September 06, 2016
The campus of the University of Pennsylvania was plastered with hundreds of fliers on Tuesday morning after a disturbing email addressed to "ladies" stirred a group of students to expose a flagrant example of predatory sexism.
On August 31, an email with the subject line "Wild Wednesday" was sent to an undisclosed list of recipients and contained a poem that openly encouraged promiscuous behavior and skimpy attire at an upcoming party, The Daily Pennsylvanian first reported.
One freshman who received the email passed it along to junior Amanda Silberling, who organized a group of students to print and distribute the fliers on campus. They were taped to the campus' iconic "LOVE" statue and elsewhere on bulletin boards to demonstrate what they felt was a culture that targets vulnerable freshman girls.
"It's the second week of classes, so a lot of the frats on campus try to throw as many parties as they can," Silberling told PhillyVoice. "Sometimes their tactics for getting people to go to these parties can be really aggressive. In this case, a frat sent an email to incoming freshman girls. We don't know how they got the list."
At first, Silberling said, she and a group of peers considered sending feminist literature to the account that sent the email. A redacted street address was also included in the email.
"Then we decided, why not make this public?" Silberling said. "People occasionally do mass protests like this on campus, so that's where we got the idea. We've since learned that similar emails have been sent to freshman girls in the past."
The issue itself is not exactly a revelation at Penn's campus or at campuses around the country.
Last year, a national poll conducted by the American Association of Universities found that nearly a third of women at Penn allegedly experienced sexual assault, yet the majority of them did not report the incidents because they felt their stories weren't sufficiently "serious" or "important."
The same poll, which encompassed 27 universities, also found that 27 percent of female Penn undergrads had allegedly been victims of "nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching involving physical force or incapacitation" since the start of their college education.
Despite this high incidence of alleged sexual misconduct, just 30.7 percent of those women polled reported the incidents by their senior years. And only 4.1 percent of all participating students at Penn — men and women — said they believe sexual assault or misconduct is a problem at the university. The poll's response rate of 19 percent was lower than comparable surveys and may suggest that those who didn't participate are less likely than others to report victimization.
"I think sometimes these things will happen to women and they feel it's something they have to deal with and can't speak up about," Silberling said. "There might be a fear of retaliation. Even with the fliers, we had to make a choice about whose names would appear. I chose to stand up."
"I think we're all just really tired of talking about how rape culture is a problem, but not making sure that the people who perpetuate it know it's not okay. We want the people who are victimized to know that there are people who care about them." – Amanda Silberling, Penn junior
Silberling believes that part of what causes the imbalance on campus is that after orientation, it's both accepted and anticipated that fraternities with longstanding traditions will throw big parties. It's the design and rules of these parties that she and her peers find disturbing.
"They serve this jungle juice to get drunk and get people drunk — you really have no idea what's in it — and then try to pressure people into sex," Silberling said. "There's a 'ratio' of women that many frats require for groups coming to their parties. Things like that don't often reach the public. They want their pick of women and it's just an assumed practice. Consent is expected."
Penn has recently dedicated new resources to students who are going through personal challenges. In addition to the Counseling and Psychological Services Office, the university granted an $8,000 annual budget to the Penn Wellness student group, which works to address issues that have placed a stigma on the institution, including mental health and suicide, sexual harassment and assault and academic overload.
Silberling singled out the Penn CAPS' talking point about the "Penn Face" myth, an overwhelming belief on campus that everyone has to be happy, successful and well-adjusted across all areas of life at all times.
"There's a feeling that you have to act as though you have everything under control, but in reality you're in your teens or in your early 20s trying to make a transition on your own, in a big city, at a highly competitive university," Silberling said.
Given Penn's high-profile status, tragic stories such as the death of Madison Holleran tend to assume an outsized quality that magnifies an extreme example of the effects of this pressure. It can be difficult for top-flight students to see this as a reflection of their culture rather than a devastating event in their community.
"We're aware that 'it's OK to not be OK' sometimes," Silberling says. "I feel like as a campus we're beyond that now. What's the next step to really eradicate that culture? There's a difference between acknowledging an issue and acting on an issue. That goes for both 'Penn Safe' and the issue of campus assault."
A call to Penn CAPS to discuss the email and the appearance of the fliers on campus was not immediately returned Tuesday morning. The university's communications office, reached late Tuesday afternoon, issued the following statement.
"The text of the email was offensive and has no place at Penn. As the University has made clear in its policies and protocols, sexual harassment and sexual assault are unacceptable and will not be tolerated on campus. Challenging offensive speech, as these students did, is important and wholly consistent with the University’s ongoing efforts and the national conversation about preventing and responding to sexual misconduct."
The next step, at Penn and elsewhere, is hard to define. It's assumed that young adult college students will throw parties, they're going to voluntarily drink alcohol and they're going to have consensual sex. That will be the case among fraternities, sororities and students who socialize outside the Greek system.
"That's inevitable," Silberling said. "In terms of sexual things, though, people should be overt about the importance of consent and recognizing when decision-making is compromised. We have to acknowledge that these things happen so that we can stop lying to ourselves and have genuine relationships on campus."
It's crystal clear that the language used in the email to freshman girls crossed a line. Even a facetious read of the poem — Silberling herself is a published poet, and this was just terrible — should leave an observer deeply uncomfortable with the context of its distribution to (at this point) mostly complete strangers. It was very poor judgment, at best, and sends the kind of message that could stifle the development of healthy social environments on and around campus. Why shouldn't freshman women now raise their suspicion of otherwise upstanding young men at Penn?
"We want freshman girls to know that there is strength in numbers. Upperclassmen are looking out for them," Silberling said. "We want to do what we can to fight back against all of the really harmful behavior that we've seen in our years on campus. These are issues that existed long before our generation, when our parents were in college. I think we're all just really tired of talking about how rape culture is a problem, but not making sure that the people who perpetuate it know it's not OK.
"We want the people who are victimized to know that there are people who care about them."