Five years ago, in The Blue & White, Chris Beam, CC ’06, answered all the questions anyone has ever had, past present and future, about Butler Sex. It remains one of the great masterpieces of our time. If you don’t know, now you know.
When it comes to self-aggrandizing myths, Columbia rivals the Greeks. The owl, 1968, Kerouac and Ginsberg at The West End: they all supposedly comprise Columbia’s collective unconscious. But despite what the tour guides tell you, these legends are dead to the average student. Only one myth still matters, as proven by the hush that descends when an anecdote begins—and ends—with “So we got off on level nine…”
“When you get to school, one of the first things people say about [the stacks] is, did you know Ghostbusters was filmed there?” said Andrew, a recent Columbia graduate who preferred to withhold his real name. “The second thing is, did you have sex in the stacks?”
Butler sex is our generation’s equivalent of panty raids the tales emerge late in the party, after all other conversation topics have been exhausted. One person in the room has done it, five people have friends who did, and everyone else has thought about it but never acted on the urge.
It is one of Columbia’s few unacknowledged subcultures, and perhaps its most universal—an extracurricular that unites students of all political bents, racial make-ups, and religious persuasions. We all know the regular Butler cliques: the smokers, the boho-chic grad students who pound fists outside Room 301, the bearded men who sip tea in the lounge and loudly quote Heidegger. But the Butler sex community has no identifying mark. No secret handshake, no pinky ring. Most Butler lovers show scruples in revealing their secrets, and then only in hushed tones. The movement’s existence may be universal, but its stories have gone untold. Until now.
Unoriginal Sin: The Case of The Butler Masturbator
Butler has an effect on its inhabitants that can only be described as magical. Just as a soft lens forgivingly blurs the flaws of its subject, Butler turns every student into a romantic lead—the phenomenon known as “Butler goggles.” Immersed in their work, everyone becomes a strong, silent typist.
But when Anthony Perri whipped out his swollen fiddle and began playing for the girls, the honeymoon ended.
“He pulled out a book—the History of Abortion or something—and sat on the floor staring at me for half an hour,” said Joya Banerjee CC ’04, who was studying on the library’s third floor mezzanine. “I happened to look down and he had his dick out of his gym shorts (short shorts by the way) and was wanking off.”
Perri was arraigned a year later when Banerjee spotted him again in the library, this time pretending to browse for books while eyeing a gaggle of sorority girls. The case has since been sealed, according to a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and Banerjee never pressed charges.
“It was probably the most action Butler has seen in quite awhile,” she said. “Lucky me.”
Spectator covered the events with all the requisite gravity, quoting everyone from security officials to witnesses who had “heard the scream” and provoking a small debate about library security. But it failed to address one essential angle: that Perri’s behavior, however disturbing, was entirely consistent with Butler Library’s character. He had just taken it too far.
The Butler Effect
“Any time you have guys and girls in a room together, there’s a scene,” Andrew said. “At Butler there’s drinks and stuff to talk about, but none of the meat market pretensions of the West End.”
Whereas the ‘Stend’s Thursday night clientele descends on that bar with a single purpose, Butler conceals its sexuality beneath a thin sheen of studiousness. By dressing up flirtation in the decidedly unsexy garb of academia, Columbia students mask what they do worst with what they do best.
“I wanted to work in Butler so bad because of all the dating possibilities,” said Annie BC ’06, who currently mans the circulation desk. “In the most desperate times, I’ve even rearranged my schedule to get shifts on the busiest nights.”
The move paid off. She has cultivated a sizeable flock of admirers, including colleagues, professors, and grad students, one of whom “stands by the computer terminal for minutes on end and looks at me, contemplating whether or not to come over and chat before he leaves,” she said. “Once he asked me for 50 cents for a banana because he was starving and broke.”
Caitlin Keryc, CC ’05, met a long-term boyfriend for the first time when he asked her out for coffee in a reading room. “I’ve been told it’s because I smile too much,” she said.
Keryc’s experience is an exception, as many women see Butler as a restraining order waiting to happen. Triveni DeFries, CC ’06, has returned to her desk on many occasions to find a phone number waiting. A med student once trailed her all the way from Butler back to McBain.
The Butler Effect is undeniable. It gives its beneficiaries the courage of two shots of whiskey. It makes pickup lines of Virgil’s verse and ice-breakers of periodic tables. The momentary correlation between academic achievement and sexual prowess makes us all Casanovas.
Reading rooms form only the tip of the Butler iceberg. Below the surface, deep in the stacks, the library’s legendary reputation is conceived.
Disclaimer: sex in the stacks is illegal. Intercourse and all forms of TV-MA-rated pleasure-giving are prohibited in the libraries just as they would be in any public space, according to Terry Kirchner, director of Access Services for Columbia University Libraries. “We strive to maintain an environment in all the Libraries that is safe, comfortable, and conducive to study and research,” he wrote in an e-mail.
But in a steel cage match between school policy and hormones, the glands always win. The fear of getting caught by security does little to deter dedicated sex-havers.
“If you plan it out, there’s not much chance of getting caught,” Andrew said. “You might think it’s a good idea to find the darkest, skinniest hallway. But then you’re [in trouble] if someone goes in there. You gotta be three-quarters down an aisle that has two exits.”
Like any art, Butler sex demands technical mastery. Location, timing, and approach all vary according to one’s sense of adventure and dedication to the craft.
But none of these traditions have untangled the central paradox: Butler sex is about as sexy as gefilte fish. You do it for the story more than the experience itself. But sometimes it’s barely worth the story.
One student, deep into his term paper for Richard Bulliet’s class on domestic animals (famed for its emphasis on bestiality), abandoned it for 1020, only to return with company an hour later. They found one of the wooden Eisenhower-era phone booths on the 9th floor. “It took forever,” he lamented in an e-mail.
For Miriam Datskovsky, BC ’07, the Spectator’s sex columnist, it didn’t take so long. She described a failed escapade in the Arabic literature section, during which stack fright killed the moment. “You shouldn’t try it with someone who has chronic ED problems,” she said.
You Lost Me At Hello
There is a distinction between Butler sex and reading room romance. While both join to form the myth of Butler, the library’s cultures of study and nookie rarely intersect. Converting an innocent flirtation into a shelf-knocking romp could very well be the single most challenging act of social (not to mention physical) gymnastics at Columbia University.
Andrew, a veteran of two library trysts, does not see much connection between the furtive glances exchanged in Room 209 and the popularity of Butler sex. “I separate those two things,” he said. “If I were cool enough to approach a girl in the library and invite her up, then maybe they wouldn’t be separate.”
Strategies abound. In the oft-cited but rarely-used “one-card monte,” a student fills out a reserves card with a call number and a message to “Meet me in five,” and furtively slides the invitation across the table. Then there’s the point-blank “I’m about to graduate” move, which may arouse just enough pity to succeed.
Andrew has fantasized about taking women to the same section in the stacks—something subtly evocative, like early Greek erotica—and keep a running tally in a book jacket. “Turns out not to have worked exactly how I wanted it to,” he said. “But there’s always grad school.”
The study-sex culture gap can’t be bridged for one simple reason: Butler sensuality can only survive under a strict policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The silent enchantment that Butler casts over its occupants is fragile. The least disruption—the ring of a phone, the drop of a pen—and the spell is broken. Indeed, a student’s sexiness relies on obliviousness.
At risk of pushing an analogy too far—otherwise, what’s the point of making one?—Butler is romance at Columbia. We put ourselves out there for the taking, striking a pose with one eye on our book and the other on the cute guy across the table, hoping he’ll notice how consumed by work we are. But the instant he summons the courage to spill his soul and take action, the illusion falls away. Eye contact becomes awkward. Throats are cleared. He relocates upstairs. We’re left with a vague sense of disappointment and a pile of books we weren’t really reading anyway.