When people ask me how I can live in a suite with four guys, I generally just point to the sign on my door that reads: “Not My Circus, Not My… Oh Crap, Those Are My Monkeys.” I stumbled across it on Instagram my first year, and it has come to almost perfectly describe how I feel living in my suite.
My suitemates are like my brothers, and we’ve been close for the past three and a half years. I’m accustomed to a certain degree of “bro talk,” and a majority of the time I find their antics amusing and relatively inoffensive. But in light of the recent national conversation about sexual assault and the devaluation of women in the media, I’ve noticed that my tolerance for this kind of talk—which, admittedly, was absurdly high to begin with—has begun to decrease. Not because I’ve grown tired of hearing it, or because it no longer has its amusing moments, but because it’s getting difficult for me to reconcile the things I love about my suitemates with the ways in which they perpetuate a culture that is detrimental to my well-being as a woman.
Having these conversations means walking a fine line between making my suitemates feel uncomfortable or even attacked, and trying to make them register my credibility as a woman—not just a girl they have a personal connection to—who deserves a baseline of respect.
Looking at the outrage surrounding the wrestling team scandal two years ago, I remember struggling to discuss the event with my male friends. Part of me did feel as though the leaking of the messages had gone down in a particularly unfair way, but at the same time, hearing my friends express their outrage in a “boys will be boys” manner was incredibly frustrating. The same guys who have heckled people out of bars on my behalf for making rude comments or unwanted advances were defending guys making the very same comments.
At one point, things got too heated, and I gave up because I couldn’t find a way to get through to them. It felt like we should be able to discuss these issues as rational, adult-ish friends, but we couldn’t seem to connect on any middle ground, for neither side could view it completely objectively. In response to the scandal, I wanted to shout that yes, there is a basic expectation that the stupid things you say in private chats shouldn’t be broadcast to the entire world. But to quote a multitude of clichés in one go: You are the person you are when no one is looking. If these are the behaviors that go on behind closed doors, can you blame girls for being worried about letting the door lock behind them in your single?
Trying to navigate this territory often leads to my not being taken completely seriously. I either tire of debating a topic when progress isn’t being made or refrain from correcting behavior I don’t see as that bad.
One afternoon, I was walking down Broadway with one of my suitemates. It was just the two of us talking, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to bring up some of the insensitive remarks I’d been hearing lately and gently remind him how such comments disrespect women. He seemed to understand my perspective and has since amended his actions. But what concerned me was the fact that the very same night, as a group of us were out in bars, he and some others began joking about being men who “respect women” any time someone was called out for doing something rude. This joke came from a discomfort about being called out, yet it was still incredibly frustrating to see a friend take my words, seemingly understand them, then, almost unconsciously, use them to perpetuate the problem.
Despite their faults, when people make comments about my suitemates, I am usually the first to defend them. When I see the national conversation surrounding assault and the seemingly sudden regression of respect for women in society, my instinct is not to immediately denounce the patriarchy or burn a bra; instead I am reminded to look at aspects in my own life where these issues are budding—including within my own suite.
It’s not my job to teach my suitemates or my other male friends all of the intimate details about consent and how to respect women, but sometimes it feels like if I don’t say something, no one else will. The fact that the emotional labor of teaching male peers about consent and respect too often falls on women does not make me want to step away in protest—rather, it makes me realize that I need to engage with this conversation to create a space for myself in a society where that space feels like it is actively shrinking.
What we see in the media now foreshadows what we can expect to see in the future. Young men across the nation are being told that it doesn't matter what they do when they’re 16, 17, or 18 because they won’t be held accountable for it. Young women are being told that there is a certain time span in which our experiences “count.” These messages are incredibly dangerous, and right now, it seems like it’s up to our generation to combat them. Our classmates and suitemates will be the future leaders of this country. I don’t ever want to see their faces up on the news with a ticker of condemnations running on the screen below them, describing behavior that could have been eliminated earlier had we been able to have open, objective, productive conversations.
We all have our “monkeys”; we all have male friends and family members in our lives who we love and who we want to see as their best selves. These conversations are difficult, and fraught with tension, and I know that I do not navigate this territory perfectly. Even if the emotional labor is a strain and even if we can’t always be perfect in our execution of these conversations, they are still worth it. Not to chastise or accuse, but to hold all of us accountable.
Sarah Fornshell is a senior at Columbia College majoring in English and theoretically minoring in history. She would really appreciate it if her suitemates would wash her spoons in a timely manner, as she had to stir her coffee with a fork this morning. She is a member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority and a former deputy editorial page editor for columns. I Do Indeed Give A F*** About The Oxford Comma runs alternate Tuesdays.
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