I don’t use that word—“love”—the way sexual people use it. That word, in my vocabulary, is not defined as “romantic sexuality” or “romantic attachment manifested through a normative couple relationship.” When I talk about love, I’m talking about the general feeling of deep caring and pure appreciation for a person or thing, the emotional choice that can take on a thousand different forms, but ultimately comes down to the same ingredients.
Sarah Lawrence kids aren’t any more sexual than the rest of the undergraduate demographic in America, and frankly, it would be naive to think that kids in their late teens and early 20s, with the libidos corresponding to that age range, could be less preoccupied with getting laid than you are. (My fellow asexual-spectrum people being the exceptions, of course.) Given how sex-saturated our national culture is, it’s also logical that the importance you assign to sex would overreach your actual physical impulse to screw around. You grew up in a world that preaches a message about sex being the point of life, the best experience available, the cornerstone of “love,” so naturally, that’s more or less how you see it. Unless you’ve taken the time to deconstruct everything you’ve internalized about the subject and rebuild a new perspective, which I highly suggest you do.
Last I was there—and I recognize that some things have already changed since I graduated in 2012—Sarah Lawrence was heavily populated by kids who not only had sex, but thought about it intellectually. Kids who didn’t just think about who they wanted to fuck and how much they wanted to fuck, but how sex intersects with sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, the body positive movement, gender identity, rape culture, etc. Most of these kids were queer or POC or assault survivors or women (or all of the above); in other words, they had personal reason to think about the relationship between sex and oppression, sex and privilege, sex and self-image.
I don’t think SLC kids wanting sex, having sex, or loving sex—even in excess—is a problem. I don’t even think SLC kids having casual sex totally separated from romance and emotion is a problem. (More power to you, if you go that route.) SLC kids having ignorant sex is a problem. SLC kids treating sex as something simple and untroublesome is a problem. Losing sight of the big picture, of what matters in the long run, because you’re too busy pining for and glorifying the basic act of genital stimulation for the purpose of orgasm is a problem.
The conversation I would expect from at least some portion of the SLC student body is not whether casual hook-ups, sexual promiscuity, substance-fueled sexual encounters, and sex-focused events are appropriate or inappropriate. The conversations I would expect concern questions like, “How can the women in this community create a feminist environment in which to have sex? What would that even entail? What are the racial dynamics of students’ sexual conquests here and are they problematic? How much do we, the students, actually grasp “consent” in sexual contexts? How can those of us who fuck approach sex in a way that supports body positivity for everyone? How can we collectively create safety for ourselves, in the sexual arena? How much of the queer sex or even the straight sex going on here is a personal crusade to heal wounds that are better tended through honest conversation or therapy or the care of friends? What do we do about rape culture at SLC?”
On an individual level, there ought to be an inner dialogue based around questions like: “How respectful am I actually being toward the people I fuck? Am I honoring myself and my body in my sexual practice? Is sex actually giving me what I want? Why do I have sex? Why do I care about it? Is the sex I have ethical? Do I sexually objectify people and thereby dehumanize them? Am I a kind person, when it comes to sex?”
When you graduate from SLC, you should know that not all consensual sex is healthy or ethical, that consent is not half as simple or straightforward as many sex positive activists want it to be, that our media uses sex to sell its toxic messages about what beauty is and what makes you a valuable person. You should know that heterosexual fucking is tainted by the patriarchy, and you can’t escape that no matter what you do. You should know that racism can rear its head through your patterns of sexual attractions. You should know that women can be rapists and men can be rape victims. You should know the difference between polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy. You should know what asexuality is and what aromanticism is and what cross orientation sexuality is. You should have respect for sex workers and respect for celibates and everyone in between.
Yeah, I hold SLC kids to a higher standard than other college students. And why shouldn’t I? You’re smart and political and socially conscious. You’re not incapable of grasping these things. And you’re sure as hell not incapable of research.
When I was going to SLC, I frequently heard other students complain, whether directly or indirectly, about a pervasive sense of disconnection from others. People felt isolated and lonely, regardless of the number of “friends” they had to hang out with, the amount of partying they did on the weekends, and the sex some of them had on a semi-regular basis. One friend of mine, who I love very much, was particularly concerned with the lack of community at SLC—which was interesting to hear coming from him because he was an extroverted social butterfly who expanded his network every year. Inevitably, a few kids out of every incoming class would decide to transfer out after their first year, and loneliness was a reason that I heard given on several occasions.
You could blame the general culture of Sarah Lawrence: independence is a part of the college’s academic spirit to the point that everyone’s doing their own thing all the time. Our school attracts a lot of intelligent, creative, unconventional people, but the flipside is that a high number of us are introverted, self-absorbed, and haven’t spent any time whatsoever cultivating the qualities of friendliness, warmth, or openness in ourselves.
But I think it goes deeper than collective personality obstacles. Most SLC kids have a handful of people to hang out with. Most SLC kids have some amount of sex during their four years here. Some SLC kids have romantic relationships with each other. So why the loneliness? Why the sense of isolation?
I think it has a lot to do with priorities. The vast majority of romantic-sexual people prioritize sex (and romance) and doesn’t really give a damn about friendship, at least not in a conscientious and focused way. You strategize about how to obtain sex; you talk about it constantly; you think about it constantly; you go after it. Friendship, on the other hand, is something you take for granted as a low-involvement, low-commitment, low-investment kind of connection. (This isn’t just an SLC problem; this is an American problem.) You expect it to take care of itself. Your heart’s not in it, the way it’s in sex—because you were taught that sex is the key to all of the profound emotional, psychological, and spiritual gratification you crave. You’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old and nobody’s ever told you that friendship can be so full of love and intimacy and connection, that you don’t even have the words to describe the experience.
If this world were half as obsessed with friendship as it is with sex, what would that mean? What would that look like? If the Sarah Lawrence student body expended as much energy on seeking and building real, loving, intimate friendship as they do on chasing sex (and having it and debating about it and doing conference work on it), what kind of community would that create? How would the individual student’s experience be different?
I can guarantee the loneliness quotient would be a hell of a lot lower.
But the thing about real, loving friendship is, it doesn’t happen without a significant investment of time, self, attention, and vulnerability. Going to a party, getting drunk, and taking someone home to fuck only requires a handful of hours and minimal emotional risk. Depending upon your approach, even a normative romantic relationship—which in college, frequently lasts a mere three to six months, maybe a year—is often a surface-level connection built on lust, infatuation, shared insecurities and loneliness, and retrospectively, one can look back on it and see that there was little genuine intimacy, no real love, nothing that could be interpreted as a spiritual connection. Sometimes, there’s even abuse and gross disrespect in those romantic relationships.
Who you fuck or date today, as a Sarah Lawrence student, and who gives a damn about you 10 years from now is almost never going to be one in the same. I understand that the value of any given relationship, sexual or nonsexual, romantic or nonromantic, isn’t solely determined by how long it lasts, but what I’m saying is that it doesn’t make any sense to squander all of your time, energy, and attention on the most fleeting and the least nurturing type of relationship you engage in, at the expense of other relationships that could potentially be longer lasting, more emotionally substantial, and ultimately more gratifying.
I wouldn’t be the first person in the last five thousand years to claim that true friendship is rare. (Trust me. The bulk of my SLC conference papers explored it through a variety of disciplines.) The best kind of friendship—the kind that includes love, intimacy, connection, loyalty, commitment, even emotional passion—is rare at Sarah Lawrence and rare in life. I think there are several reasons for this, but one of them is a simple lack of effort. That kind of friendship, like any genuine love, is the Sistine Chapel of human relationships. Michelangelo spent four years of his life (the time you’re spending in college) working in extremely uncomfortable conditions to create that piece; it was painstaking, time-consuming work. And 500 years later, people take international flights to see his finished product.
I’m a passionate creative writer, so I like to think of love in terms of creative work (and vice versa). Real friendship, which doesn’t exist without love in my book, is a masterpiece. It doesn’t just fall into your lap one day, because you wished for it. It is crafted one conversation, one touch, one laugh, one moment of vulnerability at a time, and unlike a mural, it’s never really finished. It’s a living thing that continues to evolve, and therefore requires your consistent attention if it’s going to survive and thrive.
I think that if you’re a sexual person, you should fuck who you want as much as you want. But do it mindfully and ethically, and educate yourself about the myriad of ways that sexuality interacts with social justice. I also think that if you graduate from Sarah Lawrence with the basic skills and desire to cultivate real, loving friendship and maybe even walk away with a friend who wants to love you through adulthood, you will eventually discover that such friendship is infinitely more deserving of your obsession than sex.