University courtship is like an arcade game in which the rules are confusing and hazard warnings loom at every turn
The university campus was once the cradle of the sexual revolution. In the late 1960s and 1970s, higher learning often went hand in hand with getting high—on sex, drugs and rock V roll. Monogamy fell from fashion. And bodily fluids were exchanged as freely as ideas.
Times have changed. The campus is still a world of unusual sexual opportunity—in fact, with the expansion of coed residences and the abolition of curfews, the official inhibitions have all but vanished. But sexual behavior on the campus of the 1990s is fraught with confusion, anxiety and fear. The new generation of undergraduates has never known sex without the threat of AIDS. Reports of sexual assault and date rape have become alarmingly frequent. Feminists, lesbians and gays have launched vocal campaigns against sexism on many campuses. And a new sobriety is threatening time-honored student rituals of intoxication.
To explore the sexual attitudes of students, Maclean’s Senior Writer Brian D. Johnson spent a week at Queen ’s University in Kingston, Ont. His choice was not entirely arbitrary. Queen ’s is one of Canada’s largest residential campuses, renowned for its academic standing. And, although its problems may be no different from those elsewhere, it has generated the country’s most widely reported controversies over the issue of date rape. Like many universities, Queen’s is a school in
transition—a campus where a new sensitivity to sexual politics is confronting a conservative tradition.
Jonathan Carline expected university life to be different. After spending five years at an all-male private school in Vancouver, he faced the prospect of living 4,500 km away from home in a coed residence at Queen’s University. But 17-year-old Carline was unprepared for the shock that greeted him when he first checked into his room. On the desk was a hospitality kit containing some moisturizer, a box of mountainberry tea—and a condom. Stepping into the bathroom, Carline found himself face-to-face with a poster on birth-control methods and their efficiency ratings. Later, he visited his don, the senior student in charge of his floor, and noticed a cardboard pouch of condoms pinned beside her door. “It was, like, what have I walked into?” Carline recalls. “The attitude here isn’t if you have sex. It’s assumed that everbody is going to have sex.”
Newly arrived undergraduates find themselves lost in a supermarket of potential partners. They have left behind their families, their high-school sweethearts, and all the awkward entanglements of adolescence. Suddenly they are adults, free to do what they want, when they want. And they find themselves surrounded by hundreds of attractive strangers, in what seems like a vast high school without rules. For students of both sexes there is pressure to score—to get drunk and to get lucky. But it is not as easy as it seems. Campus courtship is like an arcade game in which the rules are confusing, the roles are confused—and hazard warnings loom at every turn.
Sexual safety has become a serious concern—and not just the kind that can be bought with a latex condom and a tube of contraceptive foam. At Queen’s, as at other Canadian universities, anxiety about sexual assault and date rape has escalated visibly in recent years. Yellow emergency phones are dotted around the campus. And the student council runs a walk-home service with student employees escorting students after dark. The service reports that it is twice as busy as last year, with an average of 35 requests a night. Says Elspeth Baugh, dean of women: “We are a very anxious campus.”
This year, after being inundated by warnings during frosh week, firstyear women seem more tense than ever before. “They’re bombarding us,” says Jennifer Speer, 19, a first-year student from Ottawa. “It’s as if people are getting raped all the time. I had a night class and I was afraid to walk half a block from my residence—I ran.” The fear of walking alone at night has also fostered a new gallantry. “When a girl asks a guy to walk her home,” Speer adds, “he sees it as an honor. It means she trusts him.”
In fact, female students reported at least three sexual assaults on campus in September. Two of the incidents occurred in a female residence. The other took place in coed Gordon House, where a woman was surprised by a man hiding in her room. According to Joanne McQuarrie, from Bowmanville, Ont., a residence don, “It happened during a floor crawl [a room-to-room drinking party]. We never found out if it was someone who lived in residence or a friend, because the girl didn’t want to investigate it further. She was worried about her reputation.”
The name Gordon House carries a disturbing echo on campus. Converted into coed accommodation last September, it was originally an all-male residence. And the students still talk about the “Gordon House Nine,” a group of students who countered a “No means no” campaign against date rape in September, 1989, with signs saying “No means kick her in the teeth” and “No means tie her up.” Some of the women residents created their own signs, notably “No means it’s too small.”
But for many women at Queen’s, the issue was no laughing matter, and it became a focus of bitter protest. Just weeks later, with the antifeminist massacre of 14 female engineering students at the Université de Montréal on Dec. 6, 1989, the issue of campus sexism took a horrifying turn. And at Queen’s, the date-rape issue resurfaced more recently with the controversial trial of engineering student Robert VanOostrum, from Kingston, who was acquitted in December on four counts of sexual assault involving women he had dated. VanOostrum, who was suspended by the university before he was tried, became the target of angry demonstrations by women convinced of his guilt. And the lynch mob atmosphere around the case polarized students, creating new extremes of paranoia and rage.
But the 1989 Gordon House incident still casts the longest shadow over sexual politics on campus. After three years, some male students remain bitter. Todd Montgomery, from Hastings, Ont., now a fourth-year history student, was living in Gordon House when it happened.
“We were fresh out of high school, expecting all this sexual freedom,” he recalls. “And then we got bombarded by all this ‘No means no’ stuff.” Montgomery was not involved in putting up the signs but thought they were a good joke.
“Then,” he says, “everything got too serious.”
Although Montgomery says that he considers date rape a punishable offence, he contends that the issue has been overblown. “There is so much denial,” he says. “When is ‘no’ a little ‘no’ and when is it a capital ‘No’? To make it into a stereotype, it’s the girl’s role to say no, and the guy’s role to get into her pants. She says no, and you kiss her back a little harder. You go slower and faster. With ‘No means no,’ you can’t even play the game.”
Montgomery’s ex-girlfriend Susan Blenkinsop, from Kingston, spent much of her first year at Queen’s saying “no.”
She met Montgomery in the fall of 1990, but says that she did not agree to sleep with him until March. “Our relationship was very tenuous for a while because of sex,” she says. “I felt I was ready for it, but the fact that he was pressuring me made me back off. The more a person pressures you, the more you doubt your own decisions.”
With long blond hair and a milk-fed complexion, Blenkinsop has a look of soft-edged innocence that reflects the Queen’s image—classically collegiate. But around her neck she wears a pink plastic rape whistle. And when she walks alone on campus at night, she clenches her keys between her knuckles as a weapon. “As far as date rape goes,” she says, “I realize how lucky I’ve been with the guys I’ve dated. There’s a real mentality on campus that if you’re going to have a relationship, it’s going to be sexual. You get drunk. You’re having a good time. You’re with this guy you really, really like. And then all of a sudden
a he’s going further than you want to go.” When Montgomery and Blenkinsop were together, he was in second year and she was in first. And that appears to be a common pattern. “First
year guys don’t get it very much,” Montgomery explains, “because first-year girls like to go out with second-year guys. I was a big womanizer in second year—it was terrible. But Queen’s is packed with good-looking people. When you come here from a small high school, you can’t get over the fact that there are so many beautiful women.” Montgomery says that he has reformed his ways. He now has a new girlfriend, a 23year-old German-bom nursing student named Anna Schloesser. “She has a European attitude about sex,” he says, claiming that she is less inhibited than most North American women. Schloesser concurs: “I really get fed up with people’s attitudes towards sexuality on campus. Everybody’s doing it, but nobody will admit it.” On the issue of date rape, Schloesser sees no room for ambiguity. “When I say ‘no’ I mean ‘no,’ ” she says. “But the Gordon House thing has created incredible upheavals—and I can’t say it’s for the better.”
Schloesser and Montgomery both complain that cautionary zeal has taken all the fun out of frosh week. The code “Hands off till tarns off” now governs sexual conduct—meaning that the secondyear men should refrain from seducing the neophytes until they remove their Queen’s tams at the end of the week. “Frosh week is so lame now,” says Schloesser. During her Queen’s initiation four years ago, she remembers having to he on the ground while a male student did push-ups on top of her. “We were just killing ourselves laughing,” she recalls. “Mind you, the guy was really cute. But if I were to say something like that on campus now, they’d massacre me. They’d say, ‘You’re looking at women as mattresses.’ ”
Some female students, however, welcome a kinder, gentler frosh week. “Frosh think that they’re invincible,” says Elizabeth Phillips, 24, an education student from Ottawa. “You never think that anything will happen to you. And I was definitely one of those people. Date rape happened to other women, women who drank and went out with the wrong guys.” Phillips says that she was a victim of acquaintance rape in her first year. The incident took place off-campus, at an Ontario ski lodge during winter break. She says that the perpetrator was a friend of a friend, an older man whom she trusted. “I had done nothing,” she recalls. “I hadn’t kissed him. I hadn’t held his hand. I did resist, and I said ‘no’ in no uncertain terms. But he just kept forcing me, and I was afraid of being hurt. Then, I gave in almost to avoid embarrassing us both.”
Phillips did not identify the incident as rape until she returned to
Queen’s and discussed it with a friend. “I’m sure he didn’t think he was raping me,” she says. “I’m sure he thought, ‘She’ll have a nice happy glow on her face when it’s over, just like Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind.’ ” Added Phillips: “So many women have told me about experiences that were classic date rape and acquaintance rape, but they won’t identify them as such. And I know a lot of men who feel they have forced women into sexual activity that they didn’t want.”
Casual attitudes towards safe sex and birth control are another cause for concern. Taking birth-control pills has become automatic for many young students. “People at the campus health service really push it,” says Phillips. “But they don’t talk about the side effects, and they don’t talk about fitting you with a diaphragm.” Schloesser, too, considers the pill overprescribed. “I don’t like taking it,” she says. “It gives me the willies.” Explaining that she prefers to use condoms and contraceptive foam, Schloesser describes the pill as “a very deceptive safety net”—increasing the temptation to practice unsafe sex.
The new generation of students, however, seems acutely conscientious. Many first-year students say that they consider intercourse without a condom unthinkable. Jennifer Perzow, 19, from Montreal, received a box of condoms from her mother in the mail. “With the idea of sleeping around,” she says, “the first thing that pops into my mind is not the moral issue but the health risk.” Once a cause of embarrassment, the condom has become a kind of party favor—Kingston even has a special condom store called Wrap-Sure, a popular spot with Queen’s students. Says Robert Bose, a 19-year-old freshman, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t practise safe sex. It’s a given.”
I Bose lives in Leonard Hall, a men’s residence. A u tasteful collage of perfume and fashion ads decorates the wall above his bed. There is a notebook computer on the desk, a bicycle propped against the wall. Bose belongs to the small minority of non-white students at Queen’s, “but white is more than a color, it’s an attitude,” he says. “Everyone who comes here is more or less from the same background.”
After three weeks, Bose seems thrilled by the summer-camp spirit of his residence, and the proximity of 190 girls next door—at the McNeill women’s residence. “If you want to, you can have sex anywhere,” he says. “I’ve had girls sleep over,” says Bose, “and I’ve slept over at McNeill. But it’s not cut and dry—I have a good friend sleep over sometimes and we don’t have sex.” Still, he adds, “most of the girls I know are so guy-oriented, always on the prowl. They won’t pass up a chance to sleep at Leonard.”
The previous night, at 12:30, Bose and a group of friends had rushed over to Alfie’s, the main campus pub, to catch last call. “We just ordered a whole bunch of pitchers and hit the dance floor,” he says. “I felt guilty, because I’ve got so much work due. But you’ve got to have fun too.” Bose says that he realizes, however, that for women, fun is tempered by fear. Shocked by the recent sexual assaults on campus, he adds: “I feel so awful for girls nowadays. Even if a girl is so drunk that she can’t stand up, it sort of comes to her that she needs a walk-home.”
Alcohol is now a big part of the controversy around sexual assault. Jennifer Gordon, 21, of Ottawa, head student manager of the Quiet Pub at Queen’s says: “In my first year in residence, I knew three girls who were date-raped. And a great number of date rapes begin in pubs.” But now pub staff are trained to look for signs of sexual harassment, adds Gordon. Heightening the air of vigilance, women’s groups at Queen’s recently staged their first women-only dance at Alfie’s under the slogan “Take back the Space.” The idea, however, was lost, on many younger students, such as Jennifer Speer: “If I went there, people would think I was weird.”
Amid so much talk of sexual danger, campus life remains sweetly wholesome for many students. In the coed residences, sleeping with someone on the same floor is definitely taboo. “Guys walk down the hall in their boxer shorts to take a shower and there’s no sexual tension,” says Carline. “It’s pretty comfortable—like a brother-sister relationship.” Speer, who lives in a women’s residence nicknamed “The Nunnery,” says that not much happens to her, even at Alfie’s. “You go drinking,” she explains, “then you go home and you’re all excited because you talked to this guy and you don’t remember his name. I guess that’s the new one-night stand. You drink, you flirt, you dance and that’s it.”
Although alcohol awareness is rising and the level of consumption has dropped, getting drunk is still a rite of passage. Speer says that on a recent weekend she took part in a residence floor crawl, consuming nine different cocktails in 90 minutes, including a Coconut Fantasy (rum punch), a Kinky Pinky (raspberry schnapps and pink lemonade) and a Purple Jesus (grape Kool-aid and alcool). She spent the night throwing up.
Speer now laughs it off, but residence don Joanne McQuarrie recalls a more harrowing incident during the first week of classes. At 5 a.m., she received a call from Kingston General Hospital. She showed up to find one of her first-year female residents hooked up to an intravenous drip. Strangers had found the student passed out in the street, lying in vomit, having lost control of her bodily functions. She had been on a student boat cruise, or a “booze cruise,” and was then taken to a house party, where she drank more liquor.
For protection, she had been matched with an upper-year buddy, who lost track of her.
“He was probably just as drunk,” says McQuarrie.
The legendary stronghold of drinking at Queen’s is the male-dominated engineering faculty. Burdened with one of the heaviest undergraduate course loads, engineers have a reputation for working hard and partying harder. On Fridays, beginning at noon, they kick-start the weekend at the engineering pub with a tradition of collective intoxication known as “Ritual.” The rock ’n’ roll is loud.
Cheap beer flows like water. And the pub floor is diapered in wall-to-wall black rubber mats.
Engineers, meanwhile, have also provided some of the strongest resistance to the recent shifts in sexual etiquette. Frank (not his real name), a civil-engineering student, says that “all that ‘No means no’ stuff is a crock.” Last year, he and his four housemates placed a box of condoms at the top of their stairway, with a sign reading “In case of emergency break glass.” Five paper cutouts were placed at the foot of the stairs, each representing a student. “As a guy got closer to scoring,” explains Frank, “his cutout would move up the stairs.”
The engineering culture can be oppressive for those who do not share its values. But Basil Girgrah, a 25-year-old graduate student, says that it has improved vastly since he first enrolled as an engineer in 1986. Girgrah is both gay and a member of a visible minority. For three years he kept his homosexuality in the closet. “I remember making homophobic and sexist jokes just to fit in,” he recalls. “I knew a lot of women, but in engineering they felt they had to act like one of the boys, and put up with a lot of sexual harassment.”
However, Allison Olajos, from Kingston, now in her fifth year of environmental engineering, says that her male colleagues are often unfairly branded as sexist. “I’ve had a lot of support from them,” she says, sipping an Amaretto coffee in the Quiet Pub. Still, Olajos was disturbed by a professor who routinely greeted her with, “Hey, gorgeous, you’re looking good today.” Olajos says, “I wasn’t offended by it, but it bothered me that he didn’t realize it was inappropriate.”
Olajos says that she has become a feminist since arriving at Queen’s, but mostly because of sexism encountered on summer jobs in the real world of engineering. “I was going into secondary lead-smelter plants,” she recalls, “and when you see pictures of nude women on the wall, you expect it. But then I’d go into a boardroom and there would be comments like, ‘At least you brought a pretty one along.’ Or they’d talk about my eyes. They just didn’t know how to react to a woman in a hard hat.”
Occasionally, Olajos has second thoughts about becoming an engineer. She’s interested in carpentry: “Building a house would be cool.” But, like many students on the brink of an uncertain future, Olajos sees romance and marriage as distant priorities. “I’ve become skeptical about the success of a lifetime relationship,” she says. “If I don’t know where I’m
going to be in five years, or in one year, how can I co-ordinate my life with someone else?”
In the Quiet Pub, an episode of Beverley Hills 90210blares on the big-screen TV, a story of highschool romance with fresh white faces that makes the ’90s seem as clean-cut as the ’50s. One floor below, in a makeshift coffeehouse, students sit around candlelit tables and listen to an ersatz ’60s folksinger croon a Cat Stevens song: But if you want to leave baby take good care/Hope you make a lotta nice friends out there/Just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware/Ooh baby baby it’s wild world. One floor farther below, at Alfie’s, a band from Montreal named Me, Mom & Morgentaler is leading a crowd of students in a breezy sing-along to a tune titled Everybody’s Got AIDS. A crowd of students is pressed up against the stage, pogo-dancing with abandon. Occasionally a dancer leaps the stage and is handed over the crowd. Bopping up and down, bouncing off each other like bumper cars, everyone dances with everyone, and with no one. It is a school night. Last call has come and gone. And the student body is wide awake, still looking for a little oblivion.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON