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Persistent Rape Culture at Amherst College

The lastest in bad taste and thoughtless advertising, brought to you by the Amherst College Student Body.

The lastest in bad taste and thoughtless advertising, brought to you by the Amherst College Student Body.

(Ryan Arnold)– On Sunday night, in what I can only assume was an effort to publicly announce their collective dearth of good taste and discretion, a group of female and male Amherst College students circulated an email to all members of the senior class containing the image pictured above. The email was ostensibly intended to advertise an annual spring yard sale, but instead it advertises the progress (or lack thereof) we have made toward understanding and addressing sexism and misogyny.

Last April, members of the illegitimate fraternity formally known as Theta Delta Chi made and distributed a t-shirt that was (among other things) tragically unfunny. One harrowing year later and not much has changed – students still feel comfortable generating and distributing messages that verbally and pictorially degrade women. This is not for a lack of trying: since October, we have had protests, healing fires, myriad Student Opinion articles, a photography campaign that makes me cry every time I view it, and an entire day of classes cancelled so that our community could devote itself to dialogue. So when a friend texted me on Tuesday to ask what my “beef” was with “the Amherst Hookups thing,” I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps ignorantly, I held this beef to be self-evident.

4-23-13 - studentemail

The email, including the sexist ad, that was sent to the senior class earlier this week.

To anyone who is still wondering what rape culture looks like, this is it. While “Amherst Hookups” is apparently the name of the group who organizes the yard sale, the ad makes a cheap pun on the meaning of “hookup” in colloquial parlance that, paired with a beach scene straight from a mid-1950s cigarette campaign, sends a message with all the subtlety from that era of American advertising (also replete with that era’s notorious brand of sexism). The authors, apparently racing each other to the rock bottom of decency, garnish the image with a lyric from Macklemore’s insipid “Thrift Shop” — “One man’s trash that’s another man’s come-up.” The “man” in the lyrics visually corresponds to the figure of the man in the picture; so whom does “trash” signify? To paraphrase a different lyric from the song, “this is fucking awful”: women are equated with used goods, and a used woman is a bargain.

The question stands, as articulated by Prof. Shandilya’s Spring 2013 Feminist Theory Class: “Are women — used women — for sale at Amherst College?”

Well, are they? By any standard, this is a worthless ad for a yard sale: at no point is the nature or the location of the sale ever mentioned, nor is there provided any contact information for the event. It is, however, a remarkably effective advertisement for virtually every other liberal arts college besides Amherst. This ad, the TD shirt, the anonymous idiots who troll the comment sections of ACV and The Student – they all make loud and clear that the Amherst College community is irrationally uncomfortable with any kind of critical self-assessment, and consequently is not and refuses to be a safe environment for its students.

What makes rape culture so sinister, both at Amherst College and in society at large, is its obstinacy: it refuses to participate in discourse, mocking its opponents through its persistent and objectless iterations. The ad’s true message, in the context of the 2012-2013 academic year, is: “You will never win. It doesn’t matter how much harm is done; it will never be enough to change the way things are.” But this message doesn’t come from only a t-shirt or an advertisement – it’s much larger. I’m tired of explaining why sexism and misogyny are hurtful to everyone in our community. I’m tired of explaining why the administration’s use of equivocal language instead words like “sexism” and “misogyny” is insufficient. I’m tired of administrative responses that are more concerned with addressing false claims of official approval than the image itself. I’m tired of my friends being more upset with me for making a “big deal out of this” than they are the incident itself (“You guys need a new cause”). Dialogue is only productive when people listen; otherwise we’re all just waiting to speak.

An email from Interim Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East, sent in response to the sexist ad.

An email sent in response to the sexist ad from Interim Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East.

In the article she wrote breaking the t-shirt scandal last October, Dana Bolger attributes third-hand a quote to a disembodied and abstract member of (the fraternity formerly known as) TDX that has stayed with me since I read it: “We were just a bunch of drunk guys sitting around on a Friday night designing the shirt,” the spectral brother says, “We didn’t mean to offend anyone.” I believe this is true, and I imagine the same is probably true of the yard sale ad. But intent counts for painfully little. It’s evident that many students at Amherst College simply are not clever, despite their desperate attempts to be: the misogynist t-shirts, the awkward and offensive grasping at satire in The Student’s April Fools issue, the racist cartoons, and now the thoughtless advertisement are united by their failure to be funny. These were all cheap attempts at humor, squeezing easy laughs from whatever was within arm’s reach. How telling it is that what lies within arm’s reach is sexism, racism, and misogyny.

This is a portentous conclusion to what has surely been one of the most troubled years in the history of Amherst College. Two weeks ago our campus was inundated with the anxious excitement of accepted students, many of who will return in the fall. I am scared of the culture that awaits the Class of ‘17, of the conflict they will be inaugurated into. Evidently, so are they. While it remains “unclear” whether the 7.54% drop suffered in Amherst’s total number of applicants “is a consequence of the recent publicity the college received in connection with incidents of sexual misconduct,” I (along with Dean of Admissions Tom Parker) would hazard to guess the affirmative: “We were very cognizant in the fall of how much publicity this thing garnered.” Indeed we were, and I hope that next year brings us a renewed sense of urgency. If our community remains reluctant to call these issues by their names – sexism, misogyny, and utter stupidity – then we need to say their names even louder: as Fred Rogers tells us, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” Rape culture at Amherst College has not gone away; we can’t afford to leave, either.

About Ryan Arnold

This isn't shoegaze - this is suicide.

27 comments on “Persistent Rape Culture at Amherst College

  1. The Dad Dude
    April 24, 2013

    Ryan: I read with interest your article and here’s my thoughts:
    Why do we expect something to have change? Yes, the day long event may have been meaningful but clearly, it was ineffective.

    Here’s the rub: the office of the dean of students will conduct an “appropriate investigation, including meeting with the students”. In case it isn’t clear what’s actually going to happen here’s a run down: the people who put up the ad will be called in, everyone will apologize for miscommunication and misunderstanding, and then we can all have an ice-cream social, because that’s the extent of the consequences.

    Anthropologists teach us that traditions, soft-skills and atmosphere are not tangible items that you can give someone. However, these intangibles, can be established when strong foundation exists: a base line that everyone knows very well.

    What needs to be the foundation for a real change in the college environment is very direct and strict consequences, none which currently exist.

    You and your peers have a choice: rely on the administration for consequences (how is that working for you, so far?) or take matters to your own hand. What I mean by the latter is not some subterfuge action. Rather, go on your own campaign: tell the many men (and some women) what it feels like to be objectified. Don’t just tell them – show them what it could feel if they’re in an ad, a text message, a tweet that objectifies them. And frame the conversation by asking: how does it feel now?

  2. AnAnonymous GayMale
    April 24, 2013

    Hmm. OK article, but it’s kind of unnecessarily negative which in turn detracts from the message you are trying to make…and makes me want to attribute your post to nothing more than another rant from an angry, privileged Amherst College kid. If there is anything that this academic year has taught me, it’s this: anger and negativity towards our school does nothing in the long-term, other than to alienate those seeking to understand the issues at hand, and cause the outside world to look down upon us and vilify our school (when in reality, this sh*t happens everywhere).

    I was, for the most part, enjoying this article until I got to this sentence: “The authors, apparently racing each other to the rock bottom of decency, garnish the image with a lyric from Macklemore’s insipid ‘Thrift Shop.”

    Insipid? Really? Was that really necessary? I love showing off my incredible vocabulary skills just as much as the next student, but I fail to see the point of insulting Macklemore simply because you don’t like his music. I’m actually a really big fan of Macklemore. As a gay male here on campus I really connected with his song, “Same Love”- I cried when first I watched the music video. You later write, “It’s evident that many students at Amherst College simply are not clever, despite their desperate attempts to be…” I think your writing is a great example of this!

    Simply put, I didn’t click on this article to find out about your music tastes. You are trying to make a very important argument that should be heard by everyone…so why don’t you stick with the argument you are making. You can write all about your distaste of Macklemore’s ‘insipid’ music after the Spring Concert.

    Which reminds me: I’m looking for another ticket and will gladly accept yours since you don’t seem to be interested!

    • SonnyC
      April 24, 2013

      his comment about Macklemore filled all of one line. one sentence. that hardly counts as not ‘sticking with the argument.’ you are clearly a lover of Macklemore, and more interested in talking about that then the actual topic of the article. what a pointless comment (ps. and it is bad music, by the way; enjoy the free concert of bad music!)

      • SonnyC
        April 24, 2013

        *than

    • A Person
      April 24, 2013

      I have two issues here. Firstly, when you note “when in reality, this sh*t happens everywhere” I worry about the consequence of taking this position. It seems like the first (large) step towards accepting as normal a culture in which misogyny and homophobia, among other problematic elements of our campus environment. And while I don’t dispute the assertion that these are present at other institutions, arguing that we should therefore be less self-critical is a poor way to improve the situation.

      Secondly, I am amused by the great offense you take at Ryan’s criticism of Macklemore’s music. I, like you, greatly enjoy what I’ve heard of his music. However, it is a bit silly to call out the use of the word “insipid” as a case of Ryan attempting to be clever, as you imply. On the contrary, he here uses a word frequently applied as a descriptor of music that the writer finds tedious or unenlightening. That you find Macklemore’s music moving or profound is wonderful, and I mean that sincerely. That does not mean that Ryan must feel the same way, or that “Thrift Shop” is above criticism.

  3. Matt DeButts
    April 24, 2013

    Hi Ryan,

    I have two minor objections to this article.

    First, and this is really a minor point, but I’d tweak your interpretation of the advertisement. I agree that “trash” refers to the woman in the picture, but I’d argue that the man in the picture is the second “man” — the man about to receive his come-up. The narrative would then be a woman discarded on the beach as trash, but picked up by the man in the picture as a lucky find. Of course, this narrative is nearly as awful: commodification of women, women as sexual objects to be discarded and picked back up, evocation of 1950’s sexism, etc. and so on. But it does lighten the picture’s tone, if slightly.

    The second. I’m a little weary of attributing every dumb article/t-shirt/advertisement to the “student body” while we consign every admirable article/t-shirt/advertisement to a “group of students.” Why are all bad things representative of the student body, and all good things aberrations from it?

    I would hazard that the best manifestation of the student body is how we respond to offensive images. Dumb people will always, everywhere, do dumb things. (Honestly, I wouldn’t want to prevent them from doing it, if they want to do it. I’d hope we get to a place where no one wants to do it at all. But that’s a free speech argument, which I don’t want to get into here.) If the community //condones// those dumb things — THEN our problem is truly atmospheric, as you say; if the administration didn’t send out an email to the student body, if people looked at the advertisement and nodded, “yes, I think that’s okay.” Only then can we say that the “student body” produces this kind of tripe. Silence is where Dana’s critique draws its greatest strength: the fact that we didn’t rise up in response to the TD shirt indicates our complicity in it.

    Mass indictment of the student body is gratifying but rarely productive. I did not approve of this advertisement — I did not even know about this advertisement. It is neither fair nor accurate to attribute it, as you did in your caption, to the “Amherst College student body.” I fret that this brand of misattribution burns more bridges than it builds. It is tantamount to a rhetorical flame-throwing that, by virtue of the author having written the article, insulates him or her from the fallout.

    Ryan, you know I respect you tremendously, both as a writer and as a thinker. I hope you understand what I mean by this post, and don’t construe it as approval of “rape culture” or the advertisement itself. I’m glad you wrote this. I just wish you could have refined the toxicity and perhaps directed it somewhere, or to someone, where its urgency might prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

  4. Meghna Sridhar
    April 24, 2013

    Matt,

    I understand your defense of this mythical entity of “the student body”, and I completely agree with you that we who are critical, offended, angry, writing articles and comments, musn’t disclaim responsibility and attribute it to some distant entity, pretend we are distant from them, look at only the bad and not the good. But I don’t think Ryan’s questioning of rape culture or sexism on campus stems from a need to carve out sort of a sexist majority and a clean minority or so, or to castigate all for the actions of a few. It’s more to question the sort of environment that has allowed two people to sit down, create this advert, look at it a little, be satisfied with the job they did, and send it in an email to the entire class. These two girls were not aberrant, evil sexists in an army of intelligent, egalitarian students. They’re a product of a place where nobody talks, analyses, dissects, argues or creates a space where obviously sexists things can be understood as obviously sexist or wrong. They’re a product of a place where, for some reason, you can make a sexist comment and not see it as sexist, either because everyone around you doesn’t know its sexist, or doesn’t care if its sexist. And that’s why we must question our faults before we exalt our virtues as a student body.

    Dumb people exist everywhere. But our aspiration as a community is always towards making sure that we create an environment where we can be sensitive to eachother, know what hurts eachother or creates damaging conditions for eachother, and be aware of what we’re saying and doing. Homophobes existed 50 years ago and they do now, but we’ve created a culture in many places where homophobia is wrong, and questioned, and less people are homophobes than before. Same to any other principle of oppression, varying time and place. We can’t eliminate aberrations– but we can eliminate an environment that creates more sexists or racists or homophobes than necessary.

    • DeButts Fan Club
      April 24, 2013

      I don’t think it’s fair to attribute the actions of the creators of the image to just the environment, or even to the environment at all.

      It’s true, we ought to make our environment and culture as anti-rape as possible. But that won’t entirely stop images like this, in the same way that cultures of sensitivity don’t stop racism or sexism or homophobia. It can slow them down, sure, but I would argue against the notion that culture defines thought and action. It informs it, definitely, but is not solely responsible. People are not merely products of places.

      We have no way knowing that this poster came out rape culture. It could have — and that’s a great reason to keep pushing against rape culture. But Matt’s right, at a certain point we should stop blaming solely the culture (again, not a reason to stop fighting against rape culture) and start blaming the culprits. As long as the community doesn’t condone the action (as Matt pointed out, the difference is between the silence of the TD shirt and the immediate reaction and response to this image), then we shouldn’t place the blame on our culture at large. It is inaccurate and counterproductive to blame “the Amherst College Community” when in many, many important ways the Amherst College Community had nothing to do with this image.

      I guess I also question the idea that Amherst is a place where “nobody talks, analyses, dissects, argues or creates a space where obviously sexists things can be understood as obviously sexist or wrong.” or a place where “for some reason, you can make a sexist comment and not see it as sexist, either because everyone around you doesn’t know its sexist, or doesn’t care if its sexist”. That’s not the Amherst that the empirical evidence of the reaction this image aroused describes. At least the way I see it.

      Is Ryan not a part of the Amherst community? According to your logic, his defense would exonerate the entire community the same way the creators of the image implicated it. Isn’t it also “Amherst Culture” that made him so anti-sexist? Unless, that is, one person’s actions and words don’t stand for everyone.

  5. Ethan Corey
    April 24, 2013

    Looking on the bright side of things, I’d note that it is at least a little heartening to see a message from the Dean of Students Office come so quickly. Compared with the initial non-response to the TD t-shirt last spring this is progress, albeit in baby steps. But yeah, it’s still pretty disappointing to see how slow that progress has been; the fact that anyone would think this is appropriate much less funny is beyond me.

  6. DuhnuhnuhnuhBatman!
    April 24, 2013

    Sorry Ryan, but you either have a huge stick up your ass or you have a huge stick up your ass.

    This must be the trolliest piece of literature to have surfaced on the Internet since “Trains, Planes and Plantains: the Story of Oedipus” (google for lolz). How is this the epitome example of rape culture? There’s a guy and a girl laying on a beach sharing a romantic moment. I don’t know about you, but that picture has consent written all over it. The girl is practically borderline moaning for Christ sake!

    As for the “1950’s sexism” underlying the picture… now you’re just running out of arguments to make so you’re just picking whatever you can off the floor to use as ammunition. Because I’m sure when people made the ad they were thinking to themselves “Geez! You know, I’m sure if I put a picture from the 50s, that will really hit a nerve!” C’mon dude, if the person(s) wanted a misogynistic picture, there are waaaay better picture to choose from than that. Plus, I can guarantee you that most people looking at that picture don’t go out of their way to analyze the historical context of that type of picture for signs of misogyny. The fact that you would even go out of your way to do so just looks like a try-hard attempt to further your agenda.

    As for the quote “one man’s trash is another man’s come-up”, whoever said that was meant as a demeaning jab of misogyny? Maybe that was just a relevant remark given the fact that the Macklemore concert is so close??

    I’m not here to bash on your values and beliefs. I think it’s great that you take the issue of rape and sexual respect seriously. But I seriously fail to see how this picture is such an affront to sexual respect as you make it out to be. Every interpretation you’ve offered regarding this picture is only viable if you over-analyze it and/or purposely misinterpret it for your own agenda.

    Yes, it’s obvious you have an agenda, and this is nothing more than just political fodder for it. I’m calling you out dude.

    • Ryan Arnold
      April 24, 2013

      Thank you for your comment. I’ve just made an appointment with my internist to have that huge stick examined.

      • Danielle
        April 24, 2013

        My warrior will gladly accept that stick, Ryan. He likes to count coup on idiots.

  7. Garrett McCoy, '13
    April 24, 2013

    I just assumed that the image corresponded to the word “hookups”, and not the Macklemore slogan. “Hookups” has, as we all know, both sexual connotations and another meaning, which is the benign exchange of goods. I then attribute the “trash” slogan to the service itself, which is the aforementioned exchange of material objects, unconnected with the picture and not intentionally in reference to the pictured couple. I think, more than an indelicate, tongue-in-cheek gibe that women are trash to be picked up or handed down, that this is simply an unfortunate case of two effective advertising strategies (a sexy, fashionably old-fashioned image and a relevant lyric of a popular song) placed too close to each other.

    While I don’t excuse the obliviousness displayed in creating an advertisement featuring two statements which, when put together, leave ample room for hurtful interpretation, I am able to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they simply thought “this is a great picture for our thing called Amherst Hookups!” and then thought “this is a great catchphrase for our thing called Amherst Hookups!” and excitedly put the two together without realizing what they would mean when placed in such close proximity.

    It’s a plausible explanation, and one that signifies a notable lack of awareness on the artist’s part with regards to current social issues, to be sure. But it is also quite far from the maliciousness and ignorance which seems to be the general theory as to the image’s creation. I’m sensing a bit of confirmation bias, and not just from you, Ryan.

    TL;DR: The artist stupidly put a great image and a great catchphrase together in a way that implies maliciousness, but we cannot say for sure that they had any sexist intent, or that they are ignorant to issues of sexism. They might have just made an innocent mistake by using two fun advertising ploys together which are benign on their own but harmful when juxtaposed.

    • A Person
      April 24, 2013

      “But intent counts for painfully little. It’s evident that many students at Amherst College simply are not clever, despite their desperate attempts to be: the misogynist t-shirts, the awkward and offensive grasping at satire in The Student’s April Fools issue, the racist cartoons, and now the thoughtless advertisement are united by their failure to be funny. These were all cheap attempts at humor, squeezing easy laughs from whatever was within arm’s reach. How telling it is that what lies within arm’s reach is sexism, racism, and misogyny.”

  8. C0nn0r0berstL00kalike
    April 25, 2013

    As a lookalike of Connor Oberst, I am offended by your Macklemore comment. The macklemore lyric is a statement of equality! If one man’s trash is another man’s comeup then the supposed trash actually has an equal value to the non-trash, meaning it isn’t trash! The trashing is negated by the “come-up”. Macklemore is all about trash, he sends is message about individuality to everyone, trash and trash lover alike. He wants us to know that deep down, we are all trash in a way. As a lookalike of Connor Oberst this really resonates with me and touches my gin-soaked spirit. How dare you, mr. Arnold! You give bread a bad name!

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  12. Tee Kay
    May 3, 2013

    Misogyny they said. The ad was created by females they never said

    • That Girl
      July 2, 2013

      And women can never be misogynistic? I think you need a dictionary and better reading comprehension.

  13. Annoyed
    May 3, 2013

    If this isn’t over-analysis, I don’t know what is…

  14. New Media New Ideas
    July 15, 2013

    A culture of inappropriate jokes is not the same thing as a rape culture. It’s really not. As for the protests and healing fires are you sure you went to all that trouble because someone made a t-shirt you didn’t like? Maybe you’re trying so hard to find proof of this “rape culture” that small things are getting blown out of proportion.

    • Ethan Corey
      July 27, 2013

      Just happened to come across this while I was moderating a spam comment on one of my posts.

      A culture in which one in four women are sexually assaulted, 90% of whom are assaulted by someone they know, is pretty fucking obviously a culture in which rape is a deeply ingrained social problem. So there’s that.

      Beyond that, you don’t have to look very hard to find objectification of women in ads, television, movies, et cetera, and, on the other side of the gender divide, the depiction of sex as “conquest” (I mean that’s a commonly used phrase: sexual conquest) and the equation of a man’s value to the amount of pussy he can snag is equally prevalent in our culture.

      Add on top of that the stupid cultural tropes of women secretly wanting sex, but pretending that they don’t (a la Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”) and the idea that men “think with their dicks” and can’t control sexual urges, and you have a culture that reinforces attitudes and practices that result in an epidemic of rape and sexual assault. You’re skepticism about the existence of this culture and your absurd idea that the protests and anger surrounding sexual assault were just the result of someone making an offensive t-shirt are destructive and unhelpful attitudes that really just serve to reproduce the rape culture that you seem so sure doesn’t exist.

      I doubt you’ll even read this, but bullshit contrarianism like this gets really fucking old really fucking fast, and I needed to vent.

      • New Media New Ideas
        July 27, 2013

        90% of women are assaulted by someone they know? Where did get that statistic? I would like to know where you got it and how the study defines the word “assault”.

        Yes you did need to vent. That was my original point.

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