Two weeks ago, while I gallivanted about Paris relishing spring break, an East Campus resident advisor found homophobic messages, replete with an obscene drawing, scrawled on the wall and white board of an 8th-floor suite. One of the suite's residents, Norman Washington, is the openly gay president of Proud Colors, an advocacy group for the LGBTQ community. Spectator reported the story the first day back from break. Columbia's administration has yet to make an official statement. Shock.
Sexual freedom-the right to abstain or be as promiscuous one pleases, the right to take the morning after pill, the right to kiss a person of any gender-is something I've always taken for granted. Maybe this is naïve. I grew up in a liberal environment that promoted safe sex, and lots of it. My aunt is the former rabbi of a gay and lesbian congregation in Chicago. My best friend had more sex during our four years of high school than I have had to date. Sure, no one actually came out at my prep school, but we had an active gay-straight alliance.
On its surface, Columbia is equally, if not more, sexually liberal. We have a multitude of University-sponsored sexual resources on campus (Alice!, Well Woman, The Rape and Anti-Crisis Center, to name a few). Student groups such as the Columbia Queer Alliance and Sexhibition feature prominently in campus life. CTV has a weekly show entirely devoted to talking about sex; a student-based erotica magazine is in the works. Straight girls love to joke about how they came to the wrong college to find a boyfriend-there are too many gay guys. Sex toy workshops, for men and women of all sexual orientations, are no big deal.
Yet, despite the variety of sexual resources and activities available on campus, I'm willing to wager eighty percent of the student body has never made use of them. This is by no means the fault of the organizations themselves; they work hard and do an excellent job. But the system is inherently flawed: because Columbia students know that condoms are readily available on their RAs' doors, they fail to think twice about the other resources the sex-related campus organizations offer. Similarly, because Columbia students know that the queer community figures prominently on campus, they fail to think twice about the day-to-day issues of gay and lesbian student life. Until somebody draws an offensive picture in East Campus, that is.
This is by far the most disturbing aspect of the homophobic incident. I am so grateful for the prevalently open sexual attitude on campus. The trouble with this attitude, however, is that it leaves us incapable when something goes wrong. We assume, because we, personally, are sexually open and respectful, that the person responsible for the homophobic scrawls is an anomaly-the one and only bad kid. There is no compulsion for response. Maybe the kid who drew the drawings was only joking. Maybe he didn't even know Norman Washington lived there. It doesn't really matter; we still don't know how to deal.
It would be unfair to blame the Columbia community for this incident; homophobia and hate crimes are by no means isolated to our University. But in some ways that makes the incident and others like it even more terrifying: it's hard to imagine what sexual attitudes in more conservative areas of the country might be like if even Columbia, and by extension, New York City (home to Sex and the City and arguably the best city to be gay, lesbian, and transgender in), isn't completely free of sexual repression. The trouble is, while most of us operate under the assumption that we are free to do as we sexually please, there are still those, admittedly few here, who don't. And those who don't, no matter how few and far between, still manage to threaten our presumably sexually free world.
My column relies on sexual freedom. If Columbia students weren't able to think and do as they pleased sexually, my column would be worthless. There's little value in discussing issues like sleep and exes; conversations like these rest on the assumption that people are free to choose to have (or not have) sex without being judged and victimized. Obviously this column is not the only thing that relies on sexual freedom: access to birth control, rape counseling, and even sex toys depend on it. These are only some of the things we would lose sans sexual freedom.
The homophobic scrawls and drawing in East Campus do not mean that the age of sexual freedom is a lost cause, nor do they necessarily mean that we're headed in a completely backwards direction. Hell, I'm still writing my column, uncensored. What the homophobic incident does suggest, however, is that we cannot assume that we've moved on from the days of sexual repression for good. Even in New York City.
Miriam Datskovsky is a Barnard College junior majoring in human rights and political science.Sexplorations runs alternate Mondays.