If you haven’t been reading the News, The Atlantic Wire, Jezebel, New York Magazine’s The Cut or Gawker, SWUG stands for Senior Washed-Up Girl.
I am a senior. I am not washed-up. I usually call myself a woman, not a girl.
Some claim SWUG is much more than the four words it suggests, though; it is a lifestyle, an ethos. As it has spiraled through the media, the term has picked up definitions on the way. For some, being a SWUG is biting into a beer can in Zeta basement on a Sunday, and for others, being a SWUG is accepting a “wine-filled decline of female sexual empowerment.” A SWUG has been described as both someone who “seeks love in the face of alienation” and “a girl who has been through the meat grinder.”
There is no clear theory of SWUG, but its lack of clarity is exactly what has SWUG splattering blog headlines. A bunch of 22-year-old women at Yale College call themselves washed-up and undesirable because… they’re no longer 19? It’s a ridiculous and newsworthy idea. It’s an excuse for the media to talk about college hookup culture, and the perennial favorite, Yale’s college hookup culture.
“Yale’s college hookup culture” is a misleading phrase with this topic, though. SWUG life addresses and describes the lives of a very select few. It’s not a culture. It’s a group of friends. I emailed a varied group of women I know to see what they thought of the term. One said she felt, reading the articles, like she didn’t even go to Yale. Another thinks SWUG refers to approximately five women on campus. Another said it refers to three (she named the specific three; I’ll refrain). But, according to the New York Magazine piece, being a washed-up girl is a “pervasive part of student life at Yale.”
The intended scope of the term seems to apply to communities where the older men are exclusively interested in younger women. But hookups happen outside of this specific scene. While I’m wary of pseudo-statistics when it comes to sexual culture, I am pretty sure that most random hookups, sustained hookups, unrequited crushes, committed relationships, flirtatious friendships, ambiguous coffee dates, unambiguous dinner dates and finals week romances happen outside of such a scene.
Despite its near irrelevance, people want to keep SWUG around because they say it’s playful. Sure, it’s playful, but I’m worried about it, too. There’s more at stake here than library sweatpants and Mason jars. The term is so fun to say that we are forgetting what we are saying. Its catchiness masks its meaning. I remind you that the term claims that 22-year-old women are undesirable because they are no longer like the 19-year-old women. By so emphasizing this lack of desirability, the term is not only degrading and disempowering such women, it is also robbing them of agency. According to SWUG, the degree to which men want women determines the identities of such women. Do I have to waste a sentence here claiming that we shouldn’t define ourselves based on our hookups? Playful, innocuous, ironic — no matter how earnestly we are deploying this term, it’s still defining women based on how men perceive and judge them.
Because the term is accepted and embraced, though, it allows people to respond to the women the term signifies in similarly reactionary ways. It turns them into things, instead of friends. As I mentioned earlier, a sophomore quoted in one article described a SWUG as “a girl who has been through the meat grinder.” We know how wrong this is, but we are so fixated with the endeavor of having SWUG encapsulate and explain all of our experiences, we get carried away and try to translate those four letters into whatever we want them to mean.
I tried to think of some catchy anecdote about my romantic life or senior year for this column, but I realized I have zero desire to share any such stories. I don’t want to play anecdote wars, using loudly told individual stories as evidence for some theory about campus culture. I don’t want to keep pinning everything that happens in the lives of senior women to one acronym. We are hundreds of women with a few years of a crazy-good education under our belts; does calling ourselves washed-up girls do us justice?
Diana Saverin is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .