A couple Fridays ago, joined by the presidents of Kappa and Pi Phi, I spoke as the Theta representative at Take Back the Night. The evening was frantically managed, with speakers from what seemed like every organization on campus standing up to say that—surprise!—they were all against sexual assault. We were there to show the sororities’ solidarity with the message of the event and, going into it, the three of us were under the impression we’d be reading some campus statistics. When we arrived, however, we were told we’d been expected to prepare a speech.
Needless to say, our presentation did not go as smoothly as desired. As the representative of more than a hundred smart and independent women on this campus, I was deeply ashamed as I walked off the stage, sure that I’d helped drive home some of the worst misconceptions about Princeton sorority girls. I ended the evening thankful only for the weather: because of the cold, most people had left as soon as the headline speaker had finished, and few were around to witness our talk.
But after such an utterly forgettable failure, I couldn’t shake my profound sense of guilt. Shoulda-woulda-coulda’s kept me from sleeping, and I realized it was because I’d actually had something to say, and I had wasted my opportunity. So here it is, in apology and defense:
Princeton is a school with a dynamic and ambitious student body, and endless subgroups and subcultures, each of whom espouses its own values and emulates its own heroes. Under all of that eclecticism, however, lurks a strong and undeniable homogenizing force: the pull that takes skater boys who didn’t drink and has them getting wasted in polo shirts by the end of freshman year; the gentle tug that convinces would-be English majors to opt for Economics instead; and the boys club mentality that teaches women to be proud of their bodies instead of their minds.
I’m not sure when I accepted the fact that most parties here are themed to get girls in as little clothing as possible, or how I sidestepped furor at the power plays that result from the peculiar politics of the Street. The notion of “third floor bicker” was distant and darkly funny, and the prevalence of regretted hookups in lieu of dates and relationships seemed like an obnoxious but tolerable quirk. I allowed myself to think of a salad as a meal and to stop drinking regular soda, and I accepted resignation in a world where thin is beautiful and curves are lucky if they elicit an offensive remark.
But on Friday night, faced with the prospect of saying something about male-female relations on campus, I suddenly felt ready to burst. A miniskirt is not consent, I had wanted to say. Women are not objects, and they are not playthings. Our minds cannot be divorced from our bodies at your convenience; organic sexuality is deep and beautiful, and is not the product of Beast and lingerie. There is a world where people dance not as an excuse to play drunken tonsil-hockey, but because they enjoy moving their bodies to music. And there is something in all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, that wonders what we are doing to ourselves.
Growing up, I never considered myself a feminist; I thought of feminism as burning your bra and refusing to shave your armpits, as thinking of all men as pigs and of the penis as the source of evil and oppression in the world. I had trouble empathizing with girls who were too weak to stand up for themselves or who were too intimidated to speak up in class. Blinded by my own strengths, I thought of the world—or at least the United States—as meritocratic regardless of gender. Male or female, I believed, the strong and the worthy prospered.
But as I have learned, this is not always the case. Women’s power over men lies in the long-acknowledged subtleties of femininity, in the understanding, so perfectly described in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, that “the neck can turn the head.” But men’s power, too, is subtle. It lies not in the force used to crush women’s wills but in the disrespect used to corrupt them, because once we offer our bodies as bait instead of protecting them as the prize, we’re lost.
Most people who become feminists in college probably do so in the context of mass protests against female genital mutilation in Africa or rallies for the rights of pre-teen sex slaves in Asia. But I had wanted to go to a university that was apolitical, I’d thought; I was bothered by the spoiled left-wingers who compromised our election by voting for Nader and held environmentalist rallies every time the groundskeeper cut the grass. So I came to Princeton, where I could soak up a truly spectacular education in peace, avoiding both shrieking tree-huggers and, as I’ve come to see, any challenges to the campus status quo.
I know, I know, it’s college—our last chance to party with abandon, to enjoy free love and bad beer and a life free from responsibility. And believe me, I enjoy that life. But somewhere along the way a line has been crossed. I learned a few Fridays ago—as I had already guessed—that Princeton’s statistics for sexual assault are far lower than those at other schools, and yet I suspect that chauvinism and misogyny have devalued as many students here as anywhere. I don’t know how we’ve sunk into such apathy, nor do I know how to remedy it. But we must force ourselves to remember that seeing a woman’s body is a privilege, not a right, and that sex is not an empty commodity to be exploited for its entertainment value. Princeton students are supposed to be the leaders of tomorrow, but in an atmosphere that divides CEO’s from Office Ho’s, it’s clear who’s expected to come out on top.