Every decent man in America should have been having a Socratic moment during Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s remarkable testimony last week. You might not have committed sexual assault, laughed along as a friend attempted it, or even been at the party where it happened.
Still, the culture of sexual objectification in America is so pervasive that it is impossible to not have participated at some level.
Here is one way that I participated:
My first year at the University of Illinois, the t-shirt that the guys on my floor designed for "team spirit" type reasons had a caption that read, You spend nine months of your life trying to get out, and the rest of your life trying to get back in. In case the point was unclear, the shirt featured a little wiggly sperm figure to drive it home.
I lived in Allen Hall, the least frat-bro type dorm on campus. At a university where Greek Life dominated the social scene, we were the residence hall of artists and political activists, the ones who led the campus demonstrations against the racist Chief Illiniwek mascot, the students who populated the "Take Back the Night" march.
The Resident Advisors and Program Staff at Allen Hall considered themselves woker than woke and yet even their response to the shirt was a wink, a nod and a chuckle. I remember thinking, ‘Hmmm, doesn’t this kind of say that basically what men want from women is, well, this one thing. That’s kinda not really the guy I am or want to be, but hey I’m new here and I want to fit in, so ....’
I forked over the $10 for the shirt and wore it.
That’s what we call a culture – a web of speech, activity and attitudes that has the power of feeling normal and thereby exerts a centripetal force on the individuals in range, pulling them into the pattern without them even realizing it.
Step back and think a second about the message that shirt sends about who young men are and what their approach to young women is.
And consider the challenge a young woman faces vis-a-vis that shirt. I was a man uncomfortable with the message, and I wore the shirt to fit in. A young woman next to a young man wearing that shirt? What an impossible position to be in. It embarrasses me to even think about that.
And when you think about the messages that are sent by so many other "normal" features of college life, any reasonable, decent person simply has to admit that they contribute to a culture where college women are positioned principally as sexualized figures.
Let’s start with cheerleaders, pom squads and dance teams, especially the standard uniforms and routines. Presumably wearing sweats would be just as comfortable as the skin-tight outfits that are now standard. Probably there are other ways to stay cool than bared midriffs. There have to be dance routines that are not hyper-sexualized.
What about the music played in the dining hall or at the fitness center? I challenge you to listen closely to the lyrics for thirty minutes and not wonder to yourself, ‘What kind of crazy sexual objectification are we allowing at what is supposed to be a citadel of learning?’
And here is where some of the interesting questions come in.
It seems clear to me that mainstream college cheer / pom / dance is inextricably linked with the sexual objectification of women. It is also, at least I am told, a hugely valuable activity for many many of the women who participate.
So what do colleges do? Kill it altogether? Change the uniforms? Alter the dance routines?
Is it possible that many women on a campus are uncomfortable with the sexualized routines of the pom team, but the women on pom really value their team and its routines?
And the music. Consider Kendrick Lamar’s song, Humble (which I love), where he raps about being tired of Photoshop, wanting his female lovers to look natural, stretch marks included.
Is that a kind of expression that could make some women feel highly objectified, while others feel empowered? There is evidence the answer is both.
What happens when the expression that one person finds empowering contributes to a culture that makes another person feel uncomfortably objectified - and when both of the people are women?
I wish I had not worn that t-shirt in college. I’m quite sure it contributed to a culture of sexual objectification.
On the other ‘normal’ features of college life that facilitate sexual objectification, given that women likely disagree on the uniforms of cheerleaders and the sexual references in song lyrics, how should men navigate this complicated terrain?