As I’m riding in a bus filled with rowdy college kids en route to a fraternity formal, more than excitement and even anticipation, I’m feeling relief that my date isn’t some stranger who was desperate for a last-minute setup. My level of stress about this weekend is therefore much less than that of many of the other girls who have ambivalently accepted an invitation. On the surface, formals are simply Greek-sponsored events that give fraternity brothers and their dates a chance to get out of St. Louis for a weekend of fun. Sounds harmless, right? Maybe for some, but formals carry with them more than live bands, dance floors and open bar venues. For a large portion of those attending formals, the added pressures and expectations of a pending hookup aren’t easily avoided.
It is a given, for instance, that if a boy asks you to his formal, you will be sleeping in a bed with him. The implications of this are quite obvious. He pays for the formal, the meals and the hotel room, generally expecting something in return. I find this logic to be absolutely ridiculous. The idea that when a girl says “yes” to formal she is in effect saying “yes” to anything and everything her date has planned for the weekend is not just ignorant; it’s degrading.
I do not mean to intend that guys, or even the more specific fraternity brothers, are solely to blame. Girls play an equal role in accepting the traditions that revolve around formals as uncontested rules. When we fail to question the greater implications of such expectations, we are only further promoting the behaviors we hope to avoid. If you go to a formal and don’t want to hook up with a guy and do it anyway, if you fake sick instead of just saying “no,” or if you feel guilty for not giving your date what he wants, you are only enabling an ideology that is clearly outdated and even immoral in its nature.
I have admittedly played a role in perpetuating this fraternity formal mentality. Once at a formal, my friend felt uncomfortable sleeping in a bed with her date. “Just do it for one night,” I told her. “He brought you here, he paid for the room, and he doesn’t want to share a bed with a guy.” In a not-so-subtle sense, I was telling her to suck it up, to put her needs below those of her date. I was sending the message that her feelings, therefore, were less important than his. This sexist attitude is at the core of every stereotype against women and every abusive relationship. If our feelings are less significant, then we are less significant, and if we are less significant, then we give men even greater incentives to take advantage of us. It is not a stretch to say that when we put aside our own priorities, even for one weekend, we are only a close step away from more catastrophic forms of misogyny.
Boys can’t buy our emotions any more than they can buy our bodies. We say “yes” and then change our minds; we think we have feelings for someone and then realize it’s all wrong, and we agree to go to formal but still aren’t sure that we want to have sex. That doesn’t make us fickle girls—it makes us human.
I’ve apologized again and again for my advice on that night, and I still consider it one of my biggest regrets. What I should have said, and what I’ll say to all the girls invited to formals who are stressing over the events of the evening, is this.
Do what you want to do, and trust yourself. If you don’t want to sleep in that bed, don’t do it. If you don’t want to hook up with him, tell the truth. If he’s pissed and done with you and mad that he spent all this money and the girl he took isn’t going to have sex with him…he can go screw himself, literally. You are not alone. So many other girls and guys at that same formal are worrying about the same thing. If the pressure was off, if the sleeping arrangements weren’t predetermined, and if we stopped worrying about our end-of-the-night hookup, everyone would be having a lot more fun.
Formal doesn’t have to be a trap, though. There is no need to have a catch, a contracted clause, or even a simple expectation of a hookup. You can be a great date without sacrificing yourself. Just like we aren’t predictable, automated machines that can sign away two nights of our life without the slightest hesitation, I’m willing to bet that the same expectations place unwanted pressure on the many guys attending formals.
So, the next time a date tries to guilt you into sleeping with him, remember that it may be his formal but its still your choice. When you take away the fancy dresses and nice suits, you’re only left with a guy paying for a girl to have sex with him, and we all know what that’s called.