Friday night found me, as it often does, at a fraternity house. The room smelled like sweat and cheap alcohol, and the floors were sticky with Keystone Light. Across the room from a table littered with empty Solo cups, the two of us swayed our hips next to each other on the half-darkened dance floor to the throbbing bass of a 5-year-old Lady Gaga song.
“Want to go back to my place?”
His breath was earnest and hot in my ear, and I had to resist the urge to laugh in his face.
It had been all of two minutes since he’d asked me to dance. The Ravenclaw tie I’d chosen to wear to the theme party didn’t exactly scream “looking for something to happen tonight,” and neither did my body language. Besides, we hadn’t even made out yet, and I figured a consensual kiss of some kind was usually a prerequisite for this kind of invitation. Apparently and unfortunately, this seemed to be what passed for a move nowadays.
But I had to say something back, and so I lied.
“I can’t, I have to wake up early for a meeting.” On a Saturday morning? Sure.
“You can go after.”
“No, sorry, it’s really early. I need to sleep.” Wow, I’m running with that excuse? Really?
An awkward silence followed for just a few pulses of the bass before I excused myself, citing a nonexistent friend who nonexistently drank too much and whom I needed to nonexistently check up on. I walked back over to a gaggle of my housemates in the other room, hoping someone would be willing to walk home with me soon.
At the time, I wasn’t quite sure why the lie came easier than the truth. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t just tell him that I felt like I deserved a little more than that, that I didn’t do this kind of thing on personal principle, that I’ve never felt quite okay with the hookup culture he assumed me to be complicit in.
It’s easy to blame college and social media culture, but the truth is that this phenomenon started long before frat parties and Tinder entered our lives. I was introduced to “freaking” at a dance in eighth grade and learned by ninth grade that I was expected to just ask my friends whether or not the boy grinding behind me was cute. In 10th grade, I participated for the first time in a bizarre youth group tradition in which every dance we hosted closed with eight minutes of awkward teenage making out to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It all felt unnatural, uncomfortable and more obligatory than consensual in my socially anxious head.
Now instead of wide multi-purpose rooms in Bay Area JCCs, I find myself in apartment living rooms and fraternity houses. Though the settings have changed, the interactions have not. Guys still come up behind me to dance at clubs without asking me first. It’s still more effective to escape a situation by feigning a need to go to the bathroom than by actually saying “no.” Same status quo, but more booze. I still have friends that I trust to navigate this world with me, but somehow they all seem more comfortable in it than I do. I feel too self-conscious, too hesitant, too prone to overthinking. I worry more about what men expect from me than what I want for myself.
So the lie comes. It’s easier than the truth after all. Telling the truth is admitting that I don’t quite fit in. Instead, I let him rationalize my obviously fake excuse on his own, and I try to ignore the nagging voice in the back of my head that knows I’ve done the wrong thing. That part of me worries that I’ve condoned his actions, conveyed somehow that I would have ever considered saying “yes.”
That part of me worries that I’m not sticking up for myself.
Yet nothing changes. I still go to parties. I still go bar-hopping with my housemates. I still keep telling my friends that I’m thinking again about getting a Tinder account even though it’s never quite true. They say that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity, but maybe it’s just a sign of wanting to fit in. My violent fear of confrontation has always overcome any desire I have to openly defy what I perceive to be expected. But I know in my heart of hearts that it isn’t fair to anyone, least of all me.
So the next time a guy asks me to be intimate with him at a party, I’ll be honest with him. I’ll tell him “yes” or “no” and give him a real reason why. I’ll tell him what I’m comfortable with and what I’m not. I won’t use a fake excuse if I want to run away. It won’t feel easy, but hopefully it’ll feel right.
He deserves that much, and so do I.