A year later, little impact from ‘Sluts’ controversy

Thirteen months ago, the Yale Women’s Center threatened legal action against members of the Zeta Psi fraternity. Zeta pledges took a photograph outside the center with a sign reading “We Love Yale Sluts” and posted it online. Staff reporter Lawrence Gipson looks back at the photo that divided a campus only to find that little — if anything — has changed at either the center or the University.

On the night of Jan. 18, 2008, the center sent a campuswide e-mail titled “This Time, We Sue” with a picture of 12 pledges from the fraternity Zeta Psi holding the now-infamous sign. In the following weeks, the center pushed for policy reforms at the University level and considered legal action against Zeta Psi. While the center never sued, it issued a 26-page report demanding the overhaul of Yale’s sexual harassment education and stricter fraternity oversight.

In this photo posted on Facebook last year, Zeta Psi fraternity pledges pose in front of the Yale Women’s Center with a sign that some students have alleged constitutes sexual harassment.
In this photo posted on Facebook last year, Zeta Psi fraternity pledges pose in front of the Yale Women’s Center with a sign that some students have alleged constitutes sexual harassment.

In response, the University pledged to physically refurbish the center and study the center’s complaints by creating two committees composed of administrators, faculty and students.

But one year later, little has changed in Yale’s policies toward both sexual harassment and fraternities. The center has not been redone. University administrators said they have implemented measures, such as the Intercultural Affairs Council, to deal with bias issues that may arise in the future, in addition to considering changes to official regulations. Meanwhile, the Women’s Center and Zeta Psi have largely moved on, relegating last January’s controversy to the annals of campus history.

“The Zeta Psi incident really isn’t something we talk about anymore,” Women’s Center Public Relations Coordinator Alice Buttrick ’10 said.

Not all members of the Women’s Center’s current board believe the fault for inaction lies with the administration alone. Buttrick said several members of the center’s current managing board were upset by the center’s “drastic” response at the time of the incident. Campuswide discussions of gender and sexuality were prematurely cut short, Buttrick said, because “things weren’t handled as well as they could have been.”

Isabel Polon ’11, who was the political action coordinator at the time of the incident and a current staffer at the center, agreed that the center’s response was drastic but said she thinks actions taken at the time ultimately helped the center.

“Some of the actions the center took were polarizing,” Polon said. “But they gave the Women’s Center leverage and brought issues to public discourse that otherwise were not talked about.”

Both of the University committees created in the wake of the incident submitted reports, one orally, to former Yale College Dean Peter Salovey in May 2008. A committee investigating off-campus groups such as fraternities met “three or four times,” said committee member Edgar Letriz, the assistant dean for student affairs, before submitting an oral report to Salovey.

The contents of this oral report were not publicly disclosed, though Letriz said the Zeta Psi incident was not discussed specifically. Salovey — who in August was named provost — did not comment on the contents of the reports.

The second committee, which devoted itself to examining Yale’s sexual harassment policy, submitted a written report to Salovey, who said he was unable to act on the report before the school year ended. Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she has read the report and plans to implement “as many aspects of the reports as can be done using the resources and personnel we currently have.”

The committee’s report aims to underscore the University’s commitment to “a campus where sexual harassment and assault will not be tolerated,” Miller wrote in an e-mail message.

Miller said she plans to establish a standing University committee to implement the report’s long-term recommendations, but did not disclose a timeline for the committee’s establishment. Letriz added that the Intercultural Affairs Council, implemented this fall, was created in part to deal with issues of race and gender bias which came to light in the Zeta Psi incident.

Still, the University’s sexual harassment policy has not changed since the incident.

Associate Dean Maria Trumpler wrote in an e-mail that the IAC’s community subcommittee would respond immediately if a similar event were to happen today.

“If such an incident as what happened a year ago happened now,” said Trumpler, who chairs the subcommittee, “our subcommittee would have reached out to the Women’s Center and helped them in any way we could, including getting out information about what happened, generating discussions around issues of gender and sexuality.”

Polon discounted the IAC because “it does little to affect policy,” and added that she believes not enough has been done to address the center’s demands.

“I think in the administration, there’s been no concrete movement to change the policy at all,” Polon said.

For its part, Zeta Psi has said little since the incident. When asked whether Zeta Psi had changed its practices since the photo was released, fraternity president Jon Charest ’10 declined to comment. “Thanks but no thanks,” he wrote in an e-mail message.

Charest publicly apologized for the incident in a letter sent to the News last January. In that letter, he emphasized the fraternity’s respect for all women at Yale.

“In the future, behavior of this nature will neither be enacted nor tolerated, and we only hope that our peers can forgive the mistakes made in this situation,” Charest wrote in the letter. “The officers of the fraternity are open and willing to meet with the leaders of the Yale Women’s Center to discuss this issue further and address solutions to this kind of irresponsible behavior.”

Zeta Psi and the Women’s Center have not spoken to one another officially in the year since the incident, Polon said.

On the weekend of April 5, 2008, fraternity members involved stood before Yale College’s Executive Committee for their involvement in the incident. Sources with knowledge of the confidential proceedings said the committee handed down a “not guilty” verdict for the students in the photograph on the single charge of intimidation and harassment.

The ruling failed to end debate on the issue; perhaps time will.

Comments

  • mb

    Sadly, most people still don't get what this was even about.

  • Reality

    The Women's Center is a joke. Everyone knows it.

    Women are NOT a joke. Women are beautiful, dignified, strong individuals.

    Sadly, the Women's Center has nothing to do with that; instead the WC is content to parrot the usual hyper-feminist tropes that get them marginalized by reasonable people.

    The Zeta Psi incident was immature. The response of the Women's Center was even more lacking in emotional and mental maturity.

  • Heidi Knudsen

    I would say that the method chosen by the members of Zeta Psi fraternity to express their alleged respect for their female classmates is suspect at best.

  • these comments always confuse me

    I don't understand -- Zeti Psi committed an act of sexual harassment, according to Yale regulations, as they do every year as an initiation rite, and the WC threatened to sue Yale for failing to prevent or respond to systematic sexual harassment.

    That's not "hyper-feminist" or a "joke." It's ethically, legal right.

  • Anonymous

    It's sad that this incident and the response to it doesn't seem to have generated anything more than a brief flurry of "dialogue" which mostly consisted of angry, emotional outbursts.

    Let's take this as a case study of how NOT to respond to this kind of incident in the future. The WC's threat of legal action was over-the-top and counterproductive: People won't be able to talk openly and honestly about a difficult issue if they think that anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law. Meanwhile, Zeta Psi seems to have little interest in assuring people that anything they said in their little PR campaign last year was genuine. So both sides have retreated to their respective corners, and we're right back to square one (or worse).

    Hopefully next time we can learn from these mistakes and form a response that will bring the campus closer together in true dialogue, not drive it apart with anger and threats. If we've learned that lesson, then maybe there's a silver lining in this sad story after all.

  • science girl

    All told, Zeta Psi winds up having served us with a kiddish vignette of male Yale "educator" officials' scandalously scientifically ignorant rejection of Aliza Schvart's senior academic art project. See also recently Nadya Suleman, human fertility and reproductive sciences.

  • observer

    What comes across quite clearly in this is that the people who are in charge of the WC now don't approve of the way the people who were in charge before them handled the situation. So why continue to hold it against the Center?

  • Anonymous

    It may have given the YWC "leverage" but definitely not legitimacy.

  • Maximus

    "Gipson looks back at the photo that divided a campus only to find that little — if anything — has changed at either the center or the University"… meaining they still love Yale SLUTS??

  • SB

    Does the YDN still need to keep using the word 'sluts' in big, bold writing. We all know what the sign said.