When Chloe Met Charlotte
Every winter at Yale, the Rumpus, a student monthly, publishes a list of the hottest undergrads at the school, which takes up an entire issue of the magazine, then lies soggy on the floor of dorm bathrooms for the rest of the year. It features 50 very attractive men and women, each with one or two pictures, and a page full of answers to questions like "What is beauty?" and "When did you first know you were hot?"
As Natalie Krinsky, the Yale Daily News' recently graduated sex columnist, tells the Voice, "If you're a freshman in '50 Most,' it's kind of like you're a debutante coming out."
In her first novel, Chloe Does Yale (Hyperion), Krinsky structures the story around this and other giddy sexual rituals, recycling her columns and integrating them into a novel, much of it autobiographical. Focusing almost exclusively on drunken party, bar, and dorm activities (" 'Hello, vibrator,' I say"), she relies on an endearing code of high-tech language: the MIICRNYCOAGNWMA (maybe if I call right now you'll come over and get naked with me again), OOO (overly organized orgasmers), andmost importantlyGLWC2-ing (get laid with commitment and conversation).
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A history major who wrote her thesis on the feminist implications of the films of Pam Grier, Krinsky, like other columnists, revels in analyzing the superficial"we can act shallow because we're so nerdy," she says. She worked her essays into a weekly lather of girliness, encouraging women to do things like befriend their own silly, lovable "FG" (favorite gay) or carefully groom their pubic hair. One December 2001 article, "Spit or Swallow?" (the answer: swallow), generated more than 350,000 hits, somehow worming its way into her father's inbox and sparking a collective media freak-out about a new generation of "sexperts." (Full disclosure: Krinsky is keeping a blog for the Voice.)
Now that there are well over 30 columns like Krinsky's (written almost exclusively by straight girls), it's difficult to conceive how this was once a controversial topic. Hyper-feminine, even reactionary, most articles read like giggly guides for good manners. We imagine these writers much like Carrie Bradshaw: on their beds with a shiny white laptop, typing, but also taking plenty of breaks to paint their toenails, peer out the window (is there a hot man on the stoop?), and fluff up their hair.
At Cornell, the sex columnist describes herself as "tall and blonde," a lover of "stilettos and tequila." At the University of South Florida, she is "a short, sheltered girly-girl," who encourages "ladies" to "love thy boobies." That age-old burning questionhow come guys love watching girls kiss each other?is often the only mention of homosexuality. In an honorary survey of different ways people are "messed up in the head," Becca Worthington of James Madison discusses a couple wild fixations, like balloon licking and furniture porn, but is left "somewhere between wanting to laugh hysterically and vomit profusely" ("Will sex ever get back to the basics?" she pleads). Looking to prevent bodily sickness, more recent columns at the James Madison Breeze have stuck with perfectly inarguable topics, heralded by headlines like "Dating Stages Seem Unclear, Confusing" or "Relationships Not Flawless, Especially During College Years."
Last winter, the editors at the Columbia Spectator read through 34 submissions to pick their columnist, but still the two final winners were accused of being heterosexist and gushy. They gave girls tips on post-fellatio kissing restraint ("It's not that he didn't appreciate it"), as well as vaginal soapingso that the guy won't "pass out from the smell." One student, who submitted to the contest but didn't win, wrote an article about the process in Columbia's humor paper, The Fed: "The columnist they have hired instead of me is spouting candles-and-rose-petals mumbo jumbo. That cliché outlook on sex is imaginary . . . fairytale shit."
Yvonne Fulbright, the 29-year-old author of The Hot Guide to Safer Sex (Hunter House) and a columnist for NYU's Washington Square News, says she too was disappointed with the Spectator's final selection and takes offense whenever she's clumped together with the rest of the sex-writing "pack." "They make things so Mars-Venus. It's nonpolitical and nearly always silly," she says. "No one steps out of the system, because if they do, they think they'll be called perverts."
Rife with implausible scenarios, these first-person accounts of college sex give credence to Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, a fantasy vision of university life repeatedly criticized for its stereotypeswild, long-limbed (anorexic) girls flirting or screaming whenever they're around males, then spending hours intellectualizing the process. At Wolfe's invented Dupont University, sex is "in the air along with the nitrogen and oxygen! The whole campus was humid with it! Tumid with it! Lubricated with it!"
"I think he really captures it," says Krinsky, "because college is kind of like a cartoon." In her novel, which she loosely compares to Wolfe's ("without the social commentary"), girls religiously apply anti-cellulite lotion and follow assholes to bed because it will improve their "hookup quotient," that "simple mathematical concept."
Another student, writing about Charlotte for The Cornell Daily Sun, defends the book's accuracy, quoting Heather Grantham, the author of the biweekly Cornellingus column, as proof. "Let's face it," he writes. "It is a bit uncanny for people to complain about the stereotypes put forth in this book when this campus' very own sex columnist has bragged about losing her virginity in the same fashion that the title character loses hers." In the article in question, Grantham recalls how she arrived to school "wide-eyed and pony-tailed," the "last virgin on Earth" then wandered into a swampy frat party where she "dispense[d] with . . . [the] tenacious remnants of my hymen."
Although grounded with some alarmingly icky details, Grantham's and others' essays reiterate the kind of bite-size sexual formulas that students spend pages deconstructing in their term papers. Whether or not the stereotypes are true (and Wolfe certainly believes they are), these writers circle around the same safe set of issuesthe fact that they're females talking about sex is somehow still more groundbreaking than whatever it is that they're saying.
As Grantham puts it, "There's politics in the act itself. It's just like, Hey, look! I'm a woman. I enjoy sex. I'm talking about it. Isn't this cool?"
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