It took me the better part of a year to realize that I had been sexually assaulted.
During freshman orientation week, my cheery dorm advisor welcomed us all into our new residential hall at Princeton University. It was absurd how much Sarah* was the quintessential dorm parent. She was a history major who danced on the side, organized yet warm, happy to listen for about 10 to 15 minutes of small talk. She told our little circle of freshmen about the Princeton Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, the clubs, and the blue lights found every ten yards. With one push of the button, you’d be connected to a Public Safety Officer, and help would be on its way. She managed to say around 80% of this smiling, and you could very easily imagine a later Betsy Ross, hand-stitching the Princeton crest into a flag.
I reflect a lot on that conversation from that sunny late-August afternoon. Almost none of that cheerily regurgitated spoon-fed mush was actually reflective of what my next four years would be like. It turns out that most of my professors never learned my name, let alone eagerly reached out to encourage my personal development. I did make lifelong friends, but the visions of constant study breaks and joyous late nights hanging out dissipated in lieu of long, long nights in an isolated carrel, three floors underground. But the myth that was perhaps the most harmful to me was the blue light.
At this point perhaps those of you who are Gatsby lovers, envision me lying on my side on the sidewalk, in a long, tattered silk dress gently flowing in the wind. One strap sliding down my shoulder, my arm outstretched beseechingly towards that blue light that shone in the night when ten yards might as well have been a mile, as a dark shadow of a man slowly comes into frame. But no, it didn’t happen like that. It wasn’t romantic. I wasn’t a heroine. I actually walked past six of those blue lights without once reaching for one, as I walked with James* back to his room.
He had a long, crooked smile, and a slight southern accent. A dimple on the left cheek when he smiled. I was on the dark dance floors of one of the more elitist clubs, my first week as a freshman. I noticed a few guys were smoking cigarettes while dancing. I bummed one, and started smoking with them.** James came up to me, his smile sideways, eyes catching the light. “You know you aren’t supposed to be smoking down here.” I laughed at him, pointing to his own lit cigarette. “Well, I’m friends with the guys who run this place. You really aren’t supposed to be smoking here.” I raised an eyebrow at him and laughed.
“You’re pretty special, aren’t you?” He had his fraternity pledge light me another cigarette. We danced. We laughed. He continued to tease me with that subtle drawl. I continued to toss my hair and mercilessly tease him back. At the end of the night, the music stopped. And I said, what now? And he said, now we go back to my room. And I took his proffered elbow. I was completely sober.
When he closed the door, the space in the room sucked inwards, pulling and sucking, and pressing me into him. There was so much less…room than on the dance floor. On the dance floor, I was the wild thing. My freedom was exhilarating. The world was so big, and it was my maze to wander and run in. I didn’t know it then, but like a wild thing I was hunted. And now I was trapped.
I didn’t fight him off. In fact, I’m pretty sure he has no idea that he sexually assaulted me. I froze inside. His hands crawled over me, him pushing, thrusting. “Doesn’t that feel so good?” “I’m the best you’ve ever had, aren’t I?” I shrank into the vacant stare of my eyes, the slight tightening of my nostrils, and the occasional quiet, meek “mhm”. As I pulled on a t-shirt, he told me that I should thank my mother for my sweet tits.
Afterwards, we slept. He snored, an absurdist stereotype. I got up to pee. My labia had swelled a bit, and it was red and tender to the touch. I went back and laid awake in his bed until I too fell asleep. The next morning I woke up early to go to my Linear Algebra class. The girl beside me asked if I could move one seat over so that her friend could sit with her. I smiled at her and said of course.
A few weeks later, I learned that James was known for having “yellow fever.” I had been fucked because I was Chinese-American and a brand-new freshman. That dynamic could fill tomes of anthropological study. The new Edward Said, a continuation of the study of Orientalism and its effects on the pattern of handsome, elite white boys fucking yellow girls.
It took me about six months to figure out how to communicate during sex. It took me three more years to have mind-blowing sex. There was plenty of decent, mediocre, and disappointing sex in-between. But it wasn’t until four years later, when a movie happened to recreate my precise sexual assault, panning to focus on the woman’s blank stare as the man thrusted into her, that I truly realized that it wasn’t my fault.
My dress wasn’t torn, and there was no blue light for me. I blamed myself for not protesting more vehemently, for not leaving. But honestly, none of that would have been an issue if he had once looked in my eyes and asked if I was okay.
*names have been changed
**I quit smoking a month later. Really. Smoking isn’t cool.
*Photos taken by: Thomas Polcaster