Monday, November 26, 2007

Sex and the College Girl

Via Feministe: there's an incredibly interesting reprint of a 1957 Atlantic Monthly article on sex and relationships in college, the general reaction being "this is the sort of thing social conservatives want to go back to?" (And this is a story from the upper class white folks.)

One of the things that really struck me was that, despite being from the 1950s, it's a very different 1950s than we typically see (Silent Generation, indeed). Our cultural narrative of the latter half of the 20th century is almost uniformly from the perspective of the Baby Boomers - it's Forrest Gump as documentary. So the 1950s are a decade of childlike innocence, and sex is pretty much absent because the people telling the story haven't discovered it yet. Which, in a way, could explain the fascination with the 1950s so many social conservatives have - it's a return to a childhood state where we were blissfully unaware of other people's problems.

I was also struck by the uncanny but unsurprising resemblance to Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons; though there are superficial changes (integrating the universities, cellphones and computers, Wolfe's attempts at modern slang, etc.), the characters' attitudes are much closer to the ones described in this article than those of the college students I know. (Not surprising - Wolfe's own college days predated Ms. Johnson's by only a few years.)

1 comment:

Januaries said...

Thanks for writing about this article. Reading it was like listening to a voice coming from under water. To someone stuck but perfectly able to map their surroundings.

It made me think of several things. First of all, it got me back to the fragment of The Great Gatsby, where Daisy wishes that her daughter be stupid. That is exactly the point: thinking is painful for women. It makes you write The Bell Jar or, on a lesser scale, see it all and know you have a very limited set of choices.

I kept going back to the section in which Johnson describes this sense of entrapment:

She has learned to think, not in the proportions of genius, but intelligently, about herself and her place in the world. She realizes, disturbingly, that a great many things are required of her, and sometimes she can't help wondering about the years beyond the casserole and playpen.

And then I move even further back in time to Mina Loy's poem "The Effectual Marriage," which ironically assigns intelligence to men and (futile) understanding to women.

Yes, I'm glad not to be stuck under water in 1957, but the fact that I don't need anyone to explain these stories indicates that our point in time is not so far from that. It's still about "relationship games" that many of us don't feel good at, it's still about calculation, and fruitless insight. But not only -- thank god.