Ahn: One year later, 40 years back

I write 40 years after Yale welcomed its first female applicants, and one year after a group of fraternity brothers blocked the entrance to the Yale Women’s Center, crowding around the typewritten phrase, “We Love Yale Sluts.” I write in response to the article, “A year later, little impact from ‘Sluts’ controversy” (Feb. 16), which addressed the latter incident but omitted the ironic former.

The Zeta Psi boys’ “Sluts” escapade was not special because it was bigotry — much uglier speech has been voiced, and is still voiced, behind closed dorm room doors, on the comments boards of the News Web site, and at campus parties. It was special because, finally, there were faces to the bigotry — 12 faces, to be exact, accompanied by gestures of pride or of glee.

Hate speech makes its subjects, the harassed and the derided, a little less free in the environment that permits it. Last year Yale was beset by hate speech that went unclaimed: homophobic “NOGAYS” fliers, a swastika formed with snow, racist graffiti on residential college walls and rape threats targeting specific students on an anonymous gossip site.

With no one to blame, what was Yale to do? For lack of evidence, it could only condemn these incidents of hate speech. For lack of evidence, it held “forums” to “discuss” the “issues,” so that we could “express” our “views.”

Then came an incident of hate speech whose authorship we knew, whose perpetrators we could name. And Yale failed us. It formed a committee or two; it held another forum. It listened sympathetically as a few of us expressed our concerns, and less sympathetically when we proposed constructive action. And then, as the furor died down, it looked away.

There are many tired women at Yale right now. They are women who shrug, since boys will be boys; women who say, “You do not speak for me, Women’s Center. I do not oppose what the Zeta Psi boys did”; or women who — most powerfully — know in their hearts that we may fight male contempt at Yale, but that the real world will offer us much worse. Especially with these last women, I disagree. In the world outside Yale, a group of men who publicly rally around a phrase with the word “sluts” would be fired from their jobs, if not prosecuted, and subjected to punishing scrutiny on all sides.

At Yale, a group of men who publicly rally around a phrase with “sluts” were exonerated and protected, and their critics were called — by their peers — unsympathetic whores who had nothing better to do with their privilege. What the Zeta Psi boys did wouldn’t fly in the real world, not even at the male-dominated financial news network where I worked this fall. But last spring it was indulged at Yale, my school, which enrolls more women than men.

A student who physically assaults another student is punishable by the law. A student who drops a crucial footnote is punishable by the Executive Committee. Campus hate speech is less harmful than physical violence, but certainly more harmful than small-time plagiarism; it occupies a space between these two offenses.

Who is responsible for policing that space? A student club with few resources beyond hope, anger and words which foolishly presumed to advocate for Yale women (but who, if the backlash is to be believed, are perfectly happy to be called sluts — our mistake)? Or a powerful and storied American university that promised us much, but tolerance and safety at the very least?

This is not the Yale I was promised, or that any of us were promised. It won’t be until it defends women’s dignity as staunchly as it does its own.

Presca Ahn is a junior in Branford College.


  • JL

    Ahh, what a great piece.

    This is undoubtedly true; however, when the community that was so targeted by those actions doubts the severity of the events that occurred it's quite tough for the university to do much, but brush in under the rug.

    Until the voices that state:
    "They are women who shrug, since boys will be boys; women who say, “You do not speak for me, Women’s Center. I do not oppose what the Zeta Psi boys did”
    are silenced and what is an obvious atrocity is fully backed by the group (women) obviously tarnished by it, it'll be tough =/

  • otto

    This column makes me feel sane. Of course it was and is the moral and legal responsibility of the University, and not of the plucky Women´s Center, to ensure that female students are not sexually harassed while they are at Yale. My heartiest congratulations to the author, Ms. Ahn: Goliath will never care as much for its female students, or fight for their dignity as assiduously, as it fights for itself. And so we must support David, with pride and glee.

  • larry visochek

    a beautiful, cogent, and appropriately impatient column.

    please write more.

  • omar kareshi

    I am deeply delighted that Ms Ahn - a formidable student of history - has so effectively, indeed, elegantly summarized the plight of the Women´s Center in addition to her excellent scholarship on the history of Pakistani literature. Well done, young woman, well done.

  • Anonymous

    The writer points to that part of the problem which resides with those women who have been so desensitized by current popular culture that they no longer care about the degradation to their gender at the hands of others. When will the women of Yale wake up and recognize this type of stunt for what it is - an assault on their integrity?
    The fact that this particular assault was committed by members of a campus fraternity makes it all the more inexcusable. Shame on the university for not taking this matter more seriously.

  • SB

    This was such a wonderful piece. I only hope that people will stop disregarding these types of actions and start to realize that our society needs to stop supporting the degradation of women.

  • Y09

    Overall, men are a minority in college. http://www.prb.org/Articles/2007/CrossoverinFemaleMaleCollegeEnrollmentRates.aspx
    Perhaps they wouldn't be victims if they didn't declare themselves as such. The real damage was not the photo, Ms. Ahn - it was the email campaign stupidly entitled "This Time We Sue," when anyone with a modicum of legal knowledge knew there was not a case. Be strong and rational - look at 85 Broads or similar organizations - and you will be treated as such. Do you really think the future Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice would be part of this woman's center campaign?

  • NoFrats

    "…one year after a group of fraternity brothers blocked the entrance to the Yale Women’s Center…"

    Blocked? BLOCKED?! Ah, hysterical hyperbole…

    Speaking of Pakistan: how do you feel about the recent imposition of shari'ah in certain provinces?

  • Next…

    …we need a regulation that punishes hate speech, right? And you feel comfortable with whom, precisely, deciding what constitutes punishable speech? Just asking. It's possible to be both leery of the frat boys' motivation and doubtful of a practicable solution that doesn't cost more than we're prepared to pay.

  • P.A.

    Dear Next…,

    In this specific case, there's no need for a new regulation. Hate speech against any group should be penalized. However, hate speech against women already has a place in Yale's regulations.

    Undergraduate Regulations, Appendix G states: "Sexual harassment consists of nonconsensual sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct on or off campus, when: (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a condition of an individual's employment or academic standing; or (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions or for academic evaluation, grades, or advancement; or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work or academic performance or creating an intimidating or hostile academic or work environment. Sexual harassment may be found in a single episode, as well as in persistent behavior."

    The Zeta Psi incident constitutes sexual harassment under this regulation because it is "verbal conduct" when "such conduct has the purpose or effect of… creating an intimidating or hostile academic or work environment." It is only a "single episode" that is unmistakeably documented in the form of a digital photograph, although over the years female and male students have witnessed similar "persistent behavior" related to fraternity activities.

    I hardly think the price will be, as you fear, "more than we're prepared to pay." A couple weeks' suspension or a forced leave of absence seems a reasonable penalty for behavior that is so harmful to the community. I'd love to hear thoughts on this.


  • Hieronymus

    "Hate speech," unfortunately, is subjective, and regulation thereof is, thus, a tool of those in power.

    Conservatives on campus suffer what, were the tables turned, amounts to "hate speech" on a daily basis. But because the oppressors do not see things that way, such speech (and other activities, such as the suppression of periodicals by their literal "trashing") goes unpunished.

    I have no doubt that an open debate about the merits and drawbacks of, say, Islam, would immediately draw charges of "hate speech," shutting down discussion post haste. Is that really what is wanted? Especially on an academic campus?

    While I have no doubt that such concern will be dismissed out of hand, I, for one, profess to you that I have been made uncomfortable--and persistently so--in various classes (my Women's Studies seminars, for example). Indeed, in a moment of idiocy, I explained why I was there (to gain perspective) and admitted to a relatively more conservative view. For the remainder of the semester, the professor (and my class"mates") went out of their way to heap opprobrium my way. When I pointed this out, it was noted "well now YOU know how it feels!"

    Very Old Testament of them (you know: eye for an eye) and rather unhelpful in gaining any sympathy or conversion. My grade suffered as well, despite fulfilling all of the rather, uh, unchallenging requirements (no exams, lots of "journal entries," lots of artsy "presentations"; nothing objective).

    My goal is not to whine here: I am merely pointing out that I was "harrassed," both covertly and overtly and most definitely on the basis of my sex (what you likely call "gender").

    Should some of the things that were said to me have been categorized as "hate speech" and punished? (Oh, I survived by the way: I am Yalie, hear me roar, or, more accurately, "I get knocked down, but I get up again…").

    Is that what you propose: a community where we all go around with offense-o-meters, constantly filing grievances against one another? What a blast…