Justifying women’s concerns

I started this op-ed over a week ago, during the beginning of the backlash to an op-ed by Colleen Farrell ’10 about phallic graffiti left on her door’s white board. I struggled with it, unsure of exactly what I wanted to say but sure that I needed to say something. I knew that the phallic graffiti was indicative of a larger problem on this campus, but I hadn’t figured out what that problem is. I was pretty sure, however, that calling people out on a pretty innocuous drawing of a penis wasn’t the right way to make this campus think or to start a dialogue.

The rest of the Women’s Center board didn’t necessarily agree with me, and I’m still not sure exactly what the larger problem is; I’m beginning, though, to have some ideas. Early on Monday a student (or students) put up posters in Paresky advertising a “flash your breasts” week, allegedly sponsored by the Women’s Center. I don’t think it needs clarification, but just in case, we had nothing to do with this. What’s more, I think that these posters are a much larger representation of the problem that Colleen saw.

The Women’s Center is currently the only student group on campus that constantly has to justify its existence, both to students and the administration. This baffles me; we don’t exist to tell anyone that we’re better than they are or that they don’t have a right to voice their opinion. Instead, we attempt to create a safe space for people to voice their thoughts, and try to create a culture on campus that can accept the fact that women are equal to men.

The members of the Women’s Center board all consider ourselves feminists, but that doesn’t mean we all agree on every issue – and it definitely doesn’t mean we sit around at our meetings bashing men. There is a misconception on this campus as to what a feminist is, and I think that is what scares most members of it about having a women’s center. We’re not here to take down men; we’re here to bring a greater sense of equality and openness.

What also bothered me about the recent prevalence of these subtle – and also not-so-subtle – actions is how often, when I looked at the WSO posts made after Colleen’s article, I saw the excuse, “he or she was probably drunk,” come up. Is this really a reasonable excuse? When a student drinks, she is knowingly imbibing something that will lower her inhibitions. That knowledge, however, hardly exonerates her from responsibility. In fact, I’d say it increases her responsibility. If the student knows she’s likely to do stupid or hurtful things while drunk, she has a responsibility to stop the actions before they happen.

Furthermore, these actions – both the habits of hurtful and sexist speech and of excessive drinking – have ramifications for the culture of sexual assault. At the Take Back the Night rally last week, it became abundantly clear that there is a disconnect between the statement of “no,” when made during a hookup, and the understanding of its meaning in this context. Why is the first “no” so rarely sufficient? One friend told me about a hookup of hers last year that nearly turned violent when she stopped it before sex; how the guy she was with told her, “no, you’re enjoying this, you want this. I can tell.” Why is there a lack of understanding on this campus that, in fact, “no” means “I don’t want this,” not “I’m not sure and I’d like you to convince me”? Where does the logic come from that says that an unwilling partner must repeat “no” upwards of 15 times? This campus is full of strong women and men, but it takes a whole lot of conviction to stand by that “no” so many times without taking the easier route and backing down. This is especially true when individuals are under the influence of alcohol, which so many victims of sexual assault are. Some of this disconnect may have a lot to due with general lack of communication, but specifically it points to a lack of listening. At root, that is what this all comes down to.

This is an opinionated campus; the number of activist groups certainly demonstrates that. That said, there seems to be a lack of dialogue on campus. Students are eager to announce their opinions on issues from the low-pressure faucets in Williams Hall to issues of racism and sexism. What they aren’t eager to do, however, is to listen to the opinions of others and to accept them, even if they don’t agree completely. It’s a lack of dialogue and a lack of listening that contribute to the hanging of posters like those that appeared in Paresky on Monday. If someone out there has a problem with the way the Women’s Center, or any other student group, operates, please come discuss it – don’t slander us to the school.

Liz Weinberg ’11 is from Bethesda, Md., and lives in Williams Hall.