When I venture outside the comfort of Yale, I receive reminders that I’m a woman. They’re the types of reminders I’ve never had the acute pleasure of encountering while at Yale, the types of reminders that require increasingly creative and sometimes coarse reactions. Sitting in an airport, a train station, a waiting room, I’m reminded that some strangers are more inclined to examine my body than my brain.
You don’t have to look a certain way to be subjected to this treatment; often, you really just have to exist. Over the years, I’ve developed tactics to deal with unwelcome gazes from unwelcome gazers: One option is to stare blankly back until the person gazing has the decency to look away. It’s really awkward when this doesn’t work, and sometimes I resort to truly vulgar tactics. I’ve discovered that if I actively pick my nose while under an unwanted gaze, even the creepiest of creeps will avert his unabashed eyes. But should I really have to pick my nose in order to regain a little sense of respect?
At Yale, I’ve never had to. After attending a pretty patriarchal prep school and passing through a hodgepodge of different cultures, I’ve come to believe that there are few better places to be a woman than at Yale. Yale’s young women, just like its young men, captain hockey and crew teams, run campus organizations, write plays, give speeches and even take classes.
I’m always impressed by how few girls here feel the need to do themselves up, a drastic contrast from the way it is at most other colleges. In my eyes, Yale women rarely aim to please others, driven rather by the motivation to reach standards that they have set for themselves. We don’t wait for men to do things for us. I’ve asked guys (gay and straight) out on dates just as many times as they’ve asked me, and I’ve felt comfortable doing that. My male friends are attracted to confident, driven women, and despite its problems, I find that the Yale hookup culture is not one defined by objectification, degradation or disrespect, but rather by intense levels of mutual apathy.
These past four years, however, have been marked by a series of unsettling events. In October of my freshman fall the DKE chanting incident turned to chaos and began raising questions about campus climate. At the time, I didn’t think the mindless idiocy deserved any of the attention it was receiving, but other women here felt differently. Not long after, a group of girls filed a Title IX complaint against the University, and that spring, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation of the University “for its failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus, in violation of Title IX.” My sophomore fall, Yale published its first semi-annual Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct, and there was also a big blowup around football captain and Rhodes finalist Patrick Witt, who became the center of a sexual assault scandal. Junior year brought with it both a new Campus Sexual Climate Assessment and the inception of “SWUG.” This year, periodic reports of sexual assault have appeared both in my inbox and in The New York Times, and Yale has been castigated for meting out insufficient punishments. All the while, a constant avalanche of condemnatory articles have tumbled from the mouths of Slate, Time, Huffington Post, Forbes, Business Insider, Christian Science Monitor and NBC News, spreading sweeping statements of a “hostile sexual climate.”
Yale has problems — no one can refute that. But these problems of sexual assault are not unique to Yale, and while we use our power and privilege to set things right, I don’t want us to lose appreciation for a place where I’ve never once seen my gender as an impediment or a liability, whether I’m scooting around in an inner tube, elbowing my way into a seminar, or going out with friends on a Saturday night. There are both men and women here who have been mistreated, but to me, these chilling incidents don’t fall into a larger hostile climate or culture.
Four years at this school have showed me that Yalies, at least in the communities I have been a part of, treat each other not as exchangeable or easily reducible items, but as complete and complex individuals deserving of full respect. Four years of headlines I’ve found both derogatory and misleading have left me feeling partly indignant, but mostly hurt, because Yale has been to me the ideal place to be a woman — because here I’m not a woman, I’m just another student. Here at Yale, I’ve never had to pick my nose to get some basic respect, and I sincerely hope (and believe) that no girl will ever have to.
Tao Tao Holmes is a senior in Branford College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at email@example.com .