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Say goodbye to the annoyingly ubiquitous “struggle bus” and hello to the swug truck, your ticket to a sexily aimless and disaffected senior year.
Say goodbye to the annoyingly ubiquitous “struggle bus” and hello to the swug truck, your ticket to a sexily aimless and disaffected senior year.
“The boiler room is the best place to hide,” Jack* says, laughing. He’s talking about the games of hide-and-seek that he and his fellow senior society members play in their three-story tomb — only, that is, after a multicourse meal complete with rounds of liquor, all free of charge.
For many members of Yale’s landed senior societies, Thursday and Sunday nights unfold in similar fashion. As a member of one of Yale’s oldest and wealthiest societies, Jack enjoys access to a tomb steeped in history. Yale-related paraphernalia — including old books, artifacts and Yale Class Day banners from the 19th century — give its hallowed halls an air of mystique.
There are no dues for membership in Jack’s society: It has its own endowment, which is funded and managed by the society’s alumni. According to Jack, these alumni remain an important part of the experience, even after they graduate. They are often invited back for large dinners in the dining room, which has many tables that accommodate guests returning for reunions or events.
As for the rest of the tomb, Jack describes it as a large, comfortable space with many rooms in which to study, talk and relax. But he also says it is rife with contradiction. “It’s an intimidating space,” he says. “Not everyone feels comfortable in there, even after being there for a year. It’s an incredible and completely undeserved privilege to be there. No one deserves to be in a space with so many nice things, riddled with privileges, and yet we are.”
Jack’s experience with society is representative of an “old Yale” tradition dating back well into the nineteenth century. But it is also clear that these experiences are far from universal.
For Alex*, a current senior, Tap Night last year was just like any other Thursday. While many of his friends spent the evening getting drunk with their new society, he was doing homework and trying to distract himself from the disappointment of not being chosen for membership in any society.
The day before, he had been invited to a last-minute interview. Jumping at the opportunity to make an impression, Alex left his theater rehearsal in the middle to make the meeting. A few hours later, however, he received an email telling him that he would ultimately not be offered a spot.
Looking back after a year, Alex said not being in a senior society hasn’t dramatically affected his social life. An ostensible difference is when many of his friends are busy on Thursday and Sunday nights with society obligations. Many societies meet for over three hours twice a week, a time commitment that rivals that of serious extracurricular obligations. However, Alex is not overly concerned with this change, but spoke rather of the disconnect between him and those of his friends who are members of societies. He observes this division mostly in casual lunch time conversations.
“When the topic of societies comes up during lunch, my friends have the same experience and language that I don’t share because I am not a part of it,” he said.
* * *
This disparity among Yale seniors is exactly the kind of issue that former Yale College Council president Danny Avraham ’15 is seeking to address. Despite the society system’s reputation as a bastion of exclusivity, Avraham has a more egalitarian vision — he believes that senior societies should be open to anyone.
Avraham says that senior societies as they stand have a negative impact on Yale’s social scene. He became more acutely aware of this during the few weeks leading up to Tap Night, which took place on April 9 this year.
It was only when he was approached by somebody from outside that he decided to formulate this initiative to alter the status quo. When a high school junior anxiously asked him about the society tap process while he was giving him a campus tour last week, he realized that he wanted to make a change.
The way he tells it, soon after that encounter Avraham developed a proposal for an inclusive society environment on paper. In the proposal sent to the entire undergraduate body by email, Avraham emphasized that the initiative was not, in fact, a hoax.
This is Avraham’s idea: to create as many societies as needed for juniors who want the experience but were not tapped by pre-existing societies. During a recent interview, he spoke of his desire to bring the junior class together.
“All you need is a Google Doc list and an invisible hand,” he said. Despite the simplicity of the idea and his plans to execute it, Avraham said he has done his research by talking to juniors, seniors and alumni. Through these conversations, he realized that an initiative like this one would address the evolving dynamic of Yale’s social scene.
The shifting landscape to which Avraham refers has to do with the proliferation of senior societies. In recent years, there has been a steep increase in the number of non-landed societies. Currently, there are at least 40 documented societies, which translates to roughly 600 seniors — slightly less than half of the class. While this democratization has allowed more seniors to take part in society life, it also means that those who are not in societies are more greatly affected by this process, according to Avraham.
“Back in the day, when there were only 100 seniors involved in society life, it didn’t dominate the social scene like it does now,” he said. “This really creates an unhealthy stratification of the senior class.”
Avraham has formed a coalition of supporters to carry out the plan. Jessica*, a member of a landed senior society, said she supports Avraham’s initiative and that she, along with other seniors, some of whom are in societies, are meeting Friday, April 16, to discuss how to move forward. According to Jessica, “No one really deserves or doesn’t deserve to be a part of a senior society.” She added: “I want to see it implemented in a way that makes juniors feel good, validated, included and wanted.”
In addition to current seniors, Danny Avraham has gotten alumni on board with his initiative, as well as private donors who are invested in expanding the society experience by funding the creation of new societies. Two Yale graduates, Nicolaus von Baillou ’64 and Terry Holcombe ’64 see the proposal as an opportunity to revive Ring and Candle, a now-defunct senior society that they had been a part of during their time as students.
Despite the society’s dormancy for over 40 years, the two want to start Ring and Candle back up at Yale. Holcombe said he has reached out to Avraham to discuss the possibility of re-establishing Ring and Candle on campus, and that the two will likely be collaborating to bring the idea to fruition.
So far, 161 students have shown interest in Avraham’s initiative and will go through several steps before being placed into a new society next week. They have already filled out a preliminary preference form and will hand in a personal information form today, according to a timeline Avraham sent out to interested students. The questions on the forms ask about the number of gatherings the individual is willing to commit to per week, as well as the society activities he or she wants to partake in. Their placement will be largely based on these preferences.
Since Avraham’s email was sent out to Yale students, his initiative has generated much debate on campus. The plan to reform a system synonymous with Yale elitism has raised up a number of concerns, including the potential artificiality and unknown lifespan of these proposed new societies.
While some students interviewed believe that Avraham’s plan will alleviate the harmful exclusivity of senior societies, others have said the institutionalization of societies will not be as effective as Avraham believes.
A senior currently in an all-women’s society explained that, during the tap process, members discussed what kind of “vibe” the society wanted to give off through their recruitment of junior candidates. Given that established societies engage in time-consuming yet personal interviews with each candidate, and often spend hours debating the composition of the upcoming tap class, Avraham’s plan to assign candidates based on such basic preferences seems almost formulaic.
Avraham is unfazed by these worries about homogenization. “Some [current] societies think that they have their unique culture,” said Avraham. “But I am very skeptical about that.” He said the unpredictable nature of the tap process, which he labeled “an industry,” means societies often end up with an essentially random assortment of members.
Grace Brody ’16 disagreed with Avraham’s notion that societies at Yale are largely undifferentiated from one another. “The societies that exist started with a specific vision,” she said. She added that the new societies will likely have a generic feel to them, if only because they were created through institutional reforms rather than the more natural process by which most others were formed.
The stark contrast in method raises an unanswered question: whether artificial placement can replicate the organic nature of interviews and discussions to create a “real” senior society.
Sarah*, who graduated last year, has doubts about the plan. She believes Avraham’s system intends to institutionalize moments that simply cannot be reproduced from outside of the society system.
Sarah originally found her society to be alienating, but ultimately it became a source of community and trust. While she felt out of place for the first few meetings with her society — she was abroad when she was tapped and never really cared about the process beforehand — eventually she came around to the idea.
“I never thought that I would be considered eligible for my society,” she said, “because of my race, class, social status and the things I was interested in, which was nothing super mainstream on campus.”
Sarah knew her society’s tomb had not been built with her in mind, and she was very frank with her fellow members about feeling uncomfortable. Aside from Sarah, there was only one other student of color in her class, a black male. At first she didn’t want to open up to the largely white and seemingly homogenous group of typical Yale students who were with her in the tomb.
“I was very on guard during the first meetings — waiting for a moment to be offended, waiting for a moment that would make me feel different.”
While Sarah felt out of place as a black female pursuing a creative career, her friend and fellow society member Ben* felt out of place being on campus at all, since he had worked off campus for most of his time at Yale.
The feeling of vulnerability, they say, is what brought the members of the society together. “It was during the bios that I had that turning point when I realized this space was for me,” Sarah said.
Sarah and Ben said they couldn’t speak about those specific moments of transformation and feelings of togetherness. But Ben emphasized that, without the security of the tomb and the assurance that nothing leaves its walls, this sense of friendship and self-realization would not have been possible.
“The most meaningful and exciting things are these little interactions, organic moments of friendship that happen within society,” Sarah said. “They can happen outside too, but those can’t be institutionalized. Those things happen in the privacy of personal relationships.”
Ben similarly worries that Avraham’s initiative can’t replicate the atmosphere of existing societies, because it places emphasis in the wrong places. Rather than answering the need for community and friendship, the initiative reinforces the notion that societies are a necessary indicator of a successful and meaningful Yale experience.
“This push is a sentiment that comes up every single year. What we found most meaningful is hard to institutionalize,” Ben said. “I worry that the initiative panders to the idea that this is a capstone.”
Sophia Charan ’16, who chose not to join a senior society, believes that by expanding the influence of societies Avraham is actually achieving the opposite of what he set out to do. She said that opening the society system up to everyone sends the message that every junior “should be in a society, when in fact I think lots of people might benefit from not feeling obligated to be in one.”
Will Adams ’15, a senior not in a society, said he has mixed feelings about Avraham’s proposal. While he might have joined this initiative this time last year when he was not tapped, he believes that he would not make the same decision now. “Being in my place now,” he said, “after a year as a senior not being in society, I’m not entirely comfortable with the implication of Danny’s statement: that being a part of a senior society is integral to your social life.” He added that his social life has not changed too drastically since then.
Aaron Gertler ’15, another senior not in society, said he was largely indifferent about the tap process, although at one point, he thought he might be tapped. However, he said that having a group of friends in different class years has made social life just as fulfilling for him.
Others raised concerns about the longevity of these future “artificially created” societies.
Avraham himself admits some uncertainty: The new societies may not last longer than a year or be involved in next year’s Tap Night. Jessica, who is working with Avraham, said she is unworried about the longevity of the newly formed societies. If the society dissolves, then people will be withdrawing in order to return to their pre-existing friendships, and no harm will have been done.
The natural formation and attrition of societies has generally not been recorded, meaning that historical data about Yale’s society landscape is incomplete. There are no records of non-landed societies at Sterling Memorial Library, but a copy of Yale’s Extracurricular & Social Organizations 1780–1960 listed senior societies active at the time of its publication in 1961. Of the 14 listed, seven are now apparently defunct.
Ring and Candle is among the defunct. Von Baillou said he does not know the exact point at which his own society, Ring and Candle, was disbanded. After tapping the subsequent class, he said that he and his fellow society members became largely uninvolved with the organization. “We didn’t keep a close watch on what was going on, and in fact, weren’t invited to do so by the subsequent class,” he said. “We kept our hands off, and regretted it.”
Despite receiving a basic outline of the programs and traditions, the newly tapped class of Ring and Candle members were left to their own devices. Once they succeeded the outgoing class, they chose what they would do as a group during their weekly meetings.
Besides the loss of internal structure, Ring and Candle’s landed property was also sold and the alumni do not know what has happened to it.
According to Michael*, a current senior in a landed society, the loss of a physical space could dilute alumni’s connection to their societies.
“The physical spaces lend to the longevity of the organization,” he said. “They keep alumni wanting to come back. It’s no longer superficial — the memories, the nostalgia, the friendships. We develop memories around it and attach meaning to it.”
Of course, none of these new societies will have definite spaces.
“Unfortunately that is part of the buy-in, those superficial things — the history, tomb and mystery,” Michael said. “Those are the things that bring people in to make the necessary sacrifices — time and other organizations. Without the status, history and property I think that it becomes more difficult … to make the same kind of commitment.”
Samantha*, who is a member of a non-landed society, has made some of her closest friends at Yale within her society. Samantha’s society may not have a physical building in which to meet, but she believes the friendships she shares with fellow members are just as valuable as those developed within the walls of a tomb.
Karolina Ksiazek ’15, a senior in a non-landed, all-female society, believes that most non-landed societies are able to mold themselves how they like because they are not bound to a particular space and tradition. “Maybe for the ones with a strict tradition of how they’re run and lots of alumni involvement, the culture is more stable. But for most of them, I think it’s mostly a group of friends, and so the people who are in the group create the culture.”
According to von Baillou, it is imperative that a senior society have its own distinct traditions and culture: “It has to find a purpose, otherwise it will just blow away like dust in the wind.”
Students in societies generally agreed that some degree of autonomy is necessary for the group to shape an experience tailored to that year’s dynamic. But too much autonomy can cause a society to become too unstructured, and eventually, to collapse.
* * *
Regardless of the feasibility of Avraham’s proposal, the fact that more than ten percent of the junior class has responded favorably to the initiative in just a week shows that society culture remains a contentious issue on campus. As Avraham has said, donors have signed on to the plan, not only in a financial capacity but also as mentors. Alumni are willing to commit to a plan that tackles longstanding social issues which have not yet been resolved.
Despite these efforts, some of the people we interviewed suggested that this initiative is doomed to fail because of the inherent nature of society experience. One senior who is not in a society said exclusivity is one of the big attractions of society. People feel special because they are vetted, chosen and tapped by seniors.
But a senior member of a landed society was cautiously optimistic.
“I’m acutely aware that the tap process can be difficult,” he said. “It was for me. If I had found the experience was just about elevating some and diminishing others, I wouldn’t support [societies]. I’m open to a new way.”
As a writer of the issues in all the days of our times, I have touched my pen on the issues of the day at least a hundred or a thousand times in these pages. Of society, of Game, of Lizards as Pets, and of Life — each time, in a humble word, I have said what I believe my opinion to be and when and why. But I have left it up to you to decide? But THIS one, on THIS one I cannot say silent! So, here I am, again, to write of it, and you all to read of it once more.
What I am to speak of is one I’m sure you all see in the air as Yale is soon to end. It’s celebration. It’s of the way we show to be happy. It’s of what exactly the little boys and girls of Yale do to have the good times. This leads me to ask us: what is this fun? And where is it to be found? And why? Is it at the dance parby with the musics turned all the way up? Is it moving and shaking your parts at the dance clud, all packed in tight like jibbies? NO. It is in us, it is inside of we. Let me explain to it.
At the other day, deep in the night time, I was standing in the corner of the biggest ball room I had ever known to see, the Senior Masterade, when it struck into my head. Though I, Jame, go it out into the hustling streets every day to know every little girl and boy of Yale, I felt as if, here, I could truly know no one. Though you dance around and jiggle whatever it is on your body that is to be jiggled, how can you have fun if you don’t know your self or the selves of everyone around you? After all, as they always have said, “He who truly knows not one, knows no one.” And he who knows no one will lie sad in his bed all night long.
And then, in this moment, I was struck by another, that all of the times we had before were just the same in this regard as this one now. I’m thinking right now, of course, of Tobe’s Place, of Freshling Screw, of the parby that we have on Spring Fling Day. It is all of just to jump and noise and touch back and forth on each other … outside where everyone’s eyes can see it happen! Need I remind you of Safely Dance, which, I may remind you, did not go quite so “safely” as everyone thought? In the Masterade, we all wore our masts. But maybe in the pastimes, we wore still another mast: the mast of parby, the mast of our face.
Now, my mind swings itself into the present. It is the month of Feduary, which is time for only just one thing for seniors — the Fed Clubs. In the Fed Clubs, if you are to become a member of them, go to it, by all and every means, but when you get to it, don’t just bang and jang around like those sweaty scratchy parbies of the past. Take off your mast! Dance like I do — flowing around in the meadow of the winds, each little arm and leg twirling and whirling away. See the world as I do — of a friend, of you and me and all of us together holding of their fingers and hands running everywhere together!
And I was struck again with another and my mind swings again further on to the beautiful month of May — Murble Beach, the Senior Weeks, where we have the proverbial chance to do things right. Leave home your smelly bottles, and turn your face into the sun. There you will see me, splashing in the sand, and know that we did it. Because after all, when these weeks are over, Yale is gone.
And which will you remember?
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?
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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?
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.