It’s been interesting, to say the least, to follow the fallout of last week’s “Yale sluts” incident. People have been infuriated, saddened, annoyed and indifferent that any of this should have happened in the first place, or that the Women’s Center chose to react so forcefully. Most members of this campus — not to mention Yale-obsessed media junkies — can’t stop talking about the story even as they don’t seem to understand why it should continue to elicit such a strong response.
I, for one, couldn’t be more pleased that the whole thing has unfolded as it has.
Let’s face it: Routine and petty humiliation, harassment and downright intimidation of women have come to be accepted as mainstays not just of the general college experience, but of official campus events and student-group rituals. I’ve been taunted on the street and chased out of classroom buildings during Yale fraternity and sports-team initiations of years past. I’ve looked on as the YCC chose performers with a repertoire of violently misogynistic lyrics to headline the past two Spring Flings.
Of course, the event that happened outside the Women’s Center wasn’t unique either at Yale or within the broader framework of fraternity culture. But the attention and strong emotions that it has generated are a refreshing change. Almost overnight, numerous women and men have decided that they have had enough of a campus culture that refuses to confront its treatment of female students.
The ultimate point of the Zeta Psi incident is not who-held-what-sign or who-threatened-to-sue-whom. The point is simply this: Speech that humiliates and degrades women cannot continue to have a place on this campus, and we have the chance to put an end to it now.
Let me save you some precious eye-rolling time and deal right away with a few concerns that may arise from the apparently threatening idea that women could actually be fed up with shrugging off endless verbal abuse. One of my favorite complaints that has cropped up repeatedly on various online discussion forums has centered around the semantic connotations of the word “slut.” It was truly touching to see so many people crack open the OED and point out that technically, the word can apply to both genders, so what are all these women making such a fuss about? The barrage of brutally misogynistic comments posted to any number of Web sites calling women who dared to speak out after the event “cunts,” “sex-starved whores” and “whiny bitches who need to get back to the kitchen” should be sufficient to clear up any doubts that demeaning, violent language intending to undermine women lies at the heart of this event and demands an immediate response.
Then there’s the old “boys will be boys” argument, favored, improbably enough, by a growing number of women. These women have graduated from college, and moved on to the professional world. They scoff at female students who would prefer not to endure repeated verbal assault as part of their everyday routine. If we think this is bad, they tell us, wait until we get jobs and enter the real world, where attitudes towards women are far harsher. In their eyes, the only way to succeed is to grin and bear it. It’s an attitude as remarkably bitter as it is pathetic. Frankly, the time for this kind of defeatism has long passed.
And finally, there are those who insist that the only appropriate response to this event would be to initiate another round of on-campus dialogue about the parameters of inappropriate speech.
Discussions meant to target and explore the attitudes that motivate abusive speech and students’ responses to it are certainly necessary, but they aren’t nearly enough. Because everyone is aware of the specific circumstances that led to the “Yale sluts” event, we can — and must — push for more decisive action. We must demand that the university provide incentives for organizations that have made a habit of openly demeaning women to stop immediately. Those incentives could take many forms — disciplinary punishment, withdrawal of organizational funding, a note made on students’ permanent records. But it will be impossible to achieve any substantial change until the Yale administration openly acknowledges the systemic nature of this problem and commits to tackling it.
Many readers are probably thinking that it’s absurd to publish this column today, a week and a half after the fact. I couldn’t agree more. The whole thing should have been resolved by now. But that can’t happen until we receive assurance that the administration is so ashamed to keep ignoring its students’ pressing concerns that it has at last decided to act. Until then, we’ll just have to keep applying pressure.
Alexandra Schwartz is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.