In the aftermath of my very educational first kiss, and as a result of sparse dating in high school, I applied to a conservative university where I felt I’d be safe. The school’s honor code had a long list of dos and don’ts. That included things like no boys and girls in each other’s bedroom, and clothing had to cover knees and shoulders. Yep, that sounded like the school for me.
The other thing that appealed to me was that the school already had an active go-on-dates environment. Because the honor code also included maintaining your virtue (no sleeping around at this school), the culture encouraged students to date often and for the purpose of finding a prospective spouse. So that first year of college I went on 43 dates. Talk about a contrast!
With such an intense dating environment and so much pressure to move towards marriage, there emerged new challenged I hadn’t anticipated and wasn’t sure how to navigate. Like, there was this silly book from the 1950s that circulated among the girls in my dorm about how to be the perfect wife, complete with lipstick and pearls. While most of us laughed at it, the ideas started to grow into conversations about how to secure a husband by following strange formulas, like (oddly) playing hard-to-get. Girls also watched and critiqued each other. We all certainly felt a lot of pressure, but the scrutiny and criticism started to take the sparkle out of this new experience. And because of my high dating rate I felt like a particular target of the criticism.
Adult mentors took things a step further, acting as guides and providing individual feedback. I remember getting a skirt from the thrift store that was borderline appropriate. When I stood up, the skirt reached my knees. When I sat down, however, the skirt would slide up a little and expose more of my thighs. One of these adult mentors took me aside and expressed how shocked and ashamed she was that I had picked to wear such a skirt, knowing that this would allow temptation and bad thoughts to enter the minds of young men. Even after I cheerfully thanked her for informing me and promising I would not ever wear it again, she had to emphasize her disappointment in me and my choices.
Golly! Sorry, lady!
I made it past my freshman year without too much trouble, other than the growing trauma that I was teetering towards some invisible inappropriate line, regardless of what rules I followed. Sophomore and junior years were filled with much of the same; lots of dates, lots of criticism, and… pushy partners.
Just like the first kiss fiasco in high school, my college partners started to show similar patterns of trying to push my boundaries. I’d hear that famous phrase “just relax” and learned that it actually meant “let me do whatever I want.” My first real boyfriend would constantly argue with me about how far I’d let him go. Once I agreed to french kiss and I had to make him stop moments later because things were suddenly out of control. Another time we were playing around in his apartment (not in the bedroom area) and he pinned me against the dining table, held my arms, and unzipped my shirt. My fault for wearing a zip down shirt, I guess.
That relationship didn’t last long. None of them did. Within a month or less the guys I dated would move on to someone else.
Roommates weren’t much help either.
My junior year I roomed with a former roommate and some sophomore girls I didn’t know. My friend warned them about me before I’d even met them, telling them I was one of “those girls” that the guys were attracted to. A few months in, one of the new roommates and I were doing laundry and she said I was surprisingly nice, nothing like what she had thought I’d be like based on the things my friend had told her.
The most grievous of my list of sins included “leading boys on”. I’m sure as a result of the pressure my roommates and friends felt about dating, they would see my style of going on dates with everyone as irresponsible. I had a personal rule that if a guy got up enough guts to ask me out, I’d say yes. And why not? A lot of the guys I said yes to turned out to be great guys! Still, the expectation was that within the first few dates I’d have to decide whether to be serious. If I couldn’t commit to a serious relationship, my roommates were of the opinion that I needed to make that clear and not string him along. I couldn’t help wondering how I was supposed to know, and why couldn’t we at least be friends? That was another problem. I had too many guy friends. My senior year I had a birthday party at the apartment that included about 20 guys and my roommates.
Oh… One more thing to note. As a girl waiting around to find a husband, it was my job to be attractive. Advice and discussion among girlfriends centered around what guys liked. It wasn’t just the outward appearance that mattered either, of course. You were supposed to be a sweet spirit and a hottie all at the same time. IF you did manage to pull it off, all of the other girls wouldn’t be so happy because it made it that much harder for them to compete with you.
I remember towards the end of my time in college I was talking to my mom about the whole dating problem and the search for a husband. She surprised me by saying I should just forget about it and finish school. I thought she’d be more interested in marrying me off. She laughed and said I would still have plenty of time. As far as my education was going I’d luckily followed my dad’s advice and pursued a business degree, a field of study I was really enjoying. I had good grades and was doing well. So, I decided to stress less about boys and finish school. My last semester’s GPA was a 4.0.
A year after graduating, I stuck around my college town, hoping I’d find my one true love, but nothing happened. I experienced more of the same criticism from peers and pressure from the environment. I decided to move to the Washington, DC area to live with my brother and his new wife. As I drove across the country, all my stuff crammed in the back seat, I had this surge of excitement that things might soon change for the better.
(And the story continues!)
I’ll continue the story soon, but if you’re wondering what any of this has to do with abortion, I’ll tell you. Whatever the thoughts that have been going through your mind, I want to point out that even in the most conservative environment, even with a girl who is doing her best to maintain virtue and avoid trouble, she gets judged and labelled. How often do we look at someone and make a judgement based on what she’s wearing? How often do we assume that the guy is simply following the laws of nature while the girl is playing the serpent in the Garden of Eden? I know how it feels to be trying my best to do everything right and still having people judge and criticize me. It seemed easy for people to point out some little thing I should have done better. And for the record, I had humbly tried everyone’s advice and it didn’t solve the problem.
It’s not enough to dismiss this issue by saying people – women especially – should be more responsible. And while I do agree it’s part of the problem, I would suggest it’s a branch, but not the root.