As Yale garners national press for the Title IX case, its on-campus climate is being critically assessed, both externally and internally. On April 15, President Levin announced the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate to investigate the university’s policies and culture. But how do we create a safer, more supportive community? Rules, regulations, federal investigations and the law cannot be the only way to change the culture at Yale. As students and members of the community, we each have a responsibility to look more closely at the ways we interact with one another. We must ask ourselves if our behavior fosters true mutual respect, or compounds the problems already raised.
I turn to an event on Friday, April 15 around 11:30 p.m. Walking past GPSCY toward Park Street, I heard the rattle of cans, bottles and rotating plastic wheels quickly approaching me. A Yale undergraduate was inside the recycling bin, as his friend pushed him feverishly. All fun and games, I told myself. Then, the recycling bin with the young man inside fell forward. The young man laughed, and the can and its contents lay on the walkway. The group of three or four began to walk away, and I turned to them and told them to clean it up. The young man who was previously in the recycling bin was not amused and became defensive. I followed up stating that it was not a Yale employee’s responsibility to clean up his mess. An undergraduate woman in the group came up and said not to worry, that they (or she) would get it, and I shook her hand, thanking her. I turned to my left and realized a young man was holding a handheld camera with the red light visible, indicating he was recording.
Slightly frustrated but thankful that the young woman had stood up and taken responsibility for the group, I proceeded toward Lynwood Place. On Lynwood, the same young man with his camera came running and parked himself in front of a house where many undergraduate parties ensue. In the middle of the street, a young man and woman were laughing. Then their laughing and joking took a darker turn. The young man held a large branch or small tree in front of his crotch and proceeded to place the end of the branches against the woman’s backside. He then joked, “You know you like it,” following the statement with a laugh. She giggled back. All the while, the camera recorded.
What happens if this ends up on YouTube? Facebook? Is it still funny? Was it ever? In fact, it doesn’t matter if the video stays on that camera. “You know you like it” is never an appropriate joke when it comes to sexual misconduct. What concerned me even more was that this woman felt the need to go along with the taunts, lest she be called “too serious” or “unable to take a joke.” Even more distressing is the thought that neither of them found this behavior demeaning or disrespectful. I am not suggesting that we blame the victim, but rather, that we need to think closely about how destructive attitudes and behaviors are perpetuated daily, particularly under the guise of humor. We each encounter moments where we can choose to step up like the first young woman — or we can each act like the man with the camera, who watches and says nothing. Being silently complicit is to reinforce a culture of disrespect that too often leads to violence (particularly sexual harassment). Of course, what I encountered that night does not border on the assault that so many Yale women experience, that the administration fails to appropriately handle, and that led to the Title IX complaint. But when it comes to boorish behavior or sexual harassment, this attitude of joking, ironic permissiveness — from men and women — helps foster an environment where real assault or rape can all too easily occur. To approach the Title IX issue with questions of what you “can” or “cannot” say is to miss the point. Rather, for many of us, this latest convulsion on campus has to do with all of us learning to speak up, rather than remain silent. In that respect, to target and penalize a select few, whether DKE chanters or athlete-emailers, is to treat a symptom rather than cure the illness. It looks like the Committee on Campus Climate will have their work cut out for them.
Lauren Tilton is a first-year graduate student in American Studies.