In Case You Haven’t Heard, Rape Isn’t Funny

“Rape is funny and so am I! Right? …Right?”

Some comedian I’ve never even heard of before–but now have–is under fire right now for a “joke” he made in one of his shows. I use the word “joke” (just as I will use the word “humor”) broadly here.

In the words of a woman who attended a show by comedian Daniel Tosh, this is what happened:

So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

[…]After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

So, what we have here is a (male) comedian insisting that rape jokes are funny (in itself a barely defensible position), getting called out for it by a female audience member, and insisting that it would be “funny” if she got gang-raped.

Naturally, Tosh made a typical non-apology:

Credit: Feministing

I just love how he claims, as usual, that his comments were taken “out of context.” Is there any context in which, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” is an acceptable thing to say?

While I’m pretty sure that most decent people would see this “humor” for the crap that it is, a number of online conversations I’ve had the misfortune of having today suggest otherwise. For the record, every single person who has defended Tosh in this situation is 1) a man, and 2) someone who admitted to having previously watched and enjoyed Tosh’s show. So something tells me that there’s a little bit of “But I like this guy and I need to convince everyone that I’m still a good person!” psychological trickery going on here. In technical parlance, we call that “cognitive dissonance,” and it helps explain why some people defend assholes like Tosh so rabidly.

Here are some Actual Arguments that I’ve seen.

But humor relies on offensive jokes!

Now, that’s just false. My favorite comedians, such as Jon Stewart and Tina Fey, may make fun of people, but they don’t need to try to crack jokes about rape to be “funny.” And, as I’ll discuss later, there are different ways to be offensive.

But that’s just his Thing!

Um, so…get a new Thing, then? If you need to remind people of some of the most terrible things they’ve ever experienced in order to earn a living, you might want to consider getting a different career. Just sayin’.

But joking about terrible things makes it easier to get past them!

Why don’t you ask the survivors of said terrible things? Most rape survivors would disagree with you. Also, while there are definitely ways to incorporate sexual assault into a comedy routine that are sensitive and useful (Donald Glover has one that I can’t find the link to right now), joking about the gang-rape of an audience member is emphatically not one of those ways.

But FREE SPEECH!

Words cannot describe how tired I am of this argument. Anyone who makes it lacks even the most basic understanding of our Constitution. All the First Amendment means in this context is that the government can’t restrict Tosh’s right to include offensive material in his routines. It can’t censor videos of his routines, it can’t impose any fines or penalties on him for doing his routines, it can’t make it illegal to joke about rape, and so on.

But that’s it. The rest of us can still speak out when someone says something terrible. A company that employs that person or syndicates that person’s material can still fire the person or stop syndicating the material.

Yes, you have a God-given, constitutional right to be an asshole. But why, why must you exercise it?

But people should know what they’re getting into if they’re going to his show!

Well, that sounds awfully victim-blamey, doesn’t it? Should women also “know what they’re getting into” if they go to a bar alone? Should people going to prison “know what they’re getting into” if they get sexually assaulted there?

First of all, this isn’t always practical. The woman in question here was going to see a show that included several comedians, some of whom she knew of and others that she did not. It’s unreasonable to ask everyone going to a comedy show to research the comedian’s entire oeuvre to make sure that it’s free of rape jokes.

Second, Tosh has a show on Comedy Central. One of my friends pointed out that it’s often playing at the gym when she goes. Should she just avoid the gym, then? Should she call every gym she’s considering going to ahead of time to make sure that none of their TVs are currently playing Tosh’s show?

Third, jokes about rape have an effect that goes far beyond their potential to trigger and terrify an individual audience member. I’ll quote Melissa McEwan from Shakesville, complete with links to relevant pieces on her blog: “Rape jokes are not funny. They potentially trigger survivors, and they uphold the rape culture. They tacitly convey approval of rape to rapists, who do not appreciate “rape irony.” There is no neutral in rape culture, and jokes that diminish or normalize rape empower rapists. Rape jokes are pro-rape.

But other Comedy Central shows are offensive too! Why focus on this one?

This argument generally refers to South Park, which is well-known for being offensive. But there are different kinds of offensive. South Park, for the most part, is “offensive” because it covers taboo subjects and uses strong language. Such things can be shocking and unpleasant if you’re not expecting them, but they’re not outright prejudiced and harmful. And in fact, this type of “offensive” material can actually break down stigmas and encourage more openness around these subjects, which is great.

Joking about rape, as I mentioned above, is different from joking about religion or bodily functions or sex. It’s not merely “offensive,” it’s actually harmful to individuals and to society as a whole.

But other comedians are offensive too! Why focus on this one?

This is a stupid argument. I can’t speak for every single person offended by this incident, but I speak out every time I encounter something like this. Nobody is singling out poor Tosh, so calm down.

But she “heckled” him!

Am I to assume that interrupting a comedian’s show makes one deserving of rape?

First of all, as this woman makes clear in her blog post, we have a responsibility to speak out when something isn’t right. Could she have waited till afterwards? Sure. Could she have written Tosh a nice, polite, friendly letter that never made it past his secretary? Sure. But she wanted to be heard, and she had the right to be.

Second, even assuming that she was acting improperly (not something you’d ever accuse a man of, is it?), that still doesn’t make it okay to announce in front of an audience how “funny” it would be if she were gang-raped. I honestly have trouble believing that there are really people who would justify Tosh’s behavior this way, but I saw them with my own eyes on Facebook earlier this afternoon.

But you’re just taking it too personally!

Congratulations, you’ve now completely failed at being a decent person. Yes, there is such a thing as taking an insult too personally. If a comedian made a joke about brunettes or writers or psychology majors or other such mundane groups that I belong to, and I exploded at him, then yes, I would probably be “taking it too personally.”

But sexual assault is not something that can be “taken too personally.” It is personal. It’s personal even if you haven’t personally experienced it, because I guarantee you that someone you care about has.

It’s personal because a woman who accuses a man of sexual assault is still questioned about what she was wearing at the time. It’s personal because a man who accuses a woman of sexual assault is still laughed at and considered less of a man. It’s personal because a man who accuses a man of sexual assault is still called a f*****. It’s personal, people.

Perhaps there will come a day when sexual assault is treated exactly the same as other crimes. When it does not disproportionally affect women, people of color, young people, poor people, and others who are already marginalized. When we can all agree that there’s nothing anyone can do to “ask” for rape.

Perhaps when that day comes, it’ll be possible to joke about sexual assault and wonder how it could ever have been that people didn’t treat it seriously.

But I doubt it.

*Edit* Sign the petition!

*Second Edit* New arguments!

But Nobody Cares™! That’s Just How Things Are™! Nothing Will Ever Change™!

You’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people care, the faster things will change. Because they’re already changing. If you’re not interested in helping, bugger off while the rest of us change things.

But he said he’s sorry!

First of all, no, he really didn’t. He said, “All of the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize.” Out of context? Misquotes? Honey, stop. Here’s what should be a primer on how to actually apologize for something you’ve publicly said.

Second, even if he had made a genuine-sounding apology, I don’t understand this requirement that we have in our culture to accept any and all apologies and then never speak of the Matter again. What if I don’t accept your apology? What if the words “I’m sorry” are simply not sufficient to make up for what you did?

Nobody owes forgiveness to anyone, and even if Tosh had actually apologized, that doesn’t mean we should stop analyzing his words and making sure that others understand why he was wrong. You don’t get to be like “Yeah well I said I was sorry so why can’t you just get over it already!” Sorry, nope.

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Sunday Link Roundup

1. On corrective rape on the radio. This is a response to a radio DJ who told a man concerned that his daughter might be a lesbian to get one of his friends to “screw her straight.” C. Kendrick writes, “Dieter’s vile statement also points to the mythical notion that all a lesbian needs is a man – in this case, one of her father’s friends – to get her ‘on the track to normalcy.’ But not only did he take that myth further by underscoring it with sexual violence, he used it as a simultaneous attack on her queer identity and on her youth – the latter indicating a position which often lacks a voice due to both legal status and parental control.”

2. Why trying to force depressed friends and family members to go enjoy the “lovely weather” can be a bad idea, and other advice. This immediately reminded me of something I wrote about a year ago and still think about all the time.

3. On flirting without being skeezy. This post is specifically about the atheist community and their conferences, but it has a lot of good advice in it.

4. On Rorschach Tests and their continued use by some psychologists. My friend Kate wrote this, so you know it’s good. 🙂

5. On the recent anti-Internet protest by tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews.

6. You should date someone who cares.

7. I can’t stop rereading this hilarious post about online dating gone awry.

8. On the need to speak out for what you believe. This is my friend Derrick Clifton’s last column for the Daily Northwestern.”When voices fueling injustices around us continue modulating as they do, bystanding creates a silence that not only deafens, but destroys. Sitting idly by and remaining quiet while the bullies of the world continue having their way isn’t an endorsement of positive change, rather more of the same.”

9. This letter from a “Mens’ Rights” activist will make you laugh and cry. “Rebecca, I am going to radical alter our society in the next year. I am going to start the greatest hard rock 1986 GNR-esqe band the world has ever seen. There is an army, millions strong, of angry people, and especially young males seething at the lack of justice and outlet for their rage.” Much more where that came from.

10. On why Russians supposedly don’t get depressed. Interesting research; however, even if Russians are less likely to get depressed in the first place than other cultures, the barriers to recovery that they face are much higher because of the extreme stigma that mental illness carries in Russian culture.In my experience, Russians, especially men, rarely talk about their feelings in the open and trusting way that recovery from depression requires. (In fact, when I tried to tell my parents what I was going through, I found that I often lacked the words.) Therapy and medication are considered something for the weak-willed. My guess is that Russians suffer from depression as much as anyone else; they just talk about it less.

11. On ASG, the student government at Northwestern, and how useless it ultimately is. My friend Mauricio wrote this for the Protest, one of our campus publications.

12. On who’s really holding us down as women. “I’m not denying that patriarchally minded men…do a lot to keep the traditional gender structures in place. There is, however, the exact same number of women who benefit greatly from those patriarchal structures….I insist that I have not met a single man who has condemned me and vilified me nearly as much for my professional and financial success and sexual freedom as my female friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances.” This is a worthwhile conversation to have, and we’re not really having it.

On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

One of my favorite bloggers once wrote a post about the idea of “consent culture” as an alternative to rape culture. After describing various ways to help create a culture of consent surrounding sex, she brilliantly expands the idea to social interactions in general:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.

This hit home with me in a very personal way. As a shy, withdrawn child who preferred to do things her own way (who, by the way, grew into a friendly, outgoing adult who still prefers to do things her own way), I experienced this from parents, friends, and total strangers on a constant basis.

Is it as bad as sexual coercion? Of course not. But social coercion can leave its own scars–of feeling inadequate, dependent, and not in control of one’s own circumstances.

Social coercion is something I try very hard to both avoid having done to me and to avoid doing to others. It fails the test that I try to live by as much as possible, which I call the Asshole Test. The Asshole Test is simple–would another person who happens to witness what you’re doing right now think you’re an asshole? If so, you’re more likely than not behaving like one. (Probably with exceptions.)

Would you want to be that person who’s always trying to strong-arm people into doing things “for their own good?” I wouldn’t.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against this view of social coercion. Here are a few:

1. It’s for their own good. This is the most common justification I’ve ever heard people give for trying to wheedle others into doing things. “But he always orders the same dish! Shouldn’t he try something new?” “But that guy keeps looking at her and she’s too shy to go over and talk to him!” “But they never go out! They need to go to the party and have fun!”

Here’s the thing. Assuming the object of your coercion is old enough to think for themselves (I’ll get to the subject of young children later), only they know what’s best for them. You don’t. Maybe they’re working up the courage to do what you’re trying to get them to do and just need more time, or maybe they don’t want to do it at all. Regardless, it’s not for you to decide. Once someone says no, accept that that’s their answer.

2. But they’ll be glad they did it! First of all, nobody knows that from the get-go. I’ve been manipulated into doing things I ended up enjoying, and I’ve been manipulated into doing things I’ve regretted for years and years. Some of the people who pushed me to do the latter things have been some of the people I’m closest to, and even they turned out to be wrong.

Second, even if they’re glad they did it–even if they’re thanking you–that doesn’t make it right. If it did, then we’d be getting into a Machiavellian sort of friendship ethic in which the ends satisfy the means. I just can’t get on board with that.

But more importantly, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters. You’re not really doing your friend any favors, even if they end up loving whatever it is you made them do, because you’re not teaching them to do it for themselves. You’re teaching them to do it to please you, to keep your friendship, to avoid looking bad in front of you and your friends, or just simply to get you to shut up.

You’re teaching them that, ultimately, their choices have to be moderated by the people they interact with. You’re teaching them to rely on you for direction rather than on themselves. You’re teaching them a lot of negative things that you shouldn’t really want to teach your friends.

3. So what, parents can’t force their kids to eat their vegetables? This is a stupid argument. But yes, I’ve heard people use it, including some of the people who’ve responded to my post about this on Tumblr. I’ve also heard teenagers try to justify their acts of rebellion this way.

Our society–and probably most societies around the world–have already established the precedent that, sometimes, parent-child relationships can have a different dynamic from other sorts of relationships. A parent can (within reason) take away a child’s computer as a punishment. But they cannot do so to their spouse. A parent can prohibit a child from eating certain foods, but they can’t do so to a friend. And that’s not only because they’d never be able to enforce it–that’s because it would be abusive to try to control the life of another adult in such a way.

There are definitely situations, though, when things that many people think are acceptable to force children to do are simply not. Another of my favorite bloggers, Yashar Ali, handles this point beautifully in his piece “Now…Give Your Uncle a Kiss.” Yashar, Holly (the author of the “Consent Culture” piece), and I all agree that coercing children into showing physical affection for other people is wrong.

But where do you draw the line?

When I have children someday, I think I know where I’ll personally draw it. I think it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are unequivocally necessary for their health and safety, such as eating vegetables or avoiding talking to strangers. I think that, within reason, it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are necessary for them to have a happy, successful life, such as doing their homework and using manners.

Beyond that, though, things get hazy, and every parent must set their own boundaries.

An easy way to tell whether you’re coercing a child for the right reasons or not is to examine your own motives. If you demand a child to eat her vegetables, it’s not because you’re going to be personally offended if she doesn’t; it’s because she needs them to be healthy. If you demand a child to mingle with your guests, it’s probably because you don’t want to be embarrassed by his shyness, or because you want your guests to be impressed by how smart he is, or because your personal ideal for people is that they be outgoing. It’s not for his health, safety, or happiness.

If you are coercing a child into doing something, though, they should always know why. And no, it’s not “because I said so.” Kids are naturally curious and one should take these opportunities to teach them things. For instance, tell them what kinds of vitamins and minerals can be found in healthy food, and what these nutrients do for the body. Kids should know that even though their parents can make them do things sometimes, they’re doing these things for themselves and not for their parents.

4. But persuasion isn’t coercion. Good job, you understand the English language. But seriously, I know it’s not. It’s not rape either, as some people on Tumblr misconstrue the argument.

Persuasion is like coercion’s younger, cheerier sibling. It’s usually harmless, and healthy, secure adults can easily ignore it if they want to. But it’s irresponsible, I think, to keep trying to persuade someone to do something while placing the burden of deflecting those requests onto them. Some people have a lot of difficulty saying no. They want to make you happy, they want to keep your friendship. I talked about this a bit before.

It’s very, very hard to tell when persuasion turns into coercion. That’s why I personally avoid trying to persuade people to do things, period. You could say that if they genuinely agree with you, then they’ve been persuaded, but if they go along for other reasons, they’ve been coerced. I don’t really know. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t tell what’s going on in their mind, and sometimes you get it wrong even if you do know them extremely well. That’s why I try to play it safe.

And, finally, the most odious and dangerous excuse of them all: 5. But sometimes they want to be coerced. This is a bad excuse when it comes to sex, and it’s a bad excuse when it comes to social interactions.

This is where clear communication is essential. Some people really do want to be convinced to do things. Other people don’t. If you have a friend who always turns down your requests initially but then relents, why don’t you ask them why? Say, “So I’ve noticed that when I ask you if you want to do x/y/z, you always say no at first but then you change your mind. Is it because you feel pressured by me, or because you just needed some convincing?”

And then let them speak for themselves.

What I’m proposing is a different sort of social ethic. In this ethic, we not only respect people’s autonomy by not explicitly forcing them to do things, but we also free them from more subtle types of influence. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our desires and preferences, though. Instead of the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” that Holly writes about above, we say, “I wish you’d come along, but I’ll understand if you’d rather not.” Or “I think you’d like it if you tried it, but it’s totally up to you.” Or “That’s fine, maybe next time. Let me know if you change your mind.”

I think part of the reason why people have so much resistance to this sort of thinking is because we don’t like to take responsibility for things. It’s nice to think that we can just say and do whatever we want to other people and that our words and actions will have no real, lasting, and possibly negative effects on them. It’s nice to think that we’re all fully independent of each other, and that if someone says “yes” to something, it’s for one reason only–that they genuinely, from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts mean “yes.”

But there are ties that bind us to each other. Weak ties for acquaintances, stronger ties for friends, and stronger still for family and romantic partners. Respecting these ties means, among other things, recognizing the fact that you have an effect on this person, that you are not entirely independent of this person.

You don’t have to respect these ties. Unless we’re talking about sex, of course, you won’t be a rapist if you disrespect them. There are no legal consequences, and often there won’t even be any personal consequences, because not everyone recognizes when they’re being manipulated.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Why I Oppose the Greek System

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for years now but never have. I thought that writing it would result in my ostracism from society at Northwestern. I no longer think that that’s the case, though even if it were, I don’t really care. So here it finally goes.

First, here are some premises on which I’m basing my argument:

  1. Just because a particular system has certain positive qualities or results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  2. Just because there are individual components of a system that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  3. Just because a system benefits those who are part of it does not mean it is good for society as a whole.
  4. Just because a system does not cause certain issues, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue.

To wit:

  1. Just because the Greek system has some positive qualities and results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  2. Just because there are individual Greek chapters that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  3. Just because members of Greek houses benefit from the Greek system in certain ways does not mean that the Greek system is good for college campuses or for society as a whole.
  4. Just because the Greek system does not cause issues like binge drinking, sexual assault, eating disorders, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue. As I’m going to argue, creating such an environment is exactly what it does.

It won’t be possible to understand (let alone agree with) the rest of my argument if you do not understand these premises, so make sure to read them carefully before trying to shoot down my argument.

That said, here, in no particular order, are the reasons I oppose the Greek system.

  1. Greek organizations have a long and illustrious history of discrimination on the basis of race, class, appearance, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and, obviously, gender. Whether or not they continue to do so today–and this is a subject of much debate–I don’t believe that one can support such a system without ambivalence.
  2. The very nature of a Greek organization lies in its exclusivity–the social power of current members to accept or reject prospective new members. Exclusivity has the effect of making something seem more desirable than it actually is, thus skewing potential members’ reasoning for joining Greek organizations. At a time of life when young adults should be learning how to base their self-esteem on internal rather than external valuations, the Greek system tells college students that their worth on campus is based on the arbitrary judgment of a group of older, cooler students. Desperate for validation from their peers, students are often devastated when they fail to get into their top-choice house.
  3. They lack diversity–not just racial, but mental. Every existing psychological study on the subject shows that, when given the chance, people will choose to associate with those whom they most resemble. This means that Greek organizations are essentially doomed to put similar people into boxes together rather than exposing them to diversity, because that’s how human psychology works. This is why it’s often so easy to stereotype particular Greek houses–the “awkward” house, the “douchey” house, the “slutty” house, the “Jew” house, the “prep” house, the “jock” house, and so on. Although stereotypes are usually overgeneralized, there’s usually at least a bit of truth to them, because birds of a feather flock together. And I think most people would agree that we go to college to meet people unlike ourselves, not to stick to what’s most comfortable. As regarding gender, some research suggests that spending lots of time around people of the other sex is healthy. If men lived together with women, for instance, they might gain a better appreciation for how sexual harassment and assault affects women, and perhaps they would be less likely to, say, march around campus chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” But in Greek culture, men and women interact mostly in a drunken setting, which doesn’t exactly promote dialogue.
  4. On a related note, Greek organizations judge potential members by superficial factors. Yes, yes, I know, they all claim not to judge people by appearance. However, how on earth do you decide if you want to live with and be emotionally close to a person after making small talk with them for a few minutes? There’s something wrong with this. Even if they’re not explicitly picking people based on appearance, they are picking them based on their ability to seem cool or otherwise socially acceptable, and in my opinion that is superficial. (I often hear the argument that people are picked for Greek organizations based on “social skills,” which are invaluable for adult life. This may be true. However, I also oppose discrimination based on “social skills.” There will be a future post on this.) Regardless, this isn’t even to mention that many Greek houses, particularly sororities, do explicitly judge people in a nasty, catty way. I know of a house at Northwestern that passes around a plate of cookies to potential recruits, and automatically disqualifies them if they take more than one.
  5. Most of the recognized benefits of Greek organizations, such as camaraderie, networking, and philanthropy, could easily be achieved through other avenues. College campuses are distinct from the rest of the world in that they provide nearly limitless outlets for making friends, giving back to the community, and advancing your career. Anyone who claims that they “need” a Greek organization to find these opportunities is either lazy or brainwashed. See Premise 1 above–although Greek organizations certainly have some good qualities, I do not believe that these qualities justify their continued existence.
  6. A Greek organization relies on psychological manipulation to forge a bond between its members. If you think the purpose of hazing is to provide some entertainment for older members, you’d be wrong. Or at least partially wrong. Undergoing physically or emotionally grueling situations is known to increase emotional connection between members of a group. That super-tight bond you see between members of a Greek organization isn’t a coincidence, and it was achieved unethically. Not all Greek organizations haze, but many (if not most) do–in fact, a recent study shows that at least 90% of students who have been hazed do not believe that they have! An eyebrow-raise next time a Greek member proudly tells you “Oh, we don’t haze” may be warranted.
  7. By definition, Greek organizations discriminate against transgender, intersex, genderqueer, or otherwise non-gender conforming people. While activists are fighting to establish a vision of gender that includes more than just “male” and “female,” Greek organizations, unlike most other social clubs, are still gender-segregated. Although Greek organizations will often claim to be accepting of trans individuals, what happens when a member of a Greek house decides to transition? Or, better question–what about people who do not identify as either male or female?
  8. Greek organizations elevate social life above academics in terms of importance. I’ve witnessed professors tripping over themselves trying to schedule exams and other academic events around Recruitment, Rush, and other Greek events. I’ve witnessed mass outcries on campus because a chemistry exam coincided with Gone Greek Night. This is ludicrous. I don’t know when college students began to assume that they have some sort of God-given “right” to certain social opportunities at college. You have a “right” to an academic education. Everything else, you need to seek out on your own.
  9. Greek organizations promote an old-boys’-network style of career advancement. Many Greek organization members proudly tell me how helpful their chapter is in connecting them to alumni and job opportunities. But since whole point of going to college is to have access to such opportunities, it’s fundamentally unfair that certain students receive more access just because they were cool enough to join a social club. No, the Greek system didn’t cause nepotism–refer to Premise 4 above–but it does promote it. As I see it, there’s enough inequality in the world as is. We should not be institutionalizing it in our universities.
  10. One word–groupthink. When your entire life revolves around one organization, this creates an environment in which nobody can publicly disagree or “cause trouble.” In Alexandra Robbins’ brilliant investigation of the Greek system, Pledged, she describes how sorority women refused to let one of their sisters accuse a fraternity man of raping her because their sorority and the man’s fraternity were partnered in some way and they didn’t want to compromise the relationship. This also partially explains why sorority women (sometimes) allow each other to barf up their meals, and why fraternity men (sometimes) allow each other to sexually assault women–they’re afraid or otherwise unable to speak up. Although these problems are thankfully not as prevalent at Northwestern as they are at other schools, having your entire social life controlled by one organization is never a healthy thing, because it means that you have to keep your problems to yourself or face social exclusion.
  11. They are financially prohibitive to many (if not most) students. Yeah, yeah, there’s financial aid available. But that doesn’t erase the problematic fact that one should never have to pay money to have access to friendship. Given that Greek houses also provide access to career-related networking and, on occasion, academic resources of dubious ethicalness, the fact that all of this comes at a price of hundreds of dollars a semester is just another way that class divisions are perpetuated at universities. Furthermore, membership in a Greek organization requires a sizable time commitment, and students who have to work to pay their way through college often (not always) cannot commit to it.
  12. Greek organizations promote binge drinking. There’s not much to say on this point. Even if nobody’s literally shoving alcohol down your throat, many Greek events come with the expectation that one pregame and/or get drunk. Much like sexual assault and eating disorders, this is the sort of issue to which Greek organizations love to pay homage by having special events about how to drink safely, etc. However, unhealthy drinking habits are entrenched in Greek culture. This is another great example of Premise 4 from above–while college students are certainly going to drink no matter what, examples like Europe show us that binge drinking is absolutely not unavoidable. It’s quite possible for young people to drink in a safe and healthy way. But Greek organizations are helping to keep the binge drinking tradition going strong.
  13. Although most Greek organizations do not encourage or promote sexual assault, eating disorders, discrimination, or other issues, I believe there is something inherently wrong with a system that has still produced so many examples of dangerous, violent, and/or prejudiced behavior. It’s certainly wrong to stereotype all Greek organizations as being hotbeds of this sort of stuff, but we need to seriously ask ourselves why it’s happening at all. Every time one of these terrible incidents hits the news, a Greek member is always quoted as claiming that this is “an isolated incident.” Then why does it keep happening? (For instance, at least one student has died of hazing-related injuries every year since 1970. Where’s the outrage?)
  14. The strongest moral argument for keeping Greek organizations around–philanthropy–is fatally flawed. First of all, as I mentioned in item 5 above, one does not need to belong to a Greek organization in order to participate in philanthropy. Not only are campuses absolutely full of philanthropic events of all kinds, but it really isn’t too difficult to find such opportunities on one’s own. Second, with the exception of programs like GreekBuild, the sorts of philanthropic events that Greek chapters tend to have basically consist of people paying admission to some fun event. Why not just call it what it is–a fun event–rather than pretend that the whole purpose was to be charitable? Furthermore, throwing money at a charity rarely solves actual societal problems. What helps is meaningful, time-intensive contribution to an actual cause. But it’s hard to find that kind of time when you’re too busy partying and hosting bake sales.
  15. Another major argument for the Greek system–tradition–is just, for lack of a better word, stupid. People love to pay homage to tradition. I know plenty of people who found it very important to join the very same Greek organization that their parents did before them, even if it’s at a different school. Alumni would probably have heart attacks (or roll over in their graves) if the Greek system were abolished. But why? Why do we need to keep around an outdated system that originated in the 19th century? Somebody give me a good reason. Why don’t we create a new system, a new tradition? Why don’t we create a tradition of improving the social climate on our campuses rather than keeping them the same as they were decades ago? When someone pulls out this argument, you know they’re just grasping at straws–when you ask “Why?” and someone answers, “Because,” you know they have no real reason.

Finally, some caveats. Do not accuse me of these things, because you will be wasting your time.

  1. I have nothing against individuals who are involved with the Greek system. I don’t judge them. I wouldn’t emulate their choice, but that’s as far as it goes.
  2. I have never been involved with Greek life in any way, not even Recruitment/Rush. I have never been rejected from my favorite sorority since I’ve never wanted to join a sorority. Nevertheless, I’m involved in many campus groups, have plenty of great friends, and have an active social/dating life. Therefore, the reason I oppose the Greek system is not because I’m “just jealous.” (To those who are unfamiliar, this is a common claim Greek organization members use to try to delegitimize arguments against the Greek system.)
  3. I fully respect the experience of anyone who claims to have had a wonderful time in his/her own fraternity/sorority. However, as you can see in Premise 2 above, just because there are some great Greek chapters does not mean the overall system is healthy and just.

This is the bulk of my argument against the Greek system. I hope I have shown that even when the Greek system benefits its own members–which it does not always do–it is a mostly negative force in society as a whole. The positive things about it, such as philanthropy and fun, could easily be achieved through other means, and the negative things about it cannot be repaired without completely altering the Greek system as we know it.

I believe that universities should be, and have the potential to be, spaces of equal opportunity for advancement. I believe that they can be melting pots of people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and opinions. I believe that they are places where people can grow both intellectually and psychologically, and begin the process of becoming confident, self-motivated individuals. I believe that universities have the power to change themselves for the better, and that they can work to solve the various issues they currently face, whether concrete like binge drinking and sexual assault, or abstract like lack of intellectual openness. I believe that the Greek system undermines universities on all of these counts, and many more.

Resolved: the Greek system is unethical and should be abolished.

You Can Leave

[TMI Warning]

You’re allowed to leave. You’re allowed to walk away from things that hurt you.

Nobody ever tells you that, so I will.

~~~

Tonight should’ve been a great night. SHAPE, a campus organization that I’m involved with–it stands for Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators–was holding an event in which a documentary filmmaker screened and discussed her documentary, which concerns college hookup culture. The event was mandatory for SHAPE members, but I would’ve come anyway because the subject interests me.

I should’ve known what I was getting into, but I didn’t really…

The documentary took a critical view of hookup culture and interviewed various students, as well as some professors and campus health professionals. It also interviewed a few frat guys, who were, of course, allowed to remain anonymous with their faces blacked out in the film.

The things the frat guys said stuck with me.

I can’t remember exact quotes, but it was the typical stuff–about “picking and choosing” girls, about how alcohol makes them less likely to protest, about how a girl who’s slept with at least three of the frat brothers is called a “toaster” because she’s “toast.”

Suddenly, I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable and anxious. It was hard to breathe. It made me think about the past.

~~~

“Come on. You know you want it. You let me touch your tits before.”

“No, I don’t. I’ve already told you. I’m interested in someone else and that’s the only person I want to sleep with right now.”

“You know, you’re lucky. Some guys would just…”

Would just what?”

He just smirks at me.

~~~

Nothing happened to me that night. Nothing physical, that is; he left me alone after spending three hours trying to manipulate me.

But emotionally, I was never the same again.

~~~

Another night, many months before that. My first college party. It was “registered” so there wasn’t even any alcohol.

I’m dancing with my friends. None of us have been drinking; we’re just happy to be at college and at a crowded, noisy dance party. He comes up to me and starts dancing with me. He’d clearly pregamed before coming to the house.

You’re such a good dancer. Are you a music major?”

“No, journalism.” I smile.

He nods and we keep dancing.

The song ends, and we dance for another one.

Then he leans in to kiss me. I pull back.

Sorry, I have a boyfriend at another school.”

You have a boyfriend? You should’ve had that written on your forehead!”

He storms off. I’d enjoyed just dancing…

~~~

Another time.

We used to be good friends, or at least so I thought.  We hung out all the time, talked about our lives and about school. We were attracted to each other, so one day we hooked up.

After that, things change. He only texts me at midnight, asking if I want to walk all the way to his frat and “chill.” He never asks me how I’m doing anymore. We stop talking after a while.

Months later, he messages me on Facebook.  “So, honest question. Did I start to annoy you after we hooked up?”

I say, “No, it’s not that. I just got the impression that you were more interested in me for just sex rather than actual conversation or friendship.”

“Alright, fair enough.”

“I mean, is that true?”

“To an extent, yeah.”

~~~

I should consider myself lucky. If the estimates of unreported sexual assault are accurate, the fact that I’ve never been raped puts me in the minority. But, like most women, I’ve been catcalled, groped, followed down the street, pressured for sex, offered unidentified drinks, called a bitch for not acquiescing.

That’s why I don’t go to parties. That’s why I don’t participate in hookup culture. And no, to any radical feminists reading this, it’s not because I think it’s a woman’s responsibility to prevent herself from being raped. It’s because hookup culture makes me want to throw up, cry, hurt myself.

I choose to walk away from it all. You can choose that, too, if that’s what you want to do. Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise.

~~~

So I didn’t stay at the film screening tonight. I probably should’ve, because it was mandatory and all. Because my committee was planning to meet afterwards and I don’t want to have to explain why I left. Because, on some level, it was interesting to me. Because I wanted to introduce myself to the filmmaker and ask her for advice about researching this topic.

But in the end, I didn’t stay. I walked away. Because I felt so uncomfortable, because I just wanted to go home so much.

So I stood up, swung my bookbag over my shoulder, and walked right out.

I walked home through the warm night and I felt so free. I wasn’t happy, by any means, but I felt like I’d made the right decision. I listened to my iPod and started to breathe easier.

~~~

I don’t mean to imply that it’s always possible–or even desirable–to just walk away from anything that makes you uncomfortable. Sometimes you need to examine what’s happening and confront your fears.

But I’ve examined this through and through. I can’t change the things that have happened to me, and there’s just no way to make myself believe that those things are okay and that anyone should ever have to go through them. And I don’t see the need to keep reminding myself of them.

Some people might read this and think, “Gee, that’s stupid. What’ll she do, avoid every painful thing in life?”

Obviously, no. Some people think that just because some pain is unavoidable, we should just accept every painful thing in our lives and let it in. Perhaps one can build up an immunity that way.

But I disagree. The fact that there are so many unavoidable painful things in life only proves to me that we should avoid the ones we can. After all, even a psychologically healthy person goes through so much–death of loved ones, illness, financial difficulty, heartbreak–and psychologically unhealthy people have it even worse. Shouldn’t we find a little corner of life that’s happy and fight to defend it?

I think so. That’s why I opted out of hookup culture, and that’s why I opted out of tonight’s film screening. I went home to my beautiful apartment. After I finish writing this, I’m going to make a cup of tea and read my psychology textbook and plan my research project and talk to my friends online and maybe call my mom.

Because, in the end, those are the things that make me want to keep living for as long as I possibly can.