How to fix social inequalities on campus?

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, August 29, 2011 21:21 EDT
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Lisa Belkin was kind enough to respond in comments to my criticism of her NY Times piece lamenting the way that college campus life continues to be run by men, leaving college women to pander and even debase themselves for male approval, so I thought I'd respond here to clarify some more of my thoughts.  I was harsh on Belkin, but as I admitted up front, that's because I have deep, irrational fears of becoming the aging feminist who laments kids these days, and that feeds my reaction when I see pieces like hers.  Like I said in the post, I actually agree that the social inequalities on campus are distressing, and they probably do feed the high rape rate on campus, but even beyond that, it's simply depressing how much control college men have over the social lives of college women.  (She focuses on fraternities, but in my experience, this problem cut across a lot of different social groups in college.)  But I challenged Belkin's portrayal of the problem for two reasons: 1) She uses women wearing skimpy clothes or even dancing in their underwear at parties as the major piece of evidence of the problem and 2) She puts the blame only on the women for submitting, when I think a more sympathetic feminist analysis would be more useful.  I want to add a third, less relevant thing that still bothered me: 3) She portrays this as a new problem, and suggests that college women 20 years ago were better at standing up for themselves and so this happened less.  If that's true, then college life must have changed rapidly from the early 90s to the late 90s, because when I was in college in the late 90s, my biggest frustration with campus social life was how men controlled it, and you had to kiss their asses or you'd lose your social status.  (I am not a good ass-kisser.)  But having had firsthand experience with this problem, I agree with Belkin that it is a problem, and if it's still going on today, I'm very sad for it. 

Anyway, my problem was mainly the focus on the clothes.  I realize that gets pageviews, but the fact that women wear skimpy clothes to get male attention is really a piss-poor example of the underlying problem of women being socially controlled by men.  Like I pointed out in the post and in my response to Belkin in comments, wearing skimpy clothes and getting male attention is a pleasure in and of itself, and fully empowered women who feel no need to put up with men giving them shit use the "show legs, get laid" strategy all the time.  Dressing sexy also has an intrinsic value.  It can make you feel good about yourself and your body.  Now, we can argue about whether or not it makes women feel good because they've been socialized to objectify themselves, but I think that's a separate discussion.  The point is that I think dressing sexy is something that women do want to do a lot, and so it doesn't work as the best example of the social duress that women are under at college. 

Lisa asked me a good question about my assertion that women dress sexy quite often because they simply want to, and it has value beyond keeping a good reputation with the boys that can bring social death to you if they want: " I AM wondering why the women are dancing in their underwear but the men aren't."  Well, I actually have a really good answer to that question, and it goes back to my feminism, which is more about dismantling gender norms and less about a generic woman-empowering thing (though I do believe women will gain power if we dismantle gender norms).  That the boys control the girls' social life doesn't mean the boys are all-powerful and just do whatever the hell they want.  Young men are actually strongly controlled by powerful gender norms and ideas about what masculinity is, and they police each other as much as they police the women.  Since sexual exhibitionism is considered a feminine behavior, it's taboo for young men to do it.  I'd guess a lot of men would get as much pleasure  as women do out of stripping down to their underwear and dancing around for an audience of admirers, but since that behavior would be seen as emasculating, they're not going to do it no matter how much they wish they could. In fact, in situations where men get a non-sexual cover story for being half-naked, such as being at the pool or the beach, you do in fact see men strutting their stuff.  And certainly a lot of men lament how much they don't get the excitement of having someone admire them physically. 

Do some women wear fewer clothes than they want because they feel they have to?  Sure, I've seen situations where that's clearly going on.  But it seems to me that it's just too complex a thing to be used as prime evidence, since many to most women wearing slutty clothes just get off on being stared at.  (And there's nothing wrong with that.)  It's just a bad example of the problem she's trying to describe.

A far more representative example of the problem is how young women are often expected to sit and watch young men play video games.  This was beginning to be a problem when I was in college, and from reading blogs, I've gathered that it still goes on.  This is a perfect example, because it's women being subjected to something truly unpleasant in and of itself (boredom), but they feel they have to do it, because if they started to say, "This sucks, let's do X," they'd get a reputation for being bitchy or pushy.  Starting from that point, you could probably come up with a million examples of how girls are often doing what the boys want to do, but it's not going the other way very often. No need to make it about far more complicated sexual desires.

The other thing I want to address was my last comment, which was my frustration at the way that these articles focus on women's individual choices.  You get the feeling from Belkin's article that she thinks women do things they hate that men demand because those women are weak, and if they just stood up for themselves, that would fix the problem.  I think it's way more complicated than that.  The consequences for not going along with the guys are really bad, especially for young people—you start getting shunned.  Social ostracism is no joke.  I can't blame individual women for putting up with a world of bullshit from dudes, because the alternatives often look even more grim. After college, it gets a lot easier, because your world opens up more and it's much easier to leave one social situation and go find another.  But in college, options are limited, and I think that's why young men are able to exert so much control.  

So what are the solutions?  Beats me.  It's a complex situation.  Individual responses tend to be ineffective and just add more problems to the lives of those who are suffering in the current system.  But a collective response is hard to imagine.  It is true that if college women just went on strike and refused to socialize with men who push them around, men would be forced to be more generous.  But how do you organize that strike?  (Well, I suppose it could be done. Perhaps the women organizing Slutwalks should move on to doing things like creating clubs for video game widows, where instead of watching your boyfriend play video games for hours before you finally get around to sex, you can spend the night laughing it up with your brand new lady friends, and leave him hanging.  A thought.)  But I think any effort needs to focus not on blaming women for being trapped in a shitty situation, but holding men accountable for treating women poorly.  When college men do things like circulate emails that claim women aren't people, instead of saying, "Did women cause this by wearing short skirts?", we could instead say, "These men are being assholes and there should be consequences for their behavior."  I think the latter has become more taboo for some reason, perhaps the fear of being called a man-hater.  But any solution that focuses on women's reaction to oppressive pressures and not men's exerting of oppressive pressures is just so much pissing in the wind.  

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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