12/12/2014 06:29 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

At Tiger Inn, Women Are the Punch Line


Co-authored with Rachel Poser, Princeton 2011.

What do Ivy members and tampons have in common?

That was the question printed on t-shirts designed by my eating club, the Tiger Inn, in honor of the TI-Ivy Olympics my senior year. The answer, though not written on the shirts, was:

Both are stuck-up cunts.

Olympics shirts made by the two rivals tend to rib jovially about club stereotypes -- TI is full of meatheads, Ivy is full of snobs, at least we're not in Cottage -- nothing too serious or pointed, so I was surprised when I heard the plan for that year's design. Cunt is not just vulgar term; it is a sexist term. Calling a woman a cunt is a way to dismiss her agency and individuality by reducing her to her gender. The shirt was supposed to make fun of Ivy members, so why did I feel like I was the punch line?

I brought my concerns to the officers. I questioned their decision-making process and explained why I felt that cunt was a derogatory term that reflected poorly on the club. I pointed out that they would never imagine using a racial slur as a punch line. In response, I was told that I was being insensitive for drawing a parallel between the black and female struggles for equality. The shirts weren't going to change. I was told that I should lighten up, that I shouldn't take it too seriously -- after all, it's just a joke.

It was meant as a joke. I don't think the officers, who remain my close friends, or the membership intended to demean women with those shirts. But they should have taken my concerns more seriously. What began as an ignorant and tasteless joke became a real problem when, after hearing a woman's perspective, they then displayed a willful lack of empathy and understanding.

Only about 10 TI members -- all women as far as I can remember -- refused to wear the shirt on the day of the Olympics. Most members slipped them on without a second thought. During the following bicker cycle, the first anonymous joke that was read out to the assembled members went: "What do Ivy members, tampons, and Alex Scheeler have in common?

I was motivated to write about this experience after reading about the far more troubling emails from former TI officers Adam Krop and Andrew Hoffenberg excerpted in The New York Times on December 1st. I am encouraged to hear that they have been removed from their positions, but I want to make clear that this is not a case of a few bad actors in an otherwise functional system. A fundamental change must take place in the club's culture.

A culture that is demeaning to women can exist without anyone maliciously intending to demean women. It happens when female voices are ignored, ridiculed, and told repeatedly that "it's just a joke." It happens when club-wide emails bemoan the burden of gender equality and encourage members to boo Sally Frank. Women shouldn't be a punch line, and I don't want TI to be a punch line when we talk about sexism at Princeton.

I am not advocating a politically correct police state. I joined TI for its rowdy, laid-back atmosphere and I want to preserve that sense of irreverence, but sexism cannot be its essential ingredient. Suits and Sluts, Cowboys and Sluts, Fifteenth-Century AD Ottoman Aristocrats and Sluts -- this trope is tired and lame as well as sexist. We need to recognize that when jokes repeatedly and consistently mark women as second-class members, they are no longer funny.

I loved my time at TI. I hope current and former members understand that my intention is not to shame the club, but to encourage members to speak up and advocate for an inclusive and affirming community, rather than shrugging off recent events as jokes or isolated incidents. Electing a female president would be a great place to start.