“Do you guys want to see my pink taser?”
Um, no, not really. Sorry. While I do believe that female empowerment plays an important part in ensuring safety when we go out, that didn’t stop me from being scared out of my mind when my friend turned off the lights and all I saw and heard were bright blue sparks shooting and zapping in my direction.
There were a couple things running through my head in that moment. Why did she have a taser? Whereon earth did she get it? Why pink? Isn’t it illegal to own a taser? In what situation would one even want to use that?
Did I need one, too?
In the summer before my freshman year, I took a trip with three of my close friends to Quebec. Before our trip, there were late nights spent planning which attractions to see, what food to eat, and which nightclubs to frequent while we were there.
It was at one of those meetings at 1 AM when my one friend abruptly stood up and asked the above question.
Looking back, I probably should have questioned the legality of her bringing a taser over the border, or really of her having it in the first place. But in my mind, I thought it was just another necessary tool that women might use to help defend themselves. To me, it wasn’t a weapon, but a potential advantage to be used in a worst-case scenario. And what scares me is the way that this isn’t a far cry from some women say it’s necessary to arm ourselves with guns against potential harassers.
I definitely did feel safer knowing that my friend brought this with her on the trip. There were a couple times we, four eighteen-year-old girls, walked back alone at 3 in the morning in a foreign country. Our Airbnb was in one of the dodgier parts of town in Quebec City (if the tourist city can even really be called dodgy). I remember making jokes about my friend’s taser, which we lovingly named Hillary by the end of the trip. We laughed and shouted that no one could mess with us now, that we were invincible.
But the twist is this: my friend didn’t buy this taser knowing that she would be on her own in an unknown place with three other equally clueless girls. Her dad found and purchased this taser for her so that she would have it before she went off the college. I can only imagine a parent’s anxiety in sending their only daughter hundreds of miles away, without being there to look out for her—but it’s not exactly like Blacksburg, VA is that dangerous.
I guess he bought her that pink taser for the same reason my mom asked me if I wanted to get pepper spray to bring with me a couple days before I first moved into Princeton. I felt the same confusion from before creeping up on me now. Was Princeton really that unsafe for young women?
I told my mother, “No.” But now I can’t help but feel my reaction was too dismissive, and I didn’t give her suggestion the thought it deserved. Would I regret it?
The thing is, I don’t think I really understood what my mother was asking. She wasn’t asking if I thought I’d be safe at Princeton, but really, if I thought I’d be safe at college in general, if I thought I’d be safe out there in the world, no matter where I went. Sadly, I would now say that my answer, at least for the latter two, has changed.
Over fall break of this year, I went to visit a couple of my friends at schools down south. My friend Avery was someone I’ve known since I was five years old, and I figured it would be fun to surprise her at University of North Carolina. I planned this trip so that I would be there over “Halloweekend,” the time of year infamous for blackouts, strategically ripped costumes, and disgustingly jungled juice. Having just experienced my first Princetoween, I was ready to see what these schools had in store.
My night at UNC began ordinarily, with my best friend from home and I getting ready, blasting 2000s throwbacks from her speaker, while we frantically tried to dress. She was so anxious about finding wristbands for all her friends who wanted to come along, something that seemed all-too-similar to our esteemed pass system here at school.
Finally, we met up with her friends, and the night began.
On our walk along Franklin street, to the famed Mini-Frat-Courtyard where we would be spending our night, I remember we passed at least two cop cars on every corner. Yet their presence wasn’t exactly comforting to the girls I was accompanying. Franklin Street, as it was, was not the safest place for, again, four girls to be walking around alone in the dark, so I assumed the cops were watching over us. To my dismay, my friend told me they were watching the students, ready to arrest those who showed visible signs of drunkenness. I was told we would be Ubering back to my friend’s dorm to subsequently avoid being arrested for public intoxication.
Toto, I definitely don’t think we’re in Princeton anymore; maybe I could click my heels and ask PSafe to come get me?
We eventually made it safely to the frat house to collect our bands for the night. I didn’t really know how to feel when it turned out bouncers, members of the frat, were able to recognize my friend on sight and waived us through immediately. My friend seemed to be on good terms with a lot of brothers in the house, greeting them familiarly as she saw the ones she knew.
At this point, I was feeling a bit out of my element, having only been exposed to the eating clubs back on campus. Sober, unsure, and shy to a fault, I certainly wasn’t about to start walking around like I owned the place, calling everyone I saw, “Bro.” However, if there’s one thing that’s good about being one of the only sober people in a messy crowd where the lights really haven’t been dimmed enough for people to be acting the way they are, it’s that I was actually able to process what was going on around me.
It struck me that the house only served jungle juice, where brothers took turns handing girls cups from behind a beer-stained folding table. I heard my tenth-grade health teacher’s voice ringing in my head, always get your own drink, and never set it down. Should I have been wearing that nail polish that can detect date-rape drugs?
I could also see that at the frat house, there were about five girls to every guy here. It’s one of the things you hear about frats all the time, but it’s different to actually see it. It’s almost like we were an attraction for them, trapped in a fishbowl only to be looked at and evaluated, with no possibility of escape sans confrontation because there were frat brothers hanging around each entry and exit. Out of the group I came with, I couldn’t tell if anyone else was as uncomfortable with being mentally ranked on a scale of 1-10 as I was.
After that night, Avery also told me that the frat brothers who live at the house, her friends, will call DIBS on girls they want to pursue after everyone’s drunk their fill, despite a total lack of consultation with or consent given by the girl in question, and it’s seldom that she’s even aware she’s been made the subject of this seemingly antiquated transaction. As women, we’re presented with the illusion of choice, where only a male party needs to make of his own interest before we’re put in a position that makes it hard to simply say, “no”.
I also find it pretty ironic that frat boys often have to face consequences for wronging a brother, or “stealing his girl”, but does no such punishment exists for sexually assaulting someone?
I was surprised that this kind of party seemed so commonplace—and I guess it is at a lot of larger state schools. To me, college is supposed to bring a renewed sense of agency, especially for girls who are often told they need to be supervised by others far longer than boys are. Yet the Greek system I briefly experienced seems to afford girls only as much agency as its male population allows: sororities can’t throw parties unless they’re supervised by frats, party-goers are dependent on and beholden to their male friends so they can have a night out, and girls can’t even be in control of what goes into their own drink.
Of course, Princeton isn’t perfect, and neither are our eating clubs. Our university only allowed women to attend in 1969, and the first woman wasn’t allowed to join an eating club until ’79.
But today, Princeton’s eating clubs are a lot more gender equitable than in the past, and they are certainly more so than the frat house I went to at UNC. I can pick and choose where I can go out with my friends, and I don’t have to sacrifice my safety to do so. My friends and I are equally likely to ask a girl or guy for a pass or a space on the list. I actually recognize the people behind the bars after only a few months on campus, and there’s no male monopoly on serving drinks. I know that if I’m out and I don’t feel comfortable with someone talking to me, it’s easy enough to diffuse a situation or ask a club officer to step in, without having to face social repercussions.
I can go out knowing that if I’m too tired to get back to my dorm-in-a-different-zip-code that the UMatter bus will drop me off right in front my building, and PSafe isn’t waiting at the door to interrogate me. The university has so many institutions like SHARE, the ICC, and more that are created to better the social environment of the school and protects students’ interests, and while they aren’t infallible, these are crucial first steps that some other colleges are hesitant to take.
Maybe my opinion is colored by my experience at Princeton, and maybe my experience at Princeton has been lucky thus far, but I can’t help but feel grateful to be on a campus whose environment enables me walk to back at 3 AM and not feel like I should have taken my mother up on her offer to buy me that pepper spray.
But I don’t think I should have to be thankful for what seems like common decency.