There was a time when not having sex consumed a very small part of Janie Fredell’s life, but that, of course, was back in Colorado Springs. It seemed to Fredell that almost no one had sex in Colorado Springs. Her hometown was extremely conservative, and as a good Catholic girl, she was annoyed by all the fundamentalist Christians who would get in her face and demand, as she put it to me recently, “You have to think all of these things that we think.” They seemed not to know that she thought many of those things already. At her public high school, everyone, “literally everyone,” wore chastity rings, Fredell recalled, but she thought the practice ridiculous. Why was it necessary, she wondered, to signify you’re not doing something that nobody is doing?
And then Fredell arrived at Harvard. Sitting in a Cambridge restaurant not long ago, she told me that people back home called it “godless, liberal Harvard.” Some discouraged her from going, but Fredell went anyway, arriving in the fall of 2005. She wanted to study government, she said, maybe become a lawyer, and she knew that “people take you more seriously as a Harvard student.”
From the start, she told me, she was awed by the diversity of the place, by the intensity, by the constant buzz of ideas. There were so many different kinds of people at Harvard, most of them trying to change the world, and everyone trying to figure out what they thought of everyone else. “Harvard really puts pressure on you to define who you are,” Fredell said, and she loved everything about Harvard, except the sex.
Sex, as she put it, was not even “anything I’d ever thought about” when, as a freshman, she was educated in safe-sex practices. What she was told was the sort of thing found in a Harvard pamphlet called “Empowering You”: “put the condom on before the penis touches the vagina, mouth, or anus. . . . Use a new condom if you want to have sex again or if you want to have a different type of sex.”
Fredell began to understand she was in “a culture that says sex is totally O.K.” When a new boyfriend came to her, expressing desire, she managed to “stick to my guns,” she said, but there were “uncouth and socially inept” men, as she considered them, all around, and observing the rituals of her new classmates, Fredell couldn’t help being alarmed. “The hookup culture is so absolutely all-encompassing,” she said. “It’s shocking! It’s everywhere!”