April 18, 2013 — The first time I got drunk, I was a college freshman.
It was a cool Saturday in autumn. After a quick walk down the tree-lined boulevard connecting our campus to its suburban St. Louis surroundings, my roommates and I hit up the neighborhood grocery store and, with the assistance of our helpful 21-year old friend, obtained the necessary accoutrements for an intoxicating evening. Departing with the beers, me and the boys trekked back to our dorm room at Rubelman Hall, ready to par-tay. We kicked back a Bud Light, toasted our collective awesomeness and celebrated our shared goal for the evening: getting me drunk.
After swallowing the first couple Buds, not quite able to hide my displeasure with the actual taste of beer, I bounded down the hall to the room of a lady on our floor to who I’d taken a liking. I’m pretty sure I knew, even at the time, that my freshman floor crush was going nowhere – but I wanted this girl to like me, and she, along with almost everyone with whom I was becoming friends, had way more drinking experience than I. So, I thought I might get somewhere by maturely downing a few big boy drinks while engaging my Juliet in a philosophical debate about our Latin American Democracies lecture. Well, I did get somewhere – quite a bit tipsier, and as the last chords of John Mayer’s first album spooled off the computer speakers, Juliet suggested we grab some floor mates and head to a party on the north side of campus.
The group of us made our way to the soiree, which, by freshman year standards, was an absolute rager. Three adjoining apartments were co-hosting, and the throngs of drunk, sweaty and dancing biochem and anthro majors spilled out to the hallways and stairwells of the building. Not long after arriving, our ragtag crew dispersed, and I found myself surrounded by hundreds of new faces. Easily over my limit now, but determined to make this night count, I continued drinking, trying both to blend in with my solo cup surroundings and to quell the anxiety and excitement of the unfamiliar. At one point, I met a pretty cool guy and we chatted college hoops for a while as he mixed for me the outputs of a couple bottles I’d never even seen. A bit later, I found myself siphoned off from the main horde by a semi-cute girl who talked very enthusiastically about her a capella group while challenging me to match her beer for beer. After a few minutes of decent conversation, she closed the door of the bedroom we’d stumbled in to. Was she about to jump my bones? Um, no. She shut her eyes tight and sang a few bars of the arrangement she’d constructed for her group’s upcoming fall concert. It was a Ben Folds tune, and I remember it being melodic and brief.
Other than those “highlights,” the entire party was mostly a couple hours of awkward conversations, stints pumping the keg so I’d look busy, and more drinks. When enough became quite obviously enough, I stumbled over to my also-drunk roommate, Sam.
“Get me out of here, man,” I mumbled. “I gotta throw up.”
When I woke the next morning, it took me at least twenty five minutes to decipher my surroundings, despite being tucked safely and snugly in my top bunk at Ruby 114. The room was spinning. My head was ringing. Somehow, I hadn’t thrown up the night before, which only made my morning after that much more awesome. It was my very first hangover.
Now, as you read this account of my first drunken night which led to my first hangover, a few of you may have wondered why I was doing so much drinking underage, while others might have been thinking what took you so long? For some, there may have been a bit of nostalgia, as you remembered a similar night spent imbibing far too much at a new found collegiate paradise, retracing your steps over the hallowed ground of sacred memory. And for many of you, I’m guessing at least one detail of my story earned a brief, fleeting smile as you thought wow, that totally sounds like me.
And by this point, you may have forgotten the story’s title: The Night I Wasn’t Raped, which does accurately, although misleadingly, describe my memorable evening. But now that I’ve reminded you, let me ask: how might you have read the story differently if the title were reversed? How would you have related to my tale if it were instead called The Night I Was Raped?
There’s no way to know for sure. But you might have read the first line with a sigh, preparing to stomach yet another sad story about a naïve teenager mixing alcohol and social situations and ending up getting hurt. You might have shaken your head at my irresponsible 21-year old friend, helping underage kids score booze. It’s possible you would have sensed early on that I was pushing my limits, and wondered why I’d keep drinking when I was so clearly unprepared to handle the effects. You might have winced when I separated myself from my friends. You almost definitely would have cringed when I took strange drinks from strange people and I’d bet the farm you would have thought me pretty stupid to find myself alone in an unfamiliar room behind a locked door with a virtual stranger. And all these reactions probably would have been magnified if I’d written that alternately-titled story as a woman, in which case, there’s a decent chance your unconscious cringing might have been quicker, your reactive judgment more harsh.
You might have reacted in any of those ways because you knew how the story ended, and we humans have a nasty habit of judging the actions of ourselves and others with the unfair, misleading benefit of hindsight. This tendency is a logical fallacy called Outcome Bias, and I introduce it not to point a finger, but to stake out a common ground, because we’re all guilty of it. Even those of us who are acutely aware of the damning impact of blaming victims must fight a natural tendency to judge a person’s decisions about alcohol, sex and fraternization based on what happened to them as opposed to what they actually did.
So what did I actually do that night? I had drinks with some friends, tried to make a couple new ones, chatted up my freshman floor crush, tried to fit in to my college’s social scene and pushed my personal boundaries a little bit, all while trying to embrace and conquer a new but intimidating social scenario. Nothing inherently dangerous about any of those things. Almost all of us have made choices that trade a little bit of vulnerability in exchange for relationships, memories and experiences and fortunately, the vast majority of the time, the worst thing that happens is a killer hangover or a missed alarm clock.
The reason my story is called The Night I Wasn’t Raped, see, isn’t because of the choices I made, which followed an almost identical script to those made safely by thousands of college students every weekend. The reason it bears that title is that none of those supporting players in the story – my friends, roommates, partygoers or fellow students – took advantage of my vulnerability. If someone had, my story might have had a different title, and it wouldn’t have had anything to do with what I did.
Outcome bias and its offspring, victim-blaming, are two of the core challenges facing all of us as we try to work toward a culture where victims are supported in their healing and perpetrators are held responsible for their actions. And when we acknowledge and confront these rape myths, we take small but significant steps toward a world where victims are not judged for their victimization simply because we know the title of their story.
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