When College Humor Just Isn’t Funny

Do you wonder what sexism and misogyny look like in 2012?

Imagine a drawing of a woman. She’s clad only in a bra and a thong. She’s got bruises on her side. There’s an apple jammed in her mouth. And she’s stretched out, tied up, suspended from a spit and roasting over a fire.

You don’t have to imagine. Last April, a fraternity at Amherst College designed this image, stuck it on a T-shirt and sold the shirt to students in honor of the frat’s annual pig-roast party. By the way, there is a pig depicted on the shirt. It’s in the corner, smoking a cigar and watching the woman roast. The words “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847” appear above the image.

The administration opted not to punish the individual students responsible for the shirt but rather to hold an unadvertised, effectively closed-door discussion with a handful of students and frat members. According to a friend of mine who was present, the boys-will-be-boys type comments made prior to the meeting (“we were just a bunch of drunk guys sitting around on a Friday night designing the shirt”) were replaced by apology (“we didn’t mean to offend anyone”)—and then some confusion and discussion over the real impact of the offensive “joke.”

And that was that. The incident was never publicly discussed or even acknowledged in a school-wide email. Some people on campus still don’t know about it. If you Google “Amherst fraternity t-shirt,” an image of the shirt won’t pop up.

Amherst’s silence concerning the shirt shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. We’re all part of a larger culture, one that excuses (and often promotes) the objectification of female bodies, the glamorization of violence against women and the normalization of rape. Our media and pop culture saturate us with misogynistic images, songs and advertisements. Our politicians decide which victims of violence against women should be taken seriously and which “types” of rape are legitimate. Our society blames victims of sexual assault, rather than perpetrators, leaving them free to rape again.

If this T-shirt is any indication, Amherst is absolutely a product of this larger culture. The woman on the shirt is depicted as an animal—or rather, as inferior to an animal, since she has not only replaced the pig on the spit but is being roasted by it. She is objectified as a literal piece of meat, whose thoughts, feelings and humanity are rendered nonexistent and her consent therefore irrelevant. The hypersexualization of her body links violence with sex, thus perpetuating the notion that violence is sexy and sexuality violent. While I am not suggesting that this image would ever directly cause the infliction of violence on any individual woman, dehumanization is always the first step toward justifying such violence.

The administration’s inadequate response to the T-shirt incident was not an anomaly and seems part of a larger pattern of forgiving instances of violence against women on campus. According to a Title IX committee meeting I attended last spring, Amherst has expelled only one student for rape in its entire history—and only after a criminal court sentenced him to time in jail. Meanwhile, our disciplinary committee has found other students guilty of sexual misconduct but ultimately permitted them to continue their Amherst educations. Faced with the non-choice of staying on campus with his/her rapist or leaving, many sexual assault survivors I know take time off, transfer or drop out altogether. If the fundamental injustice of this doesn’t already make you cringe, consider this: Research has shown that rapists rape again and again; repeat offenders perpetrate nine out of ten campus rapes, and thus continue to pose a threat to students.

This is what sexism and misogyny look like at a so-called progressive, elite liberal arts institution in 2012.

It’s too easy to blame the fraternity members and the administration. Obviously, I think the students who designed, approved and sold the shirt were grossly out of line, and I believe the Amherst administrators who decided not to punish them were tolerating their blatant misogyny.

But many more of us are to blame. Everyone who knew about that shirt—regardless of if they bought it, wore it, praised it or privately condemned it—is at fault. Hundreds of us saw or heard about it and did nothing. We didn’t speak up. We didn’t write about it. We didn’t demand justice or discussion. If we were outraged—and I’m sure many of us were—we didn’t voice it.

Had the T-shirt depicted a pig roasting an African American (or a Jew or a Native American), I believe the students responsible would have faced punishment. At the very least, there would have been public outrage. Articles would have flooded The Student and The Indicator. It might even have made national news.

How have we become so desensitized to violence against women?

When I saw the shirt last April, I was horrified—and I did nothing. I was foolish. I did nothing because I thought someone else would. I did nothing because I didn’t want to be called an “oversensitive” or “angry” woman. And ultimately I did nothing because I became convinced that I really was just oversensitive and angry. After all, no one else was saying anything.

I could have written this post last April. So could hundreds of others.

Why didn’t you?

Crossposted from AC Voice


Dana Bolger is a feminist, student activist, and intern at the National Women’s Law Center. She attends college in Massachusetts. You can follow her on twitter @danabolger.