They needed girls.
It was such a natural statement, such a normal predicament. And easily solved.
It was the first night of NSO, and as my roommate and I stepped outside the quad, our night’s plans were quickly determined. Guys were sweeping the streets outside the dorms – “Are you bored? We need girls.” – picking up female students to add to their growing masses on the way to the frats. They couldn’t get in without us; it was all about the ratio.
I was intrigued, not by the fact that they needed more girls – what’s a party without heterosexual interaction and the prospect of hooking up? – but by the nonchalance of such a statement. The guys said it, the girls laughed, and the party began.
That night went pretty much as I’d expected. We stayed at the party for less than five minutes and headed back to the dorm with snacks. I didn’t think about the ratio again until a few weeks later as we were watching Broadchurch.
For those who aren’t familiar, which seems to be most people with the exception of the British student on my hall, Broadchurch is a British mystery show set in a small town in rural England. The third and final season follows the rape of a middle-aged woman, Trish Winterman, on the night of her best friend’s 50th birthday party.
As the investigation unravels and secrets are exposed, no man remains innocent. Every suspect, rapist or not, is guilty of some form of behavior demeaning to women. One suspect repeatedly cheats on his wife; two suspects plaster half-naked photos of models on their garage walls. Sexual innuendos, young boys sneaking porn on their phones, and subtle disrespect directed at the female investigating officer over her male superior all contribute to the fictional yet disturbingly realistic society in which women are inferior.
By the end, the show’s message is clear. Sexual assault is not an isolated crime, committed singularly and uncontrollably by inherently bad people. It is the unsurprising culmination of smaller, seemingly unimportant events that normalize sexism in a misogynistic society.
Though I’d watched this season of Broadchurch before, rewatching it once at college, having experienced the filtering of female students into frats, reframed and amplified its importance. These parties, though popular and effective means to relieve stress, enjoy college life, and meet new people, are very naturally accepted ways to facilitate hooking up for heterosexual male students.
This isn’t to say that the only reason why guys attend these parties is to meet girls, or that hookup culture is driven only by men and is automatically harmful to female students. But the herding of women into these parties as incentives and attractions encourages the objectification of female students. Further, in a society which continually disrespects women and often fails to teach young men to respect women, at a school where as of 2015, 27% of female students reported sexual assault, this social scene built on a hookup scheme created and controlled by boys can easily foster a sense of entitlement. And in a dark, cramped space with little room left for consent, that sexual expectation is one drunken step away from being a crime.
We’re told, through freshman assemblies, student protests, newspaper articles, and club discussions, that consent is important and sexual assault needs to stop. Yet on Friday night when students flood the frats, guys hunt down girls to help get them in, attractive female students are selected for entry over their male friends, frat boys exchange sexual favors for admission, and few students challenge the role of this hookup design in enabling female objectification and sexual assault. Broadchurch urges us to look closer. We cannot afford to overlook social norms that contribute to rape culture, no matter how accepted they are.
So what’s the solution? It’s not a crime to want to hook up, and frat parties, despite recent attempts at regulation, aren’t going anywhere soon. But closer reflection and honest conversations about the impacts of our accepted actions will help more people to realize that sexual assault is everybody’s issue, that it is deeply rooted in a system of normalized sexism and female objectification. Specifically, acknowledging that the design of many parties, while not immediately dangerous, can act as a prerequisite to sexual assault, could make more students aware of their attitudes and expectations as they enter the party.
Yet talking and thinking, however important, won’t solve everything. Sexual harassment persists unnoticed because victims are continually blamed and silenced, and the crimes of men in power – Trump, Cosby, Weinstein, to name a few – go unchallenged. As we begin to speak out more, the solution also relies on actively uprooting the most basicly accepted parts of our culture that perpetuate the objectification of women.
With respect to college party culture in particular, the Panhellenic ban on alcohol in sorority parties deserves more attention from universities. A product of a more conservative time, the organization’s rule against substances at sorority parties is one of the reasons why frat parties and frat boys are given so much power in college social life. In broader society, female representation in the films and television shows we’re constantly streaming also have immense influence over the ways we perceive gender. Depictions of sexual assault on screen should be impactful and eye-opening, not purely shocking. One way to spur improvement is through more shows like Broadchurch, from which we are able to more fully grasp how sexual assault and sexism are rooted in our culture and how we can disrupt the patriarchy.