After three in the morning, on Prospect, words are no longer spoken. Instead, they are laughed, slurred, shouted into throngs of dancing bodies or down sidewalks littered with Solo cups. Meant to be forgotten, they are said but not heard, freed from the responsibility to communicate.
That night, as a friend and I walked back to our dorm, we weren’t talking but giggling, spilling the evening’s conquests and scandals in a language that made sense only to us, only in the moment. I don’t remember the substance of our conversation so much as the jolt of being wrested from it.
There were two voices. Both were male, and I judged they were drunk by their sheer loudness. There was nothing strange about this, in and of itself. But there was a certain violence in these voices that felt out of place even amid the post-Street rowdiness. It took me a minute to register words, another to recognize that they were directed at us.
Bitches, they first accused, with an aggression so intense that at first I thought he must have been joking. Fuck you, bitches, a second echoed with the same measure of ferocity. I turned to my friend, too disoriented to feel frightened, but her face was a puzzled mask. This kind of anger, I thought, didn’t erupt without cause. What had we done to provoke this?
I looked around, searching for any other women to whom this stream of curses might be directed, but the night was empty. And as the yelling continued, it became clear to me that we had done nothing — nothing, that is, except for being female and alone on a Saturday night.
We yelled back, initial confusion giving way to rage of our own. Tipsy and furious, we let profanity pour off our tongues. Middle finger extended, I felt reckless, mean, invigorated, by the chance to fire back. Because another realization was emerging, as clear as our own blamelessness. These men wanted us to be afraid. We would not allow them that victory.
In truth, I was not sure whether I was afraid or not. At first, the threat of violence had felt hot and immediate; we rushed inside as though fleeing a predator. But as we clambered up the stairs to our room, I felt only cold. The leftover buzz that, minutes before, had been a blanket from the February night now congealed into a cool numbness, and I fought against my own desire to simply forget. So what? We had been cursed at by some drunk strangers. We had cursed back. We had left. That was all.
Except that it wasn’t, at all. Except that their cursing was not random: these men had made a conscious decision to make us feel unsafe. Except that their drunkenness had only exposed attitudes that were already there. Except that they had learned these attitudes somewhere, and learned they were okay, and it was the product of this learning — not some moment of organic passion — that we had seen on display. Except that, somewhere under this numbness, I knew I was hurt, and my friend was hurt. Except that, despite knowing this, my first impulse was still to shrug it off.
In the days afterwards, I began to wonder if this was an isolated incident. As much as I wished it to be, instinct told me this was unlikely. And as I shared my story with others, I learned we were far from the only women who had experienced sexual aggression on Princeton’s campus.
In her article “What Shirley Wrought,” Olivia Lloyd called attention to the ways that older, eating-club-affiliated men capitalize on the pass system to take advantage of younger, unaffiliated women. While social power dynamics can definitely set the stage for sexual aggression, it is by no means limited to bicker club dance floors. One female student I spoke to remembers walking past Frist when a man — whom she does not believe was a Princeton student — asked her to “lick powdered sugar off of his nipples.” She laughed as she recounted this, but it was clear his comment had deeply shaken her sense of comfort.
Other stories were more arresting. A sophomore told me how, during the first week of her freshman year, a male student had approached her inside a club and tried to persuade her to come back to his room with him. Before she could say no, he grabbed her by the waist and began “pushing [her] towards the door of the club.” Though a male friend eventually came to her aid, the experience was jarring; she described feeling “extremely uncomfortable and mildly assaulted.” Grappling with the incident was especially difficult because of her lack of familiarity with campus: as a new freshman, she felt she “didn’t have anyone to turn to” to process what she had experienced. And there are more: according to the We Speak survey, released this past fall, female undergraduates were 2 to 5 times more likely than their male peers to experience sexual misconduct or assault.
Of course, this is by no means a new issue, nor one that has been ignored in the media. Since “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz’s activism at Columbia nearly two years ago, sexual assault on college campuses has become as hot a topic for news reporters as it has been a pressing concern for universities, including Princeton. In the wake of the We Speak survey, USG held a follow-up discussion with students and administrators to increase awareness and open up dialogue surrounding the survey’s troubling findings. Yet no amount of publicity or conversation has put an end to the misogyny that continues to haunt campus nightlife, and after a point it is difficult not to become complacent, to accept the “boys will be boys” mentality so often employed in defense of male aggression. To dissociate from the pain and move on.
There was something especially tempting about forgetting as I tried to make sense of that night’s events. If gender-based aggression is about claiming power, there is also a kind of power in standing above this show, claiming to be unaffected. Like yelling back, this is a way of feigning invulnerability, of demonstrating that these attempts at subjugation are not only wrong; they are pathetic. In a sense, it challenges male aggression by emasculating it.
The problem with this is that for every offense that can be forgotten, many more cannot. Like any trauma, sexual aggression has an afterlife. It clings not only to people but also to places, to sights and sounds and smells, waiting for the right moment to crawl out of hiding and shatter survivors’ sense of security and self. It is infectious, pernicious, resilient. Even if it were possible to forget this one incident, to do so would be to abandon the countless other women and men on this campus who are still grappling with the memories of much more harrowing experiences.
The evening after, my friend and I speculated as to what, if anything, had prompted these men to yell at us. “Maybe they weren’t getting any,” I joked. She posited a recent breakup. I wondered if they felt any shame, looking back, or if they even remembered. If they read this article, would they recognize themselves?
There is no way of knowing these things, just as there is no way of knowing why some acts of aggression can be forgotten while others stalk us for years. I am not sure how long I will hold this memory with me, but as long as I do I will keep telling it: two voices, faceless and nameless, cursing us out in the dark.