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.
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.