The ‘-ism’ that’s overlooked

I’ve been chatting recently with some of my girlfriends about sexism on campus. It’s funny – almost every time I bring it up, everyone gets nervous, apparently thinking they’re in for some sort of tirade against men that will conclude with me urging women to burn their bras and stop shaving their legs. Once I explain that I’m just curious to see if they think sexism exists here at Williams, people visibly relax.

I don’t understand why talking about sexism makes some of us so nervous. We seem to be doing okay in discussing racism: the conversation has been contentious, arduous and, frankly ugly, but at least it’s happening. When you talk about racism, it seems, you’re being brave by taking a stand on a serious problem; when you talk about sexism, you’re a crazy feminist or a shrew.

This reluctance to discuss sexism on campus is particularly strange, given our collective comfort level in talking about rape and sexual assault. As co-coordinator of the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN), I have been deeply impressed by the campus’s support for the organization. At the same time, however, I can’t help but compare students’ receptiveness for RASAN with our collective freak-out when the Women’s Center was started two years ago. I am not now and never was involved with the Women’s Center (in fact, I was initially a bit leery of its presence on campus), but the hostility with which it was met continues to baffle me. People argued that it would negatively impact gender relations on campus, that it would benefit a minority of students, and that there are not enough exclusively ”women’s issues” to necessitate such a space on campus.

What I find striking about these arguments is that they could easily be applied to RASAN: the vast majority of our callers are female and have been subjected to, at the least, male privilege and usually male aggression, meaning we spend a lot of time talking about men in a less than complimentary light. A minority of students benefit from the hotline and that means you could argue, if you were so inclined, that there are not enough ”sexual violence” issues to justify our organization.

What, then, accounts for the vastly different perceptions students have of these groups? I think the difference in their public images indicates that we as a community are only comfortable talking about women as a subgroup with their own distinct issues when they are victims or survivors of sexual violence. In other words, it’s only acceptable to talk about women as women when they have been violently attacked and need support or protection.

At the same time, I think it’s interesting that even though most people appear to have a tremendous amount of respect for survivors of rape and sexual assault, we are so used to seeing erect penises drawn around campus that Dean Merrill’s first all-campus e-mail neglected to mention that drawings accompanied the racial slurs in Willy E. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone is drawing penises everywhere all the time, nor do I want to say that all women feel directly threatened every time they see a drawing of one. I do wonder, however, what it would feel like to be the only woman living on a hallway where other residents persist in drawing erect penises on each other’s doors. Would it make you feel threatened? Is it reasonable to say that ubiquitous images of erect penises create an undercurrent of sexual harassment?

Or maybe the response to the Women’s Center and the preponderance of penis drawings don’t count as evidence that this community accepts a certain privileging of the male perspective. In her most recent all-campus e-mail, Dean Merrill mentioned RASAN’s ”conversation heart” campaign. Last month, RASAN tabled in Paresky with construction paper hearts on which we encouraged the student body to write clever ways to ask consent over Valentine’s Day. We thought it would be a cute way to get people thinking about communication. As the e-mail informed us, someone defaced at least two of these hearts. The e-mail didn’t mention it, but here’s what they said: ”Can you please sign this form so that I can stick my dick in your-” and ”Ask me out so that I can rape you already.”

I am assuming, since both messages were written from the perspective of someone with a penis, that the perpetrator was male. If that is the case, then these messages constitute the basest form of sexism that exists. For women on campus, particularly those who are survivors of rape and sexual assault (and statistically that should be one quarter of us), those messages serve as testament to the viewpoint that our bodies are vehicles for gratifying men’s sexual urges and that our consent is superfluous.

Now, obviously the vast majority of men on campus are not looking to rape, assault, insult or demean women on campus. But I’ve barely even begun to touch on all the manifestations of sexism in this community, never mind the larger world. Williams prides itself in being the best in everything, and the best way to eliminate sexism is to talk about it.

Elizabeth Kohout ’08 is an English and art major from Austin, Texas.