You may not have heard about this, but OZ sent a sleazy email which got leaked.
Unless you live under a rock, you know about what I’m now calling #OzGate.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about how campus has reacted to the exposure of the crude poem. Let me be clear, I have little interest in defending the email itself. The sentiments expressed in the lines of truly terrible poetry indicate some attitudes I find deeply troubling.
The belief which “f**k off to a tease” betrays is clear: If a woman attends this party and subsequently decides not to engage sexually with the hosts, her decision will be met with scorn and hostility. The implication is that attending such an event makes one party bound to some kind of contract — entry for sex.
I think this belief is substantively wrong. If there’s an overarching moral premise of 21st century sexual ethics, it’s that the individual’s sexual autonomy is inalienable — the right to say “no” cannot be taken away, but, equally importantly, it cannot be voluntarily surrendered. A college woman who attends a party, even with the full knowledge the hosts intend to facilitate casual sex, should not be retaliated against, even just with scorn, for opting not to go along with the program. OZ’s email implies otherwise. That’s a shame.
But here’s the thing: The idea that attending a party is a sort of sexual contract is a coherent idea, albeit a misguided one. It can be argued; it can be refuted.
The at-large community’s reaction, however, has been to treat the email as a transgression or sin requiring denunciation, rather than an indication of beliefs with which we disagree and which can be engaged. To be fair, OZ hasn’t shown any willingness to engage, but we’ve hardly given them a reason to do so. Instead, as a community, we’ve mostly reacted with self-righteously indignant Facebook statuses and an angry, unsigned, denunciatory open letter.
To be clear, I’m not objecting to the actions of the women who made the email public — if we’re going to put serious effort into combating beliefs about sex we believe are wrong, we need to know that those beliefs exist to begin with.
Rather, I’m dissatisfied with the popular response. It’s important our reaction makes it clear we want not simply to affirm and demonstrate our own righteousness, but also to engage those whose ideas we think are misguided, to persuade them of the superiority of our attitudes and ideas to theirs. The last thing we would want, as a campus, is for those who honestly don’t believe women’s sexual autonomy is inalienable to learn from this only that they ought to just keep quiet about those beliefs.
The trouble with outrage is that it encourages insincere conformity rather than actual contemplation and subsequent change. Maybe there is someone, or even a substantial body of people, who think there’s nothing really wrong with the OZ email. Maybe, even probably, there’s someone on campus who thinks that when a girl goes to a party, she is tacitly agreeing to have sex.
The way this has played out, as a tidal wave of outrage, I sincerely doubt those people will be in any hurry to make those views public. Rather, they are likely to keep acting on them, simply in more discreet and insidious ways than before. If that happens, nothing will change.
We should remember that shame can alter what people say, but only persuasion can change what they think. As we’ve seen this political season, people who hold beliefs we object to don’t typically respond well to being demonized. If anything, vilification causes those beliefs to galvanize.
And honestly, do we really want an insurgent Make Penn Great Again movement of angry sexist OZ bros? Didn’t think so.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough” usually appears every other Wednesday.
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