Time to Break the Iceberg

By Roy Ribitzky

Marsha Gelin

Violence takes many forms, not just physical. There is the emotional, financial, psychological and verbal abuse that forms what violence prevention educators call the “Iceberg of Violence.”

We only highlight and see the darkest aspects of the whole problem, namely rape, sexual assault and battery. However, the comments and mentalities that lie underneath the surface create an environment that makes violence all the more likely to occur, as well as serve to place women socially beneath men. Sexist jokes, demeaning comments, misogynistic music lyrics, objectifying advertisements and physical violence portrayed in media all collaborate as verbal harassment escalates to physical assault in the lives of men and women.

The first part of this series took a look at some of the failures of the University of Massachusetts administration to address the issue of sexual violence on campus. The final two articles will focus on the language and actions of members of our peer group – which are issues of a more personal nature that are more difficult to confront for students.

The true marker of a democracy is the ability to hold each other accountable. It is easy for students to call out what is wrong with the UMass administration, with few students having to deal with administrators in interpersonal interactions on a daily basis. However, at times, students forget about problems within our own ranks. To call out fellow peers is a much more difficult and emotional feat especially when, as I was writing this story, I was forced to confront people I consider my friends and allies.

An open conversation about language and intent versus impact, socialization and internalized oppression is long overdue. Even within our body of leaders, the Student Government Association, many of its members feel that the dialogue between the group needs to be checked and held to a higher standard. It is the bottom of the iceberg where individuals within the SGA say they have experienced instances of sexism taking place within the body.

Historically, there have been issues involving sexism within the political landscape of our nation. The kind of language that has been present even in recent times involving women’s roles in politics has been seen within the SGA as well, according to interviews with female senators.

“When I started, there were hardly any females senators” said Student Trustee Tina Kennedy, a UMass senior.

“Personally, for me, I had a tough time with sexism in the SGA in the past,” Kennedy said in a separate interview with the Collegian.

What makes an environment uncomfortable for women is sometimes what makes that environment humorous for men. Jokes are an everyday aspect of life, and many jokes poke fun at social identities. While some are genuinely funny, others are downright unacceptable. When those jokes are not called out, often it is the target who is pressured to turn the other cheek as the joker is left believe what he or she did was okay.

“Guys would say that: ‘you’re that shining face that everyone wants to see’ and ‘I’m sure you can get everything you want because you look good,” said one female senator who preferred to remain anonymous.

In another instance, former Secretary of the Registry Janam Anand said she was appointed her position as assistant to the Secretary of the Register in spring of 2010, and was told a year after her appointment as Secretary of the Registry that the “only reason I got [the position] was because I slept with the person who held the position before me.”

During senate meetings, female senators have stated that when their work or accomplishments were being announced, some of their male peers would end their announcement by saying things like: “and she’s really cute,” and “and she’s always looking adorable over there.”

These comments, even when meant as compliments or as jokes, have the potential power to cause the following harm: to reinforce stereotypes that women cannot accomplish successes on par with male peers without having to sexualize their bodies and the idea that women’s looks need to be validated by men. While each individual comment may be construed by some as off-hand and not a big deal, it is the consistency and frequency of such comments that does damage.

“Prior to this year, there has generally been very little female involvement and ethnic/racial diversity in the SGA, creating the whole ‘men’s club’ illusion,” said Anand in an email. “Because of this, I think certain male members feel like it is okay to speak without a filter, not realizing or taking into consideration the offense that others may take.”

In her second year in the SGA, Kennedy helped bring back the women’s caucus that had been inactive since the late ’90s.

“When we brought back the women’s caucus, and [some] guys would joke around calling it the ‘vagina caucus.’ That was pretty tough,’” said Kennedy. “Our work was being degraded and joked about.”

“So I sought out to get more women involved,” continued Kennedy. “I wanted to make sure that no woman had to go through what I did. You can see now there are more women in the SGA. They are strong and capable leaders.”

“A lot of comments are made in a joking manner,” said Associate Speaker Hayley Mandeville, who will take office as the SGA’s Speaker next year. “It’s hard to be the one to stop people from laughing. It’s hard when calling out comments like that will make people call us ‘emotional’ and undermine our authority.”

However, she stressed that progress within the SGA is being made. This year has seen a large increase in female leadership in the SGA.

“Once people build relationships with each other, they tend to realize the work they do is really important,” said Mandeville. “They start to realize the jokes aren’t funny and they actually have a negative impact on the person who is receiving them.”

Mandeville said she has a “zero tolerance policy” for any sexist or insulting language between senators.

“I think most people in senate share that view,” she said. “It’s not like any sexist comments go unresolved, it’s definitely something that we work on often.”

While instances of sexism exist within our peer group, the actions of a few individuals do not define the mindset of our entire elected student body.

“The SGA has the ability to be a wonderful breeding ground for friendships, personal growth and leadership development,” said Anand.

For the final installment of this series, we will see that not only women are recognizing the importance of confronting this issue, but that men are taking a stand as well to make sure sexism never has a seat in the senate.

This is the first in a three-day series on violence and sexism on the UMass Amherst campus. Roy Ribitzky is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]