Campus misogyny enshrined in online comment threads

It is hard to believe that, within a university that is seen as one of the most prestigious in the country — one that has been the focus of a forgery scandal in Korea, one that has seen applications increase wildly in the past few years — there still exists an atmosphere of tacit misogyny. I’m not talking about the fact that fraternity brothers gathered around the Yale Women’s Center and held up a bigoted sign, nor the fact that a senior art major has been the subject of personal ridicule, attack and forced silence by nearly every one of the 33 articles published about her in the Yale Daily News. I’m talking about the most unregulated, unofficial forum for public debate about such issues: the comments section on the News’ Web site.

I realize, of course, that many of those who comment are not students at the University and that they are self-selecting for their interest in a particular story. However, these comments lie on the page right next to legitimate (and, we hope, “objective”) reporting, positioning them in a place of influence over a reader’s opinion and coloring the journalism a frighteningly deep shade of yellow.

Consider the story of the University’s dull, lackadaisical response to the (very real) sexual harassment that occurred outside of the Women’s Center in January. Zeta Psi brothers assembled outside of the Women’s Center, knowing that their presence was somehow a “joke” — an insult to the very idea of a Women’s Center, a safe space for women — and even publicized their exploits by making a photograph of their sign available for all to see. The News’ coverage of the incident was thorough and tried not to pick sides; comments, however, on nearly every article and editorial associated with the event, are horrendously sexist, bigoted, ignorant and almost absurdly logically fallacious. When Jessica Svendsen published her disappointment that the University did not take any disciplinary action whatsoever on the men who harassed her, the public’s response was not one of empathy, but rather one that told her, essentially, to shut up and quit being a bitch who can’t take a joke.

“You are very fortunate this is the worst harassment [sic] you’ve ever had in your privileged life.” “I can recall no instance — of a person, due to some specific, political event, transferring to a more accommodating institution. Or quitting. May I suggest: please go then.” “Grow up.” “Worry not, The Women’s Center will find something else to complain about excessively and expose themselves further as attention seeking whiners and irrational elitists.” “[T]his is a lesson for the Zeta Psi pledges and men in general: Legal but rude acts can subject you to more than your fair share of trouble.”

We can see the same old tired arguments: “love it or leave it,” “you’re rich and therefore don’t know anything,” “you are immature and weak for thinking that a large group of men blocking the entrance to the Yale Women’s Center and publicly calling all women ‘sluts’ is sexual harassment.” For all I know, these could have been posted by militant neo-nazis who religiously read the News, looking for fights to pick; that does not exempt them, however, from the public discourse surrounding this event. It also does not rule out the possibility that these comments were written by Yale students or alumni.

But what’s even more troubling than these comments themselves is that the majority of other comments are less blunt in their message, but essentially say the same thing. I don’t have room to re-print more in this space, but I don’t think I’m crazy when I write that the overall messages are: “stop trying to get attention for yourself,” “stop whining,” “stop being self-aggrandizing,” “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

What’s next? If any of several recent acquaintance rapes (as reported by Chief Perrotti) ever comes to trial — which is unlikely in our atmosphere of silence — are we to expect people to tell the rape victim to “shut up” and “stop whining?” While we probably won’t see those exact words, I am very sure that the chilling effect of that specific kind of laissez-faire, internalized and obscured institutional logic contributes to Yale’s under-reporting, trivialization, and blindness to rape and other instances of violence against women.

I don’t use the term “chilling effect” casually: Comments on News articles, as the University’s institutional silence and recent wet-noodle disciplinary action on the “Yale Sluts” incident proves, are representative of more than a handful of radical scab-pickers. They are tacitly endorsed by every level of discourse in this University, pervading both popular opinion and institutional discipline. They make it undesirable for anybody to speak up for themselves, transforming a very real instance of misogyny and sexual harassment into that most despicable of rhetorical terms: “crying rape.”

There is nothing fake about this cry.

Theodore Gordon is a senior in Davenport College.

Comments

  • Sisyphus

    Your equivocation of the Zeta Psi incident with acquaintance rape is horrifying and blatantly disrespects those women who have been victims of such a crime. Morons chanting idiocies and posing for emetic pictures are regrettable, but are not in any way close to the trauma and violation of rape. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • Anonymous

    I am a woman. I made one of these comments. I'm sorry, but at every Yale party, usually non-frat parties, I've gotten groped and pinched in inappropriate places. I don't go anymore as a result. That would certainly constitute harrassment. I just find it absurd that walking within sound distance of a shouting group constitutes harassment unless they actually went up to her and groped her. Don't call me misogynist. I'm a woman and don't even dare to associate my comments as being pro-rape. Yes, there needs to be more done on campus. They should have punished for the sluts sign, but there was little evidence in Jessica's case and it didn't involve touching or direct harrassment. It seems to have been indirect if there was any in the first place!

  • Anonymous

    Oh Yeah! The University just loves violence against women, doesn't it!

    Your argument is so lame: "Whah, people make rude and or surprising comments to online articles."

    You may think that this comment(from an alumnus) proves your argument. Well it probably does for you. But what you fail to see in the comments you've read is that members of the Yale community and general public don't like being called a bigot because they have a nuanced view of a mutually intoxicated sexual encounter where consent is given from both parties and perhaps withdrawn before, during, or after the encounter. In your opinion, people who hear a scenario like that, and don't automatically think RAPE, are misogynists. We have a complicated response to a complicated problem. It used to be Rape was more cut and dry, but unfortunately today's loose sexual ethics call for a more complicated rule that very few can understand. The rest of us are bigots, clearly.

  • Blue Dog

    I wish you had taken advantage of this moment to more rigorously interrogate the YDN's critical role in fashioning the climate you describe. This has, on almost every qualitative level, been a simply awful year for the News--a point of view on which your "fractured campus" happens to be very much united (ask most anyone outside of 202 York). I hope that next year your paper offers a more accurate reflection of life as it is being lived by the vast majority of your readers, and fewer attempts to gratuitously inflame the community you purport to serve.

  • Rudy (alum)

    Mr. Gordon,
    You have clearly accepted Ms Svendson's narrative and interpretation as true and complete. It appears that the ExComm did not. I have read all the YDN articles, editorials (staff and guest), published letters and online comments about this controversy. A fair interpretation of the events is at odds with the narrative you and some others believe.

    ". . .the (very real) sexual harassment that occurred outside of the Women’s Center in January."

    This fairly clearly not a case of sexual harassment as those who have experienced, witnessed or read court cases of "very real" instances know. Ms. Svendson was evidently not a target of the behavior and there was no report that this group of frat knuckleheads even were aware of her presence. The claimed chants of "dick" makes no sense while the response that the chant was "deek" (for DKE) does make some sense in the context. A subjective feeling of intimidation, even if true, does not support a claim of harassment.

    ". . . even publicized their exploits by making a photograph of their sign available for all to see."

    As I recall, the picture was not widely circulated until a self-appointed Women's Center representative copied it and circulated it to the Yale online community. This is not the first (or last) time a stupid and ultimately embarrassing picture, meant to be "funny", was put up on Facebook or circulated by email without the consciousness that a wider group than the intended recipients might see it. (Doubters should google "Ryan McFadyen")

    The Zeta Psi stunt was indefensible and misogynist and not harmless. I gather the ExComm is not a group of all men (one commentator said its membership was majority female). I understand some people's disappointment that substantial discipline was not announced. However, not getting your wa there is not proof that the campus is misogynist as a whole.

    The free access of the comment threads means that any nut with a computer and time on his hands can post. I daresay there are a few of them among Drudge's readers. But your labeling all those who disagree with yours and Ms. Svendson's narrative as purveyors of misogyny is simply wrong and bigoted in its own way.

  • Y 08

    Great column Ted.

  • DoodleLover

    "Real instance of misogyny?" Yes. And I would be willing to sit down with you and discuss whether the level of punishment the Zeta Psi guys received (public humiliation, getting their faces plastered all over the blogosphere, etc.) was appropriate, and how we can prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

    "Real instance of sexual harassment?" debatable at best, and many people (men and women) agree that it was not. You take for granted that your opinion (and only your opinion) regarding the incident is valid, and then go on to make a public, ad hominum attack against everyone who disagrees with you. While I agree that some of the comments were needlessly abrasive and dismissive, they are no worse than your public, baseless attack on our characters.

    Instead of debating the points of contention - for example, whether the incident, if it happened exactly as Ms. Svendsen describes, constitutes sexual harassment - you force your black and white views on the rest of us and then accuse us of endorsing rape? Your arrogance is astonishing!

    Your points about "less blunt," tacit endorsement of misogy are just as misguided. Yes. Many of us feel that Ms. Svendsen "[doesn't] know what [she's] talking about" and should "stop being self-aggrandizing." We put forth many reasons why we feel this way. All we got from you were incendiary blanket statements. You didn't address our arguments, and you didn't justify your own.

    Surely you are reading this right now. Let's have a more productive discussion, shall we? Instead of telling us that we are wrong (and implying that we are comparable to Neo-Nazis and rapists), tell us WHY we are wrong.

  • Wise up

    Doesn't it seem that Ted has illustrated a problem that is more deeply rooted than comments on the YDN? What he's identified is not necessarily easy to see and it certainly doesn't require a physical trail. Harassment and misogyny are as much psychological and emotional as anything else. We all partake in a culture that mandates them both to some extent. The fact that #2 above said that she is a woman and therefore CANNOT be a misogynist is ABSOLUTELY false. Wise up! Recognize what strains of ideology are woven into the fabric of our society. See the manacles tied to you where you may not even suspect them. These comments are not misogyny, but representations of it - signs instructing us to become complacent so that when we are confronted with it, we see a sheep, not a wolf.

  • val

    Thanks so much for this column Ted. All of the first few comments above completely exemplify your point. I am so frustrated about how ignorant and hurtful so many people find it completely normal to be.

  • y 08

    Bad column Ted.

  • Anonymous

    #1, sadly the first rule of the YDN is that you do not talk about the YDN!

  • yale 09

    great article.

  • y10

    Sorry, but sometimes women cry rape.

    It's kind of sad that people would consider an acknowledging of reality as constituting a "chilling effect".

    The fact is that rape is one of those crimes that tend to inspire a "guilty until proven innocent" mentality. It's also very difficult in some cases to prove it happened.

    This is regrettable, but as long as some despicable women keep crying rape and as long as some despicable men keep raping, there will be accusations of rape and accusations of crying rape.

  • Jonathan

    To start, the comment threads are not "unregulated" as you claim they are. The YDN claims to moderate them for overly offensive comments. Although given the YDN's printing habits, I wouldn't be surprized if the removed resonable comments to make things look more controversial.

    On a more fundamental note, your column is offensive to people who would really protect women's rights and free speech. You claim that all who don't think the ΖΨ incident was sexual harassment deserving punishment are responsible for an "atmosphere of silence" that causes rapes. You even go further. By saying that the comments could have been left by "militant neo-nazis", you go almost as far to say that only a nazi could disagree with you. Well, let's look at what people are disagreeing with. The Women's Center seems to have taken this event as an opportunity to try to change campus rules. Some of them have tried to make the use of the word slut a punishable offense. They also have tried to get all frats banned. Given this, I don't see how any resonable person could agree with the Women's Center. Also, by claiming what happened was as much sexual harassment as, well, real sexual harassment cheapens the charge. No one was harmed by the prank, which was not, as you say, "publicly calling all women ‘sluts’". By choosing the Women's Center for the site of the prank, ΖΨ was clearly not calling its denizens sluts, but instead disagreeing with the Women's Center's attempt to prevent campus women from attending fraternity parties. It was a very sexist act, but not wanting to ban it does not make someone sexist. People like you, who trivialize sexual harassment are the ones who make it less likely that actual sexual harassment will be reported, by making people (not only women can be victims of sexual harassment) not want to be associated with your positions and thus keep silent.

  • Anonymous

    I'd say that the deliberate embellishing or exageration of an incident that has already been thoroughly investigated - those who did the stunt have been punished (just not harshly enough for some vengeful women and perhaps yourself). Yet you can only see 'misogyny' even as you yourself accepted uncritically a version of events that was by all accounts somewhat 'economical with the truth'.
    Are you really an alumni? I ask this because such blatant bias and blindness to the implicit misandry which surely is the underpinning to such a desire to inflate out of recognition the details of a frat prank into something more sinister and instead to insult all those who took issue with such malicious exagerations does your or your colleges reputation no good at all.

  • Anonymous

    The extremists like the author of this article who keep pushing this story just don't get it.
    The large number of negative comments on YDN website doesn't testify to misogyny but to the fact that the majority of people on campus just won't put up with those who are willing to expand the definition of sexual harassment beyond any reasonable limits.
    To the best of my knowledge (and I am reading this pretty regularly) no one has posted a comment saying that rape or sexual assault is something people should "stop wining" about. Those who are trying to turn the WC incident into sexual harassment are the ones who are relativizing the very meaning of the term.
    You cannot criminalize every behavior you don't like or find offensive! And you cannot just call everyone who doesn't share your views on sexual harassment misogynist. In fact, as a person who strongly supports women's rights, and believes that women should be protected from harassment and rape, I am deeply offended to be called a misogynist just because I don't agree with you.
    Extreme views like this one are a part of the problem, not of the solution.
    But in one you are right: very many people on this campus believe that you and Jessica and the Women's Center are wrong. And that is very good.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry for disagreeing with you, Ted. I guess you're right. Next time someone is offended by a single incident and then seeks to slander a entire swath of undergraduates (for example, fraternity members) as possessing reprehensible views (like advocating a "rape culture"), we should all just keep quiet and take their word for it.

  • Anonymous

    I wish more people chose not to post anonymously. I've heard so many times a declaration that Yale expects the members of its community to openly discuss issues relevant to us, and to be held accountable for our words. The plethora of "By (Anonymous)" seen in these comments seems like a rejection of that. It's really easy to hide behind your computer screen and bash the individuals who dare to openly express their opinions in Op-Ed pieces, and this is what allows people to simply add more bigotry to the community in the form of invective anonymous comments, instead of pushing forward intelligent discussions of the issues at hand that would instead enlighten both the authors and the audiences. Thank you Ted for daring to write this piece which I greatly appreciated and those of you brave enough to leave your name in hopes that a true discussion, one that leaves the realm of easily abusive and unproductive online comment conversations, to develop. Maybe we could all sit down and talk one day.

    ~Colin Adamo, Yale 2010

  • A.C.

    Perhaps if (as was written above) those of us who disagree with Ted were not mercilessly insulted and called everything from ignorant to misogynists to supporters of rape(!) because we have a different point of view on what any reasonable person would agree is a somewhat complex issue, we wouldn't be so hesitant to use our full names.

    The truth is that the Women's Center's supporters' comments have often been just as (if not more) vitriolic. I agree with Ted and with you that the name-calling and immature speech which often pervades these pages is unproductive -- but it's coming from both sides. And as long as people like Ted (again, as was written above) and yourself fail to address the very real arguments and counterarguments put forth by those of us here who are trying to elevate the discussion and continue to simply attack the lowest common denominator of commenters while ignoring their counterparts on your side, you are contribtuing as little to the dialog as the people you're criticizing.

  • @Colin Adamo

    The right to free speech includes the right to anonymous speech.

    On a campus where every member of a frat is called complicit in a "rape culture", many will choose to remain anonymous from the chilling effects of your precious Yale Women's Center.

  • Anonymous

    The practice of demonizing your opponents (for example, calling them alternately misogynists or crazed man-hating feminists, as commentators have done in the past) makes for a certain disincentive to attach one's name to one's posting.

  • Anonymous

    Hey @ Colin Adamo, that's my exact point. Choosing to stay silent or anonymous leads to the tyranny of the minority. When we do see and hear about the fraternity culture at Yale we're only introduced to incredibly misogynistic event's such as "Yale Sluts" or any of the awful parties with names like "CEOs and Secretary Hos". Instead we don't hear about the number of brothers who are out working with New Haven students all the time or out producing an amazing culture in other ways. I'm not saying anyone HAS to give up their anonymous speech, I just think that if more people chose to be held accountable for their words we wouldn't run into so many problems and this article wouldn't have been written.
    If more people were brave enough to attach their name to their speech when they felt it mattered we might have some more productive and less needlessly acrimonious discussions here at Yale.

  • Anonymous

    Staying silent would lead to a tyranny of the minority, true. Staying anonymous does not; rather, it protects us from slander.

    Additionally, the people calling frat brothers participants in a 'rape culture' aren't hiding their names, so don't blame anonymous speech for the quantity of vitriol slung around campus these days.

  • Who dared you?

    Really? Really?

    Don't you have a senior essay to write? Shouldn't you be busy preparing for graduation?

    WHY MUST YOU WASTE EVERYONE'S #$&!ING TIME BY DRAGGING ON THIS GOD FORSAKEN ISSUE?

    I should write an op-ed: CAMPUS IDIOCY ENSHRINED IN YDN EDITORIALS

    Your editorial is nothing but another slanted, "frighteningly deep shade of yellow" comment that could have been posted on Swedsen's ridiculous, not at all "objective" editorial. If Swedsen was unhappy with ExComm, then she should contact the Committee of Review or write to the President's office, which I imagined she did. And since no one in the administration has contradicted ExComm, then its clear that anyone who has seen the ExComm 'file' on the Zeta Psi incident also agrees that this was not a "very real" incident of sexual harassment.

    End of story. Move on. Yes, Grow up.

    To Colin, If I put my name on this or any other comment, I'd be at risk of being publicly vilified and harassed by the YWC and by others who proselytize misandry.

  • Jake

    Look, there was no misogynistic activity. So what if frat boys took some stupid picture? Its a stupid picture with no real meaning or importance. It simply makes fun of what some men (and women) see as "femi-nazism", radical feminism, etc. That women make fun of the worst possible examples of men is a fact that cannot be denied. Just look at the whole "Sex & the City" culture, Desperate Housewives, etc.

    You Yale people are wasting your time debating a stupid fraternity stunt that has more to do with guys being forced to do something risky and dangerous rather than something specifically opposed to women and women's rights.

  • NEONAZIFASCIST

    What a horrible article. This is what Yale turns out nowadays?

    Sorry you didn't get into Princeton.

  • THANK YOU!

    Thank you so much for writing this!!!

    I have been trying to write this same op-ed for months and had trouble finding the articulation and the courage.

    As a woman who was raped I cannot begin to tell you how unbelievably hurtful it is every time people refer to "crying rape". Why does no one ever talk about that with any other crime? No one would assume I was lying if I said my purse was stolen, but my virginity? Interesting.

  • Samson

    articles like this at this point in time tell me that the ydn staff was either totally out of newsworthy things to write about, or just lazy

  • just friends

    Hey #4 Rudy(alum)
    Don't you think there is some intentional, organized scam here, like in front of a single witness chant "dick" and then say you said "deke". The "deke" defense. How cute. Until there is a tape recording.

  • Rudy

    #27,
    Since I'm looking at this through the eyes of YDN and the independent people who have been published in it, I can only judge from that and from my own experience of what makes sense, with a little bit of knowledge (shared by all Yalies) of the geography. What you suggest is possible but unlikely. Sophomores would have had to plan ahead, guess there would be controversy over their chants and photo, and have a cover story ready. There wasn't a crowd around in the middle of the night go give a clue that someone would necessarily be offended. The photo didn't have wide circulation until a Women's Center rep got ahold of it and circulated it. As bright as Yale sophomores are in the classroom and in post-event analysis, I find it a little difficult to believe they were so forward looking. If the chant was designed to offend, I would think the "C" word would have been used.

  • Anonymous

    I heard they did it all the time.

  • Anonymous

    Sadly, everyone would rather remain anonymous.

  • Kidsmeal

    Is this what the world is coming too that people will bitch and complain because SOMEONE ELSE was called a bad name? Seriously, those leaving comments are right, grow up. People call other people bad names all the time. Being called slut isn't that bad. If you can't stand reading comments that tell you the truth then I don't know what to say to you.

  • Deborah H.

    I agree with all the things you have said. I gave up meat(except fish?) 2 months ago after seeing a farmer abuse a sick calf in a field opposite my house. I am 31 and feel guilty for having been blind to the suffering of farm animals for so long. Society needs to wake up to how meat is produced. I'm not saying its wrong to eat meat but it has to be seen for what it truly is - a life. If we are ever to be truly human/humane we have to treat our fellow earthlings with the respect they deserve. Thanks for your article, it was very measured and I think on this issue we need to find a middle ground.