Misogynist Speech Can Affect Actions

Two years ago: I am sitting in the back of the bus heading back to campus from a Wake Forest basketball game. Darkness is punctuated by street lights and the Wake Mart’s lights, but I cannot doze off or block out a conversation I overhear in the row in front of me: Three male students talking — no, yelling over each other — about the bodies of various women they have slept with, and referring to one of them as a “last resort.” Talking about the bodies they will “f—” tonight.

A year ago: I hear three fraternity brothers ranking women on a scale, again so loud that the voices easily come through the door between us.

What did I do on the bus?

Nothing. The men got off the bus, and I did too, and we walked in different directions.

I am ashamed of this. It was cowardly. I was afraid of saying something, afraid of conflict. I did not realize the power of this language — its tendency to encourage actions like sexual assaults and rapes that plague our campus; its normalization of slurs (homophobic and misogynist) that I hear on campus, used by groups of men who think no one is listening as they egg each other on.

In the second instance, I said something. The person listened, and we had a meaningful conversation, the details of which I will not describe here. What’s important are how these overheard comments reflect and reveal a problem on our campus — a prevalence of misogynist language which normalizes and produces violence.

The article published recently about Sigma Chi’s emails highlights this problem. I want to talk about this. Not to lecture — because I too have been part of the problem when I was silent, and still will be if I stay silent. I am not above it. But we need to talk about why men tolerate this kind of thing and how we can work to change that. 

I recently watched a documentary called The Bystander Moment: Transforming Rape Culture at its Roots (available to all Wake Forest students through the “Kanopy” platform). As the producers make clear, it is certainly easier to do nothing when we hear “locker room talk.” But this is cowardly. And it puts our peers in danger. If we accept a world in which men will dehumanize other human beings, we are complicit in sexual assault and rape.

The alternative is to embrace the discomfort and say, “No. We will not accept that violence.” Imagine if men here did that in their friend groups, their fraternities, their clubs — every time a peer shamed a woman’s body or used a slur. It would not make misogyny go away, but it would have an impact. I’ve acted on this approach this semester, and the result has been extremely productive. The approach is uncomfortable, but peers have actually respected it and stopped using this language around me. This is not abstract. The time has come to stop delaying the moment of bystander intervention. The time is now, and the time is every time we hear something that reinforces the dangerous culture of masculinity of which we are all too aware.