Tuesday night, I witnessed a speech on the floor of the Yale Political Union (“Resolved: College Sexual Culture Endangers Women”) that disturbed me more than anything else I had heard on Yale’s campus.
A prominent female member of the Union delivered a fiery rebuttal to a speech that argued that men and women face pressures from college sexual culture — not only sexual pressures from the opposite sex, but also fear of social rejection and concern for their mental health and sexually transmitted infections. As the rebutted speaker argued, though a woman may consent to sex, external forces may still influence the encounter; any one of these fears may drive that decision, and though she has consented, her actions may contradict her actual desires, intentions and better judgment.
The rebuttal that disturbed me, however, argued that the constant victimization of women robbed them of their agency. Even to discuss that the college sexual culture endangers women assumes that women ought to be protected and that they are not fully responsible for their sexual choices. By grouping all women as an “oppressed class,” we strip them of their individuality. From this argument, we arrive at a series of troubling questions: Why should strong, independent women allow themselves to be called victims of sexual harassment? Is structural sexism an excuse for their personal shortcomings? All of these questions assume the existence of an idealized woman, impervious to the injustices inherent to the society of which she is a part.
While ideas such as this are part of the ongoing discourse on Yale’s sexual culture, they have serious consequences. This conversation trivializes the personal experiences of women who may have been sexually assaulted and neglects that the oppression that women have experienced in the past has a lasting impact on the present. It is self-defeating for women to consider themselves out of the context of the legacy of sexual discrimination.
The News recently published the stories of two Yale alumnae who, as students, were sexually harassed by professors and whose grievances were met by an apathetic university administration. Traumatized, these women had no recourse; they were not provided with the resources to pursue the legal action they desired.
Yale women, so seemingly invincible, were still subject to external pressures that prevented them from openly airing their grievances. Being subject to these pressures does not make these women less individual, less strong or less feminist.
An ideology that promotes the individual over all else works only in an ahistorical framework that roundly ignores the sexism women have faced for years. As Yale students, we believe the will to achieve should be more powerful than anything else.
From this belief, the myth of the independent woman is born. The independent woman is expected to be immune to external social pressures. We expect women to achieve — to be highly ambitious, responsible adults — despite the circumstances.
Admitting that one is subject to these pressures, however, is not weakness.
Women who have faced discrimination should not be encouraged to remain silent as though to deny the existence of sexism were to assure equality. They should be encouraged, instead, to demonstrate their strength and speak out about the injustices they have experienced. Our experiences, like those of the women before us, are necessary to offer a perspective with depth and to prevent future abuses.
As a Yale woman, I urge you to reject the myth that smart, “independent” women are impervious to sexism. We can be more nuanced than this. We are brave, intelligent and ambitious, but we are also human.
Minhal Baig is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.