What happens at college stays at college?

Thanks in part to this post at She’s A Carnivore, I’ve been thinking about the way people are all too happy to chalk female same-sex attraction and activity at college up to phases and experimentation.

I think a lot of things are coming into play here. One is a general dismissing of female sexuality, and thus the idea that these women actually know exactly what they want. Similarly, the idea that young folks have no idea who they are and what they like, and so we can ignore all of the things they do as meaningless, or at best as figuring it out. Of course, both of these are exacerbated by the idea that queers in general and especally bisexuals specifically are confused or indecisive, and just need to find happiness with a member of the “opposite sex” to see the light. As the girl writing in points out, there’s probably also a healthy dose of a good old-fashioned suspicion of educating women at all.

Unlike men, who can be painted gay for life for one same-gender experience (and trust me, I don’t think that’s an ideal model either), society is only too happy to tell women that we’re just going through a phase and can come right back over to the side of good, healthy heterosexuality once we’ve gotten it out of our systems. That seems to be what this whole idea of “experimentation” is about. Go on, have fun while you’re young and stupid and don’t know any better; eventually you’ll come to your senses, marry a man, and raise his babies. Because, hey, women can’t be counted on to know what we want, and so a certain amount of “experimentation” can be forgiven, as long as we eventually let men take care of us and tell us what’s best for us. We’ve ranted about this idea of fluid female sexuality here before, and I’m sure we will again; in the queer until graduation model, it seems to be used to imply that queer female sexuality is temporary and thus not to be taken seriously. This plays into stereotypes about bisexuals in general. That we’re on our way in one direction or the other (in the case of bisexual women, generally back to heterosexuality), that we’re fluid and changeable and thus fickle and not to be trusted, that we’re experimenting and just haven’t made up our minds yet. All of these stereotypes seem to be seen as even more applicable to college students than other women.

Some of that has to do with our culture’s general disrespect for youth. There’s a lot to be said about the kyriarchy treating women like children, but it’s also true that the way we treat “young people” is disrespectful in and of itself as well, not just when applied to adults (and have you noticed that the dividing line between the two moves later all the time?). It makes sense that we’d tell college students that they don’t know who they are or what they want. We don’t trust anyone under 30 or 35 to know those things. Anything a 21-year-old does is subject to the suspicion that they’re experimenting, not in touch with themselves, just haven’t settled down to their real lives yet. There’s also this idea that later changing one’s mind negates everything one currently thinks, feel, and believes. When I was an outspoken 14-year-old spending most of my time with adults, I remember arguing constantly that what I was feeling and doing was valid regardless of whether I continued to feel or do it my entire life. I was told that once I’d really faced hardship I’d recognize my melodrama for what it was, that I couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to be in love, that as I grew up I’d realize how the world worked and stop being so liberal and idealistic. As I didn’t have the right to struggle because life would have worse to throw at me later, as if the pain and angst that so often go along with being an adolescent matter less because they’re widespread and they usually pass, as if it’s better to have become exhausted and given up on the world than to still be trying to change it. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Even if the vast majority of self-identified bisexual college girls later go on to not only marry men but also identify as straight (and I don’t believe this is nearly as much the case as the media would have us believe), that doesn’t change the validity of their attractions, desires, or identities right now. And certainly the expectation that some of their peers will change their minds shouldn’t mean that we dismiss them all as straight girls in disguise. Like everyone else, young people should be trusted to know their own reality and report it accurately, rather than being told how we think they should be acting or identifying.

And really, let’s be careful, educating all of those women to begin with! They’ll get all uppity and start thinking they don’t need men at all! Particularly at women’s colleges — it’s interesting how the culture at large can both assume that queer women will eventually come to our senses and realize we need men, and that if you let women have only or mostly each other’s company for a few years, they’ll never look back. As Ms. Carnivore writes, framing things in terms of a woman being bisexual or a lesbian “until graduation” is a way of delegitimizing female same-gender relationships and so making them less threatening to heteronormativeland. It also tells women that everyone else understands them and their sexualities better than they do themselves. Because it’s not at all insulting to tell women that men/science/cultural bias have discovered that we’re wrong about what we think we want. The assumption with young women in college is that they show up straight, and pick up this add-on of attraction to other women that will eventually be jettisoned. It’s not possible that they’ve actually discovered things about themselves and what they want though the experiences they’ve had, or that because college coincides somewhat with sexual maturation, people are discovering there what they would have wanted all along. No, they’re being swayed to the dark side by all those liberal professors, pretty fellow students, and persuasive women’s and queer studies courses. They just need a little while away from it to clear their systems and come to their senses. And so of course we don’t have to take anything they might do now seriously.

I’ve fallen prey to some of this myself. I’ve wondered how I would be different if my father had lived and I’d stayed a clergyman’s daughter, if I hadn’t move to New York and fallen in with such a politicized crowd. Then I remember that this is who I am and what feels right to me, that I sought it out. I moved into an intentional community full of queers and activists because it appealed to me to be surrounded by that level of analysis and skepticism of the dominant culture’s paradigms. I may have met my first girlfriend there, but I’d known for years that I was bisexual. And besides, if my father had lived surely I’d have gone to college and discovered my subversive woman-lovin’ ways there! Clearly there was no hope for me.

Actually, maybe that’s what’s wrong with me — since I didn’t go to college, I didn’t have a chance to give up my queerness at graduation. Oops. Maybe the solution is to send all queer women to college, so they can be straight again when they get out. Hey, it could work, right?

7 Responses to “What happens at college stays at college?”

  1. 28 January 2009 at 10:46 am

    I think of the BUG stereotype as one that spends a lot of time hanging out with “you just need a good deep dicking” and “it’s just a phase”. They go drinking together, make offensive jokes about the lack of legitimacy of other people’s identities and how they “know better” who people really are, and egg each other on to “teach her what she really wants” through sexual violence.

  2. 28 January 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I meant to say, “bisexuality is just a phase on the road to gayness” is the drinking buddy in my above example.

  3. 3 Olivia
    2 February 2009 at 3:14 am

    The reason I avoid coming out as much as possible is because I am often not believed or taken seriously once I do. I think one of the worst things to hear once I’ve worked up the courage is “it’s a phase/you’re confused/doing it for attention, etc.” I hate feeling like I have to prove that I’m gay, and it certainly doesn’t help that I’m young and femme.

  4. 4 ShannonB
    2 February 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Wow, great post!

    I particularly liked this insight:
    “it’s interesting how the culture at large can both assume that queer women will eventually come to our senses and realize we need men, and that if you let women have only or mostly each other’s company for a few years, they’ll never look back.”
    That is so true!

  5. 5 Aviva
    8 February 2009 at 5:14 am

    Olivia, I agree, that’s one of the worst. There are only so many times I want to justify myself. And yeah, being femme doesn’t help sometimes. ‘Cause everyone knows feminine women will go back to men in the end.

  6. 6 Aviva
    8 February 2009 at 5:15 am

    Thanks, Shannon, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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