How to Find Your Place on Campus
It all happened somewhat accidentally. My freshman year, I was lost. I felt like I wasn’t “doing” college; I wasn’t confident; and, I definitely didn’t know where I fit in. Determined to get my bearings in the fall of sophomore year, I decided to turn to the people I admire for direction. I found inspiration in a friend a year older who told me that through a student group on campus called SHAPE (Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators), she felt empowered as a resource for fellow women on campus.
I had grown up speaking in euphemisms for sex and my body (even for something as G-rated as “bra,” which I termed “undergarment”), so that sounded pretty good. I knew joining SHAPE would be a challenge for me and a surprise to the people around me, most of whom viewed me as timid and inexperienced in matters of sexual health. Though my friends respected my advice, I was hardly the friend to turn to when the question was about where to get birth control.
My vocabulary to discuss my body and sexuality was limited and I was intimidated by the seemingly endless variety of words and phrases the SHAPE members used to discuss sex. Still, they were un-phased by my innocence. I was accepted into the group and began the 50 hours of training that would turn me into sexual health activist extraordinaire. Or close, at least.
It actually took me much longer to be able to become a true advocate and even longer to develop a healthy sexuality myself. Alongside my training class of 20 students from all different communities on campus, I learned how to be honest in sexual expression, how to speak about sexuality openly, and most importantly, how to listen actively to someone else's experience.
As a senior and nearing the end of my term on the SHAPE executive board, I've realized that being a sexual health advocate is about changing the discourse around sexual health, pleasure, and safety, and keeping people engaged when it can be easier to tune out. My most rewarding moments as a sexual health activist have not been changing Northwestern’s official definition of consent, executing a 200+ person event, or attending a national peer educator conference, although all those moments were definitely exciting. The best part to me has been becoming a better friend.
I’ve encountered people—people close to me—who believe that sexual activism today is about persecuting frat guys or preaching that partying leads to rape. The biggest challenge I've faced, and the most rewarding accomplishment I’ve had to date, is showing that sexual advocacy is not punitive; it’s listening and supporting the people in your community. It’s about reconciling the inherent contradictions in our world and showing that empathy and compassion, whether about sex or relationships or really anything, is the most important part of being a friend or sister or girlfriend or daughter.
For me, the listening part has always come more naturally. I still struggle communicating with my boyfriend, friends, and family, but through advocating for others, I’ve learned to speak for myself. Self-love is no easy feat, and it’s a lesson, especially with Valentine’s Day just behind us, we should all take to heart.
Sophie Jacob is a senior studying history and creative writing. SHAPE is Northwestern University's sexual health advocacy group, but all college campuses should have them—and if yours doesn't, you should start one.