I remember once going to Main second, which was kind of a party floor my first year—I don’t know if it still is, I haven’t really gone over there since. I remember walking into that cramped hallway where spectators were crammed up against the walls, mostly quiet, subdued, watching two guys play beer die with intense sweaty concentration. They were big guys—upperclassmen who were also literally kind of huge, and sort of bro-ish, and casually unfriendly—not outright mean, but there was a demarcated line between them and you, and to talk to them or make a joke or in any way try to cross into a conciliatory place meant you were about to be treated very coolly.
One of the guys playing beer die I’d gone home with from High Street during NSO and had had an unpleasant sexual experience with, the kind that really makes you want to lay off hookups for a while and spend some time doing yoga or meditation or whatever to try and sort yourself out. This was his element: the crowd, the beer die, the physical space he took up (the table barely fit in the hallway, and if you wanted to get by you’d have to squeeze between the table’s nasty beer-sticky edge and about ten people’s knees, and of course they wouldn’t stop throwing the die as you passed, and there were beer bottles empty and full around everyone’s feet, and basically it was a big obstacle course of potential embarrassment). And I was a first-year with maybe two friends there, who’d immediately gone off to say hi to other, probably much cooler friends, cooler friends I had not yet made, because I was unable to get over the fact that I was a first year with the aforementioned two friends, and had gone into social shutdown.
“You’re leaving?” my friend asked, disappointed. “Well, okay, have a good night.”
Parties, as we all know, = fun. What elements go into this fun? You can drink at parties, and drinking = fun. You can dance at parties, and dancing = fun. You can find hookups at parties, and hookups = fun. It’s implicit that all of these elements require a certain amount of social ease. But it’s not just ease; parties seem to require as well a particular kind of social stamina or tolerance. And everyone’s got a different social tolerance, which is fine.
Only I found something about some parties—specifically off-campus parties—to be especially draining. I didn’t know many kids there; the atmosphere wasn’t exactly conducive to friend-making; everyone seemed to have arrived with friends who they then stuck to in little drunk clusters; every now and then I’d see another first-year stepping around these clusters, face stiff and neutral and searching, but very, very carefully so. I had friends. I could drink if I wanted. And parties (of course) = fun. Why wasn’t I having fun? Why was I actually really sort of upset?
Parties are cruel because they often work backwards. If you go to them, you’ll eventually know the people there and you’ll be more likely to have a good time. If you don’t go, you won’t, and you won’t. It’s a finite loop—insular, demanding, exhausting. Like a lot of things at Grinnell, they get better as you get older, and when they’re good, they’re great. But if you’re a first-year who doesn’t know anybody, you’re out of the loop, and there’s a special kind of cruelty reserved for you—especially, I think, if you’re a woman. There’s a kind of social gaslighting that takes place. You should be having fun; everyone around you sure seems to be. If you’re not having fun, you can just go home. Therefore if you go out and don’t have fun, and you’re drunk and you don’t have fun, and you’re fooling around with some other drunk kid and you don’t have fun, well, that’s all on you. It’s easy to forget that not everyone at the party is in your situation. It’s easy to forget that there are other forces at work that could be making you uncomfortable or unhappy.
A little later in my first year, I remember complaining to an upperclassman about High Street and how much I couldn’t wait to not be a first year anymore so I could slip under the radar more easily. I said I felt like I was being treated differently. I said I felt like guys were a lot more aggressive than they were with women in their own year or women they actually knew. I said I felt like there was this sexual aspect to being a first-year that was sort of taboo and sort of treated like a joke (“Don’t hook up with underclassmen until after 10/10!”) and basically taken as status quo.
“Oh, you should enjoy your first year,” he said. “First year girls get all the attention. Once you’re an upperclassman, guys pretty much stop talking to you.”
I said I felt like he had maybe missed the point.
Because for first-year girls especially, High Street can take on nuances that are uncomfortable and threatening and even dangerous. It’s true that some upperclassmen at those parties will look at you differently. They don’t know you, so it’s easy to treat you carelessly. You’re younger than a lot of people there and you’re in a new place, possibly doing things you’ve never or rarely done before, without the strong support systems of friends and family you may have had back home; so you’re vulnerable, and less sure of yourself (i.e., “Do I want to hook up with this guy? Well, I don’t think so. But he wants to. He seems to think I do. Maybe I do. Actually, sure, I guess that’s fine.”)
Plenty of upperclassmen, especially those looking specifically to hook up with first years, like hooking up with first years for exactly these reasons. These guys, combined with the casual exclusion that’s bound to happen at upperclassmen-heavy parties—it’s not that they don’t like you, it’s just that they don’t know you, and they’re just kind of doing their own thing, and you can’t really talk to anyone at a dark loud house party, anyway—make High Street boil with potential nastiness.
Listen, I don’t mean to say that off-campus parties are crap. Some of my best first-year memories are those two or three parties I feel like a lot of us have had, that somehow came together with people we loved at a perfect time in the night and were totally, indisputably real fun. But if you’re a first-year, that spooky potential is always there. It gets less and less solid as the year goes on and you remember that you’re actually smart and competent and capable of making your own decisions, and you realize the one guy by the jungle juice yelling “Self-gov’s dead, man! It’s dead!” is actually full of shit, and in general you find yourself again—which is what happened to me—but while that’s happening, there are still scary moments, and suddenly it’s your first college party again, and some guy touched your waist as he went around you and maybe it was fine but it gives you a creepy feeling, and what you expected to feel like freedom feels instead like another kind of trap.
This feeling is legitimate. It’s not in your head. It’s okay, when you feel like something’s fucked up, to say, “hey—this is fucked up.” Because yeah, sometimes a feeling is just a feeling and everything’s fine, but in your gut you’ll know when it isn’t. And sometimes, even worse, you’ll know something’s not fine but tell yourself it is, because college is overwhelming, and it’s just easier on your poor psyche to believe you’ve been making nothing but good/okay decisions. Basically, it’s really hard: hard to admit you’re wrong sometimes, hard to admit parties don’t always = fun, hard to admit that, in fact, a lot of the college party myth is bullshit, and you’re going to have nights where you walk home alone, and there’s party noise at your back, and oh my God it sounds fun, it sounds like the soundtrack of a TV show about edgy teens, but maybe it’s not that simple, and there’s a reason you’re walking home, other than: I am lame. It took me forever to think this stuff all the way through and sometimes I still find it hard to believe.
To the women in the class of 2020:
Trust your gut.