Sometime in March, an e-mail went viral among University of Southern California undergraduates. The e-mail outlined a series of guidelines for tallying and scoring sexual conquests. While engaged in the expected language of misogyny, the e-mail was also rampant with racism, suggestions to incapacitate "targets" with alcohol, and most disturbingly of all, an assertion that "Non-consent and rape are two different things." As one of a string of Internet-related sex(ism) scandals that have emerged at major universities around the world, this e-mail proved a catalyst for considering the ways that such overtly troubling language reverberates in the university and how a university community can best balance a commitment to free speech against the need to curtail hate speech and sexual violence.
I am an assistant lecturer in the Writing Program at USC as well as a student in the English Ph.D. program, and so I felt doubly frustrated with the proliferation of such language, both on behalf of my students, and perhaps selfishly, for myself. The class I am currently teaching is affiliated with a course in Studies of Women and Men in Society (SWMS), so it was pertinent to the work we'd been doing, particularly as we had been having an extended conversation about the power and effectiveness of parody. We had been interested in the critical distance between an argument as it is literally presented and as it is meant to be understood as required for ironic understanding. If this e-mail, so clearly engaged with the language of hate, was written as a parody of the cartoonishly predatory college male, at what point can the content of it be considered dangerous, particularly considering the non-consent/rape passage? Couldn’t seeing the e-mail as hate speech displace the original purpose? How much does it matter what the author’s intention was, I asked, if a reader sees it as hate speech?
These questions seemed particularly pertinent considering the fact that the Daily Trojan’s report on the e-mail included nearly a dozen comments pointing out that it had been written as a joke and that those reacting negatively were taking it far too seriously. Perhaps much of the fixation on this point of the alleged humor was due to possible connections between the e-mail and the university’s powerful and popular Greek system. The email was initially attributed to Kappa Sigma fraternity members, but Intrafraternity Council investigations have now attributed authorship to a non-fraternity member who, in turn, has identified the origin of the email as from another university entirely. Elsewhere, students claiming to have been witness to the early drafting stages of the email attribute it to a named USC student. Despite it being the primary focus of much of the response to the e-mail, the authorship and origin of the email are ultimately of little consequence.
Instead of attributing blame for the e-mail to a particular fraternity or student, we should be talking about the power and influence of such rhetoric as it reverberates within a campus and in the greater public consciousness that defines a university’s reputation. This is a conversation we’ve had before and it’s one we will have again, but in making the conversation more public and more explicit in its goals, we at least allow it to develop. Indeed, troubling scandals pop up fairly consistently in national and international media, aided by the proliferating influence of the Internet.
A very similar series of e-mails circulated through University of Oxford’s Penguin Club, an all-male drinking club, in Spring 2010, though in this case, specific female students from Hertford College were named, ranked, and again referred to as "targets." All 15 members of the Penguin Club were suspended, though the administration did not acknowledge a connection between the suspension and the emails.
Of course, these actions have not been limited to men. In October 2010, a recent Duke alumna’s faux-thesis PowerPoint called An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics” went viral. Documenting specific sexual encounters with named (and pictured) Duke athletes, the PowerPoint received somewhat celebrated notoriety and landed its author with the threat of lawsuits.
In my class discussion regarding the USC e-mail, students’ reactions were varied, though almost consistently negative. Some were colorful ("It made me vomit in my mouth"); some had been sent the e-mail a full week before I had; and some were hearing of it for the first time and clustered around their laptops to read snippets of it to each other. The conversation was lively, and students who are normally quiet chimed in, including one who noted that she was not upset at all by the e-mail because she already knew this was exactly how college students talked all the time. While it is not entirely surprising to encounter an apathetic college freshman, the fact that her apathy stemmed from desensitization to racist, misogynistic, and, most disturbingly, rape-apologetic rhetoric was disheartening.
This apathy, more than the content of the e-mail, is indicative of a larger systemic problem. Universities are not unique in their isolation, and such language certainly proliferates in other communities, but never has it been more essential to have an open dialogue about the stakes of such rhetoric. The aftermath of such publicly sexist and racist language needs to include forums more open than an Internet comment board for conversation. Panel discussions with representatives from student groups, administration, and faculty would allow a space for conversation and would celebrate the intelligence and responsibility of the students implicated by association with those perpetuating such rhetoric. When a university administration fails to respond openly and promptly to a now-public comment invalidating consent as a defining difference between consensual sex and rape, even one that was written for a private audience, it becomes complicit in a culture that refuses to examine the complexities of rape and consent and, as a result, perpetuates silence and fear. The university policies and procedures, as well as local laws and avenues for reporting and responding to sexual assault, should be reiterated publicly and frequently, not just as instigated by such an event.
Of course the weight of response cannot be expected exclusively from the administration. Not only do students need to be actively responsible for a greater community of respect and communication, but also to recognize that such language of disrespect is not limited to these well-publicized moment -- and that when they are put to public scrutiny, they reflect as much on those who are completely uninvolved as on those who directly formulated the rhetoric, as well as reflecting on the educational environment of the university. By examining the responses I’ve witnessed, I do not mean to suggest that a university is responsible for policing its students’ language or holds the exclusive responsibility for responding, but that ignoring the opportunity to perform outreach at such moments is a disservice to its students, particularly when the size of the community discourages them from organizing independently.