"SMU boys, we like them young...
Y is for your sister...
O is for oh so tight...
U is for underage...
N is for no consent...
G is for grab that ass.."
Oh, you shouldn't be. It was all just "in good fun." Just a silly chant that, has apparently, been going on for years during frosh week activities at St. Mary's University in Halifax. What's that you say? Derogatory to women? Nonsense! Lighten up...
For as long as feminists have been complaining about sexism, they've been accused of not having a sense of humour. Of not getting that "it's just a joke." It's the easiest -- and frankly, the laziest -- way for someone to dismiss an actual concern, because, saying that something wasn't meant to be "intentionally offensive" doesn't, of course, prevent it from being so. That's just wishful thinking.
Listen... I get it. I was a university student once, too. I remember the excitement and newness of it all. Rare is a frosh week that goes by without some sort of controversy and displays of bad taste. Mix young, excitable students with peer pressure, the desperate need to fit in, and loads and loads of alcohol, and you've got the perfect recipe for all sorts of unacceptable behaviour, and inevitably some sort of PR fiasco. But there are limits to what one considers acceptable, even during a week specifically designed to cross the line.
When 80 student leaders (both men and women) stand up to chant an utterly despicable chant about non-consensual sex with minors to a group of 300 freshmen, sorry, but that's crossing the line, and I absolutely fail to see the humour in it.
Even those who usually turn a blind eye to youthful shenanigans were taken aback, when video footage of the chant surfaced the next day and promptly went viral. Calls for heads to roll were quickly made and the school shifted into damage control.
Jared Perry, chair of Students Nova Scotia, stepped down from his position, but -- for reasons unbeknownst to me -- remains in his role as president of the Saint Mary's University Students' Association.
In his capacity as president he issued a statement expressing his disappointment at his own behaviour (he admitted that it's a chant he himself has participated in for a number of years as a student) and tried to rationalize the behaviour by calling it "a moment of lack of judgement." He still, nonetheless, felt the need to stipulate that these are "great leaders," in many ways echoing the Steubenville comments made by many U.S. commentators who rushed to bemoan the consequences for those two students whose careless actions (read: rape) ruined their bright futures.
We can argue about the many qualities that make a great leader, but willingly chanting derogatory lyrics about half the population you are representing is most certainly not one of them.
No one is saying that we do away with frosh activities. They are an integral part of initiation into university life and significantly contribute to forming bonds among students.
But to casually dismiss what happened at SMU as an isolated issue with a flippant shrug of the shoulders is to negate the very real fact that we don't live in a post-feminist world, and there continues to be a very strong link between how women are perceived and the disrespect and violence actively and routinely shown to them in everyday life. Pretending that there's no correlation is intellectually dishonest and conveniently disingenuous.
And just in case it needs to be repeated again: this is a chant that extolls the joys of, not only underage sex, but non-consensual underage sex. There's another word for that. It's called rape.
Now imagine someone singing that lovely little ditty about grabbing asses and adding your baby sister to the mix. How funny is it now?
Or, throwing your daughter in there for good measure, when that verse about tight vaginas comes up. Is it getting funnier?
How guffaw-inducing is it really when you actually take the time to dissect the lyrics, attach them to people you know and love, and realize that they trivialize and normalize rape culture. Because singing about raping women (notice, no men were targeted in the song) is always fun, you guys!
Perry admitted to a Halifax reporter that "we didn't think of the message, we just thought of the rhyme and rhythm" of the chant. Sure, ok. Nothing like someone pursuing a university education (a place where you're supposed to develop the powers of reasoning and sound judgment) justifying his actions by telling us he neither questioned nor analyzed what he has been singing along to since... 2009.
What kind of mob mentality can possibly justify the unfathomable to me; that these students have been singing this catchy little tune for four years now and no one has seen fit to complain about it, be ashamed of it, and possibly see putting an end to it?
"It wasn't a big deal to me. I'm not a feminist kind of person. It didn't affect me personally," a second-year female psychology student was quoted in a CBC news article. While her name was published, I chose to omit it, because, even if she's not ashamed, I am ashamed for her, and given her youth I'm hoping she will one day understand why such a statement coming from a woman's mouth is both dangerous and treasonous.
Because, stating that you're "not a feminist kind of person" in the face of pro-rape chants, is equivalent to stating that you're "not a racial equality kind of person" while watching someone sing about lynching a black man.
And while that behaviour would probably incite the ire of many, what is it about sexual violence and aggression towards women that still doesn't elicit the angry response it deserves? Why is it that so many continue to brush it off as "just talk" or "boys being boys" or just "innocent fun"? Why, as a society, do we only choose to confront these messages when we, ourselves, are confronted with the inevitable backlash that incurs when something like this is only made public and widely available?
It is beyond disconcerting to me that it was revealed that a third-year SMU student and former frosh leader Alexandria Bennett voiced concerns to SMUSA last year, but was casually dismissed by those responsible. It was only dealt with when a video went viral and the school had no choice but to deal with it.
And even now in their dealings with it, they have been less than hard hitting. The university and its spokespeople keep referring to "learning opportunities" and "sensitivity training," reticent to apply anything too severe as punishment.
The consequences of such actions are never as harsh as they need to be. They never send home the message that this is unacceptable, but always seem to confirm societal excuses that incidents like these are isolated and not as harmful as certain angry feminists who can't take a joke would have you believe. The language used by school administrations in response to the public condemnation is always so painfully vague. It's always a slap on the wrist. A little finger wagging and why don't we move on, ok?
Now, some of you reading this may be rolling your eyes. "Who in their right mind is going to confuse the immature goings-on during frosh week with... rape?" you silently ponder.
The answer is no one. This isn't about one more stupid incident in which women are disrespected and a rhyming rape chant equated to silly shenanigans. It's about all the stupid incidents that insidiously infiltrate and erode our world and make it acceptable to continue to harass women on the street and ok to joke about sexual assault and yet, when we dare point the finger and question these actions we're the ones who are supposed to get a sense of humour!
It's about wondering how many isolated incidents have to take place before we -- as a society -- admit that we have a problem with inequality and sexism, and yes, even rape culture. It's about wondering how many such incidents have to take place, that it becomes so commonplace and so a part of our everyday world that women can actually participate and chant along without even questioning the insulting nature of those words.
Nova Scotia has the highest rate of sexual assault in Canada. It is also the province that made international headlines not too long ago when 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide after being the victim of a sexual assault and having no charges laid against her attackers because of insufficient evidence. How is it that people in that community can still be so insensitive to how their actions can affect the lives of others?
In a province where sexual assault is so high, people need to be aware of what contributes to rape culture, and seek ways to minimize it; not trivialize it.
Yes, these students may still be young and immature, and certainly have a lot of growing up to do. But university age should still be old enough to know the difference between a harmless frosh initiation event and a cheer that sings about violating a non-consenting minor.
While writing this, I learned that UQAM (a French-language Montreal-based University) was dealing with its own frosh week controversy, after it was discovered that students had organized a Pimps & Hookers event; trivializing sex work and the many real dangers prostitutes face.
This problem, of course, isn't just one nasty incident at a university. The problem is that these nasty incidents are extremely representative of prevalent sexism across the board; sexism that extends way past any educational institution's gates.
Dismissing it as just youth, inexperience, an unfortunate and ill-conceived event is the easy part. Doing something to change this prevailing culture is the hard part.
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