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Marking Women’s History Month: We Still Need Strength

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March is the U.S.A.’s National Women’s History Month, with the theme for 2011, “Our History is Our Strength.” It is good to remind people of the strength and achievements of women in history, but two stories circulating on the internet lately that have become inextricably linked in my mind also point out that we may have come a long way, baby, but we still have so far to go in how women are perceived and treated. Loretta Lynn’s lyrics in her album and song “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” from 1978 may state, “Up to now I’ve been an object made for pleasin’ you — Times have changed and I’m demanding satisfaction too,” but it’s clear that message hasn’t been heard by all.

A viral email, supposedly written by a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity at USC expounds the notion that women are still viewed primarily as objects — maybe even less, as isolated body parts. It’s a frat boy handbook, a guide for guys who want to score with chicks. The anonymous (for the moment) author constructs a detailed manifesto, designed to be distributed to his fraternity brothers, with instructions to have sex and report back to him for a “gullet report.” Women are not individuals or even human beings in his view, “Note: I will refer to females as ‘targets.’ They aren’t actual people like us men. Consequently, giving them a certain name or distinction is pointless,” but solely referred to as an orifice — in his vernacular — gullets and pies. “I want raw data on who fucks and who doesn’t. In conclusion the gullet report will strengthen brotherhood and help pin-point sorostitiutes more inclined to put-out.”

College is still the bastion where sexual experimentation and personal growth go hand in hand with course learning. Classic frat films like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds humorously depict the desire of frat boys to successfully hook up with chicks. But those movies aren’t mean-spirited or belittling. This email, for all of its “no feeling on earth can compare to a warm piece of pie” bullshit, is an extremely calculated demeaning of women. It goes so far beyond the centerfold/porn mentality — an image of a woman as an object to get off on — that it’s almost hard to believe it’s real. Almost. But I think it is very real.

This email is not just a cultural blip, a trifle. As noted by commenter TeacherDee on Jezebel, ” … “Do you have any idea how many of these guys become managers, directors, politicians, CEOs and on and on and on? … These guys do not wait till they’re at a party or whatever to objectify women, they are doing it all the time. … Men like this, in leadership positions that cause them to consider women (maternity leave, reproductive rights, domestic violence etc), do not see women as equal human beings and do not make decisions that are good for women.”

Considering the atrocious actions of another fraternity of sorts recently in Texas, it’s abundantly clear that for many young men today, women aren’t real people, but objects.  A young girl, aged 11, was brutally raped by at least 18 boys and men in Cleveland, Texas this past November. As if that story isn’t horrific enough on its own, there are some disturbing issues raised by how the crime has been reported in the New York Times

At the moment the girl involved in the incident is in foster care in a different town in a different school, as both the authorities and her family fear retribution from the community and families of her attackers. Retribution for a child, a sixth grader, and her family after she had been raped, multiple times, by boys and men, schoolmates and local adults. An attack like this is a stain on any community, but is hardly new. Rape has been used throughout history, women’s history, for both sexual and political humiliation. Communities, both real and virtual, need to not rally around the attackers and excuse their behavior as pack mentality by highlighting such quotes as the Times did, “How could their young men have been drawn into such an act?” Oh, the poor young men, duped and lured.

Poynter.org called out the Times for its shoddy reporting and implied viewpoint, and the Times has since issued a pale admission that maybe it didn’t get the story completely right the first time. But maybe Times reporter James C. McKinley Jr.’s “angle” goes to a deeper truth that no one wants to acknowledge. As  commenter Amy suggested, if the 11-year old had been a boy, both the Times and the community would have reacted and framed this story much differently. The Times hardly mentioned the victim or her attackers. Although some of the men were definitely adults, none were identified in even the vaguest way. The Houston Chronicle wrote a much more balanced and descriptive account, “So far, 17 suspects have been charged, ranging in age from a middle-schooler to a 27-year-old. Seven are high school students, including two members of Cleveland’s state-ranked basketball team. Another is the 21-year-old son of a school board member.” Why so coy, New York Times?

Horrible also is that so many people, the in-denial neighbors, friends and relatives of the Texas gang-bangers, and the USC students who are sharing the “gullet report” email or dismissing it as merely a prank, are somehow promoting and abetting this treatment of women by refusing to call it out for what it is — unacceptable, shameful, horrifying. Are they that de-sensitized to this way of thinking of women? In regards to the USC email, have young women trained themselves to look the other way from an undercurrent of misogyny in order to get their rocks off? There is nothing in the USC email to indicate that the author even comprehends in the slightest way that a woman might be out cruising for sex and treating him as an object. He is either stupid or only interested in a scenario where he is the one putting a notch on his bedpost. But he isn’t satisfied to be on a personal sexual journey. He has to drag all his fraternity brothers into his philosophy, to his level, “My hope is that ALL of our brothers will follow this creed with pride and distinction”

So similar in attitude to the creeps in Texas who weren’t satisfied with their initial humiliation of the 11-year-old they were sexually abusing, but during an “intermission” started calling all of their friends to join in. According to the Houston Chronicle, “Not long afterward, the group fled through a back window when they heard a relative of one of thae teens arriving at the blue house. The 11-year-old left behind her bra and panties as the group moved to the nearby abandoned trailer, where the assaults continued. As the men had sex with the girl, others used their cell phones to take photographs and video, police said.” Not only was the young girl repeatedly physically assaulted, but the abuse continued as the event was shared and re-shared. That sort of rape is beyond misogynistic. It’s strangely guy-centered sex. It’s not heterosexual or even homosexual. It’s just fucked up beyond belief.

Women’s History Month is usually celebrated by remembering the achievements of women. But maybe we should be using Women’s History Month as a signal to remember that as far as women’s rights may have come, our society still has a long, long, way to go. Blaming the victim still seems to be par for the course, as the Times, a newspaper that is supposed to be held up as one of the best in the nation, had nary a description of the girl or her family or even much information about the attackers, but included observations and quotes from Cleveland, TX residents like, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” McKinley Jr. went so far as to report, “Residents in the neighborhood … said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground.” Why was that the focus, the highlight?

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