Failures of Formal Activism

First, I want to be clear why I am writing this series. I have no intention of identifying the school, the fraternity, or the specific fraternity chapter on my blog. Those who I know in real life know more context than I am providing. My purpose in writing this out is to inspire others who are facing harassment in their normal lives, and give them tools to combat it, a way to think through fighting back. I want to cause problems for the culture that allows this kind of harassment to go on, not cause problems for the university students that I interact with socially.

Second, before I move on with how I handled the sexual harassment that I experienced this past January, I need to go back to the end of the Fall Semester. During finals week, one of the Fraternity Girlfriends (also a student at the school) posted on her facebook wall. The following exchange is edited for the reasons listed in the first paragraph of this entry, and involve myself, my partner Tim, and a member named Jeremy who had a personal feud with Tim. Christina, the Fraternity Girlfriend, plays a role, and there is a cameo from another member of the fraternity.

Christina: Reading day isn’t for reading. It’s for computer games.
Jeremy: Some Fraternity Members take showers and do homework instead of playing shitty pc games.
Me: Jeremy. I am married to a Fraternity Member that showers, earns a wage, does house work and plays shitting (sic) pc games because they make him happy. Have your own opinion.
Jeremy: Hey Kate: You are married to quite possibly the worst Fraternity Member I have ever met. He makes me ashamed to wear the letters. And sounds like you obviously don’t please him if he has to play “shitting PC games” to make himself happy. And shut your bitchass mouth any way you annoying cunt.

I knew I was taking a risk when I directly addressed Jeremy. Jeremy had a reputation for being a hot headed guy — he had a baseless feud going with Tim, he had abused all of his brothers in an online forum when they were offering him love an respect. The long and the short of it was: Jeremy didn’t seem to like the fraternity, but he didn’t seem to want to leave it either.

When I saw how strongly Jeremy responded, I froze. And then I flushed hot. And then I started laughing. I had described my partner as someone who was happy with the way he was. I stated that I loved him for it — or at least I married him. Jeremy told me to shut my bitchass mouth (what’s a bitchass mouth?) because he couldn’t counter me rhetorically.

Because it was the internet, I had the luxury of leisure to reply. I called Tim as I left work that day, and I told him about it. “Jeremy said some shitty things about the fraternity on facebook,” I said. “So I called him out. And he called me a bitchass cunt.” I laughed. “Seriously, what’s that? It’s pretty weak.”

Tim didn’t see it that way. Being my heterosexual life partner, and thinking it his duty, he went to my defense. I was disappointed, because I was hoping to swing my own rhetorical sword in my own defense. (The role of allies will need to be discussed at a later time. Needless to say — I wanted to fight my own fight.)

To continue the facebook thread:

Tim: Jeremy, I’d appreciate it if you left my partner out of our dispute. I’ve tried to leave you be as much as possible since February, and would appreciate the same courtesy. Furthermore, I think that Kate deserves an apology for what you just said about her..
Jeremy: McDouchey: Go to hell. I won’t leave her out of it. She could’ve kept her mouth shut. And I didn’t say ANYTHING about you until it was used as a front against me. And no, no apology is deserved.
Robert: I like computer games.
Jeremy:^— another worthless Fraternity Member that does nothing. It’s too bad we keep rushing dipshits like you.

By the time I got home, and I had been emailed this entire conversation through facebook notifications, the thread had been deleted by Christina from her own wall. Christina called me and apologized, which was funny, because I had been more worried about her — it sucks to be a bystander. In fact, being a bystander to sexual harassment even has a negative effect on men.

The negative effect was shown in the context of multiple phone calls… all to Tim. Much like Tim thought that it was his responsibility to defend me, it seemed that the brothers all thought that they should apologize to Tim for the behavior of one of their own.

It took me two days of intense reverie to figure out why I was still bothered by the harassment — and why I was bothered that Tim wasn’t bothered after the apologies. I outline the reasons below. (Aside: who says that literary analysis doesn’t make for some kick-ass activism?)

  1. I deserved an apology from Jeremy because Jeremy reduced my worth to sexually pleasing my partner: “sounds like you obviously don’t please him if he has to play “shitting PC games” to make himself happy”.
  2. He told me that I had no right to express an opinion where I was offering a counter example to Jeremy’s public assertion against the chapter: “And shut your bitchass mouth any way” & “She could’ve kept her mouth shut”
  3. Further more, I was disrespected as a person when he identified me solely by my sexual organs: “you annoying cunt”.
  4. Allowing Jeremy to go unchecked implied complicit agreement as a chapter with his attitude towards women, as he publicly identified himself as a member of the chapter.

But worse, because no one had asked me how I felt about the situation (except for Christina, who was also not in the hierarchy of the fraternity), I was voiceless. I helped Tim draft an email to the President and the Members-at-Large (who speak for the members on the executive board), which outlined the points above.

And there was promptly no action. It was a failing of formal — i.e. within the confines of authority structures — activism.

This post is second in a series.

Combating Sexual Harassment in a Fraternity (as a female non-member):

In Which I Encounter the Rape Culture (Not for the First Time)
Failures of Formal Activism
Informal Activism and Friendships
Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson
On the Other Hand…


4 thoughts on “Failures of Formal Activism

  1. Reading this posting, in such proximity to your previous posting, has me a little puzzled.

    In your previous post, regarding the on-campus party, you were (legitimately) disturbed by many things. One of those things that disturbed you was that Tim seemed not to do anything in the face of obvious harassment.

    In this post, you are again (legitimately) disturbed by many things. But here, one of the things that disturbs you is that Tim chose to act in the face of obvious harassment, instead of letting you act alone.

    I’m curious if you see the contradiction there. More importantly, I’m wondering what you see as the differences in the two situations which lead to your opposite reactions.

    • I see the party incident as an instance of crisis. I wanted Tim to speak up because I was unable to. I see this instance, and my desire to speak for myself (and therefore Tim not speaking for me) as my normal capacity. I see it as the difference between helping carry my burden in crisis, and Tim carrying my normal load as if I am not capable of of it.

      This interpretation is courtesy of the Boundaries books by Cloud and Townsend.

  2. Pingback: Informal Activism and Friendships « Practicing Empathy

  3. Pingback: Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson « Practicing Empathy

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