Straddling the line between objectification and empowerment.
I pride myself on my confidence. Whether it’s embracing my body or speaking my mind, I rarely feel the need to hide who I am. Most of us were accepted to Penn because of our accomplishments and our self-assurance. Even so, I have friends adopting different personas around different people in order to fit in, confiding in me about their insecurities, and struggling to be themselves. After spending time listening to their concerns, I’ve noticed a trend: in almost every case of self-doubt, boys were involved.
Striding into college on August 22nd, I decided that I wouldn’t limit myself in any way. I no longer had a boyfriend and looked forward to embracing a clean slate. No one knew me at Penn. I could be whoever I wanted. But I never truly understood how true that statement was until I started going to fraternity parties. New Student Orientation, as described by most upperclassmen, lived up to all college stereotypes. Alcohol, hot rooms, loud music, thumping bass, and tons of naive, excited freshmen eager to assert themselves in this new environment. I was mesmerized; I found myself lost in the beat of the music and the swaying bodies—every moment seemed like a beautiful expression of youth and freedom. But that’s when hook-up culture began to make itself known. Just as I was initially shocked by the heavy presence of parties and ease with which students could acquire alcohol, I was surprised by the boldness of guys. Suddenly, guys were coming up to me, introducing themselves, all with the goal of finding someone to dance with and possibly take home. At first, it was flattering. We felt confident and powerful and in control of our bodies.
Quickly, however, I realized the fine line I was walking between confidence and reliance, empowerment and objectification. No matter how confident you are, it is hard to deny the pressure of an environment set on judging you and prone to tearing down your confidence. I now present to you four stories of parties, freedom, power, confidence, college, bodies, friends, acquaintances, girls and, of course, guys. What’s the takeaway? Embracing your sexuality doesn’t favor women—it favors the men who act unabashedly in a society built to turn a blind eye.
September: Don’t Snapchat Last Night’s Guy
Enter your stereotypical player—but it’s Penn. So he’s a little slicker, a little wealthier, and of course, very, very smart. Scene: a frat party.
I jump back in shock as the contents of a red Solo cup meet my jeans. I look up to find a guy gesturing apologetically at my sopping wet clothes. I noticed right away how attractive he was. And he was also charming—as they often are. Quickly, our talking moved to dancing. He walked me home, but that was it. At that point, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had controlled the situation. I hadn’t done anything I didn’t want to, nothing regrettable. It had been a good night. Feeling like I had made a new friend, I decided to check in with him the next morning. I always check-in with my friends the morning after a party. It didn’t seem too forward or unusual to do the same with someone who was inebriated the night before.
Unfortunately, in a world of calculated texting and aversion to attachment, a simple “Did you make it home okay” can quickly be perceived as something else. A week later, I find out that he told his friends that he didn’t understand “why this girl was texting him, she wasn’t even that cute.” When I first heard this, I was completely caught off guard. Comments like that are reserved for petty high school dramas. But here I was, already dealing with a guy who decided I was just some random body he accidentally talked to on a Friday night. My twist is that instead of letting it get to me, I confronted him about it. Looking back, I’m not sure where that courage came from, but it just spilled out. Suddenly, he was the shocked one; he stood across from me wearing a face of bewilderment, the face of someone who’s not accustomed to taking responsibility for his words or his actions.
The thing is, we let them get away with it. Whether it’s because we’re too hurt to fight back or because we’ve accepted it as the status quo, we’ve given guys the power to say whatever they want about us. Our silence empowers the men who spew those hurtful words, which in turn pave the way for future hurtful actions. We cannot afford to pretend we do not care.
To the guys who joined in with his “playful” banter, really? To the guys who told me what was being said, thank you. To The Guy, I’m sorry you forgot your glasses that night.
October: “Yikes” — Clueless Freshman
My phone rings at 7 a.m. I sleepily roll over, and tap accept only to have my eardrums blown out by my friend screaming, “I need help. I think the condom might have come off.”
Ever since middle school, the importance of the condom has been drilled into our heads. Entering college, safe sex is at the forefront of every health conversation. Living in the quad, you don’t have to walk very far to find condom-filled gift bags hanging off doors. In fact, with so much emphasis placed on their use, it’s almost a given in all sexual situations. Condoms have a 98 percent effectiveness rate when used correctly. If there’s a condom involved, there’s no need to worry, right?
But that morning, as I met up with my friend to go to Student Health, I witnessed a serious disconnect between girls and guys and how they interact with safe sex. My friend decided to text the guy that she was heading to Student Health to pick up Plan B just as a precaution. She felt it was something he should know considering it was a mistake made by both of them. He responded 20 minutes later with a simple “Yikes.” That was it.
Why were we frustrated with that response? Because at that moment, we realized that guys rarely think of the consequences related to being sexually active. The most obvious reason they fail to consider such important issues is that guys can’t get pregnant. That simple biological fact contributes a lot to the environment in which guys and girls are hooking up. For my friend, she expressed her constant fear of something going wrong and the consequences she would have to face. Every time she hooks up, that fear remains. For guys, on the other hand, there is no fear.
“Yikes” represents an expression of indifference that girls cannot partake in. My friend didn’t have the privilege of checking out and moving on; instead, she spent the next month waiting for her period. This imbalance feeds into the ease with which guys can hook up and the stress and pressure girls face when they hook up. Simultaneously, the act of asking for Plan B reinforces a shame associated with girls embracing their sexuality. If you need Plan B, you are acting on your sexual urges, but at the same time there’s a message that somehow you made a mistake. His “Yikes” left her feeling like she was in the wrong, like she should not have messed up during their encounter.
At the end of the day, she should never feel bad for doing what she has to do. If done right, all sexual decisions should be two-sided. In that case, her mistake was also his mistake. Also, PSA: unprotected sex doesn’t just result in pregnancies; it can also lead to STDs.
November: “Why Are You Hanging Out With Her So Much” — (Even More) Clueless Freshmen
When my friend told me he was attracted to me, out of the blue in a dimly lit frat basement, I was shocked. I thought we were just friends, but in a split-second decision, I kissed him back. He was smart, attractive, funny—I thought, why not? And so began my initiation into the ambiguous zone known as “friends with benefits.”
Nevertheless, I was confident I would be able to maintain our close friendship. At first, it was chill. We’d run into each other at parties and dance and have a good time on Friday nights. And then by Monday morning, we were back in Van Pelt, studying math and writing philosophy papers. Spending time together, it was no surprise that I would meet some of his friends. Apparently though, I met his friends one too many times.
Fast forward a couple weeks: I’m meeting him to do homework. I give him a casual hug because we’re friends and I hug my friends. He looks up at me and says, “Are we still doing this?” I was completely thrown off; I thought everything was good. The boundaries in our relationship/not relationship had seemed clear. So what was with the sudden confusion? Well, as it turns out, his friends had had enough of me. They decided to stage an intervention for “their boy” to make sure he wasn’t accidentally getting involved in a relationship. They advised him to not only stop hanging out with me, but also to stop talking to me.
I was furious. Why? Because his friends chose to view me as an object, something to occasionally play with, and eventually get bored of. They didn’t see me as a potential friend; I was just a clingy, nameless girl who had no further business in their friend’s life past a one-night stand. Still, the real hurt came from him. He suggested that we “hang out less” to ensure his friends wouldn’t keep making jokes about us dating. I was shocked. I always saw myself as a friend first and a “benefit” second. But it turns out that’s not how he saw me. Or at least he wasn’t willing to acknowledge that he saw me as anything more than some girl.
The pressure exerted by his friends points toward a couple of things intrinsic to hookup culture.
1. Male friend groups often adopt a fraternity-like mindset in which girls become a means to highlight masculinity. Raising girls to “friend” status ruins the frat-like atmosphere.
2. Despite my confidence in my choices and my consent to our relationship, I had no control over how his friends viewed me. My actions and words were only seen through the eyes of an environment that tends to shame women rather than support them when it comes to hooking up.
But the worst part was that he caved in. He always seemed different, impervious to peer pressure. Maybe he really did see me as a friend. But it doesn’t matter, because all I was left with were the words of someone who clearly couldn’t stand up for our friendship. All I saw was someone feeding into the same toxic environment that makes it impossible for girls to feel confident in their decisions.
December: We’re Our Own Worst Enemy
My friends and I invited a guy and some girls we knew only in passing along with us that night. I had never really had a conversation with any of them so I decided to start one.
I quickly realized that the guy was way out of his comfort zone. The loud music, the swaying bodies, and the strobe lights all seem to push him further into the corner. I decided to start there. As it turns out, he was very talkative. I sat with him just discussing classes and majors, where he was from, and how he liked Penn. I remember as we walked to get food later that night, he and I pulled ahead from the rest of the group just talking.
I didn’t think anything of it.
As it turns out, one of the new girls in our group had her eyes on him. Nowhere in my mind had I considered him as anything more than a potential friend. I was merely meeting someone new. The girl assumed that a guy and girl talking had to be on the path toward a hook-up. Unfortunately, the girl never asked me directly—she went ahead and interpreted my actions as contrary to her interests. Later, she angrily approached my friends, voicing her confusion about him having any interest in me since I didn’t have a “nice body.”
My friends sheepishly revealed this to me the next morning. This time, I wasn’t surprised. Too many times, girls forget each other in the race to get with a certain guy. We are hasty to condemn guys for objectifying girls, but we quickly join that same banter when it works to our benefit. She had no qualms about reducing me to a body. This is completely unacceptable.
How can we expect guys to respect us if we have no respect for each other? As a girl, it is hard to stop defining yourself by guys. Many girls use getting with guys as a metric for success, as a way to boost their self-confidence, and as a way to deal with their own insecurities. The irony is that guys demonstrating minimal respect for us isn’t a meaningful boost in our self-confidence. On the other hand, when we tear down other girls, we are causing more damage than the guys are. This system is not benefiting us, it is benefiting those who continue to see us as objects—as easy, and as disposable.
So, to the girl who said that about me: I’m sorry that you struggle to feel confident when guys tear you down. I do too.
Sometimes my friends and I get caught up in lengthy venting sessions about how horrible men can be—the kind of venting which takes place at 2:00 am and which makes all your guy friends uncomfortable wondering if they’re included among the horrible. So it’s not “all” men. It is the culture of toxic masculinity that is horrible. Men should not behave contemptibly. We need to hold them to a higher standard. We need to stop accepting the status quo. We have more power to wield than we know.
Guys can do better. They should do better. And they should challenge each other to be better.
Girls can also do better. Girls need to support girls. Girls need to call out bad behavior by guys and ask them to challenge the status quo.
For me, I’ve only been in college for a few months. The situations I’ve described here aren’t the first, and definitely won’t be my last experiences interacting with guys, relationships, sexuality, other girls, and confidence. I’m moving forward fostering new friendships, leaving some friendships behind, looking for ways to build rather than destroy my self esteem, and hoping to have a positive effect on the toxic environment in which we live. Anyone care to join me?
Illustration: Sophie Lee
Editors Note: This post was edited by the author after its original publication on 02/05/2019.