Content Warning: This article contains references to rape.
Doriana Thornton’s room in the Barn reeks of smoke. It challenges the viewer with an unseizable cascade of color coming from every angle; the walls are apricot and covered with posters and artworks, the table in the center is cluttered with everything from plants to a bottle of vodka; the ceiling is made of fabric, and the floor is beset with clutter. Thornton describes it as “like hyper psychedelic, it’s goofy,” adding that “it’s super goofy hippy dippy”. Neverminding the vernacular, they give a surprisingly accurate description. “It’s like a parody of itself,” they say of their room in 1S. “It really brings me joy.” It takes a while to take things in.
It’s all part of their aesthetic, Thornton says. Thornton seems to tie everything to two topics—their aesthetic, and sex. Often, the two intertwine. “When I do art, it usually has to do with genitals, weird shapes, or sexual things,” they say, describing their artistic preferences. “My sculpture teacher was like, ‘It’s very clear that you’re a Gender and Sexuality Studies student’.”
“Like, hyper kitsch,” Thornton said, summarizing their aesthetic. “I think this room is really kitsch!”
They shot a forty minute-long pornographic video last semester for their independent study in art, which featured “random Swarthmore students having sex with each other,” they describe. “There’s blood and there’s shit. It’s really bizarre, I can show it to you.” Thornton plugs a hard drive into their Macbook and pulls up the video, which features a nine-panel grid, each panel displaying a different scene. Some acts were explicitly sexual; others varied from a film of someone using a knife to bleed themself and to a close-up of a girl taking a dump. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, simultaneously viewing bloodletting, defecation, and oral sex. Another scene has a student place an unidentifiable brown substance on their tongue.
“I don’t know if that’s poop or Nutella,” I say, hoping for assuagement. “That’s definitely poop,” Thornton responds immediately. “Oh my god,” says their friend Jacob, who is in the room. Thornton replies with a high, shrill laugh. They later informed me that the substance was, in reality, dirt from the Crum. Thornton themselves had been featured in the scene.
“So, that never got aired for obvious reasons,” Thornton says. Their professor never watched the film (“He was like, ‘I can’t look at this, it’s too explicit’ ”) but scored them on some photographic excerpts. They got a final grade of B for the class.
Thornton has always gotten away with Bs, Cs, and the occasional A during their four years at Swarthmore. They were diagnosed with Bipolar II midway through their sophomore year, a mostly depressive disorder that “wreeeeecked me,” Thornton said emphatically. Failing a fall course caused them to realize the severity of their problems and led them to seek support from CAPS and Director of Student Disability Services Leslie Hempling. Thornton believes mental health is an issue that should be discussed more openly on campus, if not for its prevalence than for its severity and fluidity.
“People have always made me anxious,” Thornton says. “I have a history of my mother abusing me… I love [her] very much, she’s grown a lot but I don’t know, this stuff has stuck with me.”
Thornton, who is half Colombian, decamped to Haiti for two years on account of their mother’s work for the Organization of American States. “When I was in fifth, sixth grade, that was my first depressive episode,” Thornton recalls. “I attempted suicide in fifth—” they started laughing, as if unable to believe themselves—“I attempted suicide in like fifth grade and it was insane, but I got this cat who’s missing, oh there she is!” Thornton said, pushing aside the window shutters to reveal a small gray feline. Thornton opened the window to allow it to climb in. “I got this sick cat from Haiti so it was all kind of worth it.” Her name is Molly. “I’m obsessed, I’m completely obsessed with my cat.”
“I was really depressed during most of it so it was kind of terrible but I still enjoyed most of the experience,” Thornton says. “I don’t know how much of this is biology and how much of this is nurture, but I have a problem,” they add, smiling. Haiti was, coincidentally, also where Thornton first watched pornography. Sex has been a fixation for Thornton ever since.
Thornton lived through a “rapey” relationship tainted with sexual assault and emotional abuse during almost the entirety of their high school career, which appears to have affected their present-day being profoundly. “Three and a half years in high school. I was like fuck! I want to have sex with people and not be raped!” Thornton says of their freshman year at Swarthmore. “So I went crazy and had sex with everyone I possibly could.”
“I would have sex with three different people a week. Ridiculous shit like that,” they describe. “Some of my hypersocial behavior was mania. It would leave me exhausted […] I kind of ran out of energy as school went along.”
Thornton’s former promiscuity, in addition to experiences with non-consensual relationships and the bad sex which often accompanied them, taught them important lessons about consent. Thornton has been celibate as of last May, deciding that they had gone through enough unsatisfactory sex with people who didn’t care about them. “When you have a really distinct reason why you’re not having sex… it makes it so much easier to see when people are trying to sexually assault you, when people are being rapey and manipulative,” Thornton says. “You won’t be swayed by them.”
Thornton has a history of being swayed by the wrong people. “At Swarthmore I have fallen in love with complete assholes,” they explain, underscoring it with repetition. “Except for the one person I kind of have a crush on right now. They’re cute, they’re super cute, but I’m just not pursuing it… I haven’t found the energy to go out and meet someone…”
“I’ve just had really unhealthy, unrequited love scenarios play over and over again,” Thornton reminisces with a tint of incredulous humor. “They fuck me, they always fuck me. That’s the thing, they always fuck me, and then they never like me,” they say, bursting out in laughter. “One time, he didn’t fuck me, but he really, I don’t know, it’s crazy.” Thornton has held no serious relationships in college.
Thornton’s celibacy also branches from a discovered pattern in the partners they are attracted to overall. “I’m typically attracted to really unhealthy, fucked up personalities but I’m trying—that’s what celibacy is for!” Thornton tells me. “I have this theory that I’m kind of fucked up and I’m searching to fulfill this void with really unhealthy things.”
Thornton is much less social than they were as a freshman. “I would have thought it really negative to be alone all the time, but now, I think it’s a lot more healthy,” they say. Thornton’s current residence in the Barn and distance from the general Swarthmore community offers them a degree of separation which they have come to cherish. “People are always telling me ‘I never see you around’; I tell them I’m in bed sleeping or watching TV all the time and I’m kind of okay with that.” Today, Thornton only has one or two close friends who they frequent often.
Despite their bohemian exterior, Thornton maintains that they’re a fairly normal person. “I’m worried sometimes that I intimidate people because I don’t look normal or I don’t act that normal and I have a shaved head and piercings and tattoos,” they continue. Thornton inks tattoos for themselves and their friends: “If anyone needs one, hit me up”, they tell me.
“I’ve always been artistic,” Thornton says. “I can see the aesthetic value in things. I think it really comes out in how I decorate my room and how I dress, kind of like the aesthetic principles of it all,” they say. One needs to see it to believe it.
Gender has always played an oversized role in Thornton’s life. They never strongly identified as male or female; as of the summer before their junior year of college, Thornton began formally identifying themselves as genderqueer, a concept they were introduced to during their freshman year of college. But sexuality is broad, Thornton says; personally, they skew more towards the masculine side of the spectrum. They continue to self-question.
If anything, Thornton doesn’t understand why others don’t self-question. “There’s so much variety in what it means to be a man and so much variety in what it means to be a woman that they kind of overlap,” Thornton says. Furthermore, even the fundamental principles of gender are constructs. “A lot of female attributes are weak and lesser… the whole conversation between masculinity and femininity can be translated into wanting to feel more powerful.”
Such structures are not necessarily good, Thornton says, but one wouldn’t question an identity which suits them.
Thornton’s attraction to others is similarly broad and nonconforming. They identify as bisexual: “I just don’t understand being attracted to only one category of people if categories are so broad, you know?” they ask. “It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
When, as a freshman in high school, Thornton first approached their mother with the idea that they might be bisexual, their mother assured them that they were simply confused. “She’s pretty liberal, she just has some weird ideas about what is personal,” Thornton tells me. “Weird ideas about temptation and how sexual orientation works.” She has since warmed up to it and is supportive of their choices, Thornton says. Thornton continues to get along well with their mother.
Thornton’s gender manifests itself well in their aesthetic. “I’m super dirty,” they say. “I don’t shower or change clothes a lot, actually. I’m, like, super gross and I don’t really care. It’s kind of a part of my masculine gender performance.” They generally wear female clothing because it makes them feel comfortable, although they are quick to note that their visual aesthetic is independent from their emotions and beliefs. Gender and presentation are different things, Thornton says.
As a senior, Thornton should be preparing to enter the workforce. They are pursuing a major in Gender and Sexuality Studies alongside a minor in Black Studies, with a particular interest in the intersection between the two. “I have no idea whether I’ll feel motivated enough to mold myself into the person I need to be to go daily to a job,” Thornton says. Their class attendance at Swarthmore has been spotty at best.
“I think it’s much more important to find a way to survive here than to be what you think you should be,” they explain. “I’m interested in sexual health counseling and maybe social work, but I don’t even have a resumé.”
“I’m really far behind,” Thornton recapitulates. “I don’t even have a resumé, you know?”
Images courtesy of Abhinav Tiku’18/The Daily Gazette
*3/3/2016: Minor Corretions