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Columns

Yes, No, Maybe

Let’s break up social prestige and sex

By Reina A.E. Gattuso

There was no subject line to the email. Theory: Subject line-less emails from people who’ve been staring at your tits in writers’ meetings are almost always going to be shady. We’ll call this the Gattuso Conjecture.

The message read: “Want to stick around for a bit after the meeting to discuss comping and other things?” Corollary to the Conjecture: The phrase “other things” in shady subject-line-less emails basically always means sex.

The email-sending boob starer was my comp director: the guy who decided whether I was good enough to pass through the comp process to become a member of the publication for which I was trying out. I didn’t want him. I wanted to be a writer. But I was afraid: I was too public-school, too small-town, not enough hand-rolled-cigarette. So when he started creeping, my dread of encountering him at meetings was tempered with excitement: He thought I belonged. I wasn’t attracted to him, but I would have fucked him to feel that.

Let’s take sexuality as more than that collection of weird, naked gyrations some of us engage in as foreplay to Netflix. Let’s think about sexuality as a collection of ideas about bodies and their interactions with other bodies, a collection of ideas that helps determine who hangs out with who, who goes out, who comes out. Our social contexts structure and are structured by sexuality in ways that include or exclude, empower or marginalize: Who’s hot enough to be in the Fly? Which English concentrator has the cutest nerd-chic boyfriend? In a community as predicated on exclusivity as Harvard, this raises some ethical questions: Who does sexuality exclude? And if sexuality functions as a price of social entry, how do we think about consent?

There are a bunch of ways, besides just our choice of who, if anyone, to sleep with, that sexuality structures our interactions.  Sexuality is often part—however overt or subtle—of comp processes, punches, and initiations; that is, of social processes that determine who is in and who is out. In one of the organizations I’m involved with, for example, new members used to find out they had gotten on through a prank phone call telling them they first had to hook up with the board leader. In another, initiations involved the public pronouncement of which members I wanted to have a threesome with. If you’re not into making sexual declarations in front of a room of drunk randos, that experience might leave you feeling pretty alienated.

Or how about the date event. If you’re punching or rushing, it matters whether you and your date are desirable: socially and personally, but sexually as well. Besides the ickiness of being judged by normative sexy standards, this can be exclusionary. A lot of people in social clubs, for example, feel comfortable bringing same-gender dates to events, but a whole hell of a lot don’t. And it’s not that people in clubs are scary and homophobic; it’s that being a minority is freaking difficult, and if we don’t make huge, concerted, affirmative, constant effort to be inclusive, we end up leaving people out. When we don’t question whose sexuality is valued and whose excluded, who is valued and who is excluded, we create hierarchies of human worth. That blows.

Predicating social inclusion on sexuality also raises some serious questions about consent. In human-subjects research, there are limits to the kinds of rewards you can offer people for their participation. Promise people too great a reward, the argument goes, and conditions become coercive; if it’s really, really hard to say no, it’s not a very ethical yes. Get an MRI and $3,000, or listen to your deathly fear of MRIs and don’t participate? The answer is obvious. Similarly, social groups that predicate feelings of acceptance and community on sexuality make it harder for all of us to make decisions about sex. Put up with one or two sexualized comments and be recognized as a Harvard Writer, or leave the comp process? It wasn’t much of a choice.

Let’s think critically about how we experience sexuality during times when community is created—during punch, rush, comp, and initiations. Let’s ask ourselves: Do we say things that assume everybody to be cisgendered or heterosexual, or that assume everyone is or should be interested in sex? Do we actively welcome members and punches to bring dates of whatever gender, to bring friends as well as partners? Do we make comments about people’s clothes or how many chicks they’ll bring into an organization, or whether or not we think they’re hot? Are initiations sexualized? How?

I’ve fucked for love, and I’ve fucked for pleasure, and I’ve fucked in those moments of tenderness for the body that make you weep in gratitude that you exist. I’ve also fucked for social approval. At a place like Harvard, sometimes it’s hard to know which feeling is which. And that’s okay. But what we can do is make that not-knowing a little gentler. Let’s reframe consent as a collaborative process: as something we build constantly and together; as the very substance of what it means to belong.

Reina A.E. Gattuso 16, an FM editor, is a joint literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Adams House.

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