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Meet the SWUGs of Yale: Women ‘Washed Up’ at 21

Photo: Jocelyn Bain Hogg/VII/Corbis

They call it a “dayger” (a daytime rager) and the one at Yale’s Sigma Nu last weekend was huge. Every surface of the frat house seemed coated with a sticky layer of spilled drinks and grime. Young Yale men, many wearing ties and jackets, others wearing much less, stumbled up stairs, gripping plastic jugs of generic booze. True to their fraternal creed, “To believe in the life of love,” the brothers of Sigma Nu were graciously hosting scores of female classmates.

Yale senior Raisa Bruner was not one of said women in attendance, because she’s kind of tired of the free-wheeling frat hookup culture that’s so compelling to younger students. The guys know this about women her age, she says, and so they don’t generally hit on senior girls. If she went to Sigma Nu, she’d watch her male classmates focus on that infinitely more fun classmate, the female freshman.

Bruner is a self-identified SWUG — a senior washed up girl. As she explained in a recent feature in the Yale Daily News, to be a SWUG is to embrace “the slow, wine-filled decline of female sexual empowerment as we live out our college glory days. Welcome to the world of the ladies who have given up on boys because they don’t so much empower as frustrate, satisfy as agitate.”

Photo: yaledailynews.com

She and her fellow SWUGs are women who don’t bother dressing up for class, or even for fancy parties (though they might still attend them), don’t seek out meaningful (or even just sexual) relationships, spend weekends at their shared homes drinking in the company of other self-identified SWUGs, and feel utter apathy about their personal lives — all at the age of 21. “Whatever empowerment we’re supposed to be deriving from this version of the feminist moment is looking pretty thin on the ground,” she explains.

Bruner’s was only the most recent in a series of essays by female seniors about being a SWUG; all year, the identity has become a pervasive part of student life at Yale. The concept isn’t quite new, as it seems to have been invented at Cornell and imported to Yale in 2010, but it’s still only in New Haven’s confines that it has become a celebrated social badge and meme for Facebook and Twitter posts. Bruner conducted an informal survey this year of 135 students and found 43 percent considered themselves SWUGs at least some of the time. (The SWUB — a male version — has also been thrown around, but only as a casual joke among SWUGs.)

Indeed, if you visit campus, every student knows what a SWUG is, even if they can’t agree on the definition. Sophomore Greg Kelley told me that “it’s a girl who has been through the meat grinder. A seasoned veteran who knows the ropes.” Senior Richard Gilliland put down the 30-pack of PBR he was carrying and took a moment to formulate his response.“It means different things to different people,” he said. “I’m not sure there’s one coherent overriding concept to SWUG.” Carl Carbone is a co-owner of Box 63, a popular student bar, and sees “SWUGiness” as “very much alcohol-fueled. I see behavior I wouldn’t expect from some of these senior girls,” he says.

Chloe Drimal was the first of Yale’s class of 2013 to write about being a SWUG in the Yale Daily News. (Before that, it had been mentioned a few times in other student publications and on its own blog, swugdiaries.com.) And Drimal — a gregarious lacrosse player who was hoarse from screaming announcements during a game — says she and her friends have been amused by the concept of a SWUG since well before they were old enough to be one, embracing the term in a way that is more playful self-deprecation than complex social critique. As Drimal decoded the SWUG:

She’s the girl who promised she would never hook up with someone younger than her but now finds herself texting sophomore boys who unavoidably turn her down. She thinks this is funny. She thinks about getting a vibrator; she may already have a vibrator. It may be better than that sophomore boy.

For Drimal and her friends, being part of this group is a license to drink too much and allows for ill-advised sexual flirtations, even if frat boys aren’t as dreamy-seeming as they once were. “This is liberating,” she tells the Cut. “Instead of being about boys, it’s about friends. We want to participate in life around us, whatever that may be.” Perhaps most scandalous of all, this behavior is a great excuse for not studying as hard as they once did. In other words, things college seniors of both sexes do every day at schools across the nation. The only difference is that at Yale — in the pressure cooker of the Ivy League — what you might’ve called senioritis has been reframed as a name-brand concept, a viral phenomenon.

“SWUG life is a campus-wide narrative and a marker of identity,” says Akbar Ahmed, a junior at Yale and an editor at the Yale Daily News. “It couldn’t happen at a school that wasn’t as high pressure as Yale. Calling yourself a SWUG is a way to justify not having to try so hard anymore.”

Of course, the SWUGs aren’t actually washed up. Three months from now, they will be the bright-eyed newcomers in New York or Los Angeles, the 22-year-olds dancing on banquettes in nightclubs, who still drink too much and still flirt with boys. They’ll go from envying freshmen girls to being the envy of older women. That dayger at Sigma Nu is going to feel very far away.

But for the few months left of their senior year, the SWUGs of Yale can embrace an identity that gives them the joy of momentary apathy. It allows them to spend time with other SWUGs and reject the marriage hunt that Susan Patton proposed in her now-infamous opinion letter to The Daily Princetonian. SWUG life is one last chance at youthful rebellion before the soft cushion of college is yanked out from under them.

Yale SWUG Michelle Taylor wants to move to Brooklyn after she graduates next month. She is planning to eat nothing but jam and pickles for awhile so that she can collect the empty mason jars to use as wine cups. (I asked her if she was joking about this; she wasn’t.) She says being a SWUG means dropping the façade of social performance. It means acknowledging that while younger girls may get all the attention, senior year can still be the best year. Because there’s a certain freedom in just not caring.

“For the SWUG is not a type but an ethos,” Taylor explains. “It is the Dionysian response to the cruel brevity of our bright college years. The SWUG seeks oblivion in the face of despair, love in the face of alienation, whiskey in the face of moving back in with your parents who don’t have a liquor cabinet.”

Not that Taylor plans to completely leave that SWUG ethos behind when she finishes Yale. After all, similar attitudes might serve to enrich her life as a young single woman once she moves to New York City this summer.

As she puts it, “Saying ‘I don’t give a fuck’ at the right moment, it makes you a more complex person.”