“Chiron, therefore, having advised Peleus to seize her and hold her fast in spite of her shape-shifting, he watched his chance and carried her off, and though she turned, now into fire, now into water, and now into a beast, he did not let her go till he saw that she had resumed her former shape.”
– Apollod, 3.13.1
I have reached a point in my Princeton career where nearly every boy I want to smooch is younger than me. This is the result of a decision I made at age eighteen—the prime of my girlhood—to spend a year in India before coming to school. As a result, I entered Princeton as a jaded nineteen-year-old, horrified by the immaturity of the insuperably younger seventeen-year-olds around me. Knee-deep in the mud pits of Cloister during my first frosh week, one of these eager boys hit me with his smoothest line. “What APs did you take?” he asked.
“I don’t remember,” I replied. (I did, but didn’t want to; in this way, I was readying myself for the college social scene.) “Is it always like this?” I said, gesturing to the mobs of people, the loud aggressive drunkenness.
“I hope so,” he said, smiling.
It is still like this, it will always be like this, it has been like this since the dawn of man. It has been like this since Adam pulled Eve from his rib, looked her over, and asked, “So…where are you from?”
Princeton’s social system has not changed, but my position in it has. I am no longer an ancient, nineteen-year-old freshman. I am a senior, aged twenty-three. There’s a word my friends and I have been using to describe each other since the summer, half-jokingly: SWUG, senior washed-up girl. The SWUG stereotype is of a woman who wears sweatpants and no makeup, puts her hair in a messy bun, goes to the pregame and then retires to bed alone. She is over the hill, according to the most popular Urban Dictionary definition, because when boys do not text her back she turns to her vibrator instead. It’s important to note that the term concerns women who go out at night and are generally socially engaged; it chronicles a change in the behavior of women in the sexually charged and appearance-based sphere of social institutions.
My friends and I have used this term to describe ourselves. We send each other links to grey floor-length turtleneck dresses, captioned “SWUG life.” We pregame in my room, drinking wine and listening to music we actually like; across the courtyard, a frat party rages to EDM. We show up, talk to boys who are our friends, and go to TI at eleven-twenty. We get passes from our friends. We don’t need things from boys, necessarily. We still go out, but it’s on our own terms.
The difficulty in establishing a clear definition of SWUG has led to many debates over its interpretation. In 2013, the Yale Daily News published a series of articles about SWUGs. The “trend” was picked up and discussed in The Atlantic, New York, and other publications. The first Yale piece, by Chloe Drimal, discussed the stereotypes of the SWUG—texting boys who aren’t interested, drinking with her friends, going home alone—in an attempt to celebrate it.
Yet Drimal’s piece makes the claim that SWUG is still pandering to the male gaze, that “not giving a fuck” is just another aesthetic, rather than a true expression of one’s desires. That it’s a disguise for women who are sad about being pushed out of the system by “younger, hotter” underclassmen. It conforms to the sexist idea that a woman’s value has a negative correlation with her age and number of hookups. Thus, Drimal’s definition of SWUG is based on internalized misogyny rather than empowerment.
At the start of the school year, I felt that SWUG was a term that could be re-appropriated in the name of female empowerment. But as the third month of school draws to a close, I have realized that it might not be salvageable. I’ve heard it used as an epithet one too many times. I’ve had to try to explain its nuances to people who are unable to get over the fact that “washed-up” is overwhelmingly negative.
This raises another question about the term: who is using it? I’ve heard the argument that college boys “don’t really say SWUG”; I can offer anecdotal evidence of its usage around campus, as well as its appearance online. I’ve also heard the term defended (and have defended it myself) on the basis that it is used by so-called SWUGs themselves. Yet this ignores how self-deprecation, self-policing, and internalized misogyny may lead women to use the term to describe themselves.
Even if men aren’t using the term, its employment and definition are inherently patriarchal and anti-feminist. Its description of an undesirable, lazy girl strikes me as one created by men—men who are angry that we no longer want to fuck them, that we won’t look pretty for them. It’s not that we aren’t striving, having relationships, dressing up—it’s that it’s no longer for men. This seems impossible, so they say, You do this because no one wants you anyway.
The behavior of so-called SWUGs can be empowering; it’s the reasons given for this behavior that are problematic. One solution would be to coin a new term that removes “washed-up,” such as Senior Empowered Woman (SEW). (One issue with coining a new term is that SWUG is incredibly satisfying to say; I’m still working on minting something snappy.)
In my conception, a “senior empowered woman” has stopped being primarily concerned with appealing to the male gaze. She has enough experience with life to understand what she wants—not completely, but certainly more than she did as a freshman. This does not mean that she stops caring about her personal appearance; if she continues to wear makeup and heels to the street and go to pregames, it’s because she has always wanted to do so.
Instead of respecting her autonomy, she is ridiculed—it cannot be that she no longer wants men, but that they no longer want her. It cannot be that all the dressing up, the flirting, the meekness, was an act. The woman who wears what she wants and questions a boy’s braggadocio and is no longer impressed by the exoticness of an eating club membership—this woman, the term SWUG implies, is merely faking her indifference. Men tell us what we really want, in terms of how much we want them. We are defined by our desirability and promiscuity. We are condemned as slutty, stupid freshmen for hooking up with them; we are derided as washed-up girls when we stop. SWUG implies that it is always a man’s decision whether we get laid. In this sense, it has implications far more serious than language and labels; it strips women of their power to say No, to make it clear what they want, both sexually or socially.
But instead of asking what a SWUG is, we should be asking why. Why are women with three years of experience in Princeton’s social scene now choosing to disengage? (Or, perhaps, want to appear to have disengaged?) What has changed over these past three years? What have we learned, found, or failed to find?
I offer here the experience of my friends, acquaintances, and myself. (Olivia Lloyd’s article about passes, also in this week’s Nass, supports much of what I say here.) I am not in a sorority, and dropped my eating club last year, but I have social connections that allow me to participate in Street culture. I do not have to stress out over passes or formals spots or weekday social events; I am aware that I owe this in large part to my friends’ memberships in sororities, fraternities, and eating clubs.
Note: my friends. Not boys who want something from me. Not people I am afraid to ask, not people I feel I owe something in exchange for being allowed to participate in Princeton’s social scene.
This serves in sharp contrast to my freshman year. How scared I was. How utterly confused by social and sexual politics. After a year living in India, a year covering my head and body and washing the same six pairs of underwear and being confronted each day by bodies burning on pyres on the river, I was horrified by the excess of Princeton. The amount of clothing everyone had. The way people wasted food in the dining hall. And the way boys talked to you—in India, I had learned to avoid eye contact with anyone and for that first year, had a hard time looking directly at boys. I still do.
And I was flabbergasted by the interactions between men and women, the explicit trade of sexual and social capital. Flirting with older guys for passes and being pressured to take shots at pregames by boys twice our size.
“India, wow, that must have been hard,” a boy once said, towering over me at a pregame, clutching a beer. “Did you get catcalled all the time? Did they try to touch you?” Yes, I said, wanting to say, Yes, but why do you think being here is any different?
Freshman year, friendships are made and broken and scatter to the wind. Everyone is terrified. I remember being frantic: frantic to talk to someone, to have a group to get lunch with, to have people to go out with. As a freshman, I think I played into the sexual power dynamics of boys and hookups and passes because it was made so immediately available to me. A boy standing on the Ivy porch offering a cigarette seems more real than the flaky girl on your hall who definitely wants to get lunch sometime; he seems like he could show you how to belong here. All you have to do is belong to him, for an early-morning half-hour.
My freshman year a senior boy asked me to winter formals after speaking to me twice. “I feel like we should get to know each other first,” he texted me. “Come over. Just to talk.”
“Is it possible for two people to hang out at this hour and it not be about sex?” I replied.
“Yes,” he said.
I walked from Forbes to his room, and he proceeded to kiss me almost immediately. Before formals he took me to his fraternity’s pregame, emphasizing the huge risk of this endeavor (because of the freshman rush ban), how much he was putting on the line for me. The implication was, You owe me. (Even if this wasn’t his intent, the fact that I interpreted it as such speaks to the influence of internalized sexism, of my desire to perform according to my misguided idea of how college relationships worked.) Later that year we stood in an eating club, watching people stream past, and he told me how he was sad about leaving because there were so many girls he had yet to hook up with. I left, and ended things shortly afterwards.
A few weeks later, two girls in the year above me confessed that they expected he would treat me like this. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked them. “We didn’t know you,” they replied.
I realize now that I didn’t want the boy as much as I wanted to be friends with those girls, who were socially affiliated with him. But doing so seemed more complicated than hooking up with a boy. Friendships with them would require sober conversations and deep discussions over lunches; they would evaluate me on my ideas, my interests, aspects other than my body. I had to prove to be desirable for something other than my youth and naïvety. With the boy, he could be mine if I put my hands on him in a certain way. I could belong to something without having to work for it.
I wanted to be a part of something. As a freshman I was let loose from the social, academic, and athletic spheres that defined my high school identity. Each eating club promised a certain stereotype of membership; I wanted to figure out which one I was. What went on behind the doors of these institutions was a mystery; solving it would help me figure out my own conception of myself.
Men also offered a chance to define myself. Determining how desirable I was, based on who wanted me. So often women are defined in relation to men: mother sister girlfriend. And in terms of their availability: slut whore and even SWUG. As senior women we are not celebrated for our years of knowledge and empowerment; we are instead shamed for these experiences, because they render us more difficult to access.
It isn’t that our hotness has diminished so dramatically over these past three years. It’s that we are wiser. If we are “less attractive” to men, it means that the things they found attractive were our naïvety, pliability, and relative powerlessness. Our decision to disengage from the system should tell us something about the system, not about our sexual desirability.
I would argue that I am objectively more attractive now than I was as a freshman—fitter and better-dressed, and I’ve finally made peace with my hair. I am astronomically happier, because I have found a fulfilling major and support for my writing and a group of friends I love. SWUG diminishes these as unimportant in the face of appearing pretty and going out—ultimately, it devalues female accomplishment and friendship as unworthy of our time.
This time is limited. That SWUG specifically concerns seniors, rather than upperclassmen women generally, is telling. So much of this year is propelled by the knowledge that this is our last year. It is filled with job applications, thesis research, graduate school deadlines. What we have chosen to do with our finite free time is hang out with our friends.
I am frightened by how desperately I am going to miss my friends. Some nights we will be sitting in someone’s room in Pyne, making jokes, laughing until we’re crying, and I am struck with the sense of sorrow that accompanies an ending. We will never be like this again. After this year we will never spontaneously hang out on a Tuesday night together, barging into each other’s rooms with Skinny Pop to watch Canadian YouTube videos. I will not have eight or ten people down the hall whose beds I can crawl into, whose shoulders I can cry upon. I am not scared that I will never find a man to love me, that I have not met my husband at this school. I am scared that I will never love a man as much as I love my friends.
Recently I asked a friend who no longer goes out why she made that decision. “Every single night is the same,” she said.
How many nights out does it take to realize this? Three years? What a beautiful thing—Not Going Out—it suggests that you have found something, not lost it. I am always so impressed by those who choose to abstain—which is roughly fifty percent of Princeton’s student body—for whatever reasons they cite.
For so long, Thursday and Saturday nights seemed like the answer to me. “Are you going out?” I would text boys I liked, because it was easier than saying, “I want to see you,” or “Let’s get lunch.” I could be selected from a crowd, rather than expose myself by revealing what it was I wanted. Whom.
It’s important to note that there is no such thing as a SWUB. Men tend to get more powerful with age, at Princeton and in the real world. Senior men are in a position to offer passes and pregame invitations; they may be called “creepy” for expressing interest in underclassmen, but it remains a norm. Perhaps it is the memory of their relatively disenfranchised younger years—before they had frat and club memberships to help enter the social system—that compels boys to flex their power as upperclassmen. I remember male friends complaining about how difficult to get passes as underclassmen; “If only we had boobs,” they’d joke, “things would be easier.”
A few weeks ago I danced with a friend in the crowded TI basement. (I do my best work here, in terms of thinking of Nass articles and dancing.) He was an alum, returned from the outside. We talked about his experiences with writing and living in the real world. I told him about my aspirations. We got down and dirty, facing each other and not touching, to some club banger.
“Am I cock-blocking you?” he joked.
“Not in the slightest,” I said.
“I feel like you would be happy being super famous and alone,” he announced.
What I did not tell him was that the being alone—in this case, dancing platonically with a male friend—on a dance floor does not mean that I am alone in other aspects of my life. Eating clubs are a place of public performance; boys who know me only from the dance floor might ascribe the qualities I present there to other aspects of my life.
When I was a sophomore I wrote an article about dancing and consent, titled “Wild.” I’ve discussed it with a lot of people, both men and women. A boy once confessed to me that he was afraid to approach me after that article, because it seemed like I “wanted to be left alone.”
We don’t want to be left alone. Wanting to be treated with respect does not equate with wanting to be ignored. This speaks to the dual nature of the definition of SWUG: perhaps the men who condemn our unavailability are scared, nervous, or simply do not know how to talk to us outside the context of an eating club. Just as it was easier for me to engage with boys on a superficial level as a freshman, perhaps it’s easier for those boys to approach a freshman who is open and eager.
The women of the class of 2016 were freshmen when Susan Patton’s infamous “Find a Husband” letter came out. It was March of 2013. We were new and scared and surrounded by the impending doom of rush and bicker and deciding on a major and Patton told us, Screw your stats problem set, you ought to be finding a husband, and we went to TI and Ivy with our friends because the way love works, here in the Real World, is that a boy grinds on you to the Ignition remix and someone throws a beer on you and he says, Wanna go? And we felt like we were accomplishing something, that this is what we were supposed to be doing, the same way you do readings and go to the gym and participate in class. Being fuckable is just as important as being smart. Everyone here is intelligent; we were even better than that, because we excelled in the realm of the sexual.
What’s troubling is that some part of us wanted this, or at least thought we did. I remember nights coming home feeling worthless because no one had danced with me and I was heading to my own bed instead of a stranger’s. That wasn’t what I wanted—I wanted a relationship, someone to come home to every night—but I still felt compelled to do it, like an academic obligation.
And, because I was still young and learning, I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t really know how to write a paper and I didn’t really know how to navigate the nuances of Princeton’s social scene. I was taking classes that tried to teach me about the former; I was stumbling blindly through the latter, trying to figure out the dimensions of an institution deliberately obscured.
I didn’t know how to get what I really wanted because I was afraid to say No; I was afraid to say what I really wanted because it was his room and he was in a frat and I was so excited just to be chosen that I felt I should be happy with what was offered to me.
As a senior, I tell boys No: No, don’t touch me; No, I don’t want to dance; No, maybe later. I don’t feel compelled to say Yes anymore because I am in a position of power, and because I know what I want. Or, at least, what I do not want.
We are senior women, and we have rejected a system that privileged our youth and ignorance. We are no longer impressed by the promise of a pass or formals invitation. We are old enough to buy our own alcohol—once used as just as much a form of enticement as passes and list places—and drink it to enjoy it. We still get drunk. We still kiss men we want to kiss. We go home with whomever we want to go home with, be it friend or lover.
I think about the girl I was as an underclassmen and feel saddened, not nostalgic. I do not mourn my “youth.” My sense of being lost (and my sense of senior female empowerment) is certainly not universal, but definitely speaks to the experiences of many women I have talked with.
Maybe we are burned out. Maybe after three years of constant stress and feeling guilty when we choose to hang out with our friends instead of working and pressure, everywhere and for all things—we’re tired. We’re tired of boys who don’t text back and play games and still manage to get under our skin. It is so deeply exhausting to get dressed up and perfect your makeup (only, I should clarify, if you’re doing this for someone else) and go out only to find More of the Same.
And so we curl up with our friends in bed and dance with girls at clubs and refuse to engage with boys who are not worth our time. We write our theses and flirt with preceptors and hit ignore on the 2 a.m. booty call. What we have learned here, at this place, is how to manage our time. And how I want to spend this last year is in the arms of people who love me. Maybe, some nights, that is a boy. Most of the time it is my friends, these senior women. They are the ones that I have chosen; they are the truest expression of love that I have found at this place.