Friday, September 21, 2018

Memories of campus life

Stories in the news about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh & Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her at a high school party, have included accounts and photos from Kavanagh's fraternity days at Yale in the early/mid-1980s.  A photo of some of Kavanagh's frat brothers hoisting a flag made of pilfered women's underwear brought back memories of my own college days -- some funny, some unsettling.

I graduated high school in (gulp) 1979 (almost 40 years ago!!) & went to university that fall. (NOT Ivy League -- an ordinary Canadian university, an hour away from where my family then lived.)  The women's movement had been a presence all throughout my youth and teenage years -- the Equal Rights Amendment had just been defeated in the U.S. a few years earlier -- so feminism was part of my consciousness -- things were starting to change -- but slowly. To give just one example, this was the era of what was then known as "jiggle TV" -- think "Charlie's Angels" and "Three's Company" and Daisy Duke. It was long before Anita Hill (that's a whole other set of memories...!), workplace and campus harassment policies, "no means no" and #MeToo.

I spent all four years of my undergrad career living in an all-girls dorm, connected to a larger dorm that was half coed & half all-guys by a third building that housed (among other things) the administration office and the cafeteria where we all ate. Fraternities and sororities were not a big thing at my university, but at most of the residences on campus, a rowdy party atmosphere prevailed. Helicopter parents were unheard of in those days and seldom seen on campus. There were no personal computers, Internet or cellphones. I telephoned my parents once a week, usually on Sunday nights, when rates were cheaper (long distance was expensive!).  Not everyone had TVs.  I had a 12-inch black & white set with rabbit ears that picked up three or four local stations. Just a very few students had colour TVs -- I remember the one who did on my floor dragging her set into the lounge so we could all watch the infamous "Who shot JR?" episode of "Dallas" together in colour.  :)

Guys and girls roamed in & out of each others' rooms at all hours. "Overnight guests" were not unheard of.  There were beer bashes every Friday afternoon (50 cents for a beer ticket, if I remember correctly), and dances & parties, somewhere on campus, every Friday &/or Saturday night, with pre-parties and after-parties in dorm lounges and rooms. The drinking age was 18 (kids coming from places where the legal age was 19 or 21 went wild). Bar-sized mini-refrigerators were not uncommon in dorm rooms, but some of the guys had full-sized refrigerators, stocked with beer that they sold to other students.  (Others who didn't have fridges kept cases on the windowsills in the wintertime -- a natural refrigerator/freezer!)  They made furniture out of the empty cases. Some people grew marijuana plants in their rooms -- not many, but I did see them.

The movie "Animal House" had been released the previous year, and it both reflected the atmosphere I found at university, and influenced it. (Yes, I went to a few toga parties!). I can only remember one near-food fight at the cafeteria, where a couple of dinner rolls got tossed around... but I do remember witnessing many "beltings," in which unfortunate students would be dragged over to the conveyor belt which carried our trays of used dishes into the kitchen, tossed on, held down and stuffed through the opening.

There were also "shaftings." Most of the victims were guys from the other dorm, but that building was just three storeys and had no elevators (that I remember)(it was built in 1912, and this was before mandatory accommodations for people with disabilities) -- so these took place at our girls' dorm, which was built in the early 1960s, with nine floors and two elevators. The victim (usually a guy, although I remember at least one girl) would be stripped to his underwear, tied to a chair and covered with shaving cream & lipstick, sent up in the elevator, and then down, with stops on every floor, where both girls & guys would be waiting with garbage bins full of water to throw in (and cameras to record the event -- I have a few such photos in my collection...!). (My parents once arrived to pick me up in the aftermath of one of these "shaftings." You can imagine their reactions...!) Everyone would pitch in afterward to help clean up the mess (fortunately, we had a very good-natured caretaker), but needless to say, all that water was not great for the elevators & repair crews would often have to be called in.

Once a year, usually sometime in the late winter/early spring, there would be a raid on the girls' dorm. Not a panty raid (although I do remember one of those, and seeing dozens of pairs of women's underwear strung across the cafeteria dining hall afterward). There were pass keys floating around (Lord only knows how many...) that gave the user access to all the rooms in the building, and once a year, the administration would look the other way (!!) & they would be used.

Each raid was elaborately planned.  There was actually a list you could ask your proctor/residence assistant to put you on, if you absolutely objected and did not want to "take part" -- although the pressure to "be a good sport" was enormous. Consequently, the "no raid" list was usually pretty small, maybe just a few girls on each floor.

An advance party would be sent over in the wee small hours of the morning -- typically after 2 or 3 a.m. -- to roll up rugs,  move lounge furniture out of the way, and fill all the bathtubs up with freezing cold water. (We had common bathrooms for the entire floor -- a big bathroom with several toilet cubicles & sinks, a separate shower room with several shower cubicles, and two separate tub rooms.) Often, someone going to the washroom or up late studying would hear the tubs running, or see the rolled-up rugs -- or some sympathetic guy would call a female friend -- and she would call a few friends to warn them, who would call a few friends... if you woke up to the sound of phones ringing all over the floor, you knew what was about to happen (and had a short window of time to prepare yourself... imagine if you slept in the nude??).  One year, my room had a view of the hallway that ran along the front of the third building, connecting our two dorms -- and I witnessed the daunting sight of hundreds of guys running through it towards us. Yikes.  The sound of hundreds of thundering footsteps and loud male voices would get louder.... Resistance was futile.

Once the guys reached your floor (both by elevator and up the stairwells), they'd use the passkeys. A half-dozen or so of them would haul you out of bed, drag you out of your room and down the hallway to the tub rooms and dump you unceremoniously in the tub of cold water. Most girls refused to submit without a fight, and the guys got almost as soaked as we did. As with shaftings, both guys and girls would pitch in after each raid to mop up, although I'm sure there was still a mess waiting for the caretaker & maids when they arrived to work that morning.

I only took part in one raid. In first year, my roommate was married (!) (long story) and her husband was NOT impressed when he found out about the raid. He installed a deadbolt lock on our door, and the night of the raid, we used it and sheltered several of our floormates in our room. We yelled to the guys trying to open our door that the door was bolted & they weren't going to get in, and they finally gave up. (Two years later, I wound up in a room next door to that room -- the deadbolt had been removed, but the hole my roomie's husband had drilled into the door frame for it remained.) In second year, I was sick in bed with the flu. It was a stroke of luck that I was good friends with the ringleader of the group that burst into my room. I pleaded with him that I was sick, really sick, and really not up to this. I guess I must have looked & sounded pretty pathetic because they actually retreated, closed the door & left me alone!  Third year I got dumped in the tub -- but not before joining the other girls from my floor to lay in wait & douse the guys with wastepaper baskets full of water first (if we were going to get wet, so were they...!).  :)  By fourth year, I'd had enough & added my name to the "no raid" list -- and was left alone. (Nevertheless, I still didn't get much sleep because of all the commotion going on outside my door...!)

I imagine (I hope!!) these raids have long since gone the way of the dodo bird. (The coed/guys' dorm was decommissioned as a residence a few years ago, and is now home to the school of music!)  The raid was a "tradition" and supposedly in the spirit of "fun" -- but the idea that the administration would turn a blind eye to such antics (effectively sanctioning such behaviour) was somewhat disturbing/unnerving to more than few of us, even in those less enlightened times. One girl once commented how easy it would be, in all the noise & chaos, for some guy with dishonourable intentions to use the pass key -- & then close & lock the door behind him. I'm sure she wasn't the first person to have those thoughts.

Because there was a darker side to campus life that surfaced periodically.

Fortunately, the really dark stuff was not something I ever experienced, and seldom heard about, but I did see & experience things that made me uncomfortable.

There was the "three-man lift" trick, which I saw performed every fall at a big "beer & skits" gathering during frosh month. One guy claims he can lift three people, single-handed. He offers to demonstrate and asks for three "volunteers" -- two guys, who may or may not be in on the joke, and one unsuspecting victim -- a frosh/freshman, sometimes a guy, but also sometimes a girl. They lie flat on the floor, arms linked, with the victim in the middle -- helpless to do anything as the guy takes his beer & pours it down the front of his or her pants.  I only avoided becoming the victim of this humiliating prank because I was warned by my proctor/residence assistant not to volunteer or go along with it.

There were the older guys who preyed on the incoming frosh/freshmen girls every fall. (Unfortunately, I had some experience with this.)  They'd pick you up at a party, stick to you like glue, make out with you in your room or theirs afterwards (depending on the roommate situation), disappear until they saw you at the next party (seldom ask you out on an actual date)... and eventually (when they got what they wanted -- or got bored when they didn't), unceremoniously dump you.  Then you'd see them the next September doing exactly the same thing to yet another innocent frosh girl.

There were guys who would follow me around at parties and stick to me like leeches even when I made it clear (I thought??) that I wasn't interested.  Shortly before I met dh, I met one guy who shoved his tongue down my throat after a couple of dances at a party. Then he started showing up at my table in the cafeteria every day, and hanging around my room. Then he started calling me. When I asked how he'd gotten my number, he confessed he'd looked at the dial when he'd been in my room (we used to have our phone numbers written in the middle of the dial). At a dorm outing to see "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," he plunked himself down beside me, uninvited.  It soon became quite apparent he had no interest in watching the movie. I did (I hadn't seen it before). I had long since decided he was not for me, and he didn't seem to be taking the hint. He finally got the point, though, when I elbowed him the ribs, hissed, "Cut it out!" and then pointedly ignored him when the lights finally came up and everyone began leaving. A couple of nights later, in what I assume was an act of attempted revenge, he tried to penny the door to my room shut as I slept inside. I heard my doorknob rattle, woke up with a start & started yelling, "Who's there??" loud enough to wake up my next-door neighbour.  He fled, mission unaccomplished, leaving a few pennies lying on the floor in front of my door. (I knew it was him, because he'd told me about how he and some of his floormates had done the same thing as a prank on someone else.) (He found someone else at the next party who found his attentions more welcome, and ignored me from then on. Good riddance...!) (I wrote about this incident, in part, in a previous post, here.)

There were lurid prank calls.

There was the guy (actually someone I'd known in high school) who got my name in an inter-floor Secret Santa exchange -- and gave me a copy of Playgirl magazine.

There were whispered stories about a drunken guy who seduced a drunken girl in the bathroom while his floormates listened at the door.

Perhaps the most serious incident I can remember:  There was a golf course that bordered the university and separated it from the highway where many kids lived in off-campus apartment buildings. There was a well-worn path between a hedge and a chain-link fence along the border of the golf course, and many students would take a shortcut through there en route to classes and then home again later. (It was also the fastest and easiest route to a popular off-campus bar.)  One fall -- I think it was when I was in my third or fourth year -- several female students were attacked by a guy who would lay in wait for them at the end of the path. They were easy prey, effectively trapped there in a leafy tunnel with no easy way out.

Word spread about what was happening -- there were stories in the newspaper -- and all the girls from both dorms were summoned to a meeting.  I don't remember anyone telling us about what action was being taken to ensure our safety -- or even any tips on what we could do ourselves.  I do remember an earnest young woman from a local women's group, who reminded us that our bodies belonged to us,  that we had the right to say no. She told us a story about a date who pressured her into staying at his apartment overnight, and how shitty she felt afterwards. I felt bad for her, and I agreed with what she had to say (I'd read enough to have already absorbed that message, but I don't ever remember someone specifically delivering it to me & my peers before), but it didn't feel particularly relevant to the specific situation at hand. (The girls who were attacked may have said "no" but I don't think the guy was listening.)  What I wanted to know was what the police and the the university were doing to find this guy and to protect others from being attacked. That was not made clear. And even then, I also remember wondering why just the girls were getting the talk -- how about the guys?  Shouldn't someone be saying something to them too?? (Of course, they weren't the ones being attacked.)  Nope, the onus was solely on us.

Times were different then -- much different. I cannot imagine that students today would get away with half the stuff we used to do. (I hope?) It was all (mostly?) good fun... at least, I think that was the intention. I have a lot of great memories from that time, and made friends I still have today. (Not to mention I met my husband there!) 

But when I look back on those days now, I do sometimes shudder at what people got away with, and how naive and trusting -- and very, very lucky -- I was.  There was a lot of alcohol and a lot of kids, living away from home for the first time, getting very drunk and doing very dumb things.

For example, I used to walk home by myself from parties on the other side of campus, late at night, through the underground tunnel system that connected different buildings to each other (and protected students from the bitter cold during the winter). I knew I was taking a risk walking home by myself, whether above or below ground. But I still did it. (Speedwalking all the way...!) Even back then, there was a campus escort system, but nobody I knew ever used it.

I remember one time when I was the only girl in a room with a dozen guys and a whole lot of beer. It may have entered my mind that that maybe I shouldn't be in that situation -- but it was hard to believe that anything bad might happen to me, because I thought of these guys as my friends. (Plus it was still early in the evening, the door was wide open & I didn't stay very long.) I knew some guys were jerks, but I knew most of these guys pretty well. They were nice guys, and I trusted them. I don't think I ever seriously considered that they might do something bad to me.

Luckily for me, they were, and they didn't. But not all girls were as lucky as me.


  1. This article by Jessica Valenti explains the situation in 1982 quite well:

  2. Two thoughts. The first is that I loved getting this snippet of university life in Canada, at about the same time I was at university here. Included in that was the thought, "you had a phone in your room?!" We had to use the communal one in the lounge across the hall.

    The second thought was that it is amazing what we put up with, and what was considered acceptable in those days. The raids sound outrageous. As you say, peer pressure to participate must have been strong. And there was the same pressure as today, in that if anything bad happened, the blame would go on the woman. (What were you wearing? Did you lead him on? Lighten up, it's a joke. Etc)

    Fortunately in NZ (or my university at least), it was (and is still) more common to spend only the first year in the hostels, meet friends, then go flatting (share apartments/houses) for the remainder of our time at university.

  3. We did have phones in our room, or at least the phone outlets, although I don't know anyone who relied on the payphone downstairs. Every fall, there would be a huge lineup at the phone company store at the nearby mall. I don't think you could buy your own phones back then, you had to rent them. Most students got the basic black dial model because it was cheapest. :) I know it was different some years earlier, back in the 60s!

    There was a lot of attrition from the residences after first year to go live in apartments. By fourth year, there were generally just a few of us still hanging around, although there were perqs... there were a handful of "suites" in our residence building, generally reserved for the head resident assistant/proctor, the student association president, etc., and a couple of lucky senior students. I was one of the die-hards who stuck it out for all four years :) and I was rewarded with one of these rooms in 4th year. It was slightly larger than your typical dorm room -- basically the size of a double room with its own bathroom built in. :)

  4. Another article reminding us of how different things were in the early 1980s:

  5. It's funny, so many of the things you talked about were still commonplace when I started university 20 years after you did. And almost 20 years after I started college, now working at a university, I hear about many of the same things. This isn't ok. It wasn't in ok in the late 70s when you started college, or in the late 90s when I did, and it still isn't ok. Sadly, in the current climate, I'm not sure things will change 20 years from now either.

  6. I love this post -- so interesting the things that are the same about college in Canada in the late 70's early 80's and college in NY in the mid-90's... although those raids! They sound terrible. And the shaftings... We had a lot of drinking, a lot of wacky and strange things (although a lot of it was small group, like Ouija board nights, scrabble nights, and one year, an RA hosted a "porn night" where we watched horrible 80s movie spoof porn films, not for titillation but as a laugh, although I can't IMAGINE that happening now!). I feel like you, that I was lucky not to have experienced the darker side of things myself, although I knew people who were date raped. I don't remember attacks in the night so much, but I remember people dying as a result of too much alcohol mixed with a stream nearby. :( That meeting after the attacks in the leafy pathway makes me so mad -- of course it's about what you can do to prevent it, not what a man could do to not violate and attack women. Arghhhh. I can only hope that one day those meetings will be obsolete, but also that men are taught not to rape more than women are taught not to "ask for it." Argh.

  7. I got all of my drinking over with in my first 2 years of college (I didn't drink in high school more than once or twice and not to excess, and once I moved back home for my 3rd year, I rarely drank), so I have some stories. But what struck me while reading your stories about college is the time where I was incredibly drunk and decided to go to the convenience store across from the campus (about 2 blocks from my dorm). My friends sent a chaperone with me to make sure nothing happened to me. Which was nice, because I apparently ran into campus security while I was out being a fool. I often think about people who have looked out for me and my safety throughout my life (and there have been several such instances, although this was one of the few drunken ones), but I never really considered my college foolishness and the people who were kind enough to save me from myself.

  8. Ugh. I was in the Greek system, which was by and large a really great experience for me. I went to a huge university and got stuck in the dorm for academically focused students (eg: people who did nothing but study) freshman year. I rushed simply to make friends my sophomore year. My friends I met in my sorority are still among my best friends today. We meet up every year for a girl's weekend.

    That said, there were plenty of close calls and like you said too, I was just lucky a lot. I also had a boyfriend most of the time, which helped me avoid some scarier scenarios, probably. The scariest college experience (which I think I blogged about) was when my friends and I had come back from a concert late at night, and were walking through the deserted plaza when a guy in a van -- with a nude stocking pulled over his head -- chased us. We were on foot and ran from the street, and he drove down an actual staircase following us. It was terrifying! We luckily reached a building with an open door, and slammed it after us, and called the police from the pay phone inside the building.

    Those "raids" sound pretty bad...