Today we present the fourth installment of BloggerHeads, a weekly feature in which our bloggers sit down to debate or discuss an important issue at Columbia.
In recent weeks, the question of how college students think about sexual violence has come to the fore. In mid-October, controversy struck Yale's campus when Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanted "no means yes, yes means anal" outside the Yale Women's Center. The following week, the Yale Daily News published an editorial critical of the Women's Center's response, which sparked an outcry of its own. And, here at Columbia, Lucha spoke out against fliers advertising for the a cappella group The Kingsmen. This week, we asked Vaidehi Joshi and Aarti Iyer if campus culture leads to sexual violence.
Vaidehi: To start, I'm sad (although I can't say surprised) that the Yale incident occurred. Our culture is one that makes sexism more of a joke than anything else. Just take one look at our pop culture and you can see all of the ways that women are objectified. Some brothers from other fraternities at Yale have mentioned that they doubt DKE meant any harm and that this was just a joke and that people shouldn't take this so seriously. It really worries me that people can use humor as a veil for these sort of really heinous actions.
Aarti: Misogyny has become its own brand of humor in many ways. And Columbia is enmeshed right now in a controversy of its own regarding what’s funny and what’s just sexist: Those “Rape Me” fliers were printed to promote a student group’s event and instead upset a large segment of the student body. The student group’s defense was similar to that of Yale’s DKE, that the whole thing was supposed to be a joke.
Vaidehi: I guess the question I have is: When did sexual violence and rape become funny? I missed the memo on that. What about this was a "joke"?
Aarti: Well, of course, what constitutes a joke is difficult to define, I think, in part because a joke’s success depends so much on the context and audience. The pledges' audience that night was a college campus, college still being a place where one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape. I think what we need to examine is not only pop culture, but in particular college culture, because sexual violence is an unfortunate part of it.
Vaidehi: I just have a sinking feeling that this controversy was a vehicle to start a conversation about culture and attitudes, but inevitably it will be forgotten and pushed under the rug so that nothing really changes. But I hope I'm wrong.
I agree that Yale should support free speech on its campus, and yes, perhaps there is nothing they can do to actually, physically stop people from chanting things like this. But if we condemn DKE's actions, maybe no one will feel compelled to parade past the dorms where freshmen women live and taunt them with images of sexual violence.
Aarti: But what exactly was compelling those pledges to parade across campus? I don’t think their primary purpose that night was to deliver a pointed political or social message by way of chants and protests. I think they did it because they thought it was funny, and because someone told them to, and because they were promised fulfillment and brotherhood if they did. It was less organized, though no less insidious.
Vaidehi: It's extremely insidious, in a world where, as you said, one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her four years at college. And that's not even including the countless women who are raped but don't report the crime. And victim-blaming is still very much present. Given, these are words. But they're part of a larger culture.
Aarti: And college culture does need to change in respect to its attitudes toward sexual violence. But I think this incident also pushes us to recognize college culture’s other flaws. The power dynamics between pledges and the Greek organizations they vie to get into, the prevalence of peer pressure and manipulation toward younger students, the encouragement of reckless and impulsive behavior, the general disconnect between what we learn in lecture halls and how we act outside of them.
Vaidehi: I'm putting my faith in the fact that (hopefully) most of these pledges were blindly following orders, viewing the chant as an investment in their future at the fraternity. I'm completely with you in regard to fraternity behavior. Yes, I'm sure that frat brothers know about rape, and don't personally condone it. But they still participate in offensive behaviors. Whether they're aware of it or not, they're just helping this aspect of college culture grow. DKE could have initiated their pledges without joking about rape, and the Columbia Kingsmen could have easily advertised without suggesting rape.
Aarti: Frat brothers may throw “Conquistabros and Navajos”-themed parties (again, a pun no doubt thought hilarious at the time), but when the rest of the student body attends them in full costume, it’s harder to pinpoint who exactly is helping that aspect of college culture grow. I completely agree that it’s easy for us to make vague calls for dialogue and change when the matter at hand is a clear act of violence or prejudice, because such judgments don’t require any introspection. But I think where we falter, and where the blame gets harder to place, is when we fall into the realm of fliers and parties.
Vaidehi: Yet it's seemingly trivial things like fliers or parties that promote this kind of behavior every day.
Aarti: But those “Rape Me” fliers were made because, someone supposed, they would attract our attention, would make us laugh, and would make us want to see the show. “Pimps and Hoes” theme parties follow the same logic—they are thrown and continue to get thrown because they’re popular, because enough of the student body weighs the thrill of costuming over concern for the sexist undertones. That’s what I think is particularly disconcerting about these examples of sexism in areas of student life—they seem to be simply mirrors, if warped mirrors, of college students’ own beliefs and decisions.
Vaidehi: But then what's the solution? How do you change people's minds? The Yale Women's Center's reaction to the incident was a step in that direction. My question now is, how will Columbia address the rape fliers? Or are the Columbia Kingsmen going to get away with it with just an apology? If we want to make sexist behaviors "unpopular," we need to let those people who constantly engage in them know that the rest of the student body isn't going to support them in these actions.
Aarti: I struggle with a good solution too. I suppose the student body can show its support or disapproval through strongly worded letters, as Lucha did, or through Bwog comments and Spec editorials. And in the end, I have to give credit to the Kingsmen for what I thought to be a sincere and thoughtful apology. For a few weeks, it seems, we came together in dialogue and disapproval and I want to believe that these controversies serve some purpose. I want to believe that the results will be long-lasting and significant—that perhaps other student groups will learn from the Kingsmen’s experience and think twice before they begin printing off fliers. Maybe part of the solution is investing more responsibility in student leaders—those students with the most nuanced understanding of Columbia’s campus culture and immediate experience with past controversies. There just has to be one person in that room when fliers are being written, or when pledging rituals are being proposed—one person to break that group mentality and say, “Well, hold on a second…”
Vaidehi: I agree wholeheartedly with you, Aarti. Honestly, I don't know the best way to combat the nonchalant, dismissive, humorous attitude that is embedded within college culture; but I do know that talking about it can only help change come about. Perhaps we can start at the root level for incoming freshmen. I'm sure we could get the discussion started during NSOP, and I can definitely envision a yearly event or awareness campaign taking off on our campus. There are lots of things that we can do as a community, but I definitely think that talking about this issue is the first thing on the list.
Aarti: It's definitely the place to start. To that end, thank you, Vaidehi, for the conversation. There's still, of course, so much left to say.
Vaidehi: Thank you, Aarti. It's been a pleasure.