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"When a man has decided to love manhood more than justice, there are predictable consequences in all his relationships with women." — John Stoltenberg
I was in college when I first learned that holding your ground can feel like violence and still be right.
It was 2006 and I was sitting in my sorority meeting listening to frat boys advertising their upcoming party.
One of them passed me a flyer for the “Sausage Party.” It depicted a woman bending over a dumpster with a sausage pressing up against her ass. As per tradition, I knew the men would wear tee-shirts with the same imagery at the party.
It was degrading, disgusting, dehumanizing. Throughout the pitch for the party, I quietly seethed with rage. As soon as the men left the room, I rose from my chair.
“How does this image make you feel?” I queried.
At first, my sorority sisters met me with blank stares and tentative silence. No one had ever bothered to directly challenge the fraternities’ commodification of women.
The eventual reaction was mixed. Most of my sisters agreed with me, but a small group thought I was being too extreme, too hyperbolic. They told me I should “lighten up.”
“It’s just a joke,” they said.
Depicting sexual violence is not a joke.
Boycotting the frat
I was incensed at the contradiction at hand.
To enter our meeting and pitch us their parties, fraternity men were required to perform a somewhat elaborate ritual as a display of respect and reverence. But right after all that pomp and circumstance, they asked us to go to their sexist parties. It was all compartmentalized. Normal. Banal.
At that moment, I’d had enough. I decided to make an example of them.
There was nothing particularly special or unusual about this individual frat party. In fact, it was precisely because this behavior was so common that I finally chose to take action. The weight of all those microaggressions finally broke me.
Every frat on campus held parties with disturbingly sexist themes like “golf pros and ho’s.” Some vetted female attendees at the door by attractiveness or sorority affiliation. I was well aware of this social hierarchy, so I joined the hottest sorority on campus to gain carte blanche access to my pick of parties. They conducted ‘panty raids’ of the sororities during rush. They also regularly discussed their sexual conquests at fraternity meetings to determine which of us were “property.” For example, my friend had slept with more than three Phi Tau’s, so she was considered “Phi Tau property.”
The extent to which we were expected to uphold our own objectification and exploitation is appalling in hindsight.
At that time, I was Vice President of the student body, so I was privileged enough to have access to the levers of power on campus. I called a meeting of the sorority presidents and our Greek affairs advisor and proposed a sorority-wide boycott of the party.
After some debate, the sorority presidents agreed. They barred their entire groups from attending. Any woman who broke the boycott would be met with disciplinary action.
On the day of the party, the fraternity was mystified when only a handful of women showed up. They lost money on the event.
The fourth evil
Within hours, my phone began ringing nonstop. For weeks, I received harassing phone calls, text messages, emails, hand-written letters, and IMs day and night. Even my close friends in the fraternity were unwilling to see my point of view.
Empathy has the potential to build solidarity, but they couldn’t empathize with me because I wasn’t one of them. It didn’t matter that I was a leader on campus, a good daughter, or a friend. There was still a part of my being that was lesser-than. The message was that some parts of me didn’t belong to me – they belonged to them.
People left bags of shit on my doorstep. Groups of men harassed me on campus. Chants of “bitch!” and “bra burner!” were the most benign. Some threatened violence. One man spat in my face.
Very few people supported me while I endured this harassment. I was treated like a radical.
But what was so radical about asking to be treated like a human, rather than an object?
Women are socialized since birth to be nice, to not take up space, to shrink, to be small. This is a patriarchal manipulation. When we don’t conform/perform to these manipulations, when we stand up for ourselves, we get shamed.
In her book Women and Power, Mary Beard’s analysis of Western literature shows that when women are not silenced, they have to pay a high price for being heard. If we show our full power, let ourselves be seen, dare to be big, we will be met with resistance.
"Dr. King named three evils — racism, poverty, and militarism. But he left out a fourth — sexism." – Valarie Kaur
CW: Rape, sexual assault
I was so steadfast in my mission because I was a victim of campus rape culture.
I was sexually assaulted by a former high school acquaintance at a college party during spring quarter of my freshman year. I had alcohol poisoning and was trying to sleep off the toxins when I was penetrated against my will. I was too drunk to move or speak so I just laid there with tears in my eyes until it was over. I was 18 years old.
Sociologists have used the term ‘rape culture’ to describe the beliefs that reinforce sexual assault on college campuses. Rape culture is defined as the “set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape” and is “based on the assumption that men are aggressive and dominant whereas women are passive and acquiescent.”
We see these beliefs reflected in sexual double standards which praise promiscuous men but malign their female counterparts. The “boys will be boys” trope provides a convenient excuse for bad behavior. Underlying this statement is the premise that sexual coercion is a game and women are simply objects in this game.
I graduated from college 14 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Today, my protest would not be considered radical and some fraternities are trying to reform, but the reverberations of rape culture still persist.
We all know that fraternities are bastions of heteronormative white supremacist patriarchy, but I merely use them here as an example. One need not be in a fraternity to perpetuate rape culture.
Is America going to protest the frat just to turn around and marry it?
Looking back, I find it interesting that although I boycotted the frat, I still married him.
This made me consider the ways we protest – and the ways we don’t.
I married and divorced my college sweetheart, the most progressive fraternity man I could find, within a handful of years after graduation. Of course, I was always going to marry “the frat.” I participated in this paradigm because I grew up with it. It was what I knew.
So too, perhaps we in America were always going to have this reckoning, this ‘dark night of the soul.’ Because our democracy was built upon faulty foundations. The seeds were sinister from creation. Paradigms of enslavement, inequality, racism, and patriarchy are antithetical to the very essence of Democracy and what this country claims to stand for.
While accepting my own trivial blind spot is fine, what we’re living through collectively is a matter of life and death.
Radicalization is accelerating and factions are hardening in the U.S. while autocracies are becoming the global majority. Elites are using fear, big data, and social media to emotionally manipulate us but this misuse of power broke the social contract and is causing us to cannibalize ourselves. We’re slow-walking Democracy to the grave while the world burns around us.
To say that civilization is dysfunctional scarcely conveys the gravity of the situation. The future of humanity is in danger. It is urgent.
Enough of us have ‘boycotted the frat’ to make some progress on social issues over the last few decades, but it’s what’s lurking in our blind spots that got us to this reckoning.
When you live in a society that pushes some truths to the side to maintain social order, over time those blind spots become massive shadows.
As many marched for voting and human rights this weekend, I wondered:
Is America going to protest the frat just to turn around and marry it?
Are we going to have the courage that I didn’t to examine and own up to our blind spots? The ones that get in the way of our progress?