By Alicia H. Malnati, PhD, CSPS Research and Design Assistant
I’m going to be a bit more honest here than I probably should be.
A few days ago, I read this statement from the Harvard Women’s Soccer team. As a fellow human being, I encourage you to read it in its entirety. The 951 words are bold and provocative, and I am proud to share their bravery with you.
By now the story is national news, largely because of the consequences delivered earlier this week, but here’s the gist: In what appears to be an annual tradition, members of the men’s soccer team at Harvard produced and circulated a “scouting report” in 2012 that rated incoming recruits to the women’s soccer team based on their perceived sexual appeal and physical attractiveness.
And, before you brush off their vulgar words as insignificant or get annoyed with another story about how women aren’t equal, let me provide you a few excerpts:
“She seems relatively simple and probably inexperienced sexually, so I decided missionary would be her preferred position.”
“She looks like the kind of girl who both likes to dominate, and likes to be dominated.”
“She seems to be very strong, tall and manly so, I gave her a 3 because I felt bad.”
“While some of the scouting report last year was wrong, the overall consensus that [a certain player] was both the hottest and the most STD ridden was confirmed.”
I include their exact words not to spread sexually explicit comments about women across the Internet but instead to highlight the extent to which these young men feel ownership over women’s bodies and women’s lives. Their words are painful, degrading, and outright disgusting. Their attitude reinforces to our collective conscience that women ought to submit to men.
Unfortunately, this situation is familiar. “As if we weren’t surprised men had spoken of us inappropriately,” the women stated. Hearing another story about men disrespecting women, comparing them to sexual ideals, or feeling “entitled to bodies that aren’t theirs” feels strikingly normal. Somewhere deep down in your gut, it probably feels normal to you too.
This normative language deprives women of dignity and respect. We all know that. But it also dehumanizes them, reduces them to objects of use for others. And, when we learn that it’s okay to comment on and joke about women with words that undermine their worth, our standard for how we act toward them is a little bit lower too.
You see, research shows that historically, “The introduction of humanizing language has generally preceded humanizing changes in societal behavior,” meaning that we must first speak about women with respect before we will treat them with respect. Our words and actions are inextricably linked.
In a thick case of irony, I’m in Washington D.C., not for the historic election we’ll all see on Tuesday, but to implement an initiative that aims to empower women and girls through sports. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and espnW, the Global Sports Mentoring Program brings together women from around the world and empowers them to use sport as a way to address important issues in their community. Access to sports, gender expectations, lack of role models, underserved youth, low levels of education, you name it.
This week I’ll hear this year’s participants, 16 women from 13 countries, describe their vision for change, undoubtedly my favorite part of the program. They’ll use their words, their voice, their bravery to challenge dominant narratives in their home country, dominant narratives we’ve all seen in our own country.
Their words matter because change is painfully and agonizingly slow. As the Harvard women stated, “More than anything, we are frustrated that this is a reality that all women have faced in the past and will continue to face throughout their lives.” So, tomorrow I’ll hear from 16 incredible women working to do something about it. Tomorrow I’ll hear plans of action to create spaces where women are valued and uplifted, where women’s contributions are remembered, where a new culture of men and women can work together to address issues we all know exist. And, with our support and the support of those at home, they’ll find the courage to actually do something about it.
I’m exactly where I need to be.