Freshman year, I downloaded Tinder onto my phone. I had called a friend from high school, asking about how her college experience was going. I didn’t want to let on that although I was having some pretty incredible experiences so far, from guest lectures to orientation camping trips and so on, in general, I was pretty miserable and lonely. She seemed to be having a great time, meeting all these new people, hooking up with a new boy every weekend. The next day, I downloaded the app onto my phone.

It was the end of fall break, near midnight, and an upperclassman I had been messaging texted, “Want to meet up right now?” It was raining outside and starting to get cold. I thought back to the call I had with my friend. It was 6 weeks into college, months after my breakup with my high school ex. Should I have also been hooking up with a new boy every weekend? I was sex positive right? Here was someone who wanted me, right? If we met, we could just hang out and I could always say no. I zipped up my jacket and walked over, literally shaking with some unexplainable mix of nervousness and fear and perhaps, excitement.

I kept looking down at my hands and playing with my jacket. Eventually, he scooted even closer to me on the couch, “So, we both know you didn’t come here just to hang out right?” I didn’t know what else to say so I laughed awkwardly and he leaned in to kiss me. It wasn’t bad, and I kissed him back. He invited me back to his dorm and it began to rain again. We shared my red umbrella all the way back to his dorm.

“Are you okay with this?” he asked. I nodded. Why did I say yes?

“Is this your first time?” he asked me, unwrapping the condom.

“No.” I said it like it was a challenge. It was true that it wasn’t my first time. But in a way, yes, it was my first time.

What I remember most is him leaning over above me afterward, overcome with probably a mix of pleasure and exhaustion. I was not tired at all and seeing him above me, chest sweaty and heaving, I felt oddly powerful. I did that to him. My body did that. Even though I was the one whose body was pinned down between his legs, I felt like I had been the one to slay him. “You’re exhausting,” he had said. I’m still not sure if he meant it as a compliment, but I definitely took it as one.

Back at my dorm, even though I had already showered earlier that night, I took another long, hot shower, scrubbing everything off my body, the shame, the smell, the encounter, the memory.

Once, he messaged me out of the blue on a Saturday night at 2 a.m., asking if I wanted to come over. I was doing nothing with my Saturday night and spending it alone. I wasn’t sure if I should go. In the end, I went over to his dorm. It had been a while since I had hooked up with anyone, and I wanted so desperately to be wanted. When I kissed him, he smelled like alcohol, and it was clear from the way that he talked and moved around his room that he had been drinking.

Outside our late-night hook ups, I had a strange feeling of panic when I thought I would see him in public. He didn’t assault me. I consented. So, why was I so anxious every time I thought I would run into him on campus? I was so ashamed and I didn’t have any words for it.

It wasn’t until years later, when I watched the TV series “I May Destroy You,” a show that explores the gray area of sex, consent, and rape, that I finally had the correct words to describe how I felt. The character Terry has a spontaneous threesome while visiting Italy on vacation. Whereas she previously thought she was in control of the situation and actively wanted to hook up, afterwards, she realizes that she had been manipulated and that the whole encounter with both men was a set up. She didn’t want to believe that she wasn’t in control and that she hadn’t been manipulated, but it still settles wrong with her. The strange feeling that the sexual encounter was not as she previously had imagined is one that I really related to.

I was a freshman, clearly unsure of myself and feeling totally new and alone on campus. He had friends, clubs he was involved in, an upperclassman. Why did he want to hook up with me? Didn’t I want it? Didn’t I consent? Why did I feel so weird about it afterwards? Why do I still feel so weird?

For the rest of the year until he graduated, and even now when I see his name pop up or a photo of him on someone’s social media, an unexplainable sense of fear and shame and odd pleasure rises up in me. I guess I just wanted to matter to him as more than just a body. I didn’t just want to hook up, I wanted to be friends too, and I didn’t know how. I was a freshman, and I was so uncertain about being at Princeton and who I was, and he just kept messaging me and I went along with it because I wanted to get that feeling of power back. Who was really in control the whole time? Was it him or me? And if I had felt weird about the whole encounter, shouldn’t I have spoken up and asked for what I wanted?

Since then, I’ve come to realize that when it comes to sex and relationships, often we exist in a gray area between agency and coercion. I had agency, but to what degree? I don’t blame or accuse him of anything egregious, but we both exist in a culture where I continue to wonder years after it happened how much did I really want to hook up and how much the circumstances make me feel that was what I had to do. I feel crazy for still thinking about this. I am still constantly learning how to have healthy relationships and how to communicate because we grow up with flawed scripts to work off of when it comes to intimacy. These scripts are rooted in patriarchy and assumed gender roles and shame around sexuality, especially for women. And it makes it particularly difficult for women to ask directly for what they want. There is little that is taught about how to communicate wants and boundaries and investigate intrinsic power dynamics in relationships beyond the simple fact that ‘no means no’, and it makes it easy for those of us who feel vulnerable to substitute affection for attention instead. I just wish I knew the difference back then. I just wish I knew there was so much more to intimacy.

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