Do you remember your freshman-year self? I remember he was underprepared for the courses at Amherst. He was shocked by how much everyone drank. He occasionally cited his high school achievements when applying for on-campus jobs. They take as their premise that freshman year is different. The College treats freshmen differently because it knows, as I believe we all do intuitively, that freshman year is a time for growth.
We just got here. At the other end of the continuum is the senior. She knows how many drinks will get her drunk. She is writing a thesis or applying for jobs and on Wednesdays buys dry martinis, legally, at Monkey Bar. In all likelihood, the senior boy or girl has had more than a few college romances.
She knows what she wants from a hook-up or a relationship. She knows what the norms at Amherst are. He knows what to expect and, just as important, what not to. Thus in any sexual interaction between the senior and the freshman, the senior enters with more: The senior, in short, knows himself better than the freshman could ever hope to.
The senior has more power than the first-year, and always will. Why do we think power imbalance is a problem if both parties consent to it? We frown upon teacher-student relationships for precisely this reason. Granted, seniors are not teachers and sex is not painting.
But the essential insight is the same.
When these imbalances go wrong, they go very, very wrong. I am reluctant even to mention sexual assault, but it is too important to neglect.
A senior exploits the imbalance of power to his own benefit. Of course most senior men and women do not assault first-year men and women. Of course most senior-freshman hook-ups are consensual.
Sexual assault is different. But it is similar.
It shares with senior-freshman relationships a common root: I believe these circumstances are possible. But I believe they are exceedingly rare.
Far rarer than the hook-up scene at Amherst would suggest. I refuse to believe that the exceedingly large number of senior boy-freshman girl hook-ups is due to interpersonal chemistry. Perhaps I am mistaken. But I suspect in both cases less noble intentions are in play, and that worries me, and it should worry you. Others may argue, not without merit, that senior-freshman relationships can be beneficial for both parties.
The freshman nabs a cute older girl and a crash-course in dating at Amherst. Life is, in the end, about living and having experiences and making mistakes, and dating someone older than you can be a wild ride and a lot of fun. Being intimate with someone more experienced than you can be invigorating.
The senior-freshman relationship makes this possible. But consider the downside. Consider the imbalance of power, the uninformed freshman, the wizened senior.
Consider the possibilities the freshman never sees. Imagine the feeling you get when you think of Cougar Formal, then imagine it reverse: Why does this thought make us uncomfortable?