January 28, 2008

"Love" as an Act of Hostility

[This is a guest post by Jane Acheson]

Geoffrey K. Pullum's post the other day ("Yale Sluts and Princeton Philosophers" , 1/23/2008) ham-handedly tried to assert that calling women sluts, while potentially insulting, could not possibly amount to sexual harassment:

Insane over-interpretation of laws against such things as "hate speech", sexually harassing speech, and defamation will not be disappearing any time soon, it seems.

The context is as follows: a photo appeared on Facebook, of a group of Zeta Psi pledges with a poster saying WE LOVE YALE SLUTS posed in front of the Yale Women's center. Pullum is convinced that the reaction within the Yale community, which involved threat of lawsuit, a brouhaha, and instant contrition on the part of the men involved, could not have sprung from sane, serious law, and must be the result of some kind of legal hysteria. But that "insane over-interpretation" is actually just a straight-up, legally-recognized form of sexual harassment, according to the applicable policies of Yale, the state of Connecticut, and federal law. It is called "hostile environment," and Yale's policy (PDF) describes it thusly:

"Hostile environment" harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment and has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with the victim's work or study. Hostile environment sexual harassment can include sexual advances, repeated taunts regarding sexual preferences, taunting jokes directed at a person or persons by reason of their sex, obscene posters with sexual connotations and sexual favoritism in work assignments.

If "slut" is a term of abuse -- a taunt -- directed at women for reasons of their sex, then the incident in question appears to be pretty straightforward sexual harassment. Is "slut" a term of abuse? Try calling a female colleague a slut, and the black eye you get back will be your proof. Is it directed at women purely because they're female? In this case, the taunt was directed so generally that the perpetrators, a group of frat pledges, took their WE LOVE YALE SLUTS poster across campus and posed with it in front of the Yale Women's Center. They couldn't be bothered to taunt a specific woman on the campus; or even a specific group of women, like a sorority counterpart: they taunted all the women of Yale.

These frat pledges may not understand themselves to be participating in a social pattern of hostility and intimidation; indeed, Pullum's defense of their speech rests in part on his certainty that the men were expressing adoration of, and idealized (likely vain) wishing to obtain, the women of Yale. And I'll agree: I'm sure those frat pledges think they love women. They love women as receptacles for sexual mythology, as things to conquer or obtain or enjoy, and not as people.

WE LOVE YALE SLUTS. As Livejournal blogger Cija opined sarcastically: "There can't be anything wrong with an affirmation of a man's love, can there? Come on, sluts, accept my love."

That's what we're talking about here, isn't it? "Love" as a thinly-disguised codeword for "fuck". Name-calling meant to reduce all women to sexual targets. A photograph posted on Facebook as a trophy of the frat boys' "triumph" over the dignity and safe space of the Yale Women's Center. Posters and patterns of public behavior intended to squash the variety and vibrancy of half the human species into a male-defined fantasy object of constant sexual availability.

Sounds pretty hostile to me. Should women have to endure worse behavior in their work and study settings than men, simply because of their sex? The law says they shouldn't. If that's insane, then go ahead and call me crazy.

[Above is a guest post by Jane Acheson.

Note that while Jane was composing her reply, Geoff added an update to his post that brings his position closer to hers.

A bit more about the context, from the Yale Daily News (Zachary Abrahamson, "Misogyny claim leveled at frat", 1/22/2008):

Former Women's Center Public Relations Coordinator Jessica Svendsen '09 said she found a group of men chanting "Dick! Dick! Dick!" in front of the Elm Street entrance to the Center, which is located in Durfee Hall, shortly before midnight last Tuesday. Frightened, she decided to take a detour through the Center's Old Campus entrance, she said.

"I stopped even before I got to Durfee, because I recognized that as a single woman facing 20 to 25 frat boys, I wasn't going to be able to enter the Women's Center," Svendsen said. "This was my first experience knowing that misogyny does happen at Yale -- and right in front of the Women's Center door."

The photo appeared on Facebook the next day.

Other sources claim that the Zeta Psi pledges were actually chanting "DKE! DKE!" (pronounced "deek"), the name of another fraternity, perhaps in an attempt to shift the blame for the action. Whatever they actually did, it's worth observing that these pledges were almost certain being hazed, i.e. performing a demeaning or dangerous task specifically assigned by the full members of the frat they were trying to join.

The EEOC's page on sexual harrassment is here. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 28, 2008 06:48 AM