By Lily Zheng
Well, Valentine’s Day is over, folks.
Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about intimacy on campus – not just intimacy in terms of just sex, kissing or dates, but instead as a larger idea encompassing the ways that people connect, how we love and lust and grow with each other, and those aspects of our institutions and societies that shape all these things.
Intimacy is something that many of us are exploring here at Stanford for the first time in our lives. We’re in that precarious state of young adulthood, away from our families but unsure of what to do without guidance; brimming with feelings of both independence and gut-wrenching uncertainty. In terms of intimacy, the things we told ourselves we would do in college are finally within reach. We can get that relationship we’ve always wanted, that first kiss, that first experience of sex, that physical or emotional intimacy we crave – and even if we have no idea how to do it or even if it’s possible, we’ve seen it on TV and in the media all our lives. It’s hard not to hope that some of that magic can be ours.
But out of the thousands and thousands of students here, it seems reductionist to claim that we all want the same things – we don’t. When we think about intimacy, some of us imagine sunset-drenched silent kisses as dramatic background music swells and we lock eyes with that special someone. Some of us imagine casual sex with that girl down the hall that looks suspiciously like Megan Fox, no-strings-attached, no feelings, just fucking. Some of us imagine a long-term sexual and romantic relationship after five weeks of courtship and subtly dropped hints, that perfect date, the video game-esque trial of flirting with the ultimate prize at the end.
But for every person who grows up with an idealized fantasy of their own intimacy, there is another person without any positive representation at all. As we learn what we want and who we can be from the world around us growing up, it seems unsurprising that a racist, classist, misogynistic and otherwise oppressive world would instill and restrict our own ideas about intimacy. How do transgender women conceptualize their intimacy when TV shows them as only celebrities, sex workers or murder statistics? How do black women conceptualize their intimacy when historical and even present-day representations are limited to Jezebels, Sapphires and Mammies?
At Stanford, intimacy is a heady clash of these expectations and identities, complicated even further by our campus’s lack of a universal, practical education on topics of sex, relationships and consent. What is sex when everyone has a different idea of what they want, differences in identities and experiences make connection awkward, and between those involved there’s only one tiny packet of lube from the SHPRC? (Hint: it’s terrible).
On campus, many of us try to find answers to this chaos by seeking out others similar to us, maybe in the hopes that our shared identities and experiences leave fewer differences to resolve in the first place. Some of us seek out the transactional no-strings-attached encounters of casual sex (hookup culture?) in the hopes that we can dodge all the emotional messiness of vulnerability. Some of us just give up on Stanford altogether, vowing to look off campus for the intimacy we need, or conclude that now’s just not the right time to try.
Are these solutions perfect? No – and it’s a very real critique that the way we experience intimacy on campus can be nonconsensual, disrespectful, risky or unhealthy. But blaming students for these shortcomings is irresponsible and short-sighted; the fault lies in systems, not in us. I see those ways in which students make do on campus as creative responses to something bigger, with the failures of these solutions resulting from inherent failures in the structure (Stanford) that produces them. I argued this in a past column – we party (too) hard because we work (too) hard; the sex sucks because no one teaches us any better; cisheteropatriarchy, white supremacy, wealth inequity and other oppressive systems empower some at the expense of others and teach us social stratification as inevitable reality.
So what to do, then? I sincerely believe that working towards social justice and collective liberation is a multifaceted affair, and intimacy is not exempt from that lens. Stanford can use its vast resources to create a sexual and intimate education program centered on fun, pleasure and practicality rather than fear. Stanford can acknowledge that students on campus seek out sex, romance, pleasure, intimacy and kink, and foster a culture of collective growth and support among its students, staff and faculty. Stanford can work to challenge the social and systemic inequities of our time through better support for students from marginalized communities, inclusive and culturally competent education with a representative faculty and intentional investment both at home and abroad.
This is the part where we dream big, I guess – of a Stanford where the sex is fantastic, the relationships deeply fulfilling, the intimacy transformative and healing and with at least a half-dozen little packets of lube.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.