SWUG language shows poor perception of culture

I recently received an email from a girlfriend with a link to an article in The Cut, an online section of New York Magazine geared towards young women. The article enlightened me on a new phrase, “SWUG.”

This term, short for “Senior Washed Up Girl,” was originally coined at Yale but has since made its way into more mainstream college lingo. According to the article, entitled “Meet the SWUGs at Yale” (The Cut, 04.10.13,) the phrase describes a female college senior who rejects college life with an “I don’t give a f***” attitude, because she finds herself suddenly dissatisfied with the school’s straight male population.

In the “wise” words of a Yale undergraduate, being a SWUG involves, “…the slow, wine-filled decline of female sexual empowerment as we live out our college glory days. Welcome to the wonderful world of ladies who have given up on boys because they don’t so much empower as frustrate, satisfy as agitate.”

In other words, while she might appear to be “over” college and its pervasive hookup culture, she is in fact still yearning and desperate for male attention and is jealous of the underclassmen girls who tend to receive it. Additionally, the article noted that as soon as she graduates college, this girl will likely become romantically involved with older men, simultaneously foregoing her militant apathy and conforming once again to the social scene that surrounds her.

I immediately took issue with the term SWUG, in addition to the way it was presented in both The Cut’s article and in almost all other online publication I found on the subject. The mainstream discourse not only normalized (and even took pleasure in) this degrading term, but also failed to embed the SWUG phenomenon in a larger social critique of sexual dynamics for young people.

All of the blame went on the women for their desperation, inadequacy, lack of sex appeal and hypocrisy. No attention was given to an analysis of why a heterosexual female college senior might want to adopt an “I don’t give a f***” attitude in the first place; in fact, the article condescendingly notes that saying this is just a shallow attempt at sounding more interesting than her peers. If The Cut were to really unpack this term in the context of its broader culture, we would get a much more complex picture of what’s going on—one that would not start and conclude by blaming or objectifying young women.

I write this article after four years of experiencing both enjoyment and frustration with Vassar’s dating culture. In addition to my scholastic endeavors and enriching social life, being around my male peers for four years has ultimately made me feel all the more enlightened, powerful, and proud to be a young single woman.

However, I think that the term SWUG is born out of a problematic and prevalent dynamic in the romance scene for people my age.

Within this hookup culture lies a troubling paradox for young women: on the one hand, we are encouraged to participate in it in order to feel “empowered” or validated through sexual encounters; on the other hand, these encounters are so often disempowering for their participants, especially (straight) women. These disempowering aspects of hookup culture often include (but are by no means limited to) feeling pressured into having sex before really getting to know or trust your partner, a lack of reciprocity when it comes to oral sex, or a lack of honest communication during or after a hookup.

It seems that within the hyper-sexed culture of college, anyone who aligns herself with feminist values faces somewhat of a dilemma when it comes to acting on her beliefs. Given this tension, it makes a lot of sense to me that girls my age will cycle through engagement and disengagement with the surrounding social scene in the search to find a balance that will ultimately feel the most empowering. But just because we are figuring out how to negotiate our ideals with reality, do we need to be called hypocritical? Do we need to be ridiculed, or asked to ridicule ourselves?

What I am asking for, first and foremost, is to not be humiliated by and blamed for something that is a product of a widespread and problematic cultural phenomenon of casual, often alcohol-induced hookups. While this may seem like a lighthearted statement, I believe that the seemingly casual dynamics of hookup culture can potentially lead to something very dangerous.

In the middle of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I advocate that every sexist action—from the use of the term SWUG, to a lack of mutual respect during consensual sex, to non consensual sex—be understood as part of a process that contributes to violence against women and the normalization of that violence. While we may laugh at, dismiss, or fail to recognize individual incidents of misogyny as they occur on a daily basis, that doesn’t change the fact that women on Vassar’s campus have been and will continue to be victims of sexual assault.

I ask, therefore, that we interrogate and challenge every instance that we witness, as both men and women in this community, that blames and objectifies those who experience a lack of respect, especially when it comes to the topic of sex.

Ultimately, any woman (or person) should feel that she has the agency in a situation to decide whom she wants to date or sleep with and on what terms. If her interactions with men mean she feels compelled to be “over” college, then shouldn’t we be interrogating those very interactions rather than ridiculing her for deciding to disengage?

And after she graduates, let us not judge her when and if she decides to participate in a similar social scene outside of the walls of Vassar. In the same vein, if she decides she wants to sleep around and be sexually interactive with multiple partners, then so be it, and let us not judge her for wanting to satisfy her desires in the same way that men have historically been encouraged to do. For if we judge her for these personal choices, it makes it all the more logical to judge her when she is a victim of sexual assault.

And if we do that, not only are we the hypocrites, but we ultimately perpetuate the disempowering and violent aspects of this troubling culture.


—Mara Gerson ‘13 is a Studio Arts major. at Vassar College


  1. Way to drive a powerful point home. Rape culture is insidious and this article roots out causes of serious harm.

  2. really great job. i was trying to put words to exactly what unnerved me about this term and the nymag article, and you hit the nail on the head.

  3. First, I followed a link here from the original article, and I genuinely hope to get a response despite commenting on something so old. Please respond to this comment if you are still monitoring the comments on your article – I will get an email alert, then come write a longer response.

    I’m a 2015 student at Penn, and I agree with much of what you say, but would be curious to hear how you feel about my insights (btw, you got it about 100x better than the original article). As a teaser – I think you need to first & foremost do a better job of delineating & defining. SWUG is used in a number of ways – I think we can agree that one of the group of girls in the article seemed to wield it in an almost unobjectionable way, one group used it only derogatorily, and the author of the book (tell me if you agree) seemed to try to reclaim it from insult, but failed. Your explanation hasn’t left room for the first group, and that is what I’m interested in discussing. You’re neglecting the fact that agency w/in a social circle isn’t really a relevant topic, because social circles are opt-in.

    I have a host of ideas marginally-to-tangentially related to this, so let me know if you’re interested in a stimulating discussion. Who knows, maybe we end up like Marx & Engels. Or maybe I write this response because of study-drug abuse and then forget about caring so much in a few hours?

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