Your first arrival to campus — an unofficial inauguration to your undergraduate career — is usually steeped in expectation. Driving through unfamiliar streets, you excitedly survey the city that’ll serve as the stage for the next few years of your life. With a full backpack, welcome info packets at your feet and boxes (or alternatively, some unlucky sibling unwillingly enlisted as a member of your moving crew) sitting in the car seat next to you, you anxiously stare out of the window. Every film depiction of college you’ve seen up until this point has filled your imagination with scenes of expertly landscaped quadrangles, verdant lawns, stately buildings and drab dormitories. It’s everything you expected it would be. As you venture toward the section of off-campus student houses, you curiously search for any and all signs of the rumored crazy college shenanigans. However, among all of your preconceived images of the stereotypical rowdiness and ruckus, the last thing you may expect to see is a spray-painted, sexist phrase hanging from one of the balconies.

At Old Dominion University in Virginia, some of these college shenanigans grew too derogatory and recently ignited a controversy. Students — new and old alike — passing by the school’s chapter of Sigma Nu fraternities were welcomed by makeshift bedsheet banners with crudely scrawled lettering that designated the building as a “freshman daughter drop-off” site. Accompanying the message was a separate banner declaring, “Rowdy and Fun, Hope Your Baby Girl Is Ready for a Good Time.” Old Dominion University’s chapter of Sigma Nu even extended the invitation to the girls’ parents with a third and final banner that read, “Go Ahead and Drop Off Mom Too.”

These banners incited national media attention and immediate action from the Old Dominion administrators. The disrespectful messages prompted the suspension of the school’s chapter of Sigma Nu. Old Dominion University’s president responded quickly with a statement, and an investigation of the incident is pending.

Assigning disciplinary action for displaying derogatory messages, such as the ones seen at ODU, has initiated a troubling debate. The students and the words on these crudely designed signs are protected by the First Amendment. Some argue that the actions and media coverage so far have taken the situation out of proportion, while others claim these messages contribute to rape culture in environments with high prevalence of sexual assault.

These incidents, for the most part, were probably intended as highly inappropriate and poorly thought out jokes. Yet the overall messages, while they may not directly threaten or proposition a specific woman, are not something to toss aside lightly, especially when these are in no way isolated incidents. 

Signs toting sexist messages similar to the ones portrayed at ODU have emerged outside of various fraternities and student houses for years. A house at Ohio State University hung a banner marketing “Daughter Day Care 2.0” and another claiming “Dads, We’ll Take It From Here.” Variations of sexist phrases have appeared at numerous universities in the past, illustrating a disturbing trend.

The Atlantic wrote, “these immature 19-year-olds displayed bad judgement, but so do the adults who are reacting as if they were stockpiling GHB. Pop culture is filled with material far more vulgar and offensive, including content that does actually transgress against the value placed on consent.”

One can label these messages as a dumb and disrespectful tradition, but we can’t deny the fact that these messages, unintentionally offensive and degrading or not, contribute to a flawed culture that continually degrades and objectifies women on various platforms. If our society truly is filled with “material far more vulgar and offensive” already, then our goal should be to remedy this instead of dismissing slightly less demeaning material because it doesn’t cross a pre-existing line.

There’s an understanding that, to a certain degree, the humor of college students is expected to be immature, crass and crude. However, the annual appearance of mattresses, sheets and signs sporting these sexist, derogatory spray-paint messages provides a subtle reminder to the undergraduate female populations that even while attending institutions of academic rigor, you’re not going to escape the possibility of being objectified and sexualized.

The vast majority of young women — if they haven’t already encountered it — become exposed to a world of crude comments, unsolicited propositions and often unshakeable concerns about the safety of the spaces they inhabit once they reach adulthood. Seeing signs thanking their parents for bringing them as if college-aged women were products to be deposited and used only further proves the existence of this uncomfortable sphere.

As a woman far too accustomed to regularly being exposed to similar messages in the media or as I walk around Ann Arbor, I can acknowledge some realities. Removing some failed attempts at being funny will not instantly make me or other women feel safer. It won’t immediately circumvent the reception of derogatory solicitations or offensive, unnerving comments, nor can anyone realistically expect that to be the outcome. These banners and signs deserve media attention and heavy criticism not because they’re saying things students and worrying parents don’t want to hear; they deserve it because seemingly insignificant scenarios and attitudes contribute to societal problems as much as the larger ones. We, as members of active campus communities, should denounce sexist cultures and work to end high rates of sexual assault. But to do so we need to be aware of and challenge the problematic attitudes that continue to pervade society.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.