A recent New York Times interview series asked women about times they had felt trivialized because they were a girl. All responses highlighted poignant displays of sexism, but the most heartbreaking anecdotes were those who cited male friends’ and colleagues’ attitudes.
“I felt utterly invalidated,” an 18 year old wrote of her experience. “And crushed that a peer saw me that way.”
It’s a unique sense of betrayal familiar to women. Hearing a friend or classmate speak disparagingly of women has much more weight than a random catcaller or comment by someone you have never met, an observation supported by research. Discussions of sexist language are often concentrated around public figures, but while no one can question the trickle-down effects of inappropriate language, the impact of peer-to-peer interactions shouldn’t be underestimated.
Scrolling past the NYT interview series, other headlines have continued to highlight the problem of damaging peer language. First, there was the discovery of Harvard’s men’s soccer team’s annual “scouting report.” The publicly available spreadsheet detailed attractiveness of the women’s soccer team, sex positions and numerical rating included. Next came reports of the men’s cross country team creating similar spreadsheets. Only three days ago, another Ivy League school came under fire when Columbia suspended its men’s wrestling team over explicit and racist GroupMe messages.
These cases are odd and shockingly organized examples of peer sexism, but it’s not difficult to say these formalized rankings are just severe manifestations of pervasive attitudes. College campuses could be considered particularly fertile ground, especially considering the many opportunities for gender-specific organizations and affiliations.
Senior soccer player Isabelle Kerr says the camaraderie of male and female athletes makes systemic, behind-their-back sexism particularly devastating.
“That would be awful, that would break the trust, and it would kind of affect the whole athletic department,” Kerr said. “Just because once that starts happening everyone is looking over their shoulder at who they can trust. Thankfully we [at UT] haven’t had that experience, but it would definitely destroy that community feel.”
While UT has not made national headlines for this kind of abhorrent behavior, sexism is worth discussing in a preventative, rather than reflexive, way.
University Panhellenic Council president Kassidy Knight says that while initiatives between organization leaders can make great strides in communication and effectiveness at the institutional level, potential damage is much more likely to come from outliers.
“Obviously it is the negative experience that sticks in the back of your head and kind of hangs with you,” Knight said. “You don’t have the same respect for the organization as a whole, especially if it is not addressed.”
Maintaining that sense of community has important implications for men and women alike.
Networking and relationship building is a critical part of the college experience, whether it be through social mixers or co-hosted professional workshops. Students should preemptively look to break down sexist attitudes that might result in a women’s — or men’s — organization losing trust and relationships.
Campaigns such as MenCanEnd and #HeForShe offer models for organized conversations, but the most effective change comes from small changes in everyday conversation. Men, be watchdogs of your own communities and uphold the standards of the multitude of excellent men’s organizations on campus. Women, use your experiences and observations to help correct and diminish potentially sexist dialogue.
As the Harvard women’s soccer team wrote in their response, “we are stronger when we are united.”
Hallas is a Plan II and health and society sophomore from Allen. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @LauraHallas.