As a student at Yale, I’ve seen many intellectual arguments come and go. Yet nothing I have seen compares with the way the recent actions of some Zeta Psi members and the Yale Women’s Center reaction have caused a brief tempest of inflammatory language only to burn out in a week. Furthermore, I was shocked by the great deal of criticism leveled at the Women’s Center.
While most people have not condoned Zeta Psi’s actions, they have also seemed content with writing off such behavior as merely immature or an ironic expression of stereotypical fraternity misogyny, instead choosing to decry the actions of the Women’s Center as feminism at its worst: irrational, overemotional militancy. While it is totally fine to disagree on an intellectual level about the legality of the suit filed by the Women’s Center, I fear that in the wake of this witch hunt many of the underlying issues have been missed entirely.
As New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert recently noted, gender issues have come to the forefront in political discussions because a woman is currently positioned as one of the strongest presidential candidates. I share in his dismay that it should take such national or local events to cause Americans, especially college students, to stop and consider gender discrepancies or the pervasiveness of misogyny in our culture. No one doubts that the Zeta Psi pledges committed an entirely puerile act, but there seems little attention paid outside the Women’s Center to the use of the word “slut.”
This is perhaps the greatest disappointment of all: that so few are even momentarily thrown by the use of a word that blatantly refers to slovenly, immoral sexual promiscuity, and a sign that simply reduces all Yale women to such a status. No sexualized term conveying the negative judgment of promiscuous men exists that is used with similar frequency or anywhere near an equal degree of seriousness. The only commonly used description of sexually promiscuous men is the word “pimp,” which has been culturally glamorized to the point where it is extremely difficult to construe it as an insult.
“Slut,” on the other hand, taps into a pervasive trend throughout American history and modern culture of speaking about women as though they are inferior. This tradition is kept alive by the music and advertising industries. These forces, in turn, make it easier for men to justify treating women as inferiors: “If Diddy can get away with it all the time, surely any one thing I do can’t be such a big deal, right?”
The Women’s Center was founded not only to give women a safe location on Yale campus in a time when misogyny and sexism were far less subtle, but also to serve as a center to fight these conservative gender perspectives. Thus, a large gang of intoxicated men chanting “dick” on the doorstep is obviously perceived as an ideological attack, and the Women’s Center responded severely.
Indeed, the popular reaction against the Women’s Center shares frightening similarities with the sort of anger often lobbied at victims of rape and sexual assault. I don’t seek to imply that the actions of Zeta Psi toward the Women’s Center constitute an act remotely as pernicious as rape. Rather, the Yale attitude is reminiscent of the subtly misogynistic reaction of the American public, which tends to express disbelieving anger toward the victim (despite FBI statistics gaging false reports of rape to be between only 2 and 8 percent depending on the year). A general blind eye to the treatment of women as sexualized inferiors promotes a community in which men can treat women as such – according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 24 percent of college women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape (Fisher B.S., et al. The Sexual Victimization of College Women. 2000, see especially exhibits 3 and 7).
Again, feel free to disagree with the response by the Yale Women’s Center. I do not think their reaction was so unwarranted, given the historical and nationwide cultural forces they are up against, but many reasonable arguments can be made for alternative actions they may have taken. But let us not, as an intelligent and socially aware community, dismiss Zeta Psi’s actions as merely an isolated incident of immature, fraternity pranks. Ignorance of the larger context their actions reinforce belies a grimmer and far more universal problem.
Paul Morse is a senior in Branford College. He is the president of Yale’s Men Against Rape.