For years, organizations like VIDA and the Women’s Media Center have done a great job of documenting the egregious gender byline gap and lack of representation of women in the media. WMC’s latest report cites statistic from the Media and Gender Monitor that in 2011, women were the focus of only 24% of news stories. VIDA tracks the percentage of women writers among book reviewers, bylines, and authors reviewed, and found that the Grey Lady reviewed two books by male authors for every one book by a female author in 2012 (a ratio that has stayed consistent since Vida started The Count in 2010). These statistics make clear the fundamental truth that our media is not interested in women. It’s not interested in hearing about them, and it’s certainly not interested in hearing from them.
There is, however, one major exception to this rule: Women (or men) who are willing to write a judgmental or shaming or prescriptive piece about how or when or where or why or whether or how often other women should have sex, jobs, husbands, or babies will ALWAYS find a mainstream media outlet willing to publish them.
“Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” by Kate Taylor, is just the latest example of the New York Times’ endless appetite for such articles. The story fronts this week’s Sunday Styles section – Lady Grey’s go to section for news that is vagina-adjacent. (Where else but the section featuring wedding announcements and runway reviews would one profile Gloria Steinem or discuss workplace issues like maternity leave?) The article features interviews with numerous undergraduate women at the University of Pennsylvania and purports to examine the “views on sex and relationships in college” of “a generation of women facing both broader opportunities and greater pressures than perhaps any before.” Taylor relates the experiences of numerous anonymous women, touching on issues of class, career ambition, slut shaming, rape, sexual assault, “hookup culture,” virginity, and marriage.
There are many problems with this piece and how it represents women and women’s sexuality. I’m guessing/hoping that some of my favorite lady writers are dissecting many of those issues on twitter as I write (and no, this is not a comprehensive list of women I like on twitter), so I’m not going to spend too long enumerating said problems. (Although, since I just spent half an hour on those hyperlinks, I guess I could give it a few minutes, and say that I’m disturbed with Taylor’s representation of rape and sexual assault in the piece:
In November of Haley’s freshman year, a couple of months after her first tentative “Difmos,” or dance-floor makeouts, she went to a party with a boy from her floor. She had too much to drink, and she remembered telling him that she wanted to go home.
Instead, she said, he took her to his room and had sex with her while she drifted in and out of consciousness. She woke up with her head spinning. The next day, not sure what to think about what had happened, she described the night to her friends as though it were a funny story: I was so drunk, I fell asleep while I was having sex! She played up the moment in the middle of the night when the guy’s roommate poked his head in the room and asked, “Yo, did you score?”
Only later did Haley begin to think of what had happened as rape — a disturbingly common part of many women’s college experience. In a 2007 survey funded by the Justice Department of 6,800 undergraduates at two big public universities, nearly 14 percent of women said they had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault at college; more than half of the victims said they were incapacitated from drugs or alcohol at the time.
The close relationship between hooking up and drinking leads to confusion and disagreement about the line between a “bad hookup” and assault. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, 10 to 16 forcible sex offenses were reported annually to campus security as taking place on Penn’s campus or in the immediate neighborhood.
Based on the 14% figure Taylor cites, of the more than 5000 full-time undergraduate women students at UPenn, more than 700 have been or will be victims of at least one sexual assault, but only 10-16 of these crimes are reported annually. Taylor is abdicating her responsibility as a reporter to make clear to the reader that what happened to Haley was, in fact, rape and not a “bad hookup.” By focusing on alcohol consumption rather than, say, male aggression, she reinforces the victim-blaming narrative of rape culture that tells us women are responsible for their own assaults. Where is the Sunday Styles trend piece entitled “Sex on Campus: He Can Rape Women and Still Get A Summer Internship at Goldman” that asks, “How is a generation of men raised in a patriarchal society confronting the moral challenge of obtaining consent prior to engaging in sex?”)
But to return to my main objection to the New York Times’ publishing of this piece, I just want to say: FUCK YOU, GREY LADY. STOP PUBLISHING THIS SHIT.
Taylor’s article was written with reference to Susan Patton’s Princeton-women-should-get-married-before-it’s-too-late letter – covered in the Times here and here; and Julia Shaw’s essay “Marry Young,” published this year by Slate. It is just the latest in a seemingly endless train of Grey Lady explorations of “hookup culture,” which represents just a fraction of the rest of our media’s fascination with that subject. And the hookup culture pieces are just a small portion of the rest of the articles that get written about women with the intent to categorize, pathologize, and judge the various choices women make in their lives, especially when sexuality is involved: Marry Young! Don’t Get Married! Have Kids Before Your Eggs Dry Up! Don’t Have Kids If You Want a Career! Have Nannies! Lean In! Lean Out! Don’t Give Blowjobs! Don’t Lose Your Virginity! Don’t Be A Prude! You’re A Woman, And We Find That Confusing, Because We’re Distracted By Your Breasts, And Concerned That You Might Start Menstruating, So Just Do What We Say, And Stop Talking!
That these stories are endlessly commissioned and written is symptomatic of our patriarchal society’s deep discomfort with unregulated female sexuality and with the very idea of female agency. In the past, rigid moral structures made it clear what women’s roles were supposed to be, and society punished women who transgressed. These days, it’s somewhat unfashionable to be too, too strict in saying that a woman’s place is in the kitchen (or bedroom, or nursery), at least for the “liberal” likes of the New York Times. But even this “enlightened” segment of society still isn’t prepared to accept women exercising the freedom that men have to exert independent agency over their own lives. And so, rather than focus on punishing some women who step out of one role, society shames all women for all things, no matter which way they’re stepping or which role they’re trying to fill. Our helpful media, led by the paper of record, plays its part in keeping us in our place by publishing trend piece after trend piece after trend piece expressing the true anxiety at the heart of it all: that women might take actions that do not reinforce a patriarchal society and maybe, just maybe, don’t have anything to do with their relationship to men.
And so, I’m going to say it again: FUCK YOU, GREY LADY. STOP PUBLISHING THIS SHIT. COME TO TERMS WITH THE RADICAL IDEA THAT WOMEN ARE AUTONOMOUS HUMAN BEINGS AND GET OVER YOUR DAMN SELF.
Julia Carrie Wong