By Emma Eisler
I’m sitting next to him in bed, hickey blooming on my neck, when he says the dreaded words: “I’m actually fiscally conservative.” A chill runs down my spine. I feel my stomach clench and scan the room for the nearest trashcan in case I need to vomit. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. It’s not like he’s my boyfriend, I remind myself. So what? He doesn’t believe in social programs or redistribution of wealth–most likely because his own family benefits from capitalism. At least he isn’t outwardly racist or homophobic. Probably.
I realize this is a pretty low standard.
Later, I find out from a mutual friend over lunch at Okenshields that Mr. Fiscally Conservative also would’ve voted for Trump if he’d been old enough. My palms begin to sweat. A ball of dread forms in my stomach. Fiscal conservatism—that damn gateway drug! How could he not have told me before? But why do I really feel so betrayed? We aren’t in love, definitely aren’t getting married, and how much does it really matter which presidential candidate the guy whose dick I’m sucking would’ve voted for in 2016?
But it does matter. To me, anyway.
Since starting college, I find myself constantly talking about what is and is not a deal-breaker for hookups. Has a foot fetish: fine. Lives in a triple and sleeps on the top bunk: not ideal, but workable. Differing political beliefs: no one seems to have an answer.
It’s not that I expect the people I’m hooking up with to also be part of Planned Parenthood Generation Action, or to support the exact same candidates that I do. Of course, on a campus as huge as Cornell, there’s going to be a broad spectrum of political beliefs and values. Most of the time, I think this is a good thing. As much as I loved my (very) liberal San Francisco arts high school, being surrounded by people with such similar values did also start to feel a little insular. Part of the point of college is to test my own beliefs against those of people who look at the world differently. I couldn’t do this if I only ever talked to people who automatically agree with me.
After my run in with Mr. Fiscally Conservative, though, I started to wonder if it’s simultaneously possible for me to be grateful for the broad spectrum of views that exist at Cornell and also to really, really not want all of those views in my bedroom. I wondered, as well, to what extent the fact that what I was doing with this boy was distinctly separate from a relationship impacted my “right” to even be bothered by these differences in our beliefs. If hooking up with someone is a kind of social contract where you both agree to share physical intimacy but maintain emotional separateness, then how does someone’s political party matter any more than their favorite fruit or childhood memories?
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been deceived. I knew that I wouldn’t have done the same things with him if I’d found out sooner. At that point in the year, I was still interested in casual hookups, and considered whether or not I should go about things differently to prevent a similar situation. Should I walk around parties with a drink in one hand and a clipboard in the other and say, “Hi, want to make out? Oh–but first, could you just really quickly tell me your stance on gun control?” Despite these considerations, I ended up mostly continuing in the same way I had been–crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t encounter any more conservatives in the bedroom–while in the back of my mind, I questioned what kinds of people I was dealing with, and if I should be making a greater effort to actually find out.
A while after we had stopped seeing each other, I heard from another girl who’d hooked up with Mr. Fiscally Conservative that he’d said a few things that were potentially anti-Semitic. Although I didn’t and still don’t know the full extent of these comments, I felt another jolt of anger and revulsion. How had I let this boy kiss the mouth that sits below the nose I inherited from my Ashkenazi great grandparents? Pull the curls so like the ones that hung down my great grandmother’s back as she fled Europe? I wanted to yell or write him an angry letter, but both of these actions felt pointless.
For most of my life, my Jewish heritage has been largely theoretical. Sure, I went to a few tense family Seders growing up and stuttered through the Torah portion at my Bat Mitzvah, but none of these experiences are something I bring up when I introduce myself, or even a part of me I consider at the forefront of my identity. I thought about what I would say if I were to confront him, “how could you not tell me before I took my clothes off that you think my people hold too much of the world’s wealth?” But even the description “my people” feels problematic when such a small fraction of my life has actually been influenced by this heritage. I considered to what extent my reaction would change if I had a different religious background. I considered whether I would have been less bothered by the realization if I were Christian, or if I would have felt equally horrified. If I had gone to synagogue every weekend growing up, and kept a mezuzah on the door of my dorm room, would my rage be deeper and more righteous than my current anger?
I still don’t know to what extent my anger is unique to me or fully justified, but almost every time I bring up this story, it turns out that someone else in the room has had a similarly disconcerting experience. There was my friend with two moms who found out a boy she’d been kissing used “gay” as an insult. Another girl who blocked a boy she’d been sleeping with after seeing a Facebook photo of him in a MAGA hat. There are other kinds of stories too, of course—people learning from one another and expanding or challenging their views. My friend’s parents met when her mom was a Foucault-reading feminist and her dad, a buttoned-up conservative. If these differences had been a deal-breaker for them, then they never would have fallen in love or built a life together.
Looking at all these examples, it’s clear to me that it can go either way: sometimes ideological differences are too vast to reconcile, but other times, conversation and compassion can expand both people’s views and actually lead to a deeper relationship. I still haven’t figured out where I draw that line, but whether I decide that fiscal conservatives are acceptable, but Trump supporters are not, or that I just can’t deal with anyone right of moderate, I want it to be my decision, and no one else’s.
More and more, it seems that these questions about what is and is not a deal-breaker for me in hookups are really questions about whether I am actually willing to follow the implicit agreement of all hookups: that I will separate myself and the other person from the physical act.
The other day, I was eating lunch at Okenshields (again) when a boy I’d been seeing on and off came over to talk to my friend and me. We happened to have our Planned Parenthood Generation Action petition to get Cornell Health to offer medication abortion services lying on the table, and he asked what it was and if we wanted him to sign it. My heart was in my throat—what if he read the description and said no? Was I about to find out I’d been actively having sex with a guy who’d rather women be forced to stay pregnant than have a safe alternative option? Luckily, he quickly read over the petition and said he’d be glad to sign, and also that he tries to trust and defer to women on issues of birth control and abortion since he isn’t directly affected in the same way. My body flooded with relief; I might even have swooned a little. Sweet, sweet Prince Liberal, I thought, blushing as I handed him the clipboard. I didn’t stop to question my own reaction or how being happy we shared this might itself have been a violation of the way I was allowed to think or care about Prince Liberal as a person beyond the physical.
A week or so after signing our petition, Prince Liberal texted me that, going forward, he just wanted to be friends. I stared at my phone until my eyes blurred with tears. I felt so stupid for being hurt, for letting myself become so attached to a person I barely knew. The whole notion of him asking to be friends seemed laughable. We had never been friends. Not really. We’d slept together—not only sex, but sleep in its literal sense, too. I’d leaned my head on his chest and felt the warmth of his skin, and I’d believed that this counted as intimacy. He’d texted and touched me when he wanted to, and discarded me when he was done. I wanted to be angry, to feel I’d been treated unjustly in some way. And I did, to an extent, because we’d been seeing each other for three months, and he ended things in one sentence. But I also felt that as much as he had led me on in some ways, I had participated equally in tricking myself.
Early in our “relationship,” Prince Liberal had asked what I wanted, and when I said I was okay with being casual, he responded, “Thank God you’re not a drama queen.” My fear of that label set the tone for everything else that happened between us. Even as I started to like and care about him more, I didn’t communicate what I was feeling or ask for greater closeness. Looking back, I wish I had pushed through my fear and asked for more. I wish I had told him that I wanted sex, not just as sex, but also as an aspect of greater intimacy that also included knowing his political beliefs, hearing about his emotions, and learning who he was beyond the surface details. Maybe if I’d let on that I wanted to be with him for real, he would’ve ended things sooner, and losing him would have made me sad, but at least then I wouldn’t have had to spend three months locking away my heart and folding into a smaller, colder version of myself.
After my experiences with both of these boys, I’m not totally sure what I want to do next. But I’m not alone in this. These kinds of situations and questions are put in stark relief on college campuses where hookup culture is often predominant, and questions of identity and belief are encouraged in nearly every lecture hall and extracurricular. Maybe tomorrow I’ll add a line to my tinder bio requesting that people swipe left unless they’re down for political pillow talk. Or just delete the app entirely. Possibly I’ll hook up with a boy from Hillel to avoid the anti-Semitic issue. Or equally likely, I won’t hook up with anyone, and will instead start looking for someone who isn’t only interested in my body, but also in the version of me that includes “drama” and complexity.
Most of all, I want to stop apologizing for being angry or for being hurt. I am not violating the agreement of hooking up by wanting to know a person’s political views before anything happens between us, and I am not a drama queen for having feelings and desiring physical AND emotional closeness. Even though I don’t yet know how I will navigate politics, sex, and dating for the rest of the semester and definitely not after college, I have learned one thing: my body is not separate from my mind, heart, or history, and even if that means having some awkward conversations, anyone I’m with—regardless of our relationship—is going to have to respect all of those parts of me.