In only a few weeks time, John Harvard’s staid, suburban sister plans to strip down, get liquored up, and let loose for a week of liberal-minded debauchery. On the heels of an April 7 concert to promote choice, fronted by a lesbian-led rock group at its Lulu Chow Wang campus center, Wellesley College’s GBLSTA group Spectrum plans to host its annual Dyke Ball on April 14.
Local and national media outlets are no doubt salivating in anticipation, already pitching titillating headlines and scintillating articles to appeal to the baser instincts of its readership. To justify such coverage, a scant amount of moral commentary will be sprinkled throughout, as journalists hypocritically condemn the very naughty behavior that they describe in lurid, exploitative detail. Ultimately, these reports will lampoon the undergraduate body at Wellesley as part militant lesbian feminist, part promiscuous nymphet.
This is an unfair portrayal to say the least. Wellesley might have its fair share of liberal students on campus, but certainly no more so than most other universities. In fact, an undercurrent of conservative traditionalism exists on the Wellesley campus when it comes to sex, dating, relationships, and even marriage. While Wellesley is highly tolerant of differing views on sexuality—and this is a wonderful thing—it is absurd to stereotype its student body as decadently promiscuous or choc full of lesbians uniformly hostile to stay-at-home motherhood.
That the media portrays Wellesley unfairly is an opinion universally reflected by students on campus. According to Jaime L. Bence, a freshman at Wellesley, numerous students buck the media’s stereotype: “There’s a demand for better married housing because there are a significant number of married students here. There are engaged students. And as for predominant beliefs, I would talk about the faith-based initiatives on campus. I think we have more of a religious presence on campus than many media portrayals suggest.”
Another first-year named Elizabeth (who requested that her surname be withheld for fear of community backlash) added that her close friend views her time at college as, “What she’s doing before she becomes a mother.”
In terms of mainstream student values then, Wellesley today is every bit as much Mona Lisa Smile-puritan as it is secular, Sapphic fantasyland. And there are, of course, numerous students that fall between these two spheres.
As Susie Giles-Klein, a junior, puts it, “Of course some people here are raging feminists and some are super conservative, but the majority probably fall in the middle.”
In recent years, the Dyke Ball has been the Wellesley institution most scrutinized by the media. Articles most often document Wellesley social life as revolving around this event, a campus-wide fête celebrating non-normative sexualities. It has achieved semi-mythical status among the Boston frat crowd, with the “creative black tie” dress code interpreted to mean, “dress as scantily as possible.”
At the 2005 Dyke Ball, 11 students were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. The media used these hospitalizations as an excuse to publish scores of eroticized, disapproving reports of Wellesley life. The Boston Herald went so far as to grace its front page with the headline, “Wellesley Girls Gone Wild: college students end night in ER after lesbian bash.” By contrast, only pitiable coverage was provided by local media when, months earlier, more than 25 students were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning at the Harvard-Yale football game.
Perhaps the most exploitative article ever to chronicle the social life of Wellesley women was published by a 2001 Rolling Stone, titled “The Highly Charged Erotic Life of the Wellesley Girl.” This oft-cited article stereotypes undergraduates at Wellesley as nothing short of promiscuous floozies, propositioning themselves to any man who steps foot on campus. The article’s description of the Dyke Ball is snarkily crafted to tap into male carnal lust, best exemplified by the Animal House scene in which John Belushi secretly observes a naked, sorority pillow fight. In the article’s words: “Women arrive nearly topless, or wearing only Saran Wrap or body paint (which inevitably sweats off by the end of the night).”
Some journalists have even extended their unfair characterization of Wellesley as a weapon to level ad hominem broadsides at alumnus Hillary Clinton. In the 2005 book “The Truth About Hillary,” author Edward Klein tries to damage Clinton politically by pointing to Hillary’s time at Wellesley, the bastion of radical feminism and lesbianism, as evidence of her lesbianism.
It is quite disheartening that in a few weeks time, the media will likely again portray Wellesley with what it brands as subversive secularism and sexual depravity. Such coverage provides the public with a skewed, sexually fetishized image of campus life. It also gives false hope to the hoards of desperate males from Harvard and MIT that work up the courage to brave the Senate bus—a.k.a. “Fuck Truck”—to Wellesley every weekend in the quixotic pursuit of a one-night stand or to witness wanton acts of lesbianism.
Let us hope that this year I am proven wrong, and the media avoids making such facile, ignorant mischaracterizations when covering Dyke Ball and its pro-choice concert. I am not holding my breath.
Stephen C. Bartenstein ’08 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.