Colleges Need to Protect Women in Practice, Not Just Theory

"There are three girls sitting in front of you. Pick one to marry, one to fuck and one to kill." The interviewer, the President of a prestigious academically oriented student group at the University of Pennsylvania, had just asked me to sexually harass three women in their presence and expected a serious response. The girls seemed undaunted by the question -- apparently it was a routine part of the interview process. They were used to men judging their sexuality in a public way.

For a long time, I have been concerned with women's issues. I have argued that gendering -- a process that begins at home and is perpetuated by societal norms -- often undermines women's ability to succeed, first in school and then in the workforce. Schools, though intended to create equal opportunity, often do just the opposite -- further entrenching unhealthy gender biases. As I noted in a July 8 editorial on single-sex education, this can create a "crisis of confidence" for young women.

Despite my preconceived notions, when I arrived on campus this Fall I was impressed by lengths to which campus officials went address this issue of sexual assault. I attended at least three lectures in which presenters detailed the importance of fostering a safe sexual environment, defined consent and laid the groundwork for the school's position on rape and sexual violence. In fact, when campus officials brought Speak About It, a performance troop that addresses consent to an orientation event, I felt reassured that I was living in a college that was as serious about making women feel safe as I was (the group was captivating, professional and effective).

This was premature. Within a couple weeks of coming to campus, the blatant sexualization of women became apparent. The unsafe sexual environment we read so much about stems from a subtle acceptance of the dual role of women on campus. Women are, on the one hand, fellow students. They are treated with respect in the classroom, often the 'go-to-friend' for help on assignments and generally equals. But outside of the classroom, they are regarded as sexual objects. Crude jokes or interview questions about women are just 'guys being guys.'

When guys go to parties, they are expected to be fully clothed. When girls attend the same events, they are expected to be scantily dressed -- otherwise the guys manning the doors might not let them in. A friend recently recounted what sounds like a commonplace encounter for a college-aged girl. She attended a frat party with a number of friends wearing ripped-up jeans and a T-shirt. As she walked through the frat house, she heard a couple of friends gossiping ("Can you believe she's wearing jeans! What, does she think she's better than everyone else?")

College students reading this article won't be impressed by that last anecdote. For us, it's almost so commonplace it's not worth mentioning. But it brings me back to my original point -- that colleges normalize the sexualization of women. With this in mind, it's clear that colleges need to do a lot more than just put in place anti-sexual assault policies to safeguard women. No amount of counseling, money or speaker events can undermine social norms. I'm no sociologist, but I'm fairly certain that's just common sense.

Instead, schools need to create and enforce a taboo around unsafe sexual situations. On-campus student organizations, especially academically oriented groups, need to be held to the highest standards. Funding should be contingent on a clean record for the groups. Students who believe that academic groups are culturally misogynist should be given a 'lightweight' option for reporting the complaint, and allowing the school administration to address these concerns, without incurring a full-blown "investigation" -- a daunting process that leads most students to drop their concerns.

Leaders of academic groups should themselves be required to attend special seminars on the importance of creating a culture that is safe for women. Likewise, consequences should be clear for violators, while groups that demonstrate good behavior should be exempt (thereby encouraging student groups to preserve spotless records -- because no one wants to end up at sensitivity training).

'Frat culture' will never leave college campuses, nor should it. But jokes that may be appropriate at a frat party are certainly not appropriate in the classroom or in any academic setting. In fact, jokes that appear appropriate for frat parties may not be appropriate at all. Colleges need to do more to protect women from being objectified on and off-campus by taking a tougher stance on cultural reform.