I don’t have a story about the first day of my life being my first day on campus. Yeah, there was a lot of promise ahead of me, but immediately ahead of me were four flights of concrete stairs, no elevator, and a set of parents wondering why the hell I’d brought so much crap to college, because now we had to carry it upstairs.
There’s a cliché in here somewhere, but that initial move-in foreshadowed my year ahead. I was sweaty, confused, exhausted, and anxious. All I thought I had to worry about were four flights of stairs and the fact that I’d never painted in my life were. I was in for it.
First I have to state that I've loved my college experience so far. There’s never been a single doubt in my mind that at this stage in my life, this is right where I need to be. But that first day, hauling an IKEA bookshelf upstairs, I had no idea what was to come. This whole “sex in college” thing had seemed irrelevant because I started school in a long distance relationship, and I wasn't prepared when it reared its ugly head.
The state of sex education in the United States is pathetic. There are still states that teach only abstinence and allow conservative parents to opt-out of their children receiving this information. People don’t know that Planned Parenthood isn’t just an abortion warehouse, but actually an important women's health clinic for a lot of female-bodied people who can't afford expensive specialist care. Even my own liberal all-girl high school’s sex ed program didn’t teach me a lot things that I would have liked to know, especially before entering this newly independent phase of my life. We went over contraception, but not in detail, with the emphasis being on condoms as the way to prevent STDs. We had an overnight retreat with a speaker about sexual violence that was more comical than informational. It wasn’t a lack of effort that bothered me, it was all the gaps I ended up having to fill in myself.
Lesson 1: You are not worth less because someone does not want your body.
As any sane person could have predicted, my long distance relationship was rocky by October. When fall break rolled around and my boyfriend came to visit, I was eager to make up for lost time. I spent forever trying to figure out how I would show him everything in my new life – including my new dorm mattress. It wasn’t long into the light rail ride downtown before he started to tell me what he wanted to do and see and the list didn't include having sex with me.
I was really upset for a while about it. What I had possibly done so wrong that he would reject the idea of physical intimacy with me? Had he cheated? My mind raced with the endless possibilities. I thought this was all my fault. I faced the facts: the relationship was rocky, it would become more complicated when he had to go back to school, and I didn’t want to coerce him into saying yes to something he didn’t want to do.
Eventually I realized it didn't matter that my boyfriend didn’t want to sleep with me. He was not the sole determinant of my personal worth, and it changed nothing about my value as an intelligent woman in a top-tier art college. I was not less because of what had (or hadn’t) happened.
Lesson 2: Silence does not equal consent.
I had class on the day of Halloween and had gotten ripped into my critique for something I wished I had worked harder on. I was dehydrated and almost passed out in class. The health center advised me to call out of work for the night, so I did. I slept for a few hours, trying to convince myself I wasn’t being lazy. My roommates started getting ready for the night and I didn’t want to miss out, so I put on the costume I’d planned to wear to work with the intention of only staying at their friends’ party for an hour or two.
Things got complicated. Everyone got drunk. More than tipsy. We kept a tally of our drinks on our arms in Sharpie, and everyone’s skyrocketed past ten in less than two hours. My roommate had just taken a fraternity brother back to her room. The other frat brother had quickly gone back with my other roommate. I was alone on the couch in my living room and called up a friend. They arrived quickly, and alone, at first. Soon after an uninvited entourage filed through the door. The group included a boy in my drawing class, who I hadn’t spoken to very much but considered a friendly acquaintance. He and his friend downed a bottle of Fireball and the rest of my roommates’ boxed wine. He climbed into the armchair with me and cuddled me, even holding me up; by that point I had more than fourteen drinks in my system and could barely talk, let alone sit up. He invited himself to stay the night for “platonic cuddling” and I was lonely so I agreed.
It was more than that. He stuck his hands down my shirt and took off my bra while I was too drunk to say yes or no. The rest was an extended anxiety attack; he’d gotten up, taken off his pants, and thrown up all over my bathroom. I’d quickly pushed all of his things out of my room, locked the door, and hoped he would get the hint that he was no longer welcome. But he stayed the night on the couch, and my roommates were wondering what was going on. The next day, I was reduced to the same silence that gripped me when I was too drunk and scared to tell my assaulter no.
I probably wouldn’t have reported it if my RA hadn’t run into me when the dam finally broke and I started to sob in public. The next month was a blur of official meetings and hearings. For weeks I could barely sleep in my own bed, haunted by what happened. He was removed from my drawing class for the remainder of the semester and suspended for the next semester. I still dread seeing him around, and wish the punishment had been harsher, but in a climate where college women who are sexually assaulted are routinely swept under the rug by an image-driven administration, I considered it a victory.
All the while, he rested his case on the fact that I hadn’t said no because I hadn’t said anything, and regardless of his drunken perception, silence does not connote consent.
Lesson 3: Do your homework.
Following the inevitable breakup of my relationship over winter break, I was newly single and ready to explore the dating scene at my college. There are details I won’t divulge; I know my mother is reading this right now and probably already wincing a little at my candor. The short story: I slept with a lot of people. Some of them I knew, some of them I didn’t. Some of them I still talk to, some of them I don’t.I don't have many regrets about this, but the one I do have turned into what may have been one of my most important lessons.
One person I slept with had a girlfriend he didn’t tell me about. One had a kid and a latent but very serious anger management issue, and I had seen him dehumanize women and those suffering mental illness in a single heated conversation. One had been investigated for sexual assault by the school. Other little white lies popped up here and there when I looked up my new hookups on Facebook, but it was the little white lie that I wouldn’t find online that turned out to be the problem.
An old hookup had just broken up with his girlfriend. He and I started talking. He told me he tested clean on his last STD exam, and since I had too, he suggested we try unprotected sex. Naturally the one time in my life I had ever made a decision quite this reckless, the consequences came right along and slapped me in the face. At a gallery opening, his ex had told me that, among other serious legal indiscretions, he had tested positive for chlamydia. He had not only given it to her, but had told her that I was the source of it.
It wasn’t even just that I slowly was realizing he was a pathological liar. It was that the one time I hadn’t been my punctual, prepared self, the worst had happened. I knew he was sleeping around. I shouldn’t have believed him so readily. I was lucky I had gotten something curable. I should have just done my homework.
Lesson 4: It’s not the end of the world.
My high school sex ed class would have led me to believe that taking an emergency STD test done was a sign that I had failed as a responsible adult. Even though my actions leading up to needing this test were not entirely responsible, it wasn’t as terrifying as I was told it would be. The clinicians didn’t pass judgment on me. My parents, though disappointed, understood things like this could happen to nearly anyone. It was nowhere near the horror that my sex ed classes had told me it would be, even though needing to contact everyone else I’d been with and swallowing a megadose of antibiotics sucked. I was, of course, privileged to have the knowledge and resources I already had and recognized that not everyone could get this lucky. I have a clinic on campus and health insurance that covered the prescriptions and test kit.
I realized at the end of all of this that what I needed to do was take charge of my own health. While I had started out terrified, it empowered me to know that I was the only person who could impact my own future. I’m writing this because I learned by doing and wish I hadn’t had to. I’m writing to spread my lessons and try to fill in the gaps that so many others in my position have in their sexual education.
Above all, I want those with fewer resources in a similar position to know they're not alone. These positions are obstacles, and they vary in size depending on the person, but it's not one that is insurmountable, and it is not the end of the world. The shame that we inflict on teen moms and STD carriers is rooted in societal flaws and double standards, and it can be difficult to overcome. At the very least, I hope sharing my story shed more light on something we don’t like to talk about and kept someone else from having to do instead of learn. They should realize they are not alone.