To the Editor:
January 24, 2014
Re: “Retooling the Scripts”: An Interview with Melanie Boyd
As alumni who attended Yale during the Title IX investigation, we are pleased to see continued public discussion of sexual culture on campus in the latest Broad Recognition interview with Melanie Boyd. However, investing in the necessary task of contextualizing sexual assault in a larger discussion of the “ideals and possibilities” of sexual culture, does not entitle the university to abdicate responsibility for the sexual aggressors who “will always exist.” The reality of sexual assault requires continued institutional investment in reform, particularly with regard to how the university responds to acts of sexual violence on campus. Surely, Melanie Boyd would agree with these assertions, given that she thinks “it’s critical to resist that zero-sum paradigm.”
Before we continue, we want to disclose that we worked with Melanie Boyd as student directors of Sex Week 2012. We can personally attest to the fact that Melanie Boyd deeply cares for students and works tirelessly for the Yale community on a incredibly complex, politically sensitive and high-stakes issue.
However, we were unnerved by the lack of context for Yale’s sexual politics and the zero-sum approach to promoting a positive campus sexual culture in this Broad Recognition interview. We worry that this representation of Yale’s recent reforms leaves us with a skewed agenda for feminist action at Yale. The devil is in the details.
Melanie Boyd claims that:
A narrow focus on rape shuts off too many effective strategies for change. It also erases so many other forms of sexual harms—other kinds of sexual violence and misconduct, as well as the harms experienced even within many consensual encounters. To make real change, we have to keep our vision broad.
Keeping our vision broad to affect cultural change should not come at the expense of clear, focused policies condemning sexual violence and supporting its survivors. Characterizing the discussion of rape as “narrow” obscures the fact that the procedures concerning sexual assault still require continued reform, not simply contextualization. Because sexual aggressors will always exist, the university must be ready to respond and effectively reestablish the safety of our community. Upholding serious ramifications and normalizing the reporting process for sexual violence is not the same as “refusal training or “problematic gendered narratives.”
It is important to remember that discussions of “possibilities and ideals” can fall into the trap of victim blaming just as easily as discussions of “problems and prohibitions.” Melanie Boyd writes:
For example, in a culture (such as ours) where some degree of sexual pressure is normalized, sexual aggressors have tremendous camouflage—the opening moves of an assault don’t necessarily feel all that different from “normal” sex and by the time the difference becomes clear, the power dynamic has tipped greatly in the aggressor’s favor. But in a community (such as the one we’re building) that normalizes mutual engagement, desire, and respect, sexual pressure feels weird and inappropriate, and so the manipulation that takes place in the early phases of a sexual assault is much less likely to be successful. (Emphasis ours).
This characterization of sexual violence misdiagnoses the source of sexual violence and starts down the slippery slope to victim blaming. First, suggesting that victims can extract themselves from aggressive situations if they recognize them sooner does nothing to shift the onus off of individuals. Second, as Audre Lorde writes, “rape is not aggressive sexuality, it’s sexualized aggression.” Representing sexual pressure as “weird” or “inappropriate” dangerously decouples desire and power, thus downplaying the serious nature of sexual violation.
While Boyd acknowledges that “We live in a culture in which sexual pressure is normalized,” the interview excludes the fact that we also live in a culture in which reporting, seeking support and/or recourse for sexual violence is not normalized. Moves to streamline and clarify the process for sexual assault reporting indicate a willingness to institutionalize change on this front.
But if you do not push the university, it will not change. If the press is not grilling the university, you should be. The recent emergence of SASVY and KnowYourIX, for example, is the result of organizing out of necessity. As Melanie Boyd says, “no-one should be expected to deflect sexual aggression alone – it’s a community project.”
In the same vein, no one should be expected to go through the process of seeking support for sexual assault alone and no one should be expected to stand up to their aggressors alone. In addition to working with the administration to promote a more positive sexual culture, the Yale community should make sure they know the answers to the practical questions that surround the process of reporting sexual assault and supporting survivors.
How many times does a rape survivor have to tell their story in order to receive the acknowledgement, counsel, advocacy and justice they deserve? Does Yale provide victim advocates who assist students without the bias of other university interests? Do all residential college masters, deans and advisors confidently support and provide resources to sexual assault survivors who come to them without hesitation, without victim-blaming? We’re not asking whether our staff have “received training,” we’re asking whether all positions of authority who might be the first point of contact for those who need support and want to report a sexual assault are effectively executing their responsibilities.
Are sexual assault survivors provided all of their options for support and recourse upfront? Are there timelines in which their needs are guaranteed to be met? Are those who have been assaulted or harassed by the same student systematically being told that they have the same attacker in the process of making decisions about filing complaints?
In what innovative ways are we keeping the UWC transparent and holding them accountable in comparison to previous adjudicating bodies? What do their transcripts look like?
All of these questions stem from testimonies of sexual assault we have heard from resilient but frustrated Yale students since the 2012 Title IX investigation. And these are the questions we would have liked to see answered in campus sexual culture reporting as well as subsequent Title IX investigation follow-ups.
The Yale community certainly has the intellectual (and financial) capacity to promote a positive sexual culture while also bolstering support for sexual assault survivors and condemning perpetrators at the same time. But if this is an issue of resources, I’m sure that the parents and donors of Yale would appreciate making sure victim-support and ensuring serious consequences for sexual assault were properly funded.
Promoting ideals of enthusiastic sexual encounters should not preclude discussions of the “problems and prohibitions” that are a part of the current sexual culture. We cannot celebrate a shift toward prevention if it does not also call for greater accountability for sexual crimes. We hope that the Yale community continues to push its administration to devote energy and resources to retooling their scripts for handling the serious, criminal acts of sexual assault that occur on their campus.
Connie Cho and Anna North
To The Editor:
November 18th, 2010
Re :”Liberté (for some), (In)Egalité, Fraternities: TFM and American Culture” (opinion, Tatiana Schlossberg, Nov. 3)
I have recently happened upon the article “Liberté (for some), (In)Egalité, Fraternities: TFM and American culture” by Tatiana Schlossberg. I have no affiliation with Yale and nor the south in general. I did however participate in the Greek system at The Ohio State University (sigma phi epsilon) 2005 -2008. I would like to say that the TFM website is appalling to this former “frat boy.” As a whole, I can see how fraternities seem as an archaic good ol’ boy club to a group of self proclaimed feminists. In fact, growing up, I thought these organizations were the pinnacle of anti-intellectual machismo. In college I found a group of guys that were quite the opposite of this stereotype. They valued the balance of academics, athleticism (general health), and cultural enlightenment. They created a structured developmental plan to grow members as leaders in these areas on campus and hopefully in the community at large. I joined them hesitantly and found it to be the best decision of my undergraduate career.
Although this may seem to be the exception to norm, Sigma Phi Epsilon is the largest social fraternity in the nation. I have checked the Yale chapter’s website and they seem to follow the fraternities national guidelines for developing gentlemen. It is pretty easy to run an article on how the drunk philistines of fraternities have screwed up again (and TFM is a fantastic example). I would encourage an article on how Sigma Phi Epsilon (and others) are turning the tide in the fraternal world in hopes to better society. I know this is probably not appealing to your reader base (and may be off topic), but it demonstrates a balanced view.
Thank you for your time and for bringing light to the errors of TFM,
PharmD. Candidate, 2012
The Ohio State University
College of Pharmacy
Let’s Get Some Things Straight
To The Editor:
November 17th, 2010
Re The response to Liberté (for some), (In)Egalité, Fraternities: TFM and American Culture by Tatiana Schlossberg
To recap: Tatiana writes a column for a campus feminist magazine about how she’s appalled by TFM – by offhand misogyny and a total sense of social irresponsibility. The response by TFM’s users and defenders is to say that she’s crazy, she’s making it up, TFM is all satire, Tatiana can’t take a joke, and then in the comments to her article Tatiana’s called a “feminist black panther” (whatever that means), a “self-righteous feminist hippie,” and a “black jew.”
So, obviously, something’s going on, and TFM isn’t all fun if, as soon as somebody (in a totally unrelated publication) says that she’s offended by TFM, the reaction is to call her a feminist black panther jew hippie liberal from the north who should mind her own damn business.
Tatiana’s speaking for a lot of people – women especially – who’ve felt that fraternities have had a toxic effect on their college experience. Fraternities tend to be aggressive, tightly organized, well-funded, with access to alcohol, and disproportionate influence over campus life. And what do fraternities do with their influence? Orchestrate date rape (10% of campus date rapes occur in fraternity houses) and rally around brothers who are caught. If you’re a girl on campus, you can’t really avoid it: at some point in college one of your friends is going to get date raped in a frat house and then, lots of luck getting the frat brothers to take your side in it – or you play it the fraternities’ way, join a sorority, and then you’re easy pickings (“a sorostitute”).
Tatiana’s not saying shut down the fraternities (although there’s an argument for that). She’s saying, if you have great power, have a little fucking responsibility to go with it. There’s something obviously flawed about a culture that leads the galaxy in date rape, takes a smug kind of pride in everything about its traditions, and lashes out viciously at any criticism.
Reading through this thread, there’s a few things that jump out – first of all, that most of the posts don’t even deal with Tatiana’s argument. They basically say she’s not allowed to criticize frats.
These look to be the leading dumb reasons explaining why her criticism isn’t valid:
TFM can’t be criticized because a) TFM is satire, b) fraternities organize community service and do lots of good things besides get drunk and flash money c) it’s just a fun site, so don’t take anything seriously, d) anybody criticizing TFM (especially a northerner) is elitist.
a) Doing satire doesn’t mean nobody can criticize you. As ‘A Sphincter’ pointed out, “It’s an online community in which ‘I don’t think that is funny’ is met with the riposte ‘you are a crazy bitch who has no sense of humor.’” Satire doesn’t give you a free pass. Satire means you’re inviting criticism. If you actually get criticized, deal with it.
b) All anybody sees of fraternities is an aggressive we’re in-you’re out campus presence; obviously that’s what TFM is all about. The fact that you also do community service doesn’t mean you get to be an asshole the rest of the time.
c) Grow up. If you post on a public forum, people are going to read it, including people who don’t share your values. If you offend someone, you don’t get to be angry at her for being offended.
d) Tatiana isn’t saying the south is elitist. She’s looking at quotes like, “Just drove through the poor section of town – it was out of my way but worth laughing at the unfortunates” and “Can’t we pay someone to do this?” and “My dad’s taxes are so high he gave me and my brother each another share in the company” and getting a little bit of an elitist vibe wafting in her directions.
Look, you’re the ones inside the club – you made your own little elite. Now justify what’s elite about you. The Ivy League thing is about hard work and intellectual merit. Some of the posts on the thread are absolutely right that those aren’t the only possible values for a college student, but inheriting daddy’s hard-earned money and schmoozing your way through college aren’t exactly accomplishments. There’s a good kind of elitist where you develop abilities that other people don’t have and then there’s the kind where you’re a smug asshole who hasn’t done anything.
@Jessica Wilson/Emeralds and Pearls: It was tough to read your posts. You’re both obviously very smart and eloquent. You’re working hard to defend a lifestyle where you (as sorority sisters) are routinely called a sorostitute and – if you objected to that – would be told that you can’t take a joke. If that’s the southern gentlemanliness you’re defending, it’s time to get some higher standards.
(And just to say the obvious: ‘fratdaddy’ is a positive term, sorostitute is a slur. Lots and lots of TFM posts talk about men using and abusing women; none that I’ve seen are about women wielding power over men. Ladies, the joke’s on you.)
With the north/south thing – that’s really not what Tatiana’s article is about. She noticed that most of the posts on TFM were from southern schools, but frat culture’s obviously incredibly powerful in the south and north (including at Yale, btw, which has about seven or eight frats and three sororities). When you realize what the article’s about, the whole how-dare-she-attack-our-traditions thing comes across a little weak.
Look, you chose to be in a fraternity. This isn’t a condition you were born with; this is something you wanted to do. Fraternities have a bad reputation for date rape and misogyny; you knew that going in. By and large, fraternities have beaten the old rap that they’re racist – take some responsibility and beat the misogynist rap.
TFM is obviously irresponsible and enjoys being irresponsible. That’s fine in itself, but if you use satire (or whatever) that shows you to be misogynist, don’t be surprised if you’re called out on it.
November 17, 2010
THE RIGHT KIND OF FEMINISM?
Published October 20, 2010
To the Editor:
Re Managing Editor Hannah Zeavin’s Oct. 20 appearance on CNN’s American Morning
I heard of your magazine via an interview by Hannah Zeavin regarding the recent incidents at Yale. I am not a feminist, nor am I violently opposed to them, I merely believe in equal treatment for all, and less extreme positions. I say this to give reference for my next statement, not to put anyone on their guard against what I may have to say.
I was very impressed by the way Ms. Zeavin handled herself on the CNN interview, particularly by how she was very clear to state what were her views, and how she could not speak for the majority of Yale students. I must admit that when they introduced her as an editor of a feminist magazine, I was preparing myself to hear an edge opinion that was very defensive or outraged. It was a pleasure to hear from such an even-tempered young woman, who seemed very concerned with representing herself and her position with integrity and rational thought.
I am sure you are getting all kinds of letters, calls, and e-mails from people around the nation; I just wanted to send one of positive approval, perhaps to even out the bunch.
Thank you for your time.
IN DEFENSE OF HOLLABACKNYC
Published September 13, 2010
To the Editor:
Re “Hollaback: Misguided Shouting for a Much-Needed Safe Space” (opinion, Alexandra Brodsky, Aug. 23)
Truth be told, I had neither heard of nor read your publication until today, when a friend drew my attention to the article by Alexandra Brodsky that looked at some of the key players in the anti-street harassment movement and their efforts at ending the public abuse of women. In particular, she zeroes in on the efforts of Holly Kearl, of Stop Street Harassment, and Emily May, of HollaBackNYC. As HollaBack’s Director of Research and Development, I may be slightly biased—guilty as charged. But I’m hoping my observations on this article can objectively illuminate for the lay (wo)man the inherent flaws with Brodsky’s argument.
Regarding HollaBack’s position on declining to accept submissions by male readers, she writes: “Gendered violence and disrespect can go both ways, but in as much as these isolated incidences derive from a larger problem, I cannot help but expect the perpetrator to more often be a man. Yet May’s exclusion of men does not derive from empirical observations of harassment patterns, but damaging assumptions about the entire male sex.” I couldn’t help but wonder if I had read this part correctly or if I was missing something. I reread the sentences. Nope; these two sentences really do blatantly contradict themselves. My high school English teacher would be having a fit with his red pen right about now. What is the HollaBackNYC blog, if not an empirical observation of harassment patterns, and what “movement” is Brodsky referring to elsewhere in the article if these hundreds of stories are “isolated incidences”?
“Street harassment” is a relatively new term that brings slight pause to even well-educated and well-informed people in urban areas. It is a problem that only recently has been acknowledged and identified as such; this being the case, concrete social change is perhaps a decade away. Blogs like Stop Street Harassment, HollaBackNYC, and its sister sites around the world seek to illustrate, however tedious it may be, the hundreds and thousands of stories of women who otherwise would not speak out. A problem without a name can hardly realize its own solution. These blogs bridge the gap between silence and walking on, and speaking out and demanding social justice.
Brodsky hounds the anti-street harassment blogs about their lack of action and complains that the photos rarely result in arrests or convictions. I want to point out several key accomplishments to date, bearing in mind that HollaBackNYC, for example, only recently acquired its first full-time employee in May of this year and operates entirely on in-kind donations and volunteers.
A.) HollaBackNYC was founded after the arrest and conviction of a habitual subway flasher whose photo one New Yorker published on the front page of Metro NY.
B.) Thirteen arrests were made during an undercover sting operation in which NYPD officers were subjected to flashing, groping, and sexual verbal assaults.
C.) The organization helped found New Yorkers for Safe Transit and fought to incorporate anti-sexual harassment announcements and advertisements on NYC subways and buses, which have now become standard operating procedure.
Contradictions and structural discrepancies aside, I found Brodsky’s article to be unnecessarily disparaging of an organization that is still in its infancy, and distastefully disdainful of an individual. Whether Ms. Brodsky seeks to bolster the movement through constructive criticism or bolster her own portfolio, her argument leaves much to be desired. Movements do not happen overnight and HollaBack volunteers will be the first to admit that the organization has a long way to go. Discussion is just the beginning. But for a reputed journal that bills itself as “A Feminist Magazine,” I am quite surprised and frankly disappointed that a fellow activist sees fit to belittle and wax critical of a blog that has helped serve as the catalyst for a worldwide discussion of gender-based harassment, and I can only wonder if these grievances are personal.
Aug. 24, 2010
The writer is Director of Development at HollaBackNYC.
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