Undressing and Addressing
By Jorja Rose '18
“But how do you feel about it?” Katie asks me at Sunday brunch. I put my chin in my palm. Anticipating a long diatribe, she adds, “Reader’s Digest version.” I think back to a conversation in Lydia Brassard’s office, the day I decided to postpone the publication of this article another three weeks. I told Lydia I would be writing about this year’s Dress to Get Laid in the third person, trying to piece together an objective account, just-the-facts-ma’am, and she said, “But why?”
But why? Because I thought once everyone slept off their hangovers and the glitter settled, such an objective account would coalesce, and from there I could treat the information like an academic would and never confront my own more slippery grievances. Because I do feel ambiguous, and like most opinions I hear are good ones, even if they conflict with one another. And because my own sentiments are founded upon personal experiences and those personal experiences feel vulnerable and isolated and apolitical. It’s exhausting enough asking close friends to relate, and horrifying that I might expect total strangers to bestow legitimacy upon me.
But I’ve strengthened my conviction in expecting just that, namely because the collision I was initially trying to avoid between the events at Dress to Get Laid and my personal stakes in BITCH (the Bennington Initiative to Counter Harm) has happened with full force. And that’s a good thing, because the party doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It’s prompted major conversation, and sparked promising action, around our deeply rooted culture of sexual violence. I wouldn’t be writing about Dress to Get Laid a month later if I didn’t think the conundrum says something broader about what we’ve been, who we are, and where we’re heading. The combustive mixture of love and loathing most feel for this place is not a contradiction, and I will not apologize for the messiness of it. It defines us, and it deserves some thoughtful untangling now and then.
Part 1: Andrea Dworkin Touts Celibacy as a Form of Angry Protest and I Think I Know Why
Dress to Get Laid has undergone a perceived evolution in recent years. The party’s name was watered down from the more controversial “Dress to Get Raped” in the 1990’s (a little-known fact is that the original name was actually meant as a form of political protest, using irony to counter the belief that women’s attire makes them responsible for sexual assault, but I don’t have any sources to back this up, so I’ll move on). Fall of 2014, my first term here, was the first time in the party’s history it was not held during Parent’s Weekend. This was in response to two graduates showing up to the event with their baby during the overlapping alumni reunion the previous year. As a freshman, I did catch a glimpse of the porno being projected onto the ceiling, and was also sprayed with lubricant or an equally questionable substance at some point in the night, but Kilpat House, party headquarters, doesn’t do that anymore. The mood is set by the pornographic images ripped out from adult magazines and plastered on every wall (these don’t go up on the porn tree outside anymore like they used to).
The party was preceded my freshman year by a round-table discussion in CAPA on the event’s intentions, merits, and pitfalls. Last year, House Chairs were prompted to engage residents in a discussion about consent at the Coffee Hour beforehand. This year, the school brought in Yana Tallon-Hicks, a pleasure-based sex educator, to lead a consent workshop the Thursday before.
But none of the history really gets at what it means or how it feels. Is it controversial for me to embrace exhibitionism as a means of empowerment? Doesn’t matter, here I go. I find myself most days housed in a body too serious and studious to be deemed sexy. It can be dangerous to say, “I want.” It entails making yourself vulnerable to harm and ridicule and demographics that favor only straight, cisgendered males. But at Dress to Get Laid, the onus of shame dissipates. I leave my house wearing the next layer down. I am free to say, “I want.” I present myself as a sexual being, both participating in and appreciating the array of lingerie-clad limbs, fishnets, nipple tape, polyester slips, dark lipstick, temporary tattoos, genuine tattoos, sex anthems, and intoxication.
In the past months, much of this has gone sour for me. I’ll put a placeholder in all I’ve just said by stating that, for me, the in-house festivities beforehand are the best there are. I recall, while pregaming this year, when Katie grasped my hand and urged me to look in the mirror with her. “This, right now, is the best we’ll ever look,” she affirmed for me. “Take it in.”
But then you leave the house. And the Williams boys, and the SVC boys, and the Marlboro boys, and the Bennington boys, are waiting, leering. And all the goodness you’ve felt – your youth, your health, your sex appeal – crumples up like paper. You are still wearing lipstick and eye shadow but it is just your pale face beneath it. Exhibitionism on your own terms is a bygone possibility. The wanting becomes convoluted. This is how the world works: autonomy is always compromised by their presence. If it’s you against them, they will come out in control.
In the Kilpat common room, you’re thrown about in a dark, drunken sea. You’re pulled, you’re groped, you’re shouldered. My sophomore year, it was so packed I felt myself being lifted off my feet by a jumping mob of dancing bodies. Newly House Chair and in a monogamous long-distance relationship, I spent the party elbowing off men who came onto the freshmen I’d accompanied. Someone grabbed my hips from behind and I swatted him off. We sit through classes together and I pretend this never happened.
This year brought more for me to chew on. I and other friends, in our momentary empowerment, seem to have asked for too much. My own hook-up was polite to me when I texted a few days later, but I could read the subtext of his response: We’ll only stand a chance so long as I’m drunk and you’ve got on false eyelashes. Is that too personal of me to say?
I don’t care. It’s political, too. We’ve yet to make a space that can contend with the consequences of women going for what they want, even for a single night. Something I’ve come to fear, something that BITCH has forced me to think on, is that all my romantic encounters with men at Bennington, no matter how consensual, no matter how euphoric, are poisoned by a power imbalance. I think of feminist theorist and Bennington grad Andrea Dworkin, who proposed at one point that the truest form of rebellion women had at their disposal is to abstain from sex with men altogether. Too out there? I don’t know, I have my days.
Part 2: The Red Whorehouse on the Hill
It’s not just the orgy-themed party that becomes a heated topic. It’s also the massive non-Bennington turnout. Friends of mine report that, outside of Bennington, Dress to Get Laid is sometimes all people know about the college (likely the work of Bret Easton Ellis). Kate Cramer, ’18, told me about a visit with a friend’s parent, a Williams alum, and how, during college, he would come to the party each year to observe the spectacle. He still refers to Bennington as “The Red Whorehouse on the Hill.”
“It’s reached such a state of notoriety that the expectation is there even thought that’s not necessarily the reality of the party,” says Olivia Judson, ’17, House Chair of Perkins. We’re in dialogue with the outside in a way we can’t control. The party has become part of the face that Bennington presents to the world and we can rethink our own role in it more effectively than we can change how outsiders interact with it.
An issue broached as of late is whether outsiders bring in a more malicious form of rowdiness, or if their presence is used to obfuscate a rape culture already intrinsic to Bennington’s party scene.
“It’s tempting to blame cultural differences between schools for the problems,” says Caroline Adams, ’18, House Chair of Kilpat. However, she doesn’t recommend it.
“The number of people groped on the dance floor that night is absurd,” Sara Emerson, ’19, recalls of this year’s party. “Bennington boys are just as at fault, but we’re putting all the blame on visitors.”
At Bennington College, scarcity turns male attention into a valued commodity. It silences survivors – there’s disbelief on the part of friends, a deterrent to reporting because we feel we ought to be grateful for whatever attention we’re afforded.
I’d like to think familiar faces are safe ones. It isn’t alarming to be approached on the dance floor by someone I recognize from the dining hall. Boys from other schools may never have been taught what sexual consent looks like, and this disturbs me deeply. There’s an idea that Bennington boys, even those that flounder when tasked with respecting women, have still been exposed to the concept of consent; that they know how not to touch, how not to rape. But this increasingly seems like superficial reassurance.
Why is this party used to classify the Bennington Girl? Bennington Girls Are Easy, chosen in 2015 as one of “Summer’s Best Books” by People Magazine, speaks to the breadth of our image. Off this campus, the Bennington Girl is a familiar trope. However, in my daily life, Bennington Girl behavior seems elusive. I can’t define it, and am uncertain that it constitutes a cohesive pattern.
So maybe I’ve misled you. I don’t want to center on the Bennington Girl or the Bennington Femme. Our campus culture thwarts those who most need sexual agency from moving towards it. What I really want to talk about is the Bennington Boy. It is more significant in my mind, that here – and at this party specifically – is where Bennington Boys crystallize how they have sex, and behave as sexual creatures. And they’re granted extra-special privilege based on a ratio, canonized thanks to their rarity. And who suffers for it? Likely those whom Dress to Get Laid has operated to make most notorious.
Part 3: Where to Now?
If you still believe Dress to Get Laid provides the opportunity for sexual progressivism – which, somewhere within myself, I do – it leaves you with a final question. Do we forge ahead with what we want the occasion to be, oppressive forces be damned, or do we put the party on hold until the rest of the world – and the campus – has incorporated our ideals as its own?
Dress to Get Laid was a prominent topic at the BITCH Town Hall on October 6, and also at BITCH’s first open meeting, two Tuesdays ago. There were myriad suggestions as to how we might tackle Bennington’s party culture, many of them quite simple: take down the porn. Assign trained groups of sober peers. Turn on the lights.
Tensions feel especially high right now because Bennington is undergoing change. As Katie Yee, ’17, states, “Given everything that’s happened with BITCH, and the way the admin has or hasn’t been handling cases recently, we don’t have an environment where this can be healthy.” Plenty of others at the BITCH meeting agreed.
I know the empowerment I’ve glimpsed amid the throbbing chaos of the party has more to do with a hopeful possibility than the value (or non-value) of Dress to Get Laid in its current form. Moving forward, will Bennington choose to be heal, or to sicken? We’ll argue, of course. But I worry we can’t make this decision for ourselves. It may be too entrenched.
But I hope we don’t forget the fantasy of it. I hope someday we might still spend time manifesting for ourselves a night devoid of shame and fear of violence, where those who want their bodies seen as they usually are not, and those who fear they don’t have a right to desire, and I in my lacy maroon slip, can take over the dance floor and shout into the roar, “I am not afraid. And you cannot take this party away from me.”