Socially accepted sexism

“FEMINISM” has become a bit of a dirty word amongst the members of my generation. The word has come to mean militancy, whininess or a tendency to see oneself as a victim. Recently, even Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin refused to identify herself as a feminist in an interview with Brian Williams.

But why? Do we truly believe that the battle for equal rights between the sexes is over? Do we ignore the fact that women are still paid less than men for performing the same jobs? Do we overlook inadequate daycare options for working mothers, job discrimination against pregnant women and the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace? Feminism is the movement that recognizes these inequalities and fights to reverse them. Why don’t we want to be a part of that?

Those worries — about unequal pay and child-care options — might seem far away to those of us who haven’t entered the career world. But sexism is just as rampant in college, only it’s so pervasive that some of us have started to totally overlook it.

Sexism takes on a certain uniqueness in college, when young men and young women are free to interact socially and sexually for the first time without the interference of moderating adults. Sex is a big deal in college, and gender roles dictate that men and women look at and react to it differently. Men are the conquerors, women the conquered. Events such as those at the University of Richmond illustrate the problems of this unequal sexual world.

Recently, the University of Richmond recommended suspension after the Kappa Sigma recruitment chair circulated an e-mail advertising a party. The e-mail, and others like it discovered by university officials, used graphic sexual imagery and offensive language to describe the potential behavior of women at the party. The e-mails went on to refer to women with derogatory names and slurs. “To say that the content of the e-mails was offensive to women would be a gross understatement,” wrote the fraternity brother in a public apology.

Some people might say it’s an overreaction to take offense at these e-mails, but words like “slut,” “whore,” and “bitch” aren’t really a joking matter. When they’re not said in jest, they are the words most often used to justify rape, murder, torture and other sexual violence against women. They perpetuate a disturbingly common sentiment that scantily clad women get date-raped because “they deserved it.” They espouse a belief that women are objects, unworthy of respect. Is there even one equivalent insult for a sexually promiscuous man? Even “man-whore” has its roots in the female slur; “pimp” is usually used as a compliment.

These words are designed to make girls feel guilty and embarrassed for engaging in natural, normal acts that they should in no way feel ashamed to participate in. They reinforce outdated gender stereotypes that dictate that women should be pure and virginal while men are allowed to revel in their sexuality.
While I believe that college girls should be able to enjoy the same sexual freedom that college boys enjoy, the reality is that many girls who do act with sexual liberty are persecuted by both boys and girls alike. The double standard continues: The sexually promiscuous boy is high-fived by his awestruck friends; the sexually promiscuous girl is shunned by her peers of either gender. While it’s certainly respectable to choose to abstain from sexual activity, a major purpose of feminism is to grant women the right to enjoy sexuality without being forced to endure degradation. That reality has yet to materialize.

Feminism is about equality. It’s not about hating men or thinking women are better than men. It’s about recognizing that everyone, regardless of gender, deserves to be treated with respect. Why should we be hesitant to embrace this label? Why should we shy away from a movement that acknowledges and fights gender inequalities that still persist, not just at Richmond, but at schools, businesses and homes across the nation? If the events at Richmond aren’t enough to convince you that we don’t yet live in a gender-blind world, just start listening to the way people talk the next time you’re out at a bar or a party.

Are we living in a post-feminist world? Absolutely not. Feminism today is still as relevant as ever to any woman who’s even been made to feel ashamed of her body, her choices, or her sexual history. While perfect equality between the sexes may never materialize, young college women deserve more respect from their collegiate peers.

Michelle Lamont’s column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at m.lamont@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories