and Caroline Heres, who co-founded Syracuse’s influential anti-rape group Girl Code, at a coffee-shop-slash-vintage-clothing-store on campus to talk about their experiences.

They weren’t radicals. Reilly, who was studying graphic design, made clear at various points in our conversation that she didn’t want to be perceived as anti-administration, militaristic, negative — “Negativity is easy to spread and turns me off,” she said. An Irish brunette with porcelain skin and a pragmatic nature, she grew up in Boston, where her family was active in the Catholic Church until disillusioned by the pedophile-priest scandal. At our meeting, she shows off a claddagh ring — a traditional piece of Irish jewelry. “If the heart is pointed towards you, you’re in a relationship, and if it’s out, I’m looking for love,” she explains. The ring is turned in now; she has a boyfriend, and she’s happy at ’Cuse.

Heres and Reilly, now juniors, met when they were in AXiD’s pledge class. At the beginning of sophomore year, Reilly says she was lured into a fraternity brother’s bedroom, and Heres and her AXiD sisters weren’t around. She was working as a peer adviser in the red-zone period at the start of the fall semester, that time when female underclassmen are most vulnerable to sexual assault. Some girls she didn’t know well invited her to a frat party — not even a party, just a handful of students hanging out in a room. A brother “separated” her from this group. The girls who’d been with her earlier banged on his bedroom door to make sure Reilly was OK, or so they said. They took off down the stairs in their heels.

“It had been taught to me that rape happened with a stranger in a dark alley, and there wasn’t much wiggle room around that.”

In the morning, she woke with no memory of the night before other than drinking from a Styrofoam cup, the contents of which she did not pour herself. “I was terrified, but I tried to play it off like I wasn’t,” she says. She didn’t call it rape at first. “It had been taught to me all my life that rape happened with a stranger in a dark alley, and there wasn’t much wiggle room around that,” she continues. As quickly as she could, she headed for home, where she found her roommate concerned about where she’d been. She stared at herself in the mirror. “On my neck, I had fingerprint bruises,” she says. “That was the moment I knew this shouldn’t have happened, that I didn’t consent.” When she took a shower, scrubbing her body to erase the boy’s unwanted touch, she walked herself right into problem number two.

Reilly covered the marks on her neck with concealer and headed to the university’s main drag, Marshall Street. Near the Starbucks, she bumped into Heres, who saw the marks on her neck and assumed they were hickeys. “I pretended to whip out a microphone like a newscaster, saying, ‘Tell our viewers who you hooked up with last night!’ ” Heres tells me. Reilly took her hands in her own and looked her straight in the eye. “ ‘No, no, Caroline, come back to earth,’ ” Heres recalls her saying. (Though Reilly’s account was confirmed by Heres and another friend who spoke with her after the assault, the alleged offending party was not contacted for comment.)

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Reilly, who says she felt afraid that the boy or his friends were going to come hurt her again, called her parents, who had just dropped her in Syracuse for the new semester. She told them something had happened, something that wasn’t “the usual night in college,” and they rushed back to campus. They weren’t expecting to see the guy, but while they were walking to dinner, he suddenly appeared on a path. “My whole body froze,” says Reilly. “I lost all feeling. I don’t know how my dad didn’t jump and kill him.”

The real problem was her own trauma — figuring out how to sit with it, metabolize it. Speaking out became a way to assuage it. Heres, who says she was in an abusive relationship in high school, sat with Reilly one afternoon in a dorm common room on folding chairs, “and we did not move from those chairs for four hours,” says Heres, as they discussed what to do.

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Soon, she and Heres made their own rules about alcohol at parties. “When I ask a guy at the party for a beer, I want to control what I’m drinking,” says Heres. “I’m not taking it if it’s open. If it is, I put it to the side, and then I say, ‘Can I have an unopened one?’ If they turn me down, ‘OK, I’ll leave.’ ” They’re nervous about drinks being very strong or possibly even dosed with Xanax or Robitussin to loosen people up. “Usually, each girl in our sorority keeps an eye out, and if you’re at a party you might get a listserv e-mail saying, ‘Don’t drink it, it’s gross. It tastes like cough syrup. I think there’s something in there,’ ” says Heres.

Doctors I’ve interviewed about college rape say that victims often think they’re drugged when they’re very drunk. The doctors repeat, almost as a mantra, “The number one date-rape drug is alcohol.” At Syracuse, it’s hard to know whether drinks are dosed — it’s an oft-repeated part of campus lore. To my knowledge, no Syracuse fraternity drugged drinks, but a sorority sister in a leadership position says she thinks differently. “We’ve told the frats to stop putting things in the drinks, and they’ll either say they’ve never done that or they’ll say, ‘Well, some sororities request that we put it in the drinks, because they like the feeling of it,’ ” she explains. “Other frats will say, ‘No, we pour energy drinks into jungle juice, and that’s why girls feel sick in the morning.’ ” (When I contacted Syracuse University to ask about this, along with a larger list of questions, they did not comment on this subject.)

Syracuse has made some changes following Reilly and Heres’s lead of sloughing off shame and speaking out. The school has bolstered their reporting system, and adopted a "Yes Means Yes" policy on campus. At AXiD, there’s a new tradition: During pledging, the dozens of new recruits sit down in the sorority’s graciously appointed living room and share their secrets — parents’ divorces, siblings’ deaths. This is consciousness-raising, sorority-style. This voyage is the one that led to Heres realizing how abusive her high-school relationship had been. “As I was listening to my friend talk about her experience with being abused by her boyfriend, I was seizing up inside — Oh my God, this happened to me too,” says Heres.

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Now, more and more, the secrets were about rape and sexual assault. “We reveal ourselves to each other, peel off the layers, tell each other our deepest scars, trust these girls with stories you’ve barely told,” says Heres. Afterward, they cry and pledge to support one another.

“It’s a really special night,” says Reilly, then adds in her pragmatic way, “Our sorority always sees results out of that night.”

The politics of sex in college are still messy — many of today’s college women are pushing toward definition and outspokenness, but plenty prefer to define an assault in their own, less traumatic way. It's not about the choice they make, they say. It's about having the choice to respond to their experiences in the way that brings them the most healing.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Excerpted from BLURRED LINES: Rethinking Sex, Power and Content on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Nessie Corp. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.


The photos in this post are stock images used for illustrative purposes only. They do not show any of the people mentioned in the article.

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