By Liya Rechtman
Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013
“Are you sure you feel okay about this?” spills out of my mouth more than once in the first few moments after we enter my bedroom. I am assured, again, that he is okay, that he wants to be here hooking up with me. As I repeat myself to my first-year friend, I remember my first year at Amherst, and my senior boyfriend(ish).
My senior boyfriend was by no means the perfect specimen of boy, friend, or senior, but he did, at the very least, ask me what no fellow first-year had up until that point: “Are you sure you want to do this?” and “How does this feel?” I stayed with him for the majority of my freshman year because he showed me things that I had never experienced with a boy my age. And no, I’m not talking about the sex per se—he was the first person to show me what it meant to think of myself in the bedroom. I had heard about consent before hooking up with him but it had never occurred to me how much it could apply to me, how what I wanted and needed from a partner could be a central concern in a sexual interaction. Freshmen didn’t seem to get that there was more to sex than getting off and telling their friends about it. Only with this senior boy, with his prior knowledge of Amherst, his history of relationships to which I had no access or parallel experience, did I begin to heal from the culture shock and harassment I felt at the socials and from the confusion I had experienced in sexual encounters since coming to college.
It was this feeling of safety and self-worth that I hoped to bring this year to my relationships, especially with first-years, as a senior myself. I ask again: “Are you sure, like, but really I know this is a big deal,” and he answers, grinning, “Yes Liya, I’m sure.”
Let’s give our first-years a little agency here, all right? As a senior, I am just shy of four years away from when I first dove into the Amherst social scene. Sure, I made mistakes then that I wouldn’t now, and yes, there is a learning curve, but I wasn’t unaware of that then. To think of first-years as blindly falling like idiotic high-heeled moths into the trap of gleaming black-lit senior boys dancing on windowsills is naïve at best, patronizing and perpetuating oppressive (misogynistic, paternalistic) structures at worst.
All relationships have a power imbalance. Men, for example, have more power in our society than women. Men entering relationships with women should be aware of this. They have privileges that women do not have—they are paid more, they are more likely to receive promotions, less likely to be raped, and less likely to be judged for their sexual activity. Socio-economic status, race, gender identity and presentation, body size and social capital play into all power dynamics. You go to Amherst and he goes to UMass? You’re on financial aid and she’s not? Power. How are any of these power differentials different from age or grade difference? They’re not—except that some of those differences are so systemically embedded (male privilege, for instance) or so uncomfortable (class difference) that they’re not discussed, whereas grade difference is hotly debated. The overt nature of the power inequity based on grade provides the space to have a conversation about the power dynamic of an interaction, whereas many other differentials do not. This avenue into conversation limits the insidious influence of that imbalance by acknowledging the potential problems that can arise from it.
You may still have in mind the image of a senior boy at the socials, in his team’s suite, making out with a first-year girl who is unsteady on her feet and a shade nervous. That image might make you uncomfortable. It should. The issue in that picture is not the age difference between those two people; it is the baseline of respect and explicit consent absent from the interaction. It is an approach to intimacy that is only socially acceptable in a culture where trying to get someone drunk enough to sleep with you is considered a “strategy”—in short, in a culture that condones rape and harassment.
Though some may draw connections between first-year/senior power dynamics and sexual assault, sexual assault is out of the purview of a conversation about relationship ethics. It should be taken as a given that the sexual interactions we are debating here are consensual ones, and I mean consensual in its broadest sense: actively consensual, explicitly respectful. I refer not to “she didn’t say no” sex, but to “she said she wanted to, it was amazing” encounters. The sleazy, manipulative interaction between seniors and first-years is the former, but I argue in favor of the latter, which I posit is just as rare (or common) as truly consensual sexual interactions between any two people, given the multiplicity of ways that power in relationships can be imbalanced and unfairly wielded.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note the heteronormativity replete in my examples. This characteristically unpleasant senior/first-year interaction that I’ve examined here is often between senior men and first-year women, but I feel the need to note that there is more to upperclass-under-class sexual interactions than that simple heteronormative paradigm. I am speaking beyond Cougar Formal, which I view as one evening of transgressive exception that in its stated parodic subversion of norms implicitly undergirds a disrespectful, unequal power relation between senior men and first-year women.
The importance of mentorship, a crucial aspect of my first-year experience, is significant in queer relationships on a whole different register. Whereas male-female relationships have a plethora of paradigms to follow, many first-years come to college only recently out or still closeted. For these individuals, having an older role model, friend, and/or sexual partner to walk them through the intricacies of queer sex and queer Amherst is paramount in learning to become comfortable in their identities. While of course queer relationships can involve disrespect, with or without age disparities, non-heterosexual sexual relationships further remind us that there is often more to the senior-first-year interaction than may initially meet the eye. The benefit of engaging with someone who has markedly different, and perhaps more, experiences (sexual, social and otherwise) can profoundly broaden one’s worldview, not just as a first-year, but at any point.
Seniors, first-years, and those in between: Keep doing what you’re doing. That is to say— keep exploring your sexualities and your variegated potential relationships with the people around you in a consensual manner. After all, sex is always a learning experience and we have so much to learn from each other while we’re here at Amherst.