“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of undergraduate women (and men)”

That’s how that epic poem began, right?

I’ve been thinking about that riff on the real opening line tonight as I return to blogging from a 6-month hiatus. You’ll see why.

I had a blog hiatus so I could focus on learning to teach for the first time. It was a class that I constructed almost entirely from the ground up, entitled Women, Gender, & Theology, and we covered the following topics in the historical survey part of the class: women in Scripture, and feminist and womanist readings of Scripture from thinkers such as Phyllis Trible and Delores Williams and Elizabeth Johnson; Audre Lorde’s critique of Mary Daly (which first involved spending a very fun day on Mary Daly, and no I am not being sarcastic); Perpetua and Felicity; Augustine and Monica; Aquinas’s Aristotelian biology; Julian’s Showings; and Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603). Contemporary topics included Christian theological treatments of the following: female language for God; gender essentialism, gender constructivism, and Mulieris Dignitatem; women’s ordination; same-sex relationships; body image; rape culture & Maria Goretti; and, lastly, The Color Purple.

I had been given many warnings about attempting to teach such material to the undergraduates. Various people were concerned that the undergraduates would not be able to accommodate the rough edges of such controversial material. That whole conversation is also wrapped up in current efforts to understand what the undergraduate theology curriculum is all about; specifically, there are ongoing questions about the place of feminist theological concerns in a college-level Catholic theological education. That’s a long story for another day…but if you’re even reading this blog I’m guessing you can fill in the gaps of those conversations yourself.

Anyway, this concern about my class was fortunately proven invalid by the end of the semester: the students generally learned how to think better about theology and about gendered aspects of that enterprise. At least four of them have told me that my class has given them a way to remain Catholic — to remain faithful while allowing themselves to sit with real questions about gender and the voices of women — instead of leaving the Church. That’s one way to know I did my job.

I think the students and I ultimately built up enough trust in the classroom to discuss these topics productively and even with emotion when necessary (for example, if they weren’t upset about violence against women at the beginning of class, I tried to make sure they were by the end, and if some of them were justifiably angry about the material, I would try to make space for that anger and allow them to process that in their informal writing assignments and in discussion). Sometimes in our discussions the students made each other angry (I think the spectrum of religious ideology among the students went from Ultramontanist to atheist. So.) And I’m fairly certain that I sometimes upset the students when I felt it necessary to push them, but I think we generally got through unscathed, and I have nothing but respect for those folks. And I think they respect me.

Let’s go deeper though. It’s really not enough simply to say that the students somehow learned through great effort to wrestle with theological questions about gender and gendered questions about theology. My class didn’t simply force them into inhabiting a more complex intellectual space against their will. They didn’t go in as tabulae rasae, entirely ignorant of problematic gender dynamics or of theological questions. How patronizing of me to have thought that.

Rather, I came to realize that many of them, especially but not exclusively the women, the LGBT students, the students of color, (and, obviously, students inhabiting all variations and intersections of these kinds of limited identity markers) were very much living at the forefront of gender and theology concerns in the course of their daily lives. Many of them were looking around at their world and seeing injustice and violence. Many of them, for various reasons, experienced discrimination frequently because of their appearance, their race, their sexual orientation, and/or their gender identity. And I speak in these general terms only for the sake of my students’ privacy; everything I mention comes from actual conversations I had with students, either in class or in individual meetings. So this class material wasn’t a threat to them; it wasn’t even an academic luxury; for many students it was an absolute necessity, the difference between feeling suffocated and alone and feeling the space to breath and to cherish their own lives through theological inquiry.

Importantly, many of them were experiencing the slings and arrows of exclusion within the context of the social life of the university.

And, as I came to see, they were enraged.

On the last full class day of the semester, I allowed for a more free-flowing discussion in which they could present what they had discovered in writing their “media watches.” This special assignment had allowed them to find something in the general news, the Church, or on campus that involved gender and Christianity, and they had to analyze the situation and then tie it to the class. Our conversation that day started politely, with a couple students raising their hands at my behest and offering in subdued tones, say, a feminist theological analysis of the fake papyrus mentioning Jesus’ wife or of the condemnation of Pussy Riot in Russia.

However, perhaps from some kind of perverse desire to push their buttons, I steered the conversation toward the gender dynamics on campus; I knew that many of them had written about college rape culture, and I wanted to see what was brewing via an actual face-to-face conversation.

Well. Buttons pushed! Upon my asking the question, the class exploded into chatter and groaning as students started commiserating with each other about infuriating gender dynamics on campus. Clusters of students started yelling with each other across the room while some sat shaking their heads and quietly smiling angry non-smiles. Others defended some of the university’s practices, and those individuals received heated, fast-talking push back.

So we had to have a more generalized conversation about the particularly sexually conservative, hyper-heterosexualized gender culture on campus. So what exactly am I talking about?

I’m going to mention a few examples that seem relatively minor in order to paint a picture. In the analysis of the university that follows, I will be sampling from a media watch from one of my students. I chose this media watch because this student ended up describing multiples instances of gender-policing occurring within the more-or-less official infrastructure of the university, so I thought her writing would faithfully represent the voices of other students lamenting these same dynamics. I have received her permission to do this, though she understandably does not wish for her name to be used. She speaks only about her own experience of being at the university, so if you disagree with her, please do so with the utmost respect. I don’t think she wants to get slapped by the internet. So here goes…

First, let’s talk about freshperson orientation, or “Frosh-O,” as my students called it. I gather that this event was run by each dorm (and the dorms are all single-sex) at the beginning of each academic year, and it’s one of the first times in which the incoming students are thoroughly socialized within the confines of the university. This particular student, who shall henceforth be called “Sarah,” explains in her media watch that the older staff members of her dorm immediately told the incoming women that they were expressly there to meet boys, and that that was the best part of college. Sarah was honest about her reaction: “[M]y heart sank with disappointment. Here I was with a group of young women who would soon become my peers and friends. They were the women I would be living with for the next four years. They were the people with whom I wanted to start building relationships. The boys can wait, I thought to myself, but I had no say in the matter.”

Presumably, single-sex dorms are meant to encourage a sense of sisterhood and brotherhood among students. Perhaps there is a real fostering of authentic same-sex friendships (which seems absolutely crucial, especially for women), but I think it’s interesting to note that that doesn’t seem to occur apart from being socialized as a group to want members of the opposite sex in an active and notable way. The message to these women was: if you want friends, you better bond over wanting to be wanted by men.

So what actually happened? Incoming men from the neighboring dorm had to come serenade Sarah’s dorm, and then Sarah’s dorm had to reciprocate:

The Frosh-O staff proceeded to teach us lyrics to cheesy pop songs, the choruses conveniently altered to allow us to insert the name of any boys’ dorm for which we might perform. Indeed, this was a performance, meaning that in addition to learning the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” we were also taught a series of awkward dance moves. At one point in our routine, we were instructed to squeeze the nearest boy’s bicep, then to give a hoot of approval (as a naturally introverted person, this was a rather mortifying experience for me, and I’ve tried hard to forget details like this). Within a half hour, we were outside on our hall’s front lawn. Awaiting us were a group of young men from a nearby dorm who had been led over by their Frosh-O staff. We were then literally forced to pair up with a member of the opposite sex by forming two parallel lines, boys and girls facing each other. The boys performed their Frosh-O song first. This particular dorm had chosen a Backstreet Boys’ classic—at least, I think so. At this point, I was concentrating most of my mental effort on forcing myself to take deep breaths to avoid passing out from humiliation. Many of the boys acted goofy, thrusting their hips during sexually suggestive lyrics. Then it was our turn, and I survived. Dignity is overrated anyway, I remarked sarcastically to myself.

This supposed “right of passage” perhaps strikes one as innocent. Group singing outside! Laughter! Youth! THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE. But it’s interesting to note that such “innocent” socialization is bound up with the performance of heterosexual courtship, which means, of course, that boys will go first in singing, and it’s singing that of course cannot be divorced from the mimicry of male sexual aggression (pelvic thrusts, anyone?). The women will sing back, a reciprocation signifying approval of these advances. Female receptivity & such.

Sarah, along with many of my students, suggested that while the university’s most explicit ethos is relatively sexually conservative compared with other colleges (the party line is always supposedly “no sex before marriage,” which comes as no surprise given the university’s Catholic commitments), there is very much the expectation of tamed male sexual initiation (aggression) in relation to women, and, concomitantly, the relations between the sexes tend to be hypersexual. For this reason, as many of my students lamented, it is very difficult to cultivate healthy male-female friendships in this context. Because male-female relationships are encoded with such sexual meaning and barely-sublimated sexual desires, people in friendships with members of the opposite sex are assumed to be hooking up with their friends secretly. Because why else would one pay attention to somebody of the opposite sex?

Many of the students felt that this dynamic was further reinforced through the university’s use of parietals (times at night during which people cannot be in opposite-sex dorms without punishment) as well as the unfair allotment of punishment for breaking parietals: men tended to be given a slap on the wrist (but also a wink and a nod) for having women in their dorm rooms at night, and women tended to experience much more severe consequences for having men in their dorms at night (wink and nod notably absent). Further, the dorm parties (suffuse with alcohol) tended to occur almost exclusively in men’s dorms, while women’s dorms were expected to be quiet almost all the time.

Let’s put a finer point on it. In speaking about male dorms, Sarah writes, “A few months into my freshman year, one of my guy friends laughed as he repeated a quote said by his Resident Assistant at his first section meeting: ‘Men, this semester, I want us all to have a good time. We’re gonna get fucked up. We’re gonna slay bitches.’

We’re gonna get fucked up. We’re gonna slay bitches.

Now, my female students indicated that, as women, they are basically told that they compromise their (“feminine”) respectability if they engage in drunken sexual encounters. But it seems that the men are (barely even unofficially) encouraged to use alcohol to expand the opportunities for sexual aggression toward women. Not only are women “bitches,” but sexual encounters with them are jokingly imagined as one-way acts of violence. It’s horrifying, and yet why does it feel so familiar?

Now, I’m not saying this doesn’t happen on other college campuses or in other forums; certainly this dangerous construal of male and female heterosexuality is endemic to our society. But I think this dynamic is much, much worse when it happens in a context in which there is, ostensibly, no sex before marriage because everybody is, ostensibly, upstanding and Catholic. If there is “no premarital sex,” then there is no allowable discussion of it. The slaying of bitches just has to happen behind closed doors, on Saturdays nights that have nothing to do with Sunday mornings.

Anyway, on the last day of class, I could barely contain my students; their rage was bursting through the seams of our discussion. Nothing was resolved, and nobody was healed. Some laughter was mixed in, but mostly I saw anger. Justifiable anger.

I’ll stop there. I heard so much more from my students, and I have so much more to say on this matter.

But, for now, all I can do is allow the Goddess to sing the rage of my students.

29 thoughts

  1. a) I firmly believe you did yeoman’s work in teaching this class. You sound like you did a fantastic job, and that the students took away invaluable lessons that might help break down some of the unhealthy gender relations at ND, and

    b) HOLY CRAP you do SUCH a good job of breaking down exactly what is wrong there with gender relations. All of the applause.

  2. The example of “slaying bitches” strikes me as the most disgusting among several disgusting habits and behaviors you listed. Hopefully, after your reading your article, the University will work to tighten the institutional reigns of frosh-o AT THE VERY MINIMUM, achieving more oversight (finding out what actually goes down) and proposing and mandating alternate frosh-o activities. Most importantly, I hope they realize that these types of things are not just “boys being boys.” They are very serious.

  3. You provided a wonderful opportunity for students to LEARN – the real reason to attend college. Your resource material pushed them to stretch outside the everyday of things and helped them become critical thinkers – not just rote seat-occupiers. I applaud you for going out there and allowing students to safely express their thoughts. Reading the students’ Orientation experiences, I could not believe this took place (or continues to take place) in the 21st Century. Having worked in Student Development/Affairs for 30+ years at two Catholic universities, I have NEVER heard of, seen, or experienced such an attitude of this being how to orient new students to a campus. If anything, it stinks of hazing which (at least in Ohio) is against the law. I don’t know if you did or if you could help the students formulate ways to take what they know and have shared to change the campus culture. I am related to and have many friends who are ND alums and, if they read this blog, I hope they assert pressure on the university administration to change this campus culture. I can’t imagine what students’ parents think of this ND Welcome. All I can think of right now is, Wow.

  4. Elizabeth, what a gift that your students had this space to share their experiences and wrestle with them theologically. This is horrifying. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Lizzy Seeberg.

  5. Things must’ve changed a lot since I was an undergrad, but I never had those experiences with orientation. Sure there were those there to hook up, but it didn’t seem like a majority were. I lived in a women’s dorm in college, and the culture was completely different than you described. (Yeah, it sucked at times in a mean girl way, but I’d have to say those experiences were not the usual. I’ll also freely admit that I didn’t have the social skills regarding living in close proximity to people you might not get along with, either.)

  6. Here’s my Freshman Orientation story at Notre Dame:
    On the second day of orientation the freshmen in my men’s dorm were going to play “Slip and Slide Twister” with one of the women’s dorms. We all got into our swimsuits and the orientation leaders (a group of sophomores with little oversight) sprayed us with hoses and poured baby oil on us. And then we were thrown at the first-years from the women’s dorm and we proceeded to play Twister while the Frosh-O leaders looked on (and continued to hose us, if I remember correctly).
    Looking back on it now I have no idea how this stuff was allowed to happen. How demeaning, (and sorta gross!). At the time, I didn’t feel uncomfortable because I was gay (and closeted) so much as I felt uncomfortable because I was very modest and a little bit terrified to be away at college for the first time. And this was my induction into meeting other people at Notre Dame!
    While I would go on to form wonderful and healthy friendships with both men and women I met at Notre Dame, I feel that (especially in my freshman year) I had to work against the unhealthy and pervasive gender dynamics there.

  7. Elizabeth, you are breaking open spaces at ND that up to know have been ‘sanctified’ and ‘sanctioned’, places where violence to women is the norm, and where the ‘rules of engagement’ between the genders is set for their time at the school. You will get much pushback on this, but you are a champion for so many women and ally men who see the violence that this sustains. Brave woman, I honor you!!

  8. I became quite angry while reading this post because it brought back memories from my mostly-wonderful time at ND that I had suppressed. That innocent, alcohol-free dance party on a Friday night with all of 8 people that the RA broke up (we naive freshmen didn’t realize that there is an unofficial rule against parties in female dorms). The frosh-O song we overheard being sung at a certain male dorm threatening to “f- your women and drink your beer.” The running jokes about ND girls being ugly and unworthy of the guys. Ad infinitum. “The slings and arrows of exclusion within the context of the Notre Dame family”, indeed.

    So thank you for encouraging this discussion among ND students. Though I sense that I come from a more conservative part of the theological spectrum than you, I share in the rage toward the double standards on campus. This garbage has no place among our cherished traditions.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful, if disturbing, essay and bringing this to light. Thank you for your hard theological work in teaching students about these issues and leading them in this critical theological discovery in these ongoing struggles.

  10. Thank you, first of all, for creating within your classes a safe place for women to own & share their experiences with gender and aggression on campus, both the sanctioned forms of micro-aggression and officially – tolerated sexual aggression. And thank you for sharing a sampling of their experiences in this blog. As a Saint Mary’s faculty, I’ve long wondered about women’s experience at ND, have hoped that the “the slings and arrows of exclusion” were not as sharp as those that rain down on my students. In my classes with 1st year students, I wait till mid-fall semester to probe, gently, what their experiences are like. Their reactions range from hurt & bewilderment to intense anger at realizing they’ve been duped into believing the pervasive, well-sold mythology about the “one, big, happy Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame family.” This myth explodes when they experience the stereotypes that they’re the “the dumb, slutty girls ND guys want to screw on Fri. & Sat. night” (one that differs from, but is tightly related to the ’80’s stereotype that they’re “the pretty girls ND guys want to marry.”) It’s a risky enterprise, but Saint Mary’s students who are able to form healthy interpersonal relationships with both women and men at ND discover that the SMC & ND ‘bubble’ is a very immature, tightly scripted, gender stereotyped, & hyper-heterosexualized one. I leave it to you and other scholars in religious studies & theology to continue to examine and articulate the extent to which this is due to the Catholic nature of the bubble.

  11. The climate you describe is appalling but frankly not surprising. And it leads me to an honest question: Why do these enraged women stay at Notre Dame? Why not transfer to Boston College? I once asked a gay (male) friend at Notre Dame a similar question after hearing his own stories, and he joked that it was like asking, “Why not become Episcopalian?” But kidding aside, why not go to a place that takes its Catholicism seriously, but within a considerably healthier, more progressive, and diverse context?

  12. Differential and problematic treatment of women at Notre Dame is institutionalized in many ways. Take the student health plan for instance. Whether or not screening for STD’s is covered varies by sex of the insured patient. What would otherwise be cosmetic surgeries are covered if they are medically necessary to improve the function of a body part– except breast reduction, which is not covered under any circumstances. Prescriptions for contraceptives are screened so that only those uses which are morally justified according to Catholic teaching are covered, whereas medications that treat erectile dysfunction are covered without question. As a matter of university policy, women are treated differently.

    Click to access brochure1213.pdf

  13. For me, the most troubling statement of this reflection was the phrase “Notre Dame’s rape culture,” which I was surprised to see that no one else commented on. As someone who appears to have not been represented in your class (white, heterosexual, male), I’m wondering if I was just blissfully naive to something that, based on the phrase, is commonplace? Melinda Henneberger’s washington post article also made allusions to this, but I can say that in my experience at ND (class of ’07), the Henneberger article and this blog are the first times that I have ever heard of such a phenomenon. I would appreciate some perspective on this from someone that might be more ‘in the know,’ than I.

    Secondly, regarding the RA’s ‘slaying bitches’ remark:
    Clearly it is inexcusable for someone acting as a representative of the university to speak as such, but I’m wondering if you have any other examples to support it? If not, it seems unfair to use such an example as being representative of a university-wide problem. This is again far from anything that I experienced in my interactions with RAs.

    Regarding Frosh-o:
    I’ll mention that my experience was more or less the same as has been explained here- it wasn’t really memorable or enjoyable and could certainly use a revamp- but I suppose my reaction to it was a bit different then has been mentioned here. Mostly, I suppose I didn’t take it too seriously, which I think others may be doing here. In my experience, the ‘slip and slide twister’ and other such activities were voluntary- no one forced me to do anything I wasn’t comfortable doing, and instead of partaking I was able to meet and talk with others that I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

    Lastly, I am confused by the author’s suggestion that the brotherhood/sisterhood of the residence halls and the fostering of same-sex friendships occurs hand-in-hand with “being socialized as a group to want members of the opposite sex in an active and notable way.” Frosh-o, which is the only time/place that such socialization could be said to take place, lasts perhaps 3 days and was entirely different from (and not representative of) any other part of my ND experience. The brother/sisterhood and friendships that form within residence halls are established on daily basis throughout the year- with trips to the dining hall, intramural sports, working in the study lounges, sunday night chapel masses, dorm events etc etc- that have nothing to do with frosh-o and/or “being socialized as a group to want members of the opposite sex in an active and notable way.”. It seems that while the author recognized that her students did not enter her class as ‘tabulae rasae,’ she has forgotten that incoming freshmen are also not ‘tabulae rasae,’ but rather enter ND with 18 years of socialization with their family, friends, etc. By this I mean simply that it is somewhat absurd to think that the 3 days of frosh-o would trump an individual’s previous 18 years of experience forming friendships and morph the bonds of friendship into “wanting to be wanted by men.” My evidence lies in own account, which expresses her desire to form friendships with “the women I would be living with for the next four years. They were the people with whom I wanted to start building relationships.” I don’t want to overstep my bounds here, but I presume that after frosh-o Sarah stayed true to her own desires and formed friendships with other like-minded women in her dorm while avoiding forming friendships based on “wanting to be wanted by men.”

    1. Tim, I’ll say that I employ the term “rape culture” to apply much more broadly than at Notre Dame. In sum, that term signifies large swathes of society that either promote or at least enable the attitude then men have de facto some kind of right to women’s bodies. So it’s a specific but, in my opinion, pervasive, manifestation of sexism. I appreciate that you are asking honestly about this, but since the comments thread for a blog is limited, it might help for you to do some digging yourself into this term. One article that might be worth a read is Catharine MacKinnon’s “Rape: On Coercion and Consent.” The info for the book this article is in is the following: Conboy, Katie, et al, eds. Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1997. I don’t think this article explicitly employs the term “rape culture,” but that’s what she’s describing.

      In my post, I mentioned something like “the parameters of Notre Dame’s rape culture.” That’s something I am actually trying to sort out, and, really, I think we’re all trying to figure out how rape culture rears its ugly head at Notre Dame. I gave some initial beginnings of an answer to that question, but we’re nowhere near done. But you’d first have to have some facility with the term before you can start asking about how it manifests at Notre Dame.

      Regarding the RA’s comment, all I can say here is that, yes, I have many more examples of things like that said by people in positions of relative power at ND. For the sake of my students’ privacy, though, I can’t get into more detail. But suffice it to say that I picked that quote and went out of my way to get permission to use it because I thought it really captured what I was hearing from my 60+ students. That doesn’t mean that that is the ONLY kind of thing that goes on at ND — I know some really fantastic RA’s doing great work — but my students’ stories suggested to me that this kind of thing is a significant enough occurrence here to merit further exploration.

      I actually did have some straight white men in class and they were really wonderful students. I heard from some of them at least once that they were trying to distance themselves from any of their friends who belittled feminist concerns or made fun of women as a habit…which meant that that was going on in a systematic way in certain social circles.

      I never implied that students weren’t already socialized into (problematic or healthy) gender relations before Frosh-O. That is irrelevant to the message that I argued was being carried out by the leaders of Sarah’s Frosh-O. That doesn’t make what happened less wrong.

      Lastly, I would agree with you that you don’t take these things as seriously as others do. Perhaps you just aren’t sensitized in the same way to these dynamics and that might be something you need to work on (I don’t know you though and am just going based on how you said you received certain social practices at ND). For my own part, I have to take seriously the humiliation that many of my students –and many of the commenters — said that they endured at these kinds of events (which extended beyond Frosh-O but which I did not have time or space to write about more fully).

      As a general policy I don’t write back more than once to commenters, so if you continue to write on this thread, perhaps some of the other readers can engage with you.

  14. This is an excellent article. I attended school there many years ago and have a daughter who recently graduated. Both of us learned early on to steer clear of of the ND/SMC social scene. My daughter was an RA on campus during the Lizzy Seeburg tragedy and she was absolutely horrified by the situation. Kudos to you for beginning an essential and important dialogue that this college community needs. It is time for the rest of the world to know what life is really like at ND.

  15. I want to push back a bit on the way ND’s single-sex dorm system functions. You state, “Presumably, single-sex dorms are meant to encourage a sense of sisterhood and brotherhood among students. Perhaps there is a real fostering of authentic same-sex friendships (which seems absolutely crucial, especially for women), but I think it’s interesting to note that, at least at ND, that doesn’t seem to occur apart from being socialized as a group to want members of the opposite sex in an active and notable way. The message to these women was: if you want friends, you better bond over wanting to be wanted by men.”

    There are definite draw-backs to ND’s single-sex dorm system, but there are also incredible advantages. Speaking just from my own experience, I learned more about friendship during my four years living in an ND dorm then I did in any other time period of my life. I also (and again, I know only ND, so I could be wrong about this), ND’s single-sex dorm system seems vastly superior to the single-sex/sex-segregated Greek system that predominates at many other colleges and universities.

    I think it also important to remember that, even though ND students are only required to stay on campus for their freshmen year, the vast majority choose to stay in their dorm through their junior year and then about half stay on through their senior year.

    The problematic aspects of certain dorms’ frosh-o experience are definitely worth getting angry over and calling attention to, but, at least in my experience, I do not think the take-away from my frosh-o experience in particular or my dorm experience in general was “if you want friends, you better bond over wanting to be wanted by men.” My dorm def did “heterosexist” mixers with men’s dorms…but we also did mixers with women’s dorms. I could also point to the experience of dorm mass…something to which men were certainly invited but not at all the point…dorm mass was one of the most binding and foundational parts of my (and many of my dormmates’ experiences). Inter-hall athletics were also a HUGE part of dorm life…one year in particular, my dorm’s all woman flag football team was extremely good…most of the dorm would turn out on a regular basis to cheer them on. Most of the social life in my dorm, did not revolve around men. In my experience, I just do not think it is at all accurate to say that ND produces a culture that tells its women “if you want friends, you better bond over wanting to be wanted by men.”

    And, while I think the exclusion of gay people from any community’s social or institutional life is unjust and unloving, I don’t think it necessarily wrong that one of the many things women (most of whom are heterosexual) bond over is their attraction to men. I’m also curious as to how you are defining “heterosexism?” How do you see it being different from sexism? Are you defining heterosexism here as the cultural presumption that most people will be actively heterosexual? Or does it more have to do with the oppression of gay people?

    In terms of men’s dorms being allowed to do things women’s dorms aren’t. I think it is important to remember that, at ND, the people in charge of enforcing the rules at women’s dorms are the RAs (all women), the Assistant Rectors (also all women), and the Rectress (also a woman). I think a more interesting question to ask is, if it is in fact true that parietals-breaking gets punished more severely at women’s dorms than at men’s, why it is that women have internalized these rules and feel more committed to them than men do?

    And finally, there are definite problems to ND’s sexually conservative ethos. I also believe there are strengths, especially as compared to the more sexually liberal ethos promoted at state schools that my high school friends attended. To a certain extent, I think ND’s institutional and cultural disapproval of full on casual intercourse may also tend to mitigate the damage done by the dangerous combination of binge-drinking and hook-ups that prevails pretty much everywhere.

    As a follow up, I would be interested in running a comparison between both frequency of sexual assault at ND versus other similar Catholic schools and bt ND and let’s say a state school. I have no clue what the results would show, but I think that would be a place to start at to assess and then analyze the various strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to sex and gender.

    1. Hey Katie, thanks for adding to the conversation from your own experience. I admit that there are limits to what I can say since I didn’t do undergrad at ND, but I was just writing from the perceptions that I noticed from the bulk of my 60+ students. I am glad to know that there are conscientious people like you who found that kind of system healthy and life-giving in the fostering of same-sex friendships, and that needs to be added to the story we are trying to tell here.

      For myself, I’m not sure I’m against single-sex dorms exactly, though I might have a preference for having mixed-sex dorms where there are single-sex suits (which is what I had and liked in undergrad). Maybe there can be single-sex dorms AND mixed sex dorms. I also don’t know what I think about parietals either; based on what I heard it doesn’t seem like they are helping the university accomplish its objective of instilling and reinforcing virtuous sexual morality among the undergrads, though I would be open to hearing what others think about that.

      As to the other questions you raised, I’m going to let those be open for now and see if other people who either went to ND or who work at ND can weigh in.

  16. This brought me back to the one Frosh-O activity I attended when I was a freshman at SMC in the 90s: The Graffiti Dance, which wasn’t a dance at all but a gathering of “boys and girls” wearing white t-shirts. The point was to write your phone number on the t-shirts of the opposite sex.

    Before walking over to the ND campus together, we were coached to have the guys use OUR markers to write their phone numbers on our shirts: a green marker for “Good” (i.e. boys we wanted to call) and a blue marker for “Bad” (i.e. boys we weren’t interested in). We were told the guys had similar systems. It was weird and awkward and uncomfortable, although I admit that I laughed when, years later, I re-discovered my shirt and saw that one of my gay male friends had signed it.

    Also, before Zuckerberg’s Facebook, there was the freshman “Dogbook”—a registry of ND and SMC incoming freshmen. A lot of “dogbooking” happened, whereby male students would randomly call up hot girls from the book and ask them to their SYRs (dances). Female students of course did it too, but not to the same extent, I think.

    Thankfully I was in marching band and got to miss out on the lame Frosh-O activities because of the hectic band camp schedule. However, even the marching band had its gender relations issues and stereotypes: The piccolos and clarinet players were sluts who tried to date all the men in band. We even had a cheer that we would chant to one of the drum cadences: “Piccolos…dirty hoes…”

    Being young and naive I didn’t think too much about any of it at the time. Years later, with more experience under my belt, and in light of the present discussion, I cringe.

    That said: I have way more positive memories than negative from my time at SMC. Granted, the experience at an all-woman’s college is bound to be different, but I felt so supported and encouraged and empowered by the faculty and staff. It really was a home away from home and it still feels that way. I made life-long friends—both male and female—during my college years. It wasn’t perfect, and I would hope to do some things differently if I could go back and do it all over again, but I have never wished to trade it for any other college experience.

  17. In response to “the unfair allotment of punishment for breaking parietals: men tended to be given a slap on the wrist (but also a wink and a nod) for having women in their dorm rooms at night, and women tended to experience much more severe consequences for having men in their dorms at night (wink and nod notably absent)”…

    When I was a sophomore at ND a few years ago, a friend and I were hanging out with a guy friend in his dorm room. Before we knew it, it was past midnight (gasp) and we realized we had to leave. On our way down the hallway, the Resident Assistant of the section yelled from his room, “________ (insert boy’s name), hurry that bitch up!” It was incredibly embarrassing for all 3 of us involved.

  18. I agree with the author that frosh-o at Notre Dame is problematic in socializing students to their undergraduate experience. Considering that the point of frosh-o is to orient students to the college, what kind of message are we sending to freshman when we choose to have heteronormative and embarrassing interactions be the activities through which we do the orienting?
    By the definition of orientation, are we not telling students that this is what they should expect out of the next four years?

    During my frosh-o on of the male dorms had its new freshman stand by the frozen yogurt machine in the dining hall and slap bowls out of girl’s hands when they went up to get some dessert. They were told that if they were doing the women a “favor” by conditioning them to not get dessert.

    That type of behavior has no place on a college campus in the twenty-first century.

  19. Wow, I’m a bit shocked by the descriptions of freshman orientation at Notre Dame. Slip and Slide Twister, making people sing suggestive songs at people of the opposite sex, making people write their names on people of the opposite sex’s t-shirts.

    I went to the University of Michigan. None of this would ever have been allowed at UofM orientation. UofM orientation is, if anything, a little heavy-handed on the subjects of how not to offend or insult others and all the bad things that will happen to you if you do.

    In the matter of respect for the dignity of the human person, the secular world is megaparsecs ahead of the Church. Especially female human persons.

  20. Like The Learned Cat, I’m rather shocked at the description of Notre Dame’s freshman orientation. Honestly, it sounds like institutionalized sexual harassment.

    I went to U.C. Berkeley, and these activities definitely wouldn’t have been allowed there for orientation. Perhaps part of the problem is the single-sex nature of the dorms at Notre Dame? The dorms I lived in were co-ed (floors were co-ed, rooms were single-sex; the bathroom was co-ed).

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