[Editors’ Note: This is the first in a series about love, sex, dating and everything in between on the Princeton campus. In this space every week our writers will reflect on their personal encounters with love—we hope you’ll tune in, and maybe even be inspired to share stories of your own.]
During the second semester of my freshman year, two of my closest female friends and I created an “Accomplishment Chart,” complete with a star for each “accomplishment” we had achieved. One of those friends had been dating a freshman boy since September and she had only one star. My other friend and I would taunt her ruthlessly for her lack of “accomplishments.” We, on the other hand, were plenty accomplished. Whenever I looked at the star stickers adorning my section of the chart, I would always laugh out loud, remembering the awful, drunken hookup that each star symbolized. There were many nights, though, when I couldn’t sleep from cringing at those memories. But I wouldn’t take those experiences back. Without them, I would have never realized how much I hate the hookup culture here.
It wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year that I finally started regarding my freshman hookups as mistakes. This was partially because I had a hard time admitting that I had messed up. For me, to regret a decision was on par with saying “I screwed up big time,” which I could barely admit to myself, let alone a peer. And the desire to seem like I already knew it all, despite never having lived on my own before, kept me from asking questions when I first got to Princeton. But even if I had, there were elements of the hookup culture I would have never been able to anticipate, let alone seek advice about.
I was so sheltered and naive as a freshman that I can barely believe I am that same person today. And I just wish someone had told me that the reality of hooking up is monumentally different from what I was expecting. I wish someone had told me that you don’t get into a relationship by meeting someone on the Street and taking him home or that they won’t even text you the next day. I wish someone had told me that when a guy says, “Hey, I want to show you this really funny video, but it’s in my room,” he’s going to show you much more than a video. And the awkwardness that happens when your hookup flat out pretends you don’t exist the day after? No one warned me about that!
After our freshman year was long behind us, I was surprised to find out that my “accomplished” friend felt the same way as I did. She had never let on that she regretted any of her hookups, spinning all of those late nights into hilariously catty and intimate stories for the breakfast table. If one of my closest friends was able to hide her disappointment in her choices from me for two years, then who else on campus had been burned by the hookup culture?
I think we forget how stupid we can be at age 18, finally free from our parents, but anxious to be accepted and afraid of being alone. I used to believe that dance floor make-outs and invitations to frat formals were indicators that I was happy. I am convinced that most of my hookups happened because their occurrence assured me that I was desirable and that I was normal. It’s fine to feel desirable and normal, but it’s perverse and counterintuitive when one of the only ways I felt desirable and normal was to do something I wasn’t completely comfortable with.
I’m sure there are plenty of street-smart and sophisticated freshmen out there who have been able to dodge all the pitfalls of the college social experience without any outside guidance. But I am also sure that there are plenty of wide-eyed freshmen who will make every rookie mistake that there is to make. I want to talk to those freshmen. I want to tell them, if you like hooking up, if you think it’s fun and exciting, then good for you. But if you wake up lonelier each time, if the memories keep you up at night or if you ever wonder before, during or after the experience, “What am I doing here?” then I would like you to know that I have been where you are. I now understand that it is okay to brush yourself off, admit that you made a few mistakes and then move on in a different direction. And just because the chart has “Accomplishments” scrawled at the top and gold stars on the bottom doesn’t mean you have to agree.