Liberated or Just Lame?

Today’s Harvard women have more sex, but the freedom has come at a price

Ravi P. Ramchandani

This book has been a best seller for the past month

“There are three kinds of qualities that a woman can exhibit,” a male friend once told me over lunch. “Attractive, single, and sane. In my experience, you can find Harvard women that are two of those things, but not all three.” I had not expected the meal—a quick one after class—to take such a grave turn. But I was more shocked by his abruptness than by what he was saying. In the last three years, I have often found myself the unlikely confidante of a battery of frustrated boys. Man, they tell me over and over again, Harvard girls are so lame.

I win the privilege of this special confidence through no feat of my own. For most of the last three years, I have been officially In a Relationship, in fact and on thefacebook.com. Thus I am safe; almost not a girl at all, really, and certainly not part of this epidemic of crazy single girls whose antics are causing such frustration in the male population.

Never one to be a traitor, I try to defend my sex as best I can. But the more complaints I hear, the harder it becomes to ignore them. A Boston Herald reporter working on a story about student reaction to Larry Summers’ unfortunate comments recently asked me what I thought the situation for undergraduate women at Harvard was like, outside the framework of our good President’s position on human nature. I didn’t know how to answer her question.

But this month, as our reporter April H.N. Yee ’08 began investigating the switch to coeducational living, I started to have a better idea. If there’s anything that has a proven track record of vindicating the blunders of the lame and the insane, it’s history.

While April talked to members of the Radcliffe Class of 1972, I talked to someone I knew a little better: my mom, Radcliffe Class of 1974. I learned that in her time, women were optimistic, confident, and successful, if not in their academic lives, then certainly in their social lives. They read books like How to Be an Assertive (Not an Aggressive) Woman in Life, in Love, and on the Job: A Total Guide to Self-Assertiveness, which outlined “new courtship patterns” for a new generation, giving women the right to ask men out, break up with them, and refuse or demand sex at their leisure.

Today, my friends and the girls I spoke to for this article say they spend most of their time worrying over boys—not dating them. They read books like He’s Just Not that Into You: The No-Excuses Guide to Understanding Guys, which argues girls should never ask a guy out, let alone call a guy who gives them his number.

The reporter for the Herald wanted to know if the feminist movement had delivered on its promise. Now I know what I’d say. In the wake of the sexual revolution, women at Harvard are more confused, more disillusioned, and less liberated. That’s why our male friends think we’re lame. But it is definitely not our fault.

If there is an arbiter of popular culture today, it is probably the book table at Urban Outfitters. According to an assistant merchandiser at the J.F.K. Street Urban, the store’s bestselling book this Christmas season was He’s Just Not That Into You, a self-help book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, two writers from Sex and the City.

They decided to spread the no-excuses gospel after Behrendt offered Tuccillo and her female co-workers relationship advice at a writers’ meeting. Behrendt told one of the show’s writers that the man whose behavior she was trying to decipher was really as clear as she was dense: “Listen, it sounds like he’s just not that into you.” A phenomenon was born.

In the last several months, Behrendt and Tuccillo have appeared on Oprah and two major television networks. The book continues to top nonfiction bestseller lists, and its chapters have been excerpted in USA Today. Fifteen Harvard females have listed the book as their favorite on their facebook profiles. In addition to telling women that the men they are pursuing don’t like them, He’s Just Not That Into You encourages them to stop pursuing men altogether. “Don’t let him trick you into asking him out,” Behrendt writes. “Just because you like to lead doesn’t mean he wants to dance. Some traditions are born of nature and last through time for a reason.”

What in this decidedly Old World approach to dating might your contemporary high-achieving Harvard woman find appealing?

To find out, I traveled to a common room in Lowell, where I met three roommates who refer to He’s Just Not That Into You as “The Bible.” These girls take the book’s jacket inscription to heart.

For them, the book really has been an “intoxicatingly liberating” read. In addition to telling women that the men they are pursuing have no interest in them, He’s Just Not All That Into You also preaches confidence. The women depicted in its pages go after men like they would a spot on The Apprentice: making incessant phone calls, excuses, and writing e-mails in the hope that what is clearly not a promising relationship might, one day, turn good. The women depicted in its pages are, in short, desperately insecure and depressingly desperate. Before they read the book, Michelle T. Sonia ’06 and her roommates felt they had fallen into a similar trap.

“I’m this close to putting an ad in The Crimson: ‘Are you a boy who’s interested in a relationship?’” Sonia said. Later, her roommate Jessica R. Rosenfeld ’07, complaining that Harvard boys are “hard nuts to crack,” sighed and asked, “What’s the point of spending $165,000 if you can’t meet a guy who also has a Harvard degree and marry him?” Though Rosenfeld later emphasized that she values her education as well, she hopes to meet an intelligent man while they’re in high supply. That kind of anxiety is probably the reason my male friends keep telling me that Harvard women are lame. It would be easy to agree with them, shake my head, and blame the situation on innate differences. I might even be able to get away without having to launch a special initiative to apologize.

It would be easy to blame these women for their desperation, and for the last three years, I am ashamed to admit that I have done just that. But it stopped being easy this year, when I found myself, for the first time, single at Harvard. Even worse, I realized I had become not just lonely but, well, lame. I submitted e-mail messages to a level of close reading that might have lifted my Lit and Arts Core grade significantly. I spent hours on the facebook and even considered renewing my AIM account. I did embarrassing things in public places. From condescending critic, I evolved to become a part of the problem.

What was wrong with me? With us? Hadn’t feminism gotten rid of this problem, this lack of confidence? Instead, when I talked to my mother, I learned that women at Harvard were actually more confident in their social lives when the sexual revolution was still a fringe phenomenon.

“We all either had boyfriends or were dating people pretty much all of our Harvard careers,” my mom says of her group of friends. “Even if on a Saturday night you didn’t have anything to do, it didn’t feel like the end of the world at all because you knew that next Saturday you would.” Another set of girls took an alternate approach. The free love movement had hit parts of Radcliffe as early as 1970, when my mom remembers whispering with her friends about one girl on their hall who liked to pick up men in the Square, bring them back to her room for the night, and discard them the next morning. “They tended more to be the intellectuals, more like the Social Studies or English majors,” she says.

A Social Relations concentrator herself, my mother claims she observed this culture from the outside. Instead, she and her friends stuck to the old-fashioned patterns. Meet a boy in class. If you think he’s cute, talk to him. Let him walk you back to your House. If he likes you, he’ll walk you back another time. By the third walk home, you’ll have a date for Saturday night.

Now, with the death of dating and the rise of hookup culture respectively mourned and marveled at in the pages of such arbiters of culture as The New York Times Magazine, women like that girl in my mom’s freshman hall have become the norm. And while my mother says this girl’s sexual self-expression was a kind of political project, women at Harvard today entertain overnight guests with different intentions.

“People seek some kind of relationship, go to parties, and can’t find them there,” says Kate C. Gluckman ‘07. “But you can’t meet guys at parties.” Sure, you can take them home and spend the night with them, but what then?

Whereas my mother and her friends had set expectations and understood rules for how to find a boyfriend, today uncertainty reigns. Girls like Sonia and Rosenfeld are forced to turn to He’s Just Not That Into You to figure out how to interpret the meanings of their love interests’ e-mails, facebook messages, and body language. Like the authors of their “Bible,” they become nostalgic, wishing dating was more common and roles more clearly delineated.

Should we give up all the fruits of the sexual revolution because of the confusion it has also brought us? My mother is quick to remind me that she always wished she could follow the advice of How to Be Assertive, the self-help book of her time, and just ask a guy out. In the end, the way to stop being lame may be to recognize how lame we are. Many women told me that laughing at the pathetically obsessive behaviors of the women in He’s Just Not That Into You is part of the book’s appeal. The next step, I guess, is to move on: stop obsessing and start living.

If my experience with guys tells me anything, it is what Harvard men don’t want: for us to obsess. “When I came to Harvard, I was definitely trying to be the girl everyone would want to date,” says Gluckman. “But in my experience guys like you the most when you’re just blatantly trying to be yourself and not just following rules in some book.” Now that’s the kind of thing someone needs to write a book about.

Multimedia