Sexploitation

Harvard students hold many social events on campus, and there is a lot of competition between us to organize fun and well-attended parties. We try to make the flashiest poster and the catchiest name. Every Monday and Thursday, we compete with other student-group representatives to promote our events, hoping to make our advertisement the most iconic image on campus for the week. However, it seems that, despite all the energy spent in event publicity, we put too little thought into the kinds of images and words that we use and how they affect the entire Harvard culture.

A recent case in point is the “Get Lucky” poster, advertising a party that was supposed to happen shortly before spring break. The image of a silhouette of a naked, curvaceous woman with a cowboy hat was shocking. We were surprised that our fellow students could portray women in such a demeaning, objectifying way. Who could this naked woman be but a party attendee, just another Harvard student?

Furthermore, the strategically placed shamrock, serving as a target, left no question as to what “Get Lucky” really means. In order to make their advertisements for this party noticeable, the students who made the poster (and many others of all genders) have unintentionally crossed the line from objectification to using images and phrases that may encourage, normalize, and undermine the seriousness of sexual violence. This trend begs the questions: How can it be acceptable to use this kind of imagery? What are we saying about how we view and value each other?

The “Get Lucky” poster is merely a symptom of an endemic problem. Other publicity materials recently seen around campus include boasts about “dead hookers” as a sign of a House’s appeal, not-so-subtle references to oral sex as a form of humiliation, and casual use of oft-derogatory terms like “whore” and “pussy.” It has become normal practice for student organizations and House Committees to use images and language that objectify women as sexual objects in order to promote their social events and groups.

While the Radcliffe Union of Students is a sex-positive organization partially devoted to disseminating information about female sexuality, we find it troubling that the campus climate of late seems to include normalization of female objectification. Because objectification of potential sex partners (often women) is often a prerequisite for sexual violence, imagery and phrasing that objectify women contribute to a culture in which rape and other forms of sexual assault are accepted. In addition, people who have already experienced sexual violence may be triggered or particularly disturbed by thoughtless, insensitive publicity materials.

Student leaders who are planning such publicity as well as student group advisers and administrators should think about the kinds of messages they transmit about their parties and organizations. While most have good intentions, there should be greater consideration for the gendered expectations that are created as well as the general culture of accepted practices and ways of treating each other that the use of such images and phrases promotes. The ways in which we portray one another and our ideals of “man” or “woman” are set not only in the context of Harvard but also in a larger world that too often objectifies and disempowers women without their consent. A little thought would go a long way toward avoiding contributing to this unfortunate reality.

Students, administrators, and all members of the Harvard community should be more aware of the messages that we send in our publicity materials. We all should live up to the responsibilities that we bear, both to our fellow students and as representatives of the Harvard name. There is no excuse for us to exploit any body’s image in this way.


Eva B. Rosenberg ’10, a women, gender, and sexuality concentrator who resides in the Dudley Co-op, and Shani Boianjiu ’11, an English concentrator living in Quincy House, are co-chairs of the Radcliffe Union of Students. Lisa J. Miracchi ’09 is an RUS member and a philosophy concentrator in Pforzheimer House.