The story of the Harvard men’s soccer team “scouting report” is starting to be lost in the laundry of election think pieces and holiday gift guides. The athletic team in question has been punished via cancelling their winning season, and the women they targeted responded with a strong and classy piece in The Harvard Crimson. It would seem like this story is done, and we have bigger fish to fry.
But I’ve heard some push back about Harvard’s handling of the matter. The biggest point seems to be that men are born to sexually objectify, and expecting anything more, even at one of our most prestigious universities, is unreasonable and oversensitive. And because it is natural for men not to consider women fully human, it is women’s responsibility to understand and accept that they simply never will be. In fact, rating women is a complement and how men express attraction.
Before I start dissecting this owl pellet of an argument, let’s get some things out of the way. The men’s soccer team did not gossip amongst themselves in a locker room; they made a public Google document for the explicit purpose of rating women for several years running and lied about it, which violated Harvard’s code of conduct in a couple ways. They were not punished for wanting to have sex with fellow athletes. Also, yes, women can be gross, sexist assholes, any demographic can be, but that doesn’t excuse the men who are gross, sexist assholes.
First of all, objectification is not a complement and having rampant pants feelings for someone does not mean you are objectifying them. Objectification means that you treat someone like something. That’s really at the heart of ranking women on a 1-10 scale or only valuing them as sexual commodities. It’s about the failure to realize that women are nuanced people and not sex decorations. It’s incredibly frustrating to not be taken seriously whether it’s a job interview, arguing a point, or describing your goals because those around you are deciding whether or not you’re fuckable instead of listening.
Now, one instance of objectification does not make women fall to the ground and gnash their teeth. But being continually exposed to an environment where your looks never not matter, in fact, you’re often told your looks are the most important thing about you, and having that environment be normal, your stasis, sucks. You don’t get to leave your body somewhere when you don’t want to deal with this shit. In order to process and engage in this kind of environment, you need to self-objectify. Your body is always with you, but stops being of you. Self-objectification leads to a kind of disassociation of self; looking in the mirror is not a first-person act, but third-person-limited: “How do other people think I look?”
In a 2007 American Psychological Association (APA) report on the sexualization of girls, they found self-objectification to increase the likelihood of depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem, poor sexual health, and more. Plus all that self-monitoring uses a lot of brain RAM that could go towards other things. The report provides additional nuance about age appropriateness, different demographics, and personal choice, but the overall conclusions aren’t great.
Saying that women just need to accept that this as their lot in life is bullshit, even if men mentally breaking them down to their component parts and laughing or jerking off is as natural as breathing. Which, of course, it isn’t, not even for guys who love having sex with women. Frankly, that kind of assumption about men is also bullshit.
The thing is, while men are less likely to self-objectify or be only valued sexually, they don’t escape unscathed. Talking about women, sex, and yes, objectifying women is often a male bonding thing. It reinforces who’s in the group and who can’t hack it. It also makes an environment that’s hostile to gay men, transmen, and straight guys who love having sex with women and hate trash talking them. But the more you engage in the behavior to fit in, the harder it is to shake off the ideology.
It’s a strange thing to assume men lose nothing when they treat women one dimensionally, and I’ve written about it before. You miss out on what half the human race has to offer if you think the only thing they have to offer is eye candy or sexual favors. You also miss out in real relationships, too.
People generally have a pretty good idea what you think of them, even if you don’t use “lewd language” in their presence. If you don’t see someone as fully human, they will not trust you. They may care about you, laugh at your jokes, and even love you, but they also understand that it is not safe to put complete faith in you. They will not share what they really think because it is not welcome. It is so much easier to coddle and soothe someone who generally means well but does harm anyway. It’s incredibly condescending, but often effective. *
Looking into how the women’s soccer team responded to the “scouting report,” it is telling that before significant media attention many female players considered the behavior of the men’s team to be repugnant, but ultimately normal and not worth dwelling on. Even though they considered many of the male players close friends. The betrayal hurt, but it wasn’t surprising, and that’s probably the worst part. Seeing a friend laugh that you’re “STD ridden” and responding with a shrug because what can you expect from guys?
So, what do we do about this? Harvard’s director of athletics said, “These things exist in our society. Society hasn’t figured out a way to stop these things from happening.” While true, one would hope for something more concrete.
The best I have to offer is that everyone needs to challenge this idea of normal. It shouldn’t be normal to assume men are animals, and it shouldn’t be normal to assume women’s worth can be judged on a 1-10 scale. We need to make people uncomfortable because it’s not an easy thing to talk about. But are we really comfortable with the way things are now?
* I’m indebted Melissa McEwan’s thoughts on this matter in her essay, “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck.”