The brown beat in leather couch sank as he sat down next to me with a red solo cup in hand.
“Want one?” Sam offered, as he gestured his drink in my direction.
“I’m not drinking tonight,” I said firmly. There was a mischievous look of doubt in his eyes, but we didn’t know each other well enough yet for him to insist. His roommates were playing beer pong and talking about which bar was the best choice for a Thursday night out. It was my first semester, and I was still getting used to balancing nightlife and school — the last time I went out on a Thursday I didn’t end up waking up in time for my morning class the next day and the lingering guilt was enough to deter me from making the same mistake.
There was a knock on the door and Sam got up to answer it. Four more guys, and one girl, a freshman, who I later learned was named Isabel, walked into the house, already holding drinks. Isabel sat down next to me and we immediately started talking; there was an unspoken alliance between us as the only two girls in the room.
Soon they had decided that the move that night was going to be F&M’S, a bar that I had never been to. One of Sam’s roommates was wearing a white shirt and another guy in the room pointed out that F&M’s didn’t let people in if they were wearing white. I looked down at my own white tank top and silently hoped they wouldn’t call me out to change — I hadn’t told anyone except Sam that I didn’t plan on going out with them in the first place, and I didn’t have any other shirt to change into. The guys went back and forth for a while-
“Bro it’s just a shirt, I’ll be fine.”
“No, yo, I’m serious. Jake didn’t get in last week because he was wearing a white shirt.”
“That’s fucked. Why?”
“There’s no reason. The bouncers just don’t let you in. Go change!” The boy in the white shirt reluctantly picked himself up and went into his room to throw on a different shirt. Alright, guys, it’s midnight,” Sam announced. “Let’s call Ubers. Well, need at least two-”
“Liv you coming?” He looked at me with that same mischievous and hopeful expression.
“No. I have class in the morning, remember?” Another one of Sam’s friends who I had barely spoken to made an L with his fingers and cocked his head at me.
“Come on loser, we all have class.” I felt at a loss of words to defend my decision. Binge drinking on college campuses is a social pressure that many undergraduates face without even noticing and as we know, can have adverse effects on mental and physical health. It doesn’t take reading a study to know that binge drinking is common on college campuses, but the statistics are still startling, “nearly 75 percent of college students reported drinking to break the ice and enhance social activity”(1). The study iterates, “meeting new people can be difficult, and drinking helped students come out of their shells” (1).
I was about a block away from home when I saw a large group coming my way on the narrow, dim lit street, only this time it clearly wasn’t a group of students. I looked across the street to see if I could cross and avoid the men, but there was oncoming traffic and it was dark, so I didn’t want to risk it. Suddenly, I was aware of my heart skipping beats. I was from New York City and used to walking home at night without a second thought, but I had been warned so many times that New Orleans was no New York.
My aunt’s voice rang in my head, “You have to be careful; use your street smarts. And whatever you do, don’t walk home alone at night.”
There is a larger issue of sexual harassment and human trafficking that pervades in New Orleans. The disturbing reality is that human trafficking rates are on the rise, according to a nola.com crime report, by over 50% just in 2018 (2). Part of this reality is that men take advantage of vulnerable young women, whether they are immigrating to the United States and lack the necessary resources to transport themselves and have legal protection, or in other cases, they are young girls who are abducted blocks from their homes. Human trafficking and sex trafficking affects women all over the world, and while people are often exploited by human traffickers coming to the United States, “an unknown number of U.S. citizens and legal residents are also trafficked within the country, mainly for commercial sexual exploitation”, which stresses the urgency and locality of this unsolved societal issue (3).
As the men approached, I could tell from their unstable movements that they were intoxicated. I tried to make myself physically small; I wanted to disappear; I didn’t want them to see me. I tried to hide in the shadows on the side where dirt met the street, but I tripped over a crack and stumbled clumsily, barely catching myself upright as I leaned away from the men, drawing attention to myself.
They definitely noticed me.
I hoped they would simply walk by, and that the fear was all in my head, that they were just respectful drunk men on a harmless night out. As I shrank on the side of the road, they expanded, spreading out onto the sidewalk taking up the space where I would have been. As I passed, one of them spoke out at me.
“Hey beautiful, you’re too pretty to walk alone. Why don’t you come back with us,” he said in the most irksome and disturbingly creepy voice.
The other men started laughing and gesturing me in their direction, my quick walk turned into a skip and then a run, my heart felt like it was going to erupt from my chest. I didn’t want them to chase me, but I didn’t want to look back either, fearing that they would take any sort of acknowledgment as an invitation as drunk men often do.
After sprinting the rest of the block, I let my pace return to a walk, if they were still nearby, I didn’t want them to see me entering my house. I tried to catch my breath, and tell myself that I was safe, that they were gone and that I was out of harm’s way, but a million other thoughts emerged, leaving my attempts to reassure myself in the dust. Instead, I couldn’t help but think about what would have happened if I stayed with the group — I would be at F&M’s. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten in because of my white tank top and would have been left to go home alone anyway. Maybe I would have been harassed at the bar, or in an ideal world I would be undisturbed and let be, but this world is far from ideal for young women. I began to feel like the unwanted comment was my fault, the price to pay for my choice to leave the group.
The reality is that I was upset that night, but I went to class the next morning well rested and unharmed. At the time I didn’t feel lucky, but after scrolling through a group chat weeks later and coming across the following comment, I suddenly did feel extremely lucky and disheartened at the same time:
Sexual and physical violence against young women is disturbingly common in New Orleans. Given the statistic that over 41% of women who attend Tulane University report experiencing sexual assault during their time as undergraduates, unwanted comments from a drunk group of men are the best case. While this statistic is hugely unsettling, the reality is that sexual harassment is prevalent on nearly every college campus in the United States, which points to systemic social issues of how we devalue girls, teaching them to be modest from an in order to minimize unwanted advances, but too fragile to fight back.
While drinking on campuses notoriously contributes to an atmosphere where assault is more likely to occur due to lack of control and awareness, “Students need to learn how to deal with unwanted attention, discomfiting comments, and contrary opinions. Asking them to learn to avoid becoming a victim is not the same as blaming the victim”(4).
Tulane University has taken the first step by providing a neutral platform for girls to report their experience with sexual harassment on campus, which is something many universities are too ashamed and scared to do. Rather than evading the reality that sexual harassment is an epidemic on campus, this university has chosen to take the important initial actions in addressing it. According to The Hunting Ground documentary, many cases of sexual assault at universities do not receive attention and go unreported because these private institutions do not want to damage their reputation.
Aside from implementing mandatory workshops on sexual harassment for those who chose to participate in Greek life at Tulane, I also had the opportunity to take a self-defense class geared towards teaching women how to defend themselves from unwanted physical attacks through the Feminist Alliance Club on campus. While the murder rate in New Orleans was actually at a record low in 2018 since 1971, it is nonetheless still important for women particularly to know how to protect themselves from becoming victims as they often targeted. It is equally important that men are socialized to respect women and see them as their equals in order to change this pervasive culture of violence and fear that prevents young women from feeling safe on campus and beyond.
This piece was written for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University.
1. Yagoda , Robert. “College Students and Binge Drinking: When a Rite of Passage Becomes a Path to Destruction.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 2016, health.usnews.com/health-care/for-better/articles/2016-11-09/college-students-and-binge-drinking-when-a-rite-of-passage-becomes-a-path-to-destruction.
2. Krueger, Hanna. “Human Trafficking Reports Are on the Rise: Here’s What You Need to Know.” NOLA.com, NOLA.com, 19 Feb. 2019, www.nola.com/crime/2018/09/human_trafficking_experts_come.html.
3. Spooner, Brian, editor. Globalization: The Crucial Phase. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x1n5s.