By Matt DeButts
Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013
Do you remember your freshman-year self? I do. I remember he was underprepared for the courses at Amherst. He was shocked by how much everyone drank. He occasionally cited his high school achievements when applying for on-campus jobs. He didn’t know who his real friends would be—he hung out with whomever he was nearest to. He wasn’t a child, he wasn’t dumb, he just…didn’t know Amherst College.
And that’s okay. That’s what squads, freshman dorms, freshman RCs, freshman drop, and freshman seminars are for. They take as their premise that freshman year is different. The College treats freshmen differently because it knows, as I believe we all do intuitively, that freshman year is a time for growth. We don’t yet know what to expect from college relationships. We don’t know what we do or don’t want—we haven’t had time to see the options. We just got here.
At the other end of the continuum is the senior. He hasn’t gone to a TAP in years because, really, who does? She knows how many drinks will get her drunk. He has friends who he’ll keep for a lifetime. She is writing a thesis or applying for jobs and on Wednesdays buys dry martinis, legally, at Monkey Bar. In all likelihood, the senior boy or girl has had more than a few college romances. He knows what the dating scene is (or isn’t) like. She knows what she wants from a hook-up or a relationship. She knows what the norms at Amherst are. He knows what to expect and, just as important, what not to.
Thus in any sexual interaction between the senior and the freshman, the senior enters with more: a better sense of what she wants from her partner, a better sense of who he is forgoing, a stronger awareness of how this hook-up will be perceived on campus, as well as more minor things: a better support system of friends and (often) more sexual experience. The senior, in short, knows himself better than the freshman could ever hope to. He’s had three years to figure out who he is and how he fits into the culture of Amherst. The first-year just hasn’t had the time to get to know herself as well.
There is, therefore, in any senior-freshman hook-up an unavoidable imbalance, baked into the sexual interaction itself. The freshman’s decision to hook up is objectively and radically less informed than the senior’s is. The senior has more power than the first-year, and always will.
Why do we think power imbalance is a problem if both parties consent to it? Because lack of power erodes one’s ability to make an informed decision. We frown upon teacher-student relationships for precisely this reason. The student is “dazzled” by the teacher; he is unfamiliar with romance; he can’t enter the sexual contract with the same awareness of its implications. When an antique collector buys a Picasso from a man who doesn’t know its worth, do we trust she’ll pay the full price? Granted, seniors are not teachers and sex is not painting. But the essential insight is the same. In senior-freshman relationships, the freshman doesn’t know he’s a Picasso. He can’t accurately estimate what the relationship is or should be, and the senior, by virtue of her seniority, always can.
When these imbalances go wrong, they go very, very wrong. I am reluctant even to mention sexual assault, but it is too important to neglect. The Amherst College Sexual Misconduct and Oversight Committee noted a troubling pattern in which “sophomore, junior, and senior men” engage in “predatory behavior with respect to first-year women.” This pattern is the imbalance’s most dire form. A senior exploits the imbalance of power to his own benefit. Of course most senior men and women do not assault first-year men and women. Of course most senior-freshman hook-ups are consensual. Sexual assault is different. But it is similar. It shares with senior-freshman relationships a common root: a sexual interaction in which one party has more power than the other.
I don’t mean to suggest that senior-freshman relationships are never healthy. Some very rare freshmen are preternaturally experienced or mature, and perhaps they can carry out a perfectly mutual relationship with a senior. I also hold open the possibility that a senior and a freshman are, in some non-cosmic sense, “meant” for each other: that their compatibility transcends the senior-freshman problematics. I believe these circumstances are possible. But I believe they are exceedingly rare. Far rarer than the hook-up scene at Amherst would suggest. I refuse to believe that the exceedingly large number of senior boy-freshman girl hook-ups is due to interpersonal chemistry. I do not accept that “Cougar Formal”—the annual senior girl-freshman boy drunken invitational—is the result of genuine person-to-person connections. Perhaps I am mistaken. But I suspect in both cases less noble intentions are in play, and that worries me, and it should worry you.
Others may argue, not without merit, that senior-freshman relationships can be beneficial for both parties. The freshman nabs a cute older girl and a crash-course in dating at Amherst. The senior dates someone who’s exciting and new and not jaded with the social scene. Life is, in the end, about living and having experiences and making mistakes, and dating someone older than you can be a wild ride and a lot of fun. Being intimate with someone more experienced than you can be invigorating. The senior-freshman relationship makes this possible.
But consider the downside. Consider the imbalance of power, the uninformed freshman, the wizened senior. Consider the possibilities the freshman never sees. Imagine the feeling you get when you think of Cougar Formal, then imagine it reverse: the “Silver Fox” formal, where senior boys get drunk with freshman girls. Why does this thought make us uncomfortable? Why do we hesitate?
We are uncomfortable because deep down we know that seniors and freshmen approach sex from a place of inequality. We are skeptical that healthy sexual interactions can be built on crooked foundations. In some cases, we are proved tragically right. In the rest of cases, the imbalances lurk under the surface, invisible but nonetheless menacing. There are so many beautiful people at Amherst. Seniors, freshmen—don’t hook up with each other. It’s better, for all of us, if we refrain.