Last Thursday, news broke about a pro-rape chant performed during frosh week at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The chant, which has been in circulation since at least 2009, celebrates the SMU men who "like them young"; in the process of spelling out "young," the chant includes lines like "U is for underage" and "N is for no consent."
There are many problematic issues to address in this story. The fact that many media outlets, including CBC, are referring in their headlines to this as an "underage sex" reference, rather than to rape. (Nope!) The fact that a nearly identical pro-rape chant also surfaced at the University of British Columbia's frosh week, where students were told that the chant was fine, as long as it was kept out of the public eye. (Nope!) The fact that the defenders of these chants still think, in the year 2013, that rape is hilarious. (Nope!)
As an academic, however, what troubles me most is the apparent inability of the chant-defenders to draw the connections between the song they're defending and actual rapes. With the gang rape, and subsequent suicide, of Rehtaeh Parsons. With Steubenville and Richmond. With the appalling facts of university rape, where 1 in 5 women (perhaps as many as 1 in 4) will experience rape or attempted rape during their time as undergraduate students. With surveys that find six percent of college men will openly admit to rape or attempted rape. (Some studies report even more appalling statistics.) In short, I am deeply concerned that academic culture, dedicated to learning and thought, is still addressing rape culture so ineffectively.
In response to the chant, Saint Mary's professor Dr. Peter Twohig addressed the wider social context of this incident on Twitter and in his classroom, on the very first day of class. (Full disclosure: Peter is a friend; I have previously posted links to his humor blog, Weird Shit in Historic Newspapers, in this space.) In a blog post at Atlantic Canada Studies, he described his attempts to help students make those connections, and called the frosh week songs part of the larger "chants misogynistic" our society employs against women and girls:
The chant misogynistic was not the product of a few individual "student leaders" (and I am using the term lightly), although I am personally glad to see them go. There were lots of people participating and I am sure many of them regret this. But in the aftermath of the chant misogynistic, I still heard students defending it as no big deal, funny, or harmless. We could choose to vilify these students. We could say, as some have, that it was simply "stupid students behaving in a stupid fashion." Or we could instead ask why university-calibre students lack the consciousness to think about what they are saying, to understand the power of their words and the harm that they could do.(The whole thing is worth a read.)
The chant misogynistic is the product of a culture that routinely objectifies and denigrates women and children, that tolerates violence against women, and is ambivalent about women's equality. Until that changes, the chant misogynistic will go on -- maybe not on a football field in the heart of a university campus -- but it will continue to be whispered.
Saint Mary's President Colin Dodds has announced the formation of a a task force on the problem of sexual violence on the SMU campus. I believe he is honest in his efforts, and I sincerely hope the task force is effective. It would be wonderful if St. Mary's led the way in addressing a problem that many other schools have consistently fumbled. It would be nice if St. Mary's could show Princeton how it's done. But based on the rather dismal record of North American universities in aggregate, I cannot be optimistic. And that is a problem.
Because if universities – places where, in theory, thoughtfulness and learning are encouraged — cannot meaningfully challenge the culture of sexual assault, then where else can we expect to address it? If universities continue to treat rape culture and rape as mere PR problems, rather than as violations of their students' basic human rights, then how can we expect rape culture to change in sports, in entertainment, and in the military? If campus rapists are tacitly told during the very first week of school that their attitudes are normal and their crimes "just fun," then what do university authorities expect other than continued rapes and sexual assaults? If first-year women learn in that same week that their right to bodily autonomy may be the price of their degree, then why pretend that women have equal access to higher education?