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Hot and Heavy

A Shot in the Dark

By Madeleine S. Elfenbein

I know that today, being Friday, April 4, is likely to be chill and wet, but I ask you to suspend this knowledge for a moment and anticipate the warmer, brighter future on the way. The vaunted season is nearly upon us, and with it the highlights of the yearly campus cycle. This is the traditional season of flowers and sex, lounging and landscaping, life-changing term papers and major administrative policy changes. It is the season when green goo is sprayed over the Yard’s bare spots to approximate verdure and encourage growth; when grad students emerge like squirrels from their hollows to bask with Bordieu and Benjamin in front of the Barker Center amidst the cigarette butts.

Spring does funny things to this campus. It is the combination of hospitable weather and the realization that the year is running out that makes us bravely peel off excess restraint to expose our whitened goose-bumpy flesh to the changeable winds. With student excitability at its peak, campus causes emerging from their winters of discontent must seize the moment to rally for lasting change. It is the best and worst of times.

On that first warm day—who knows when it shall arrive—we cannot help but exult and perspire. The despicable primitivism of our immanent natures emerges and takes control of us, and we become delightful to behold. Thus reduced, we look about and with new eyes perceive professors, secretaries, groundskeepers and even administrators glowing from their own inescapable vitality. This visceral humanity made manifest is hot. Can you feel it?

Sexuality ought to be the great leveler, and yet it never seems to turn out that way. Not without regret, I dutifully call to your attention the ubiquity with which the word “sexual” is linked to “difference.” The reasons for this seem intuitive, and in your gay innocence, you may even quote to me the old saw that opposites attract. But differences of any kind rarely (some say never) come without differences in power. Mapped onto genital differences are wage differentials and strength gradients. The sexy dialectic of master and slave is played out every day between lovers and friends, defining our relationships as much as it disturbs them.

What a blowhard thing to say. For most of us seeking to enjoy life, the above assertion poses a head-scratching, fist-banging dilemma. Relationships are often good, but they are always complicated. Sex is fun but necessarily serious. In the approaching season as we delight in the mutual exposure of sumptuous muscle and flesh, these confusing facts of life still give us pause. Why are sex, difference, power and violence so intimately related?

Now is the time to think hard. It will be hard to avoid it in the coming week, as Take Back the Night kicks off on Sunday with a Rape Aggression Defense class, whirling through a week-long series of varied events with sexual violence as the uniting theme. The week, and the spirit of awareness and positive change it represents, is a triumph and a minor miracle. But for me it will be long and filled with unpleasantness. There will be the daily sight of t-shirts bearing testimonials in the Yard, the appearance of new ones and the lengthening of the clothesline. The Clothesline Project is a public airing; it is also a warning. More stories will be told on Thursday night at the vigil, the most important event of the week. To be there, and to listen, hurts.

If spring momentarily led us to forget this side of sex, Take Back the Night is timed to correct the oversight. Fifty-eight undergraduates were raped in the last academic year, based on the extrapolation of UHS survey statistics. That’s slightly under five per House. Another 154 were victims of attempted rape (more than 12 per house). Most of us don’t need numbers to know when we are threatened, tacitly or not. Why must sex be forever attached to fear in women’s minds? It has been said that reminding people of the persistence of rape serves to imprison female psychology within this link, and I fear that’s true. But the alternative seems more dangerous. Even if we are not survivors, we are doing this for ourselves.

While we’re taking back the night, let’s not leave behind the morning after. In the same UHS survey, sexually active undergraduates were asked whether they or their partner had used emergency contraception (the morning-after pill) in the past school year. Look at who said yes: 14.2 percent of female respondents, as opposed to 8.9 percent of male respondents. Plenty of men are unaware of how their partner spent the morning after. Who is to blame when this happens? Is it her deception, or his indifference? The UHS waiting room is not a place to savor post-coital bliss. That she should shoulder the burden alone without his knowledge is a symptom of a community’s sexual dysfunctionality, part of a common cultural affliction that’s bad for people and bad for sex.

Sex is complicated: that’s another old saw which doesn’t say much, and spring is when we’re most inclined to ignore it. Now we’ve heard the lecture, we’ve understood the points: when can we go back to our frolicking in the green goo-coated fields of youth? The sooner the better, but not quite yet. We are grown-up boys and girls, and ignorance is not an option. Make the freedom to frolic a universal right, and there’ll be much more if it; otherwise hypocrisy, that un-sexiest of qualities, taints us all.

Sexual indifference is on its way out. Replacing it are sex and equity, the one true path to a truly good time.

Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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