Thursday, September 19, 2013

Leili--"Fresher's Week Sexism"

Laura Bates, the founder of Everyday Sexism, posted this article in The Guardian today. The piece focused on British and Canadian University experiences, but it hit far too close to home.

In "Fresher's Week Sexism, and the Damage It Does", Bates discusses the unsettling experiences of many women's first week at university. She details verbal harassment, groping and assault--often by older students hired by the universities to make new-comers feel welcome. She describes young men shouting slogans that do more than hint at rape, and girls rated in public on their "fuckability". She points out that these crucial few days form many women's first experiences as independent adults, and shape the way they view their role in the world, in a damaging way.

I found myself nodding along as I read through the article, cringing at the familiarity of those other women's experiences. And yet, I actually owe my "freshers week" a lot.

It's been awhile (longer than I like to dwell on) since my freshman year of college, and admittedly my memory is pretty fuzzy. What still sticks in my mind, however, are the freshman line-ups.

Most nights during the week leading up to classes young, barely-freshman girls would line up along the sidewalk, dressed to party. Then SUVs full of frat boys would cruise down the line, choosing the "hot" girls and leaving the rest. The chosen girls would end up at frat houses with the inevitable red cups and confusion, and the left-overs would find something else to do with their unwanted selves. That first week, before classes even started, a girl in my dorm quad left school after being raped at one of those parties.

I saw this scenario repeat itself in so many different variations. Women "rushing" sororities lined up in heels and tiny dresses in January, trying to impress the sorority sisters. I overheard countless conversations in which women were judged as "sluts", "hos" "prudes", "teases", "fatties", "but-her-face(s)", etc., based on how many guys she had slept with--or hadn't--what kind of clothes she wore, or how much she conformed to a specific idea of beauty. During my entire freshman year I heard very few conversations about women's actual personalities, but plenty of passionate descriptions about how a women was a "bitch", or a "frigid bitch", if she didn't sleep with a guy who wanted her.

I'm already envisioning comments about how these line-ups and sorority rushes and conversations aren't a big deal. And yes, compared to other struggles men and women face world-wide, this is tame. But it's indicative of how society judges women--that a woman's value lies in how much a man wants her, and that if he wants her she has no say in what happens to her.

I can also see commenters arguing that those girls brought it on themselves--they chose to line up to be judged, chose to get in the car, and chose to drink and party, so they must accept whatever consequences come with those actions. And yes, they do hold some responsibility. But first, they were young college kids wanting to have fun, and hoping to fit in to a big new social pool. And secondly, those girls were playing a role they learned from society--they were acting out an idea of womanhood that they picked up from other sources.

It was a disorienting time for me. Being sheltered, shy, and naive, I hadn't experienced these things before. (I know, right? How unbelievably out of touch I was. Clearly my high school years were a bit tame.) It was also an important experience for me, because it finally forced me to reject the myth I'd so desperately clung to in my budding adolescence--the myth that, here in America, we live in a post-gendered, post-sexist society where women are valued as multi-faceted human beings.

For our first posts I've asked my fellow contributors to reflect on what feminism means to them, or what issues women face today, or why they want to contribute to this blog. For most of us even the terms "feminism" and "women's issues" are complicated, multi-layered concepts with which we continue to grapple. But I can say that, while I grew up in a feminist household and gave lip-service to the grand idea of women's social equality, I didn't even begin to realize the many struggles women face right here in the US until my first year of university--and it wasn't because of my coursework.

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