It’s been nearly 25 years since I graduated from college, an event of no earthly significance save for this footnote: The institution was a “girls’ ” school, and I was then, as I’ve remained, male by construction.
Ask, everyone does: Did I score a lot?
Uh-huh. About 12 points a game for the basketball team.
If the answer seems arrogant, well, so is the question and the presumptive wink that follows whenever my alma mater comes up in conversation.
Matthew Vassar was a brewer by trade and he had a dream: With his money and his name, he set out in 1861 to build a college dedicated to the mission of educating women in a separate, though deliberately equal, fashion to the best of what had been traditionally available only to men. A century later, his dream needed goosing.
By the late 1960s, Vassar’s legacy didn’t seem good enough. “Separate but equal” had been deemed to be not particularly equal at all. The times, sang Bob Dylan, were a-changin’, and with them the majority of the nation’s most venerable single-sex institutions. Coeducation was seen as the way to go.
Transferring into Vassar from a small all-male counterpart at the end of my sophomore year, my own intentions (wink) were not altogether honorable. Imagine: to be 19 and adrift in a sea of women--so many women--and every one a Vassar girl. For each of us Adams there would be something like 17 (wink, wink) prospective Eves. The whiff of hormonal adventure danced through the atmosphere. It promised to be heaven.
And it was.
But for the handful of us lucky enough to have been included in those few short years of Vassar’s transition from an enclave of the feminine to its current status as one of any number of top-notch, small, coeducational colleges, Vassar had little to do with what seemed like the obvious. What Vassar offered, in the long run, had less to do with sex than it did with gender, and less with gender than with relationships.
Of course, there was sex too. The sexual revolution was chipping steadily away at the tradition of premarital chastity. We were young and inquisitive.
The time was right, and we eagerly experimented. Love had become a byword then, freely tendered and acted upon just as freely; for a synonym, permissive would have done nicely.
But, we quickly learned in this off-kilter testing ground, there was something essential at stake: Nothing comes free, especially love. There is an emotional tax to be levied on every exchange of intimacy.
Which is precisely where the winking stopped. As Vassar changed, adapting to her men, we, her men, were challenged to change with her. Most took the dare, some with enthusiasm, others with reluctance. Either way, there wasn’t much choice. Given our numbers, we were in no position to dictate the agenda.
In the beginning, we were a novelty. Being the only men--in class, at the dinner table, or just perambulating through the quad--was a condition we had to get used to, just as we had to get used to seeing curlers in the morning and nightgowns at night, and making no big deal of either. Proper etiquette would be made up as we went along. Still, the nature of the time and the place demanded that we not stop there.
In our young lives, we’d been bombarded by the attitude that men were men and women something much less than that. In an era of confrontational politics, our minority status in our new surroundings forced us to confront those attitudes, first for fear that, like Orpheus, we’d find our heads floating down the Hudson as a band of modern Maenads tore us to shreds, and second, because it just felt better.
The confrontations were played out quietly sometimes, sometimes heatedly, sometimes tenderly, and sometimes alone within ourselves, but they were recurrently manifested by a single underlying epiphany: There was an alternative--a comfortable alternative--to certain convenient male ways of looking at things.
As tables turned on us men, so did implied positions of male-female power. I felt for the first time the confusion of sexual powerlessness and its demeaning ally--objectification.
That’s where the real sexual revolution started for me and my Vassar brethren: in the capacity to recognize and feel the flip side.
When all eyes in a room focus on you because you’re the only male in the room, the initial smirk of self-satisfaction quickly devolves into something like terror, and the desire to mentally disrobe the next woman crossing your path amazingly evaporates. You found you could really look that next woman in the eye without the need to coat the encounter with a layer of sexuality. What was suddenly different for me was that there was, on the one hand, no pressure to do so, and, on the other, an implicit understanding of the consequences if I did.
Women, we learned, were as hard to pigeonhole as we’d always believed by divine right that we were; each of us comes equipped to play a panoply of roles. Vassar gave her men mothers, sisters, wives and lovers, friends and lab partners, caretakers and confidantes, and we, in turn, evolved into the male equivalents, becoming brothers in a special sisterhood with rights and new responsibilities.
We began to accept just being who we were rather than striving for something that was always sexual; something that was always sexual left no room for anything else.
The nature of flirtation changed; flirting was fine, but directness went deeper. We didn’t have to be cool to make connections, we just had to be straight. And, the truth is, it scared the hell out of us. Hiding is safer than revealing, but, the strange thing was, the more we let ourselves reveal, the safer--and more intimate with others--we began to feel. It was OK to be vulnerable, OK to be scared, OK to have ideals threatened.
This was new territory for all of us. The less in control and on the prowl we felt as men, the easier it became to form close and comfortable ties with women, and less constantly competitive relationships with other men.
It all made for a gentler, milder, more reflective atmosphere than we had known before, one that fostered the hard work that comes with exploring the swampland of myths on both sides of the gender line. We didn’t have to go out and impress the girls anymore; we were living with them.
And then it was over.
Leaving Vassar was as much a culture shock as having been invited in. It would be naive to think I sailed back into the world through the medieval arch of Vassar’s Main Gate stripped entirely of the male assumptions and prejudices that had developed over my first 22 years, just as it would be naive to try convincing myself that in the still male-dominant society in which we live I haven’t picked up a few new ones along the way.
But if I felt at first out of sync with what I found beyond the gate, as if I’d been banished from my Camelot with only a memory of an ideal, I’ve come to understand what a gift Vassar gave me: the knowledge that the power at the core of sexual equality stems from a common tenderness rather than toughness; the knowledge that to be male at the expense of what may seem noncombative and non-sexual within me is to be not much of a man at all.
I don’t need to go into the woods and beat tom-toms to remind myself of who I am and who I want to be; I just flip through my college yearbook.
That I once lived in, and remain tied to, a place that’s traditionally female, and proudly so, hasn’t made me a wimp or tempered my desires or cooled my lusts. Far from it. Vassar may have feminized me, but it didn’t emasculate me. I still drive too fast, play ball with the guys on Saturday, smoke cigars, swill Scotch, tell off-color jokes, puff up my chest and think impure thoughts. I also know that it takes more than that to be a man.
Which is why that question about scoring never fails to raise my hackles and make me a little sad. No matter how sure and free a man likes to think he is, his pride remains as fragile as a patched inner tube with others’ perceptions of his sexuality poised like a needle to deflate that pride at any second. Still, the needle’s not much of a threat once you’ve accepted that the score doesn’t necessarily reflect the way the game’s being played.