For as long as I have been interested in boys, I have dreaded the prospect of having a sterile romantic life. Like many shy, inexperienced girls in my high school, I was raised on a healthy diet of romantic comedies, hushed group readings of Cosmopolitan and an absurdly tight parental leash. I spent all my time wondering about questions like, “How will I know if I’m a good kisser?” “What happens after kissing?” and “What if I never get a boyfriend?” I saw the liquored college party scene as the long-awaited opportunity for sexual exploration and free, unlimited hookups.
That first year of college, I went from never really kissing a boy to kissing every boy I could get my hands on. I did not blink twice when I lost my virginity to a random guy in the first month of school, nor did I fuss about it in the morning, when I barely remembered how it happened. It was over, I was an adult, and I felt free from my burden of inexperience. In time, I became so used to the combination of sex and alcohol that when I wasn’t in a relationship, I made it a point to hook up often, and always with booze in my system. I absolutely believed that no one had the right to tell me how I should view my sexuality. I mulled over all of my drunken hookups as evidence of female empowerment, no matter how terrible they might have been at the time.
This sentiment stayed with me for the next few years, and only intensified when I studied abroad. Overseas, I felt liberated from the confines of Princeton’s social scene, which by then had begun to feel like slim pickings. I got drunk a lot, I hooked up a lot, and with my newfound anonymity in a foreign city, I could do it all without fear of repercussions in the morning.
One night, after a few months of this habit, I put on a dress and prepared to go bar-hopping with my friends as usual. There had been a lot of anticipation for the cheap shots at one particular hotspot, and I arrived late, which meant I had some catching up to do before we left. As I had done on weekend nights on the Street, I downed about 10 shots in two hours and promptly blacked out. We moved from one bar to the next, and then another and another, until somehow I ended up alone on the streets, lost and drunk out of my mind.
Time passed in the blink of an eye, and suddenly, I was off the streets and in a car with a stranger in an empty neighborhood. At the time, I was 80-percent sure I had gotten into a taxi cab. A few minutes later, I was 50-percent sure, then not sure at all. I don’t know how I got into the car — habit, maybe? Confusion? Coercion? I was too inebriated at the time to remember how anything had come to pass until it was too late. I was lying supine in the back seat, and someone was kneeling over me. When the situation finally dawned on me, I attempted to sit up a couple of times and then mumbled the word “no” in a couple of languages to no avail. I made a weak and half-hearted effort against something I would later recognize as a threat deserving of serious physical force. It took basically an open palm to the face, pushing me back down, for my resistance to crumble altogether.
By the time it was over, I was fully conscious. Without even understanding how I had ended up with this person, I was 100-percent positive that the encounter qualified as a sexual assault. Habit made it easy for me to pretend I was still happily drunk. It made it easy for me to talk my way into a ride back home, or close to home. I broke down in a telephone booth by the road, as he drove away, then walked myself back to my flat. And even after I acknowledged the nature of the incident to my friends, habit made it easy for me to act as though it was just another bad, drunken hookup.
Afterward, I stone-faced my way through the rest of the trip. This lasted long after I had touched back down in the United States. I had sticky notes scrawled with phone numbers for therapists that I never contacted. Even after seeing the emergency doctor, it took me another three months before I could bring myself to take an STD test. Despite my best efforts, the learning curve was slow this time around. I kept up the appearance of being a heavy drinker for as long as I could to feel normal, until one day I found that I just couldn’t put another Solo cup to my lips. It took me a few weeks before I was able to put on a pair of shorts without feeling too exposed. I haven’t been able to imagine sex, much less have sex, to this day.
I regret not taking advantage of every resource I had for immediate help. I regret outwardly acting like I was OK. And of course, every day I regret going to that bar and getting so drunk that I couldn’t even identify the perpetrator in the morning. It’s hard enough trying to retrieve even a little bit of the peace of mind I had before I had started my crusade against sexual inexperience. As much as I’ve pushed back against people who moralize sexuality or judge the personal choices of others, I’ve come to believe there is a universal lesson to be learned here, especially for those of us in Princeton who feel a built-in sense of security on campus.
As easy as it is for someone to re-label an assault as just bad sex, it is just as easy to deny that bad sex can be traumatic. In our efforts to prove to ourselves that we are capable of having casual sex, we downplay the fact that sex can have serious emotional consequences too. Empowerment isn’t about subverting gender norms or being able to stop yourself from crying. Sex — whether it’s with your boyfriend, drunk at a frat party or with a stranger in a car — doesn’t have to be considered rape to warrant our caution, care and attention.