Role Reversals


In the wake of last spring’s sex scandal involving the Duke University men’s lacrosse team, a Rolling Stone reporter named Janet Reitman went to Durham to interview current students. She returned with a revealing portrait of social life at Duke, and particularly of what it is like to be a female student at the school that ranks eighth on the latest U.S. News and World Report list of the nation’s top universities.

The women she met were hard-working superachievers. They had impressive GPAs, letters in sports, double majors, and high career ambitions. Almost to a one, they were fit, attractive, and stylish. They stood out as the very model of the independent-minded young woman of the twenty-first century. Yet in their social lives, Reitman discovered, they were abjectly dependent on winning the approval of the male students at Duke. This required going to bashes organized by men, matching them drink for drink, hooking up for sex and acting out men’s pornographic fantasies at theme parties like “Dress to Get Lei’d” and “Sex and Execs.” Moreover, these elite women couldn’t think of anything that might be wrong with this kind of behavior. To them, it was just the normal way that men and women socialized.

Though life at Duke may represent an extreme case, anyone familiar with college today is likely to recognize some of the features of Duke’s hard-partying culture. I see such features in the college town where my husband and I have lived for twenty-three years. Student parties used to occur only on Friday and Saturday nights. Now the partying begins as early as Wednesday evening and sometimes lasts through Sunday night, depending on the schedule of televised sports. Its goal has changed as well. Men and women used to attend parties to meet, talk to each other, drink a little too much beer, and pair off. Now they assemble en masse to play round after round of Beer Pong or Quarters, get as drunk as they can as fast as they can, take off their clothes, have sex, or just throw up and pass out. And women no longer act as restraining influences on men’s alcohol consumption. Competitive drinking is now an equal-opportunity sport.

The rise of the new party culture can be attributed to a number of factors-the increase in the number of students living off-campus; the alcohol industry’s targeting of college-age students; MTV’s popularization of spring-break bacchanalia; student stress; and the long-ago demise of in loco parentis. More fundamentally, though, its emergence is the result of a power shift in college social life.

As recently as the early 1960s, there was a familiar gender divide on coed college campuses. Men dominated the classroom. They outnumbered women, were taught by male professors, and enjoyed the privileges of male sponsorship in their academic pursuits and future careers. Women dominated campus social life. They set and enforced the rules for dating and parties. They organized the rites and rituals of coed socializing-including such now-arcane courtship rituals as pinning ceremonies, formal dances, and male serenades-where men were obliged to defer to women’s fantasies and desires.

There is also a gender divide on today’s campuses-but with a crucial difference. In the intervening decades, men and women have switched domains. Women now rule the classroom. With the strict enforcement of laws prohibiting gender discrimination and sexual harassment, the classroom has become more egalitarian and merit based. Women have flourished academically in this well-regulated environment. On the other hand, men increasingly set the rules for an unregulated social life. Like gimlet-eyed efficiency experts on the factory floor, they’ve streamlined the old system. They’ve eliminated the time-wasting efforts to attend to women’s wishes and gotten down to the fundamentals of adolescent male desire: playing competitive games, drinking with buddies, and having sex with lots of compliant women. They’ve also taken charge of party venues and themes: they rent off-campus party houses; stockpile massive quantities of alcohol; hire strippers; and organize female wrestling and wet T-shirt competitions.

This is not what women want but it is what they now accept. “Our undergraduate women at Duke are the best of the best,” said Donna Lisker, director of Duke’s women’s center. But they don’t make the social rules. The men do. “They throw the parties, they create the expectations, they create the standards.” In order to bend to the male norms, she further noted, these elite women “dumb it down.”

The Duke coeds don’t see their social condition as a form of servility, but they do experience it as a source of perplexity. On the one hand, they believe that their generation of women has achieved sexual equality. To them, that means that girls can get hammered and have sex with as much freedom and abandon as the guys. They’ve been taught that this represents progress from the old double standard and from the burden of female modesty. On the other hand, they don’t always feel good about themselves. Their participation in the booze-drenched party culture, they admit, is at odds with their own sense of dignity and self-worth. One Duke woman, who confessed to having sex with a popular guy in order not to lose him, said wistfully: “I have done things that are completely inconsistent with the type of person I am, and what I value.”

Published in the 2006-09-08 issue: 

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.

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