Standing against sexism: Phallic graffiti reveals unsettling attitudes

When I came back to my room last Saturday night, I was disturbed to find that someone had anonymously drawn an ejaculating penis on my whiteboard. Without thinking, I quickly erased the image from my door. However, that lewd image has still not been erased from my mind. This sketch was not just an isolated incident of “boys being boys” or harmless drunken behavior. Rather, it represents a lack of respect towards women on this campus and complacency towards discrimination.

Phallic imagery has been seen in entries in the Frosh Quad, Mission Park and in Bronfman basement. While I can only speak for my own personal experience with graffiti, I am certainly not the only student on campus facing this offensive gesture. The problem is so pervasive that many students have become desensitized to it. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the detriment these drawings do to the Williams community.

A provocative op-ed piece written earlier this semester by Elizabeth Kohout ’08 brings up the issue of phallic imagery and asks questions we should all consider: “Would it make you feel threatened? Is it reasonable to say that ubiquitous images of erect penises create an undercurrent of sexual harassment?”

Though I am not the only female living in my suite, and this was the only drawing of male genitalia I have seen in my living space, Kohout’s questions are certainly relevant. Whoever chose my door for this image was easily aware that a girl lives behind it. (My traditionally female name is written on the door). The artist explicitly chose the phallus for this invasion of personal space. Phallic imagery can certainly symbolize many different ideas. But when a phallus or phallic image is targeted at a woman without consent or mutual understanding, it demeans, subordinates and harasses that woman. The unsolicited artist who drew a phallus on my door invaded my personal space and reinforced the image of phallus as a weapon and a means for disrespecting women. As such, this image and others like it represent an undercurrent of sexual harassment on this campus.

In many ways, it would have been easier for me to have simply erased the image and gone to sleep without another thought. In fact, this past summer, when obscene words were written on my door in Morgan, I did just that. The culture of this campus often lets issues of sexism fall by the wayside or, more problematically, denies that issues of sexism exist at all.

The Stand With Us movement has challenged me to think about all forms of discrimination on this campus, and how they affect me personally. In looking critically at some of my relationships and the dynamics in some of my classrooms, I have found that sexism does undoubtedly exist on this campus. For example, my ideas were often ignored while working with a group of male physics students, only to have them recognize another male who would state the same ideas just seconds later. Or after explaining that I am a women’s and gender studies major, a male friend told me that my boyfriend and I must really “make compromises,” as if to say that a woman who studies feminism and sexism is undesirable. Sexism is usually subtle. It usually goes unspoken. But it is never acceptable.

Instead of letting yet another incident of sexism be silenced, I am bringing my personal experience into the public. I urge the members of this campus community to recognize that sexual graffiti is not benign. It is discrimination, and no form of discrimination is acceptable on this campus. I hope someday such offensive graffiti will be a distant memory. Yet this issue is not only about lewd graffiti. Rather, this graffiti represents broader currents of sexism, disrespect and indifference.

I order to move towards a deepened respect for all members of this campus. I challenge you to think and talk with friends, professors, staff members, teammates and all other members of our community about issues of discrimination. How are not only sexism, but also discrimination in all of its forms (whether they be based on religion, class, race, sexual orientation, physical appearance, ethnicity or gender) manifested on this campus? How does discrimination affect you personally? How do we as individuals and a community perpetuate discrimination? By considering the meanings behind our own words and actions as well as those of others (be they thoughtless or malicious), I hope that we can move to a deeper form of respect for one another.

As a member of the leadership board for the Williams Women’s Center, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all students, staff and faculty members to join us at the next Women’s Collective meeting to continue this discussion of discrimination on campus. The Women’s Center is a safe space for campus community members to share their ideas and experiences. The Women’s Center is committed to this central endeavor of fighting unjust discrimination, and our mission, although it highlights gender as a discriminatory category, is in no way limited to that area. I hope you will join us so that we can work together to make this community a safer, more respectful environment for all individuals.

Colleen Farrell ’10 is a women’s and gender studies major from Saratoga Springs, N.Y.