Freshers' Ball '92: nice girls don't: Janie Lawrence finds that sexual and political attitudes among students have changed a lot since her youth. Today, a snog is a big deal

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SQUEALS of excitement echo in the cold night air. The music has started and the queue outside the Students' Union building is lengthening by the second. Micky and Emma arrived at Goldsmith's College, London University, this term and tonight is the high point of their first week: pounds 7.50 admission, a messy black ink-stamp on the hand and it's time to party at the Freshers' Ball.

After five days on campus, Micky and Emma figure that they have learnt an important thing or two. They have formulated clear ground rules for the evening. A 'snog' is OK and desirable, a fiddle 'up top' might be permissible - anything else is strictly off limits. They have no intention of mixing with the third or fourth years. 'If anybody higher than a second year speaks to you, then they want only one thing,' they agree.

These young women in their coloured jeans, psychedelic tops, flower-shaped ear-rings and - yes, believe it - love beads may look like revamped hippies, but don't be fooled. Their hearts owe far more to an earlier era. These are women of the Doris Day, starched petticoat school of sexuality.

Concerned mothers in the Home Counties can sleep easy. The sexual revolution is as old hat as Madonna. 'I'd feel awful if I had a one-night stand,' says Micky. 'I'd wake up in the morning and want to die. I'd have to walk around with a paper bag on my head.'

They tell of one first-year woman who has purportedly already bedded ten boys. 'Eh, oop,' mutters one young northern lad, 'that's nothing.' He has been warned to steer clear of a third- year whose rumoured tally is 160. Gasp, wide-eyed horror.

However, in the bar there is little evidence to support these apocryphal tales. It is a sea of fresh- faced innocence. Scruffy lads in jeans, trainers and T-shirts gather in protective posses. They lean against the bar, proclaim their Toryism and talk football.

And to the last student, especially the females, they speak of the need to preserve an unsullied reputation. Sexual virtue is much prized. The moral backlash is the Happening Craze on campus.

They know they should be scared of Aids, and they are. Very. 'You'd have to be pretty stupid if you didn't realise the risk of Aids,' booms Julia. 'There's bloody posters everywhere.' She's right. Warnings about the perils of unprotected sex are inescapable, notices plastered across every wall and lavatory door.

Sara Ragab, the Students' Union welfare officer, detects a shift in sexual attitudes over the past two years. 'It's not the typical image of the Sixties and Seventies with people sleeping around. Students are looking for more security now.' We talk women and sexuality. Feminism is mentioned once, but she corrects herself and says she'd rather not use that word. Apparently, that F-word has become dirtier than the other one. Nobody broaches it all evening. All the current isms - and there are oodles - are the province of a few hardcore politicos.

At the grassroots, the Nineties students' union divides into good girls and bad girls. Think Grease. Olivia Newton-John in the white corner pitted against Stockard Channing in the scarlet.

Mac, in his third year, explains that if a woman succumbs too quickly, that diminishes the challenge. 'So, Mac, have you always had protected sex?' I inquire. He rolls his eyes, hesitates and checks the whereabouts of his girlfriend. The coast is clear. She has struck up a promising rapport with the Independent photographer. 'Well, if she's a virgin, she'll usually be on the Pill (a deduction that defeats my logic), but it's imperative you find out her sexual history beforehand.' In Mac-speak, women who don't ask about commitment 'obviously go around a bit'. I ask for a numerical definition of 'a bit'. 'Well, eight is pushing it, two is OK,' he asserts.

Bed-hopping is now seriously outre. 'It used to be screw a fresher, and now it's screw a fresher and stick with her,' says Simon, a fourth-year. Several sources confirm that heterosexual students are being as prudent as their gay counterparts.

Ask boys about condoms and the replies are catechetically conditioned. Good sense, though, does not always win the day. John, a third-year, points out that there is still a discrepancy between the theory and the practice. 'Look, if a beautiful girl said 'Come back to my place tonight and have sex' and there wasn't a condom, I'd still have sex.'

Many of the women are strangely unassertive, but Jenny collars me to rail against this lack of male responsibility. She is vocal: 'My boyfriend assumed all his other girlfriends before me were on the Pill. He'd slept with nine girls and he didn't think you could get Aids. I thought: 'You stupid git'.'

Stunningly irresponsible? Or a strong case of all mouth and no trousers? Boys will always brag. One suspects that, for the majority, that is now the extent of their activity.

Several young bucks have been chatting up my companion for the evening - another female thirtysomething - and their attentions have cheered her up considerably, but she is astounded at their navety. 'I think these days a snog is a big deal. In the Seventies that didn't even merit a mention over the scrambled eggs. Now I get the feeling it's all hand-holding and interminable poetry recitals,' she concludes.

Mark, a disarmingly honest second-year, comes over and pulls back his jeans pocket to reveal a solitary condom. 'I couldn't use it now,' he laughs, 'it's been there so long, it's probably shrunk. Most of the blokes who stand and boast in the bar are lying.'

Andy Goffey, lecturer in cultural studies, agrees: 'You're more likely to encounter sex in a cultural studies text than in the real world of the college.'

It is nearly 2am and Micky has kept her virtue, but lost her balance and vision. Emma is on standby to take her back to the halls of residence. Those who can manage it are still gyrating to

the sounds of the old ska band

Selector.

My friend and I become nostalgic. Self-indulgent memories of 1978 come flooding back. Superficially, little has changed: there are the same piles of vomit on the stairs, identical bodies slumped in corners and a floor so sticky and slippery that it should carry a government health warning. But these are Thatcher's children. Apathy has usurped anarchy. In 1992, there is no shame in being a Tory student; it is the so-called lefties who are out on a limb.

Radical politics, sexual or otherwise, hold little appeal for these students. Why should they? The limitations of their economic and sexual futures are written on the wall. They have no option. Sensible pragmatism must prevail.

My companion and I agree that we were lucky. The new puritanism doesn't strike us as very much fun at all.

(Photograph omitted)

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