Here are the facts:
#springbreak2013 is over.
I am a senior.
I am single.
I consider myself a feminist.
And sometimes I consider myself a SWUG.
Is that who I want to be?
FRESHMAN FOR A DAY
“I’m KiKi!” she says to me conspiratorially.
“I’m introducing myself as KiKi, and I’m a freshman. Just go with it.”
I laugh, and consider my classmate in front of me, decked out in tiny American-flag-print shorts, neon athletic shoes and a Yale sweatshirt. I can’t help but notice that her legs are really, really long.
It’s a bit after 2 p.m. on a blustery, blue-skied autumn Saturday in New Haven. We’re in the backyard of the house of a sports team, surrounded by a couple dozen of Yale’s finest male specimens. Currently, they’re all wearing slim-fitting slacks and tweed sports-coats while drinking champagne out of clear plastic cups. Eighty more bottles of champagne are chilling in ice-filled metal buckets. A freshman on the team is passing around a wooden tray of cheese and crackers. It’s college, but it’s classy, except for the Top 40 music pumping out of the speakers.
And, it has to be said, except for “KiKi.”
“KiKi” isn’t a freshman, even if that’s how she’s introducing herself to the cute new Aussies on the team. She doesn’t care what these young men think of her. Besides, they wouldn’t kick her out — she’s friends with the guys that matter. So unlike the dozen 18-year-old girls present in their pastel party dresses, high heels and hats, KiKi — who clocks in at the ripe old age of 22 — came straight from the gym. To hell with the dress code.
KiKi’s real name is Chloe Drimal ’13. She’s a Yale senior. And she calls herself a Senior Washed-Up Girl: a SWUG.
Unlike Chloe, I followed the rules and dressed up.
Like Chloe, I chat with the guys I know and use my seniority to cut the line for fresh-grilled sausages. But that’s about all either of us are getting.
Just by virtue of my age and the fact that I’m at this party drinking cheap champagne before cocktail hour, I, too, am a SWUG. Wish I had a freshman alter ego.
BOYS ON THE SIDE?
Back in August, journalist Hanna Rosin wrote a story for The Atlantic entitled “Boys on the Side.” Searching to recast the hookup culture of college campuses in a positive, feminist light, Rosin included interviews with some Yale women because she thought we were emblematic of the “modern” type of highly educated woman: the one who wants it all. Today, we want both casual sex and academic success; someday, we’ll want a happy family and a high-powered career. “Feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture,” Rosin writes. “And to a surprising degree, it is women — not men — who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.”
Rosin continues: “One sorority girl … whom I’ll call Tali, told me that freshman year she, like many of her peers, was high on her first taste of the hookup culture and didn’t want a boyfriend. ‘It was empowering, to have that kind of control,’ she recalls.”
That’s me — Tali.
The previous year, Rosin, a friend and I plopped down on a patch of grass in the Law School’s courtyard to make sense of what was going on at Yale with women, relationships and sex. That conversation become fodder for Rosin’s trend piece.
We all know that college is as much about self-discovery as it is about academia. Bring together 1,000 high-strung young adults. Add the pungent kick-starter of alcohol, splash on some loud music, stick these bodies together in a dark room. Stir.
When I was a freshman, I took full advantage of that scene: I certainly thought there were plenty of fish in the college sea. Plus, all the attention was fun. Then, like many of my friends and peers, I slowly realized that “fun” wasn’t enough for me.
“Sometime during sophomore year, her feelings changed,” Rosin writes of Tali. “She got tired of relation-ships that just faded away, ‘no end, no beginning.’ … When I asked Tali what she really wanted, she didn’t say anything about commitment or marriage or a return to a more chivalrous age. ‘Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen–yogurt place,’ she said. That’s it. A $3 date.”
I’m 21 now; to be honest, I’d prefer to be taken out for a drink. But I — along with most of the women I spend time with, and many men here too — am farther from getting asked out on that drink than I was four years ago, when it wouldn’t have even been legal.
You could say that being a SWUG has something to do with it.
The Rosin narrative suggests that feminism exists most progressively and positively when women just stop caring about having serious relationships with men. At Yale, where success is more highly valued than probably anything else — where ambition is a given, achievement an expectation and hard work a mantra — participation in the hookup culture might be a way of liberating oneself from the constraints of the traditional boyfriend-girlfriend mumbo-jumbo. Not caring is a form of empowerment, one that we use more and more often.
And a SWUG — a female Yalie defined by a “don’t-give-a-fuck” or “DGAF” attitude — should be the modern young feminist ideal.
But for SWUGs like Chloe and I, that’s not quite how it pans out. Whatever empowerment we’re supposed to be deriving from this version of the feminist moment is looking pretty thin on the ground. Another Atlantic piece, published just a few weeks ago, pushed back at Rosin’s argument: “I hear young women’s mixed feelings about relationships,” writes sociologist Leslie C. Bell. “Some young women deeply desire meaningful relationships with men, even as they feel guilty about those desires. … To do so feels like a betrayal of themselves, of their education and of their achievements.”
It’s confusing to be a young woman right now — especially if you buy into the traditional narrative of American womanhood. Are we supposed to “Lean In” with Sheryl Sandberg or resign ourselves to the fact that “Women Still Can’t Have It All,” per Anne-Marie Slaughter? Even The New York Times is heralding “The End of Courtship,” in a piece my concerned mother emailed to me. I think she wanted me to tell her the Times was wrong — but I realized I couldn’t.
In a survey I conducted of over 100 Yale students, almost all of the single respondents, ambition be damned, said they were currently seeking a relationship involving dating, commitment or, at the very least, monogamous sex. Basically, the types of relationships which just don’t seem to exist for those of us who are senior ladies, outside of the already-coupled.
Only 33 percent of the senior women I surveyed said they were currently feeling “very” or “a lot” of empowerment in their sexual choices and decisions.
Sixty-six percent of that same group of women recalled feeling “very” or “a lot” of empowerment back when they were freshmen.
My senior year is almost over. I’ll soon go to my last sorority formal, my last frat party, my last night at Toad’s. And at the end of those nights I’ll probably be resigned to going home vaguely dissatisfied and very alone — except, of course, for the company of my sympathetic suitemates. When it comes to my love life, I’ll be leaving Yale in not so much a blaze of glory as a blur of disappointment.
Welcome, then, to SWUG life: the slow, wine-filled decline of female sexual empowerment as we live out our college glory days. Welcome to the world of the ladies who have given up on boys because they don’t so much empower as frustrate, satisfy as agitate. Welcome to what “KiKi” likes to call “SWUG nation.”
The SWUG phenomenon isn’t new. We all see it coming. I came back to campus this fall ready to wear my SWUG status proudly: Now, I too could be one of “those” senior girls who seemed to live with such expansive abandon. And yet. Guys rolled their eyes. “SWUG nation” didn’t seem to quite represent me. As my friends and I hashtagged our tweets “#swug4lyfe,” were we just celebrating the carefree side of seniority? Or were we actually signing on to a self-fulfilling prophecy tied to something a little more sinister?
When Chloe published an op-ed headlined “Profile of a SWUG” back in September, she threw caution to the fickle winds of the Internet and described her version of SWUG life to the rest of Yale.
“I was jealous of them when I was a freshman. They were on a nickname basis with the hottest guys at Yale and danced at the bar of DKE with their shirts off. But looking back on it, I realize the boys were trying to get with the freshmen, not the SWUGs,” Chloe wrote. “She is the last one at every party, because hey — who is she going home with? … She doesn’t give a hoot. She’s single because she wants to be; her daddy told her there’s more fish in the sea. She is a SWUG, and SWUG life is pretty awesome.”
Online commenters were vicious, calling Chloe silly, shallow and self-hating. The article was sent around on email lists like wildfire. Suddenly, it seemed, Chloe had publicized the SWUG idea and made it into a campus meme. She even set up her own website: swugdiaries.com, a home for anonymous swug confessions.
Four days later, another senior girl, Michelle Taylor ’13, published her own News piece about the meaning of SWUG. In it, she attempted to broaden the definition — to show how it could apply to more than just the inebriated and the fraternity-frequenting.
“I don’t like that it continues to be defined by relationships to men at Yale,” she said when I spoke with her later. “If it stays a female term, it has more potential to become derogatory.” By trying to extend it beyond female Yalies, she hoped to break down that bias and to encourage a carpe diem attitude — instead of Chloe’s more aggressively DGAF ethos.
In the survey I sent out, I asked respondents to define “SWUG” for themselves. The results skewed towards the sexual — and the sexist. “Over the hill. Can’t get any play!” one male respondent wrote. “I feel like it’s an umbrella term for sad senior girls,” said another. The word “pathetic” came up in a number of descriptions and “the village bicycle” was also tossed out. The idea of “not giving a shit” or being “over it” was also popular, as was the image of a senior girl who hooked up with younger guys in a futile attempt at romance. A full 49 percent of respondents said it had negative connotations for them.
I also asked how students had first heard the word “SWUG.” About a quarter said they had discovered it through Chloe’s article. None mentioned Michelle’s.
My friend may be a junior, but she sees SWUG existence looming ominously on her horizon — just as I did last year.
During freshman year, she tells me, she was pleasantly surprised by how little effort she needed to put in to find a guy to hook up with. “Empowered isn’t really the right word, but there was an easiness,” she says.
We’re both sitting cross-legged on the lofted bed in her room. It’s a mess. Laundry is drying on hanging racks slung up over the doors and windows, and the hardwood floor is barely visible under piles of discarded sweatpants, tank tops, notebooks.
I ask how she feels about hookup culture now.
“When you get older, you want something different.” She has yet to find that perfect alternative. She has been using the term “JWUG,” the junior version of SWUG, for a while.
Hearing our voices, one of her suitemates peeks in through the open door, munching on an Oreo. When she realizes what we’ve been discussing, she makes a face.
“I would be so happy with myself if I could just feel nothing,” she says. She just wants to not care anymore — to be able to get to some kind of a Zen, SWUG state of mind. But is that even a thing? If that’s what being a SWUG is supposed to be providing me with, I’m not so sure it’s living up to its own reputation. I think back to Hanna Rosin’s thesis of female empowerment through not caring.
The truth is, I still care. And everyone I know still cares.
“It’s almost like being a SWUG is a way to cope,” I offer, thinking of myself, and the nonchalant way I try to react to men these days. I pretend I don’t care, because that’s what a SWUG does. A SWUG is supposed to be so over boys. A SWUG is supposed to be liberated, independent.
And yet here I am, often defining the SWUG experience by the men I am not dating. Michelle Taylor wanted us to get past the SWUG-is-a-girl-who-can’t-get-no-love association, but I find myself stuck there.
Hoping to give my friends some peace of mind, I tell them that SWUG may be a defense mechanism.
Both nod thoughtfully in dejected agreement.
A LOT’S IN A NAME
Back when Laura Wexler, professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and film studies, was 21, the women of her generation were dealing with a different kind of challenge as they approached graduation.
“There would have been a marriage panic,” Wexler says. “You were in college to get an MRS degree. By the time you were a sophomore if you didn’t have a big ring…” she trails off. “There’s been something all the time. It just is.”
I’ve sought her out to discuss whether my and my friends’ experiences have any kind of parallel with those of young women before us. I lean closer to hear her over the coffee grinder at Starbucks — Wexler doesn’t raise her voice.
“Is it normal to peak and then come down?” I ask her. “So, women sort of decline as they age, whereas men — ”
“As you age?” she interjects. “What are you talking about? You’re 22, 23? That’s really a body blow. … Who would accept that script? What a terrible — you get initiated into that as a freshperson, you don’t know what it’s going to mean, then this comes back to you later, and you’re trapped in it.
“I would reject that, myself.”
I have to agree with Wexler. Suddenly the whole thing — the combination of the gendered term SWUG with a carefree, liberated approach to senior year — feels weirdly anti-productive, patriarchal, problematic. Wexler has activated the anthropology major in me, reminding me of something deeper, more unsettling: Words and names have power and resonance. They perpetuate cultural narratives and associations that we either play along with or reject. We may try to reappropriate a term, but that’s much easier said than done.
“You want to call yourself SWUG?” Wexler asks me, audibly cringing. “It feels to me like cutting. Like you’re cutting yourself. But maybe it expresses something. I wouldn’t say don’t, I would never say don’t. But then, you have to think about what it is.”
HOW TO BE A SWUG 101
I don’t really know how I end up sitting in a banquette in the back room of Viva’s, alongside Chloe Drimal and two senior guys as we face a room of a few dozen other seniors, mostly women. Chloe and I keep making passes at the nachos set in front of us; they’re quickly disappearing.
The four of us are panelists for an event entitled “SWUGLIFE: A Colloquium.” We joke that we need margaritas before we get started, but we make do with a pitcher of water.
The “Colloquium” was the brainchild of Natalie Papillion ’13, my suitemate and one of 40 communication and consent educators (CCEs) selected by Yale administrators and trained to improve the sexual climate on campus through open dialogue. Natalie had earlier emailed Chloe’s column out to the other CCEs and their directors, which sparked interest in discussing the term further in a public space.
Then she asked me if I would be a panelist, knowing that I could be counted on to wax poetic about the meaningful side of SWUGdom.
I said yes.
So here we are at Viva’s. I avoid the audience’s gaze. What can I possibly tell my peers that they don’t already know? This event is about taking back SWUG and turning it into a positive. We’re trying to make SWUGlife be associated with FUNlife (gender-neutral, all-inclusive). Let’s go, reappropriation. Is that something I can do?
We start with the basics: what a SWUG drinks (“Tequila and ginger ale,” says Chloe), a SWUG’s favorite late-night food spot (“Ivy Noodle for the dumplings,” I supply), a typical Saturday night for SWUGs (local bars, frats and being alone in our beds figure heavily in the responses). Our audience titters. The CCEs try to steer the panel in a more serious direction, asking what the negative associations with SWUGdom might be.
“That we’re desperate, washed-up, boring,” I answer. “But it’s important to find the positive things.” I mention that it frees us up to care less about what others think of us, and allows us to spend our time doing what matters more to each of us individually.
Afterwards, though, I wonder if I’ve been completely honest. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Aren’t those positive things just natural byproducts of the confidence and self-knowledge that should come with age and experience? What about Wexler’s point about the harm we might be doing ourselves?
Later, I ask Natalie how she felt about the discussion. “SWUG is a term that could be so pejorative, but at Yale, certain communities and groups are working to change that,” she says. I push her further, wanting to know if she thinks Yale women have actually succeeded in appropriating the word in a positive way. “I’m biased, but I do,” she answers. “Labels are problematic, but that being said, the way we communicate has changed so radically for our generation. … Turning these ideas into phrases makes it easier and more lighthearted.” By giving the sentiment a label, we’ve created a sense of camaraderie — and that’s a good thing, in Natalie’s opinion.
As a CCE, Natalie has spent more time than most thinking about problems of hookup culture and gender dynamics on campus. And of course, she too is a senior girl. For her, SWUG life is both theory and reality.
“Do you consider yourself a SWUG?” I tease. She arches an eyebrow.
“Have you looked it up in the dictionary? Didn’t you see my picture?” she shoots back.
THE MALE GAZE
“Does SWUG mean ‘fat’?” jokes the guy across the table.
“Senior Washed-Up Girl, so … sort of,” says my friend, deadpan. He’s kidding, but only just.
I’m at lunch with an athlete friend and two of his teammates. I had hoped they’d provide some male perspective on SWUG.
Now, I almost wish they hadn’t.
“Have you heard of the X-graph of desirability?” I ask, crossing my arms in an X-shape to illustrate the popular theory I outlined for Wexler. As boys age, their desirability rises; as girls age, theirs goes down. “Is that a thing?”
“Yes,” both boys agree. “Spring semester senior year, it’s a fire sale,” my friend says. I groan. “That’s the whole thing — guys don’t get SWUG,” he adds. “Girls are the problem. They all go for older men.” And according to him, the senior girls, the SWUGs themselves, lower their standards to accommodate their newly limited pool of options. So it’s a win-win for the guys.
A few hours later, I run into another senior guy friend in the library. Standing in Bass Cafe, I start questioning him. He doesn’t really think this whole SWUG thing has anything to do with him or guys like him.
“It’s a way for girls to draw attention to themselves,” he says, referencing Chloe’s column. “It can be derogatory if taken literally, but … it’s more of a female psyche thing.”
Oh. I guess that’s one way to see it, maybe one that would come more readily to a guy: This is a crisis of female self-confidence at a challenging time, when Yale women are faced with our real-world futures even as we try to live out our expectations of college. And the clock is ticking.
“I think girls feel jealous of the new breed.”
Yes, but it actually is hard out here for a SWUG, isn’t it? It’s not all in my head, is it?
“Sure, the sexual marketplace gets more competitive. Girls yearn for that youthfulness.” He sees the whole SWUG idea as something of a “cop out” — a way for senior girls who are frustrated to blame some vague societal force of evil. I mention that it can feel like a trap, living this so-called SWUG life where I’m not supposed to care, so I can’t care, and nobody thinks I should get to care.
“Trapped by SWUG? That’s ridiculous,” he says. I frown, trying to figure out if he’s right.
Responding to my survey on sexual experiences and conceptions of SWUG, 78 percent of men said they wouldn’t have a problem hooking up with a girl who considers herself, or is considered by others, to be a SWUG. Still, 22 percent said no. Their reasons?
“Anyone who would self-identify as ‘washed up’ probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea,” said one.
“Unattractive,” said another.
“Because my friends would make fun of me,” noted a third.
And then: “I prefer women who respect themselves.”
I like to think that I respect myself. Yet this whole SWUG thing is starting to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Can I call myself a SWUG if I want to be treated as something more?
THE SWUG SISTERHOOD
I’ve never met Olivia Milch ’11. But I email her anyway. I hear she was at the vanguard of bringing the word SWUG into vogue at Yale, and I want to know where exactly it came from. She responds with a lengthy message.
“What I can say is that the term, for us at least, was about a certain attitude toward life in our senior year,” Olivia wrote in her email. “SWUG is about female camaraderie.” She mentions that it had a positive, friendship-oriented ring to it for her group of friends. That sounds a lot like what Natalie and Michelle want it to mean. Like what I would like it to mean. A kind of feminist banding-together, a recognition of friendship and solidarity. I think back to Wexler’s comment about the “marriage panic” of decades past. Is SWUG-ness a response to that — a way to deal with biological insecurities and to rebel against society’s traditional expectations of women? A fuck-‘em-all, let’s-do-what-matters-to-us kind of attitude that has nothing to do with the images of lackluster sex and desperate partying that it’s grown to encompass?
I wish. Maybe it was that way once. But right now, SWUG’s social meaning at Yale remains about the hooking up that we women are — and aren’t — doing, and how little we’re supposed to let that bother us. It’s become a signifier of not caring. It might exist as a barrier only in the minds of women, but it’s there, and it colors our actions and experiences.
* * *
Dinner is spaghetti with red sauce, an arugula salad and a magnum bottle of cheap white wine. We are six young women in mismatched chairs at a kitchen table in an off-campus apartment, Taylor Swift playing in the background on tinny iPod speakers. We are all, by most definitions, SWUGs: single, given to heavy drinking on occasion, willing to wear sweatpants to the library.
For two blissful hours, we talk endlessly about how much we do care. About the people in our lives. About the things we are doing and will go on to do. About being respected. About becoming empowered. About learning to love and be loved by significant others — and each other.
We are not any old SWUGs, I decide as I carry empty wine glasses to the sink. And we do want it all — equality and individuality, power and humor. If we label ourselves, it’s only because the language has yet to catch up. As the generations of women before us did, we’ll make sure it does.
Go to www.yaledailynews.com next Friday for a series of exclusive ‘WEEKEND for YTV’ interviews with the author and some of Yale’s other finest SWUGS.