Shawn, you made my day by asking. 😀 You can be my favorite this week. Ask, and you shall receive. This is the edited version. I can’t find the version where I tried to determine how many people in the WC were just talking about sex, versus how many were actually having sex. I did a survey very very late one night to compile my data. The survey consisted of me asking the three or four other people who were there their opinions on who was a virgin and who was not. No research ever conducted was more shady (or more entertaining). The verdict came up at about an even split, resulting in the quote “the virgins lose by one!” and the discovery that Star Trek geeks have at least as much sex as the rest of the world. 😉 Somehow, those bit didn’t seem worth turning in for the assignment, so out they went. Oh well.
Sex and Gender Roles in the Writing Center
The Writing Center is an entire subculture of college life. In my semester-end commentary for Topics in Composition, I noted that the writing center “seems to be a refuge for nerds.” I meant this in an entirely complimentary way, as I myself am a proud owner of said title. The Writing Center frequently embodies everything you expect of a college after reading the shiny brochures they send high school seniors: Students lounge about reading or working on computers, sip coffee and occasionally take a time-out to ponder some minor philosophical point. It’s brilliant, it’s random, it’s even inspiring. There are, however, times (especially after hours) when the Writing Center takes on a slightly less sophisticated approach to life: Guildenstern* and Polonius* are involved in an animated discussion of the mating habits of TKEs, Lysander* is debating a trip to the ‘Drite, and Horatio* has climbed the pole in order to survey the chaos.
One afternoon, I sat at a Writing Center desk, working on a paper and minding my own business. Behind me, Lysander and Claudius* were talking about their respective reputations, and why neither of them can seem to find a girlfriend. “The other day,” Lysander declared, “Viola* asked if you and I were dating!” The “you and I” in question were Lysander and Claudius, who are both unquestionably (at least, if you know them) heterosexual men. Both men found this mistaken comment quite hilarious – it is not the first time Lysander has been mistaken for gay, and Claudius was amused to be inducted to that club.
What I realized at this point was how common such conversations are around the Writing Center. I long ago ceased being amazed at the nature of these conversations. Perhaps because we are an institute of learning, you would expect the conversations to remaine hinged around interpretations of Lorca or Freud, but there are days when conversations differ very little from what you might hear in Greene Hall in the early hours of the morning. Once away from the topics of academia, sex and alcohol become the preferred subjects, in that order. But why would such a group of intellectually oriented people be so fixated on such banal topics?
Sex and sexuality seems to be the primary focus of most of these off-topic discussions. Evidence of the fixation is easily apparent: pinned to the walls and taped to the tables are sheets of quotes – recorded moments of hilarity, entertaining and incriminating evidence preserved for an indefinite moment in time. Further inspection this particular afternoon revealed that over half the quotes on the wall were currently related to the subject of sex or nudity:
“I’m a sex goddess!”
“Hey Demetrius!* – what are you doing tonight?” Demetrius: “Not you.”
“What are you talking about?? EVERYBODY wants to see me naked!”
“Mom! Rosaline’s* trying to use me!”
“I can make any girl make porn noises.”
“I’m screwed because I can’t get screwed.”
“He’s well endowed, like a nice Iowa hog.”
“Abandon pants, all ye who enter here!”
Such comments may seem particularly surprising in conjunction with a sign taped to the front of the desk: “Thou shalt not be found in compromising positions whilst in the Writing Center.” The second of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Writing Center. It is not quite the mixed message it originally seems. Ten minutes of eavesdropping on any conversation will tell you that while no one plans to be caught in any compromising positions, no one has any problem talking about them. According to one consultant, “The two most frequently used words in the Writing Center [are] ‘paradigm’ and ‘ass.’”
Talking is what we do best. Although the writing center has obtained a reputation for being a central location for nerds and geeks, the consultants are eclectic and random, a sampling of people from every major and interest group, all thrown together because they share one common talent: conversation. It is this skill at the art of talking that allows us to relate to other students well enough to be of assistance to them in their writing endeavors. Through conversation, it also becomes possible for us to excel at all things; both the possible and the impossible are brought to life through the use of words, tone and inflection.
Perhaps this is the reason that the use of discussion, especially in this intellectual setting, provides something of a performance ritual for Writing Center consultants. American society today is highly disapproving of public, physical displays of male dominance. In many societies, there is an actual rite of passage which separates the men from the boys, if you will. Many tribal cultures (the Masai of Africa, for example,) use ritual and ceremony to celebrate the passage into manhood. A Masai man will spend months undergoing purification ceremonies before undergoing a ritual circumcision. Only at this point may he join the ranks of the morani (warrior class) where he may participate in cattle raids and take young girls as lovers.
Because cattle raiding and child molestation (Masai girls are allowed to have morani lovers until the age of puberty, but no later) are frowned upon by modern American society, our men must find ways to express their maturity and “manliness” in other, more socially acceptable ways. The men in the Writing Center are in a particularly unusual circumstance because their gender is so vastly outnumbered. For every male consultant, there are five female consultants, tipping the odds considerably in favor of the women should a difference of gender opinion happen to arise. In some respects, the men compete not only among themselves for attention and supremacy, but they must also compete with many of the women. It has been jokingly noted that there are more “alpha male” personalities among the female consultants than there are among the male consultants.
It is perhaps this factor exactly which is cause for frequent confusion on the part of outsiders concerning the sexual orientation of Writing Center men. Although Lysander and Claudius joked freely about being mistaken for homosexual, the problem is common to all the Writing Center men, and not all are able to take the confusion so lightly. Although our male consultants are currently all self-confidently heterosexual, they have all had their sexuality questioned – by both insiders and outsiders – at various points, regardless of physical appearance, nature of involvement on campus, or even presence of a steady girlfriend. Is there some quality unique to Writing Center men that makes them obvious targets for confusion?
“Of course,” Rosaline said in response to my question. “They’re intelligent men who are capable of function on a level above beer and partying.” Just so. Writing Center consultants are picked for these very traits. In order to work with such fragile issues as students’ self-expression, a consultant must possess a certain amount of articulation and human compassion – two traits frequently (and often mistakenly) associated with homosexuality in men.
Perhaps the recurrence of loud and enthusiastic discussion of sexual endeavors and aspirations are the way these men, trained in verbal expression and some degree of compassion, are able to affirm their true identities, both to anyone who will listen as well as to themselves. Because they don’t have a rite of passage to shape their societal identities, they must function within the parameters made acceptable by their circumstances.
While this masculinity affirmation theory may explain why male consultants are so prone to discussion of sex, it does not explain why the female consultants are every bit as likely to participate or even instigate such conversations. The very fact that we are at a liberal arts college may explain some of it; women expect to be treated as equals to men in all ways. The fact that we so vastly outnumber the men may have something to do with it as well. Where women might feel threatened to have a discussion of such bizarre topics – topics that are generally considered exclusively male fodder – in other situations, in the Writing Center, we feel safe. Safety in numbers, safety in environment, confidence in ourselves. We were hired to talk, so talk we will!
Interaction of men and women in the Writing Center is not limited to interaction on a singular basis. By this, I mean that there is a rather high rate of relationships that tend to develop between Writing Center consultants. Some days, it seems that we are something of an endogamous society (meaning that we tend to choose from our own, looking for potential mates among our own culture before looking elsewhere).
As this paper is being written, there are currently four dating couples within the writing center, one of which has plans to marry in the relatively near future. Over the past two years, there have been at least twelve proclaimed relationships (several of which involve the same people in different combinations.) One consultant proudly proclaimed that every relationship she’s had while at Coe has been with other consultants. Several others have realized, with varying degrees of alarm, that a vast majority of their relationships have also been within the Writing Center. “That’s really kind of frightening,” Guildenstern* muttered, after ticking off the “incestuous#” relationships he’s had over the past four years.
Is it a contradiction that the outside world has an overwhelming tendency to perceive our men as homosexual, while from the inside, we (at least, a certain factor of us) have a tendency to perceive them as ideal dating candidates? Mostly likely, reasons are the same. Especially among those who appreciate the Writing Center for its tendencies toward an academic atmosphere (aka, nerdiness,) there is also a logical tendency to look for such qualities in a potential mate (I use the term loosely). Those characteristics which make us appealing during the application process – the capacity to make intelligent conversation, original thought, willingness and ability to express ourselves – are also those characteristics we tend to look for in friends, and are, by the transitive properties of logic, the same qualities we look for in a potential mate.
There are, of course, those who believe that incestuous relationships within the Writing Center are something less than good ideas. In the words of several consultants who have refrained from incestuous dating:
“[Writing Center men are] all kinda strange in an alarming kind of way. I don’t think I could handle that much… eech.”
“Just think what would happen if they spawned…. ugh! Those kids would be such dorks…”
“Incestuous conferences take a terrible turn…”
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. How we relate to each other and to the world outside the Writing Center is entirely relative.
Adams, Justin. “Writing Center Observations.” Assignment, Topics in Composition: Dr. Robert Marrs. April 2001.
Blauer, Ettagale. “Mystique of the Masai.” Annual Editions, Anthropology 01/02. McGraw-Hill/Dushkin: Connecticut. 2001: 73-79.
Dickson, Christa. “wit mcnuggets.” Surrideo. http://www.public.coe.edu/~crdickso/quote.html (4 January 2001).
Hooley, Kenneth. “Two Hours in the Writing Center.” Assignment, Topics in Composition: Dr. Robert Marrs. April 2001.
Wenk, Laura. “Chaos and Pandemonium: Free Time in the Writing Center.” Assignment, Topics in Composition: Dr. Robert Marrs. April 2001.
Wenk, Laura. “December Commentary.” Assignment, Topics in Composition: Dr. Robert Marrs. December 2000.
*Names have been changed to protect the guilty, but I must give credit where it is due: Quotes and input are thanks to (in no particular or incriminating order) Christa Dickson, Scott Fine, Lee Sanders, Justin Adams, Chrystal Gant, Amy Burgin, Mary Brunius, Laura Wenk, Brandon Kendhammer, Kenneth “Hobz” Hooley, Krista Geier, Shara Stough, Nicole Krueger, Jeremy Seifert, Laura Farmer, Lin Prisbey, Warren Clarida, Chris Sheppard and Jaime Crichfield.
* Names from Shakespearean plays will be used to protect the identities of those individuals involved with this research.
# The term “incestuous,” applicable to conferences between consultants, makes a disturbingly easy transition to application to relationships. No inference is being made in any way to relationships between actual blood relatives.