Sex and the College Girl

A native of California and a graduate of Smith College in the class of 1954, Nora Johnson has traveled widely, first through Europe, and after her marriage, through the Middle East. Now living in New York with her husband and small daughter, she is the author of a number of short stories, and her first novel, The World of Henry Orient, was published last year under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.

The New Yorker recently ran the following item, titled "Overheard on the Barnard Campus": "I can't decide whether to get married this Christmas or come back and face all my problems." If Susie becomes engaged, she can, in a way, stop trying so hard. She can let go. For college (though it may not sound it from this account) hasn't been easy. Her liberal education has had the definite effect of making her question herself and some of her lifelong ideas for the first time, sometimes shatteringly. She has learned to think, not in the proportions of genius, but intelligently, about herself and her place in the world. She realizes, disturbingly, that a great many things are required of her, and sometimes she can't help wondering about the years beyond the casserole and playpen. The beginnings of maturity are taking place in her.

The Eastern women's colleges (and I can speak with authority only about Smith) subtly emanate, over a period of four years, a concept of the ideal American woman, who is nothing short of fantastic. She must be a successful wife, mother, community contributor, and possibly career woman, all at once. Besides this, she must be attractive, charming, gracious, and good-humored; talk intelligently about her husband's job, but not try to horn in on it; keep her home looking like a page out of House Beautiful; and be efficient, but not intimidatingly so. While she is managing all this, she must be relaxed and happy, find time to read, paint, and listen to music, think philosophical thoughts, be the keeper of culture in the home, and raise her husband's sights above the television set. For it is part and parcel of the concept of liberal education to better human beings, to make them more thoughtful and understanding, to broaden their interests. Liberal education is a trust. It is not to be lightly thrown aside at graduation, but it is to be used every day, forever.

These are all the things that a liberally educated girl must do, and there has been in her background a curious lack of definition of the things she must not do. Parents who have lived in the Jazz Age can not very well forbid adventurousness, nor can they take a very stalwart attitude about sex. Even if they do, their daughters rarely listen. What or what not to do about sex is, these days, relative. It all depends. This is not to say that there are no longer any moral standards; certainly there are—the fact that sex still causes guilt and worry proves it. But moral generalizations seem remote and unreal, something our grandparents believed in.

Today girls are expected to judge each situation for itself, a far more demanding task. A man recently told me that he had found girls rather inept at this, since taking a square view of a new relationship at the beginning, before sex has entered it, requires more maturity and insight than most college girls have. He said he had found such girls inconsistent in their attitude toward him—sexual sirens at first (when they wanted to attract him), promising everything, then becoming more and more aloof and more and more anxious to discuss the relationship step by step, when logically their behavior should be quite reversed; he had thought that as they got to know and like him they would be more relaxed about sex.

The fact is that, lacking a solid background of Christian ethics, most girls have only a couple of vague rules of thumb to go by, which they cling to beyond all sense and reason. And these, interestingly enough, contradict each other. One is that anything is all right if you're in love (romantic, from movies and certain fiction—the American dream of love) and the other is that a girl must be respected, particularly by the man she wants to marry (ethical, left over from grandma). Since these are extremely shaky and require the girl's knowing whether or not there is a chance of love in the relationship, sex, to her, requires constant corroborative discussion while she tries to plumb the depths of a man's intentions. Actions alone are not trustworthy. After all, a prostitute can arouse a man as well as (and probably better than) a "nice" girl. But if a man loves her for herself, and not just her body, he will augment his wandering hands with a few well-placed words of love. Clinging to her two contradictory principles, she tries to be a sexual demon and Miss Priss at tea at the same time; she tries not to see what strange companions love and propriety are.

On the other side of the coin, men do little to clarify the situation. Some, at least, are simple-minded about it. They divide girls into two categories, bad and good: the bad ones have obvious functions, and the good ones are to be married; but good ones, once pinned or engaged (and the official definition of being pinned is "being engaged to be engaged") must loosen up immediately or run the risk of being considered cold or hypocritical. This would require the girl to be an angel of civilized and understanding behavior at first, pacifying her man by a gentle pat on the knee at just the right time and keeping him at bay and yet interested—in a way both tactful and loving (the teen-age magazines devote a lot of space to this technique and recommend warding off unwise passes by asking about the latest football scores), and then, once the pin has been handed over, to shed her clothes and hop into bed with impassioned abandon.

Even more complicated to deal with is the intellectual-amoral type of man, who has affairs as a matter of course and doesn't (or says he doesn't) think less of a girl for sleeping with him. He is full of highly complicated arguments on the subject, which have to do with empiricism, epicureanism, live today, for tomorrow will bring the mushroom cloud, learning about life, and the dangers of self-repression, all of which are whipped out with frightening speed and conviction while he is undoing the third button on his girl's blouse. And he may well need arguments at this point.

Our liberally educated girl is not very likely to be swept away on a tide of passion. With the first feeling of lust, her mind begins working at a furious rate. Should she or shouldn't she? What are the arguments on both sides? Respect or not? Does she really want to enough? and so on, until her would-be lover throws up his hands in despair and curses American womanhood. Even if she gives in, she is hardly going to be his dream goddess of love; she is too exhausted by her mental exertions. She must discuss the whole thing at length. And by then her Lothario, who had been so articulate about sex while they were still sitting in the bar, has turned into a panting beast to whom words mean nothing. This is clearly a mess and not one that is going to clear up with magic speed on the wedding night.

 A good many girls try to solve their bewilderment in college by constantly comparing notes with each other. Things seem more acceptable if everybody is doing them. I remember an occasion during my freshman year when a girl walked into my room after a date and said mournfully to several of us who were sitting around, “He tried to take my blouse off. What shall I do?" She typified all of us, and all of us were going to have to solve the same problem sooner or later. As a friend of mine put it, "Freshman year, the problem is what to do when a boy tries to unbutton your blouse; sophomore year, when he reaches up your skirt; and after that, everybody shuts up." For when the real problem comes, the best thing to do is simply look sphinxlike about the whole thing. I suppose the ideal girl is still technically a virgin but has done every possible kind of petting without actually having had intercourse. This gives her savoir-faire, while still maintaining her maiden dignity.

A girl, then, by the end of college is saddled with enough theories, arguments pro and con, expectations, and conflicting opinions to keep her busy for years. She is in the habit of analyzing everything, wondering why she does things, and trying to lay a pattern for her life. Her education, which has laid such a glittering array of goals before her as an educated American woman, has also taught her to be extremely suspicious of the winds of chance. She has been told that she is a valuable commodity, that only efficiency will allow her to utilize all her possibilities, and that to get on in this risky and nerve-racking world she must keep what a disillusioned male friend of mine calls "the safety catch." There must always be something held in reserve, a part of her that she will give to no one, not even her husband. It is her belief in herself, modern version, and the determination to protect that belief. It is the vision of possibility which remains long after she is mature enough to accept the eventual, gradual limitation of the things that will happen to her in life. It is the dream of the things she never did.

In other ages, women were not educated to expect so much, and consequently they were less frequently disappointed. A really mature girl can, of course, absorb her disappointment by saying to herself, "I can't do all the things I wanted, but, instead of trying to, I can be much happier by doing my best in the few things that are possible to me." Others never give up the hope of being able to manage everything—a husband, a career, community work, children, and all the rest. A few exceptional ones can manage it, but others end up with an ulcer, a divorce, a psychiatrist, or deep disappointment. And there are a sad few who think that since they can't do everything, they won't do anything at all. They then give themselves over to the most confining kind of domestic life, an attitude of martyred anti-intellectualism, and a permanent chip on the shoulder.

The safety catch, then, can be a woman's happiness or her doom. If my disillusioned friend complains about it, he had better realize that as long as he wants an educated woman, his chances of finding one who is also willing to be totally dominated by her husband, who can yield completely to him, are fairly slim.

This, then, is what the result is for a girl who has been brought up in a world where the only real value is self-betterment. She has had to create her own right and wrong, by trial and error and endless discussion. If this is what is meant by Susie's search for security, it is not security from a frightening world but from a world that has treated her too well.

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