For the fifth time in the last three months, four universities have punished a men’s athletic team after discovering messages that degrade women. This week, Princeton University’s men’s swim team and Washington University’s men’s soccer team season were suspended after finding documents that were deemed sexually harassing and degrading. Upon unearthing the highly offensive and explicit language, it is clear that there is a strong need to educate young men on what respecting women looks like.
In some arbitrary way, it can be argued that what these male athletes do privately and what they message each other should not be our business, nor should they receive such a harsh punishment. There will be the argument that it’s normal male behavior to casually joke and demean a woman’s body. People will argue that it’s harmless, and that the real issue is sexual assault, not what these boys text each other.
If we give credulity to these points though, we complicate what respect is, which simply defined means to “hold someone in high regard.” When young men feel the need to degrade women behind closed doors, it can absolutely be attested that somewhere within themselves, there is a part of them that thinks of women as lesser than.
And to be frank, our culture encourages the degradation of women and more often than not, defends the callous behavior of men stating “it just boys being boys.”
What happened at Princeton lends us a tiny microscope into the world we live in regarding to how women are treated and viewed. We have a president elect who privately declared that he grabbed women “by the p****; we have schools like the University of Oklahoma, who allowed Joe Mixon to return to the football team after punching a woman so hard that she had to get surgery on her jaw; we have institutions like the NCAA who abdicate themselves from doling out any punishment to universities who do nothing about reported sexual assault, yet are quick to strip championship titles away from players if they sell their championship ring for a tattoo; we have universities who let players accused of sexual assault continue to play, despite evidence that an assault did occur; we have coaches who cover up assault; and most recently we have a football team at the University of Minnesota that said it would boycott the rest of season after a few teammates were suspended in light of being accused of sexual assault (except they were upset at their teammate’s suspension, not about the fact that a woman had been possibly gang raped).
Princeton and Washington’s punishment is refreshing: beyond making a point that degrading women is unacceptable, they’re letting all the women on campus know that they matter. By taking a firm stance that there are no excuses to humiliate or devalue women, they’re setting a precedent that they will take all accusations of sexual misconduct and assault seriously, providing a safe place for the female student-body.
We have the duty and obligation to teach young men how to respect women on all fronts. It doesn’t matter if the messages were meant to be in private...the point remains that there’s an underlying current where people still think it’s funny to treat women as objects. More importantly, if bad behavior is ignored, it will continue, and can lead to something even worse.
While respect seems like an easy concept in terms of “do this, not that,” it takes time to unlearn abhorrent behavior, and to train your brain to think differently, particularly when it comes to women.
Teaching boys, who will eventually become men and leaders in society that respect starts behind closed doors and on message threads, will lead to a society where more men will become defenders of women, rather than their attackers. And it’s true that some of these young men may have felt peer pressured into engaging with their teammates, despite knowing that it was wrong.
But the bystander effect is real, and if we don’t teach men to stand up for the right thing in even the seemingly non-harmful situations, what happens when these same young men bear witness to an actual sexaul assault and instead of protecting the victim, they cheer it on, film it, or if the rape goes to trial, defend their teammates and say it was consensual? This theory is not far fetched because it happens.
As more accounts of sexual degradation come to surface, the easier it is to hold those behind the defamatory language accountable, no matter how minor it may seem. And if we expect boys to become respectable men, we’ll have to start expecting them to understand that no matter the setting, no matter who is listening, their actions matter and that women also matter.