September 6th, 2013
I’m just glad I’m not a dean at St. Mary’s University this week, where administrators must be taking special meds to deal with the frosh catastrophe. It’s impossible to avoid the story: a bunch of incoming students chanting some highly offensive verses about rape. Ugh. Who said things stay the same? That’s 1963 up there in that photo. The most remarkable thing about this hazing ritual seems to be that they’re all nurses. Who knew nurses had so much fun?
The first week back at university almost always generates some hazing ritual story. When the kids go too far the media rushes in and for at least a week everyone is talking about the horrible state of youth today. Most of these events involve some sort of sexual transgression. In the SMU case, the transgression was a group endorsement to assault an underage “sister.” There is nothing to defend here. The song, allegedly chanted for years at that university, was never before deemed inappropriate until it hit the YouTube circuit. Nothing like a big virtual spotlight to focus our attention on some bad, time-honoured behaviour. It’s actually quite shocking that no one ever complained before. But perhaps that’s because these sorts of expressions are easily dismissed as the product of youthful folly, or as essentially benign and forgettable moments in a freshman’s inexperienced life.
The SMU incident is being met for the most part with surprise and derision. It’s kind of hard to find any of it acceptable, although there are enough who say it’s all being overblown by the media and university officials. In short, get over yourself and lighten up. I remain more interested in that reaction, albeit a minority one so far, than by anything else. Why doesn’t everyone see that it’s really not cool to joke about rape? At some fundamental level our society still doesn’t fully accept the notion that sex must be consensual. Sex is such a complicated business, isn’t it? Because almost everyone who is human wants to get some, there’s almost always an undercurrent of belief that no really means yes. Young women were chanting enthusiastically at SMU, along with their male peers, and so you can’t say it’s just a gendered thing going on here. Sure, it’s largely that, because it’s male desire at the heart of the chant, and male-dominant culture that gives permission to utter it. But why are women jumping up and down reciting all kinds of offensive stuff about something they would not want to have done to them? Peer pressure or groupthink, blah blah, yes, but also a radical disconnect from the meaning of the words, the kind of disconnect that comes naturally with inexperience and ignorance. In our young-body-obsessed media world this kind of thing becomes normalized early. The message about the inappropriateness of it all is countered by the sheer ubiquity of, say, an over-the-top self-pleasuring Miley Cyrus performance at the VMAs, another effect of viral effects.
I really do find it all at once discouraging and fascinating. It’s not just about younger people, either. I was at an event for some elderly people this summer—a relatively affluent group with great jewelry and personal trainers. We were entertained during the evening by a local theatre group who changed the lyrics to the popular Abba song “Fernando.” Essentially, the song was about date rape. Talk about bad taste! I can tell you no one laughed. I am not even sure everyone really understood or heard all the words to the refrain that stressed the appeal of such an ignominious criminal act. The performers just kept going through the verses, even though the reaction was in the order of the lead-balloon variety. It was shocking, really, but I reflected long after that no one had said anything, no one had complained, including me. And if the SMU frosh event hadn’t been posted to YouTube, entry-level classes would be singing the same lyrics years hence. Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.