The Faculty Senate President is sending out the following statement to a number of administrators including the President, Provost, and the SSI Director, as well as a few others:
Some jokes are just in bad taste, but others go farther and harm our community. This is why we are concerned that what some may see as just a stupid joke can actually support an atmosphere in which violence is tolerated, and our students can feel harmed and silenced. But that is not what we are about at WCU and we, the Faculty Senate, want the WCU community to know that we support the right of students and staff to speak up about their concerns, and for our community to expect responsible results. We take this opportunity to discuss these issues in more detail below.
Many of us in the West Chester University community are probably aware of this recent issue arising on our campus. On Friday, Sept. 18, our community became aware via media reports on the sale of a small inflatable doll in our campus bookstore. Many students and some faculty supporters helped to bring this issue to our communal attention, and the Faculty Senate wishes to commend the students and their faculty supporters for their work to raise awareness on this issue, especially our graduate student Irissa Baxter, our undergraduates Jamie Berg, Caitlin Brown and Casey Tobias, and our colleague Dr. Lisa Ruchti.
On Wednesday, Sept. 23, President Weisenstein issued a statement both to reflect the values of our campus community that object to such merchandise and to encourage faculty and students to use the opportunity to educate ourselves about the roots and consequences of the objectification of women. On Monday, Sept. 29, Donna Snyder, the new director of Student Services, Inc., sent an apology for the sale and a promise to put in place stronger controls to avoid having insensitive material on the shelves in the future. As a representative body, the Faculty Senate wishes to join in these responses by following up on President Weisenstein’s invitation to reflect on the issue to further dialogue.
On the one hand, it seems clear why the merchandise would be objectionable. The “gag” gift offered to supply “a perfect female specimen” as a date, promising that it doesn’t talk. “No Headaches” is listed as a benefit, which one assumes indicates either that relating to woman creates headaches for men, or that women use the excuse of headaches to deny men sex. The mechanism to inflate the 6-inch doll is to punch it in the mouth. The image on the package is a skinny, scantily-clad, blonde Caucasian cartoon female. All of this implies that woman ought to be objects for male sexual enjoyment, understood on a very narrow definition of femaleness, and very much not as human beings that have their own thoughts, feelings, rights over their sexuality and rights to not to be physically assaulted. (To be fair, the existence of a “perfect male” product by the same manufacturer, which sold out at our bookstore, is similarly problematic).
On the other hand, the merchandise was obviously a joke. Some faculty discussing this issue in classes reported that many students understood why the merchandise was objectionable, but still felt as if it was “just a joke.” Of course, it is true that the merchandise was meant as a joke. And many jokes are made in bad taste, but should not thereby become a “big issue.” This issue is not simply about someone feeling offended by something they see as being in poor taste. It is about real harms, real threats, and the real effects of joking about those issues. So, it is important for us as a community to reflect on why some of us may think of it as “just a joke,” and do not see it as big issue.
According to many agencies working on gender violence: about 35 percent of women experience some form of sexual assault during their lifetime; almost 40 percent of all murders of women are performed by their intimate partners; and 20 percent of teenage girls report a threat of violence by their partner during a breakup. On college campuses: 20-25 percent of women will be victims of rape or attempted rape. To far too many of the students on our college campus, gendered-based violence and sexual assault are not just jokes, but recent memories, present realities, and looming possibilities. That so many students, faculty and staff see such gags as harmless tells us that we are far too comfortable with sexual and gender-based violence.
Of course, many well-intentioned people may still see the merchandise as just a joke, and this does not make them “bad” people or “supportive” of sexual assault. Nonetheless, one of the risk factors that increases the likelihood of becoming either a perpetrator or a survivor of gendered-based violence or sexual assault is the presence of attitudes permissive of violence and objectification of women. It is in this sense that many object even to things that were obviously “jokes,” since they tend to normalize the behaviors in question. Research in psychology confirms that exposure to such images desensitizes individuals to the represented violence. It is not due to a lack of a sense of humor that someone finds the merchandise offensive, but a recognition that the laugh is not worth even a small contribution to a culture that accepts such violence.
Moreover, to those who have experienced or are intimately connected to someone who has experienced such violence, the fact that it is presented as something funny brings an additional sting, and may even re-traumatize a person. By comparison, most of us would not wish to tell a joke about memory loss to our friend who is suffering during a parent’s struggle with Alzeheimer’s. It would be rude and insensitive to joke in this way in front of your friend. Further, seeing this gendered violence being represented as a kind of joke can add to the shaming and silencing of those who have been victimized. Why bring attention to the violation if one expects that others may see it as a kind of humorous phenomenon? Referring to the gag gift as “insensitive” highlights that the “joke” the merchandise makes is made in public (in our case also on a college campus committed to openness and inclusiveness) and in mixed company. It is not merely a matter of bad taste, or of individuals being offended… It is a matter of people being harmed and silenced.
As a body committed to issues of campus climate, the Faculty Senate appreciates the initiation by our students and faculty to raise this issue, and is grateful that the bookstore has promised greater vigilance around these issues. We also thank those faculty that have continued to address the issue in their classes, as President Weisenstein invited. We encourage all of us to continue to dialogue constructively about these issues so that we can strive to create a more welcoming, respectful, inclusive and informed learning community.
James Brenner is the Faculty Senate President. He can be reached at JBrenner@wcupa.edu.