In all of these behaviors—the comforting with food, the lavishing of love on whoever was available to receive it, the dreaming about husbands and households—I find poignant evidence of the one fact about these girls’ lives so obvious that it is rarely considered at all: They had all been abruptly uprooted from their homes. Girls have a different relationship to home than boys do: They are more sentimental about it as well as more critical of its shortcomings, and they are moored to its routines and rhythms more deeply. Even those girls for whom leave-taking is more escape than sorrow enter a period of profound self-examination—and often melancholy—when they break from the home where they were raised.
The most arresting part of Peril’s book is the brief, vivid, and appealing portrait she presents of herself as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin 25 years ago. She arrived with a butch haircut, a suitcase full of punk clothes mail-ordered from New York, and a “tough-chick persona.” I suspected that she was romanticizing her past, but then she shows us her freshman ID card, and she really was a fright. Underneath, though, she was as timid as any 18-year-old girl plucked from home and set down on the campus of a huge university. Too shy to raise her hand in class, or even to order a pizza over the telephone, she was so rattled by a boy who flirted with her on the first day of French II that she promptly dropped the class. “In my heart of hearts,” she writes—the phrase itself a kind of linguistic Fair Isle sweater—“I knew I wasn’t ready for college yet.” She wandered through her four years, her melancholy settling into a depression, and despite all of her bravado—and a short, fun fling with feminist theory—she ended up in the greatest of all girl majors: art history.
Peril reports, accurately, that much of the historical anxiety about sending girls to college had to do with the question of sex. In the 19th century, many believed that too much education could rob a girl of “the womanly virtues” and set her on a course for spinsterhood. Coeducation was problematic on two fronts: Not only was a girl in danger of losing her virginity; she was also capable of falling in love with the wrong kind of fellow, perhaps even returning home engaged to someone her family had never met. Nowadays, with the threats to a woman’s virginity ever more numerous, and engagement regarded by most coeds as a quaint arrangement slated for the distant future, parents’ worries have only multiplied.
Proof that the sex lives of college women remain an object of intense cultural fascination can be found in a book like Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked (reviewed in last month’s “Cover to Cover”), which documents the semi-anonymous “hooking up” that is now the norm. Stepp’s intention was to study this phenomenon open-mindedly, “hoping to understand rather than intending to censure.” But journalistic objectivity was soon replaced by alarm and even horror. She found girls who were “exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually” by the practice. The girls’ behavior is starkly contemporary, but the adult’s characterization of it—and of the specific ways that sexuality can deplete a woman—could have been lifted from a 19th-century tract. In placing the blame for these developments on three forces (“the ethic of female empowerment; parental expectations for academic and professional achievement; and reluctance on the part of authorities on campus to intervene in students’ social lives”), Stepp occupies the squishy middle ground where many progressive women unhappily find themselves: Yes, yes, yes to female freedom and empowerment, but Jesus Christ, why are these girls giving blow jobs to guys they hardly know?
She pulls herself together long enough to conclude the book with a “Dear Daughters” letter. It’s the kind of “sex is a beautiful thing, when it’s between two loving people” lecture that has been making young girls want to jump out of the nearest window from sheer embarrassment since the early 1970s. (My lecture arrived, in my mother’s Palmer Method handwriting, on my bedside table midway through 12th grade, and the extent to which it mortified me—my mother was a nurse and knew how to draw a fairly precise medical illustration—cannot be overstated.)
I’m sure that lectures from Mom on how to have super great sex don’t always fall on deaf ears. But Mom’s voice becomes a distant whisper once a young woman arrives at college, where she will no longer be regarded as a cosseted girl-child in need of protection and limit setting. It is impossible to imagine nonreligious colleges involving themselves in the kind of sexual decision making that concerns Stepp, because to be an undergraduate today is to be treated as a fully independent adult, as even a cursory glance at the admissions materials of most schools demonstrates. (I would never have attended a college that monitored my sleeping arrangements; like most of my friends in the women’s dorm, I often spent the night at a boyfriend’s apartment.) Obviously, the young women Stepp describes in her book were almost all nice girls raised by nice parents in nice neighborhoods. But just as obviously, they changed in some ugly ways when left on their own. Given the coarsening of the culture, the intense peer pressure and corresponding desire to fit in that have always marked college life, and the way very young women are defined today as at once independent and exploitable, the bitter pill for many parents sending their daughters to college is that there is no possible way to protect them from what they will encounter once they have been dropped off at the freshman dorm.