I used to get really offended, back in college. It was totally uncool. I know, because everyone told me how uncool it was. It was embarrassing. I couldn’t control it, and it made me feel weak.
There was this guy, let’s call him Tim, who used to tease me incessantly. Later, I slept with him, so I guess it paid off. Back then, freshman year, he used to tease me every day at lunch, in the dining hall. He’d say, “Bake me a pie, woman!” and grin at me. I had made the mistake of identifying myself immediately as a feminist, and he wouldn’t leave that alone. He had all these feminist jokes.
But most of all, he would bring this newspaper to lunch, and he’d read aloud from it sometimes. The newspaper was the creation of some guys on campus. I don’t know who. It was a publication by guys for guys, but it was everywhere on campus. In the student center in a stack, lying on the buses. I would look away when I saw it. I’d push it onto the next seat over, on the bus. Even the covers offended me. I couldn’t believe it had been published. I couldn’t believe it was allowed.
There were always pictures of naked girls. Drunk naked girls. Naked girls on the toilet. Once I saw a picture over the shoulder of a guy who was reading it. A little person– is that the term? A height-stunted woman, and a guy, with his pants down, at her face level. A triumphant headline. The right height for any girl. Something like that.
The paper had an angry tone. It was supposed to be funny, but it sounded harsh. It sounded like the guys who wrote it didn’t like women. Like women had done something to them and they were trying to get revenge. And it upset me a lot. Who were these guys—these guys who were my age—who were writing this paper? Who were collecting these pictures.
“This isn’t right,” I said, to Tim, and to the other kids at our table. “Someone needs to report this to the dean.”
Freedom of speech, he argued, smirking. We argued and argued. I was practically in tears, of course. It had been reported, anyway, he told me. But nothing had changed. And anyway, I should just laugh it off. It was funny. Those guys were joking around.
Months later, I heard people in my synagogue talking about the paper. Someone had reported an anti-semitic joke in it. Something about pushing a Jew into an oven. Haha.
And I was offended. I was doubly offended, because everyone was upset about the Jewish joke, but no one seemed to notice where the joke had appeared. In a newspaper full of pictures of drunk, naked girls, with ratings above their heads. How drunk would you have to be to— honestly, I don’t want to write it out. What about that? I thought. Did anyone notice that part?
I wrote a piece about the newspaper and turned it in as an assignment. My professor thought I was making stuff up. It couldn’t be that bad!
I didn’t think college was supposed to be like this.
I didn’t think it was supposed to have newspapers like the one that Tim brought to lunch. I had a lot of thoughts about what should be and shouldn’t be. And none of it, as it turned out, was really up to me. I could only choose how to react at lunch.
A couple days ago, I read an article in the New York Times about Yale, and some of the ongoing complaints about what the Times calls “the outburst of raunchy male behavior.”
Frat boys standing in front of the women’s center with a sign that says “We Love Yale Sluts,” and frat boys chanting “no means yes!” and guys rating incoming freshman girls by a similar measure to the one in that newspaper at my own college.
And I started to get offended. And then I thought that whatever, it’s just boys being boys. I thought I should be tougher. I thought that’s just the world. Guys try to prove themselves to each other like that. My brothers talk like that sometimes, and they’re obviously joking, and a lot of this is just joking. And why am I always so damn sensitive.
I have learned some stuff since college. By the end of college, I already knew how uncool it is to be offended. You are supposed to laugh it off. You’re supposed to roll your eyes and move on. You’re supposed to be one of the guys. You’re not supposed to stand out in a bad way. You’re supposed to agree or look away.
And usually, it’s not so bad anyway. Tim had a crush on me—he was just trying to get my attention. I figured that out later on. And then I invited him over, and he was all blushing and nervous. And I’ll never forget this—there was this extremely hot girl who was hanging out with the group, and I had made some comment after she left, like, “Wow, she is so gorgeous,” and he said, looking down, “I like the way you look better.”
I’ll never forget that, because I felt like I could never, ever look as good as that stunning blond girl with the flashing white teeth. Because there is this ranking system in my head often, and I know exactly where I fall. But Tim broke it for a second.
Which is why I slept with him, I think. And also because he was actually nice, underneath, which felt like a victory. He said some awful things, but then he was actually nice! Maybe the world was OK! Maybe those guys who wrote the newspaper were somehow actually nice.
Reading the Yale article, I fight my instincts. I will not be offended.
And then, reading farther in the article, there’s more, of course. There are the cases of sexual assault that have been swept neatly under the rug. The way that colleges always like to sweep such things. And I remember the guy in the dorms who sometimes harassed me in the hall, and described what he’d like to do to me. I remember how sometimes just walking to the dining hall meant walking by a group of guys who would say something—something that sounded cruel. I remember staying in when I had to pee one night because of the guys in the hall who were pounding on the doors, yelling, and who left comments on the door next to mine, where a black girl lived—something horrible and racist and sexist all at once.
I remember the guy who punched a hole in the wall every time he got drunk, so that there were holes everywhere. And how he never got expelled. How none of them ever got expelled. How I knew they would be there all four years, because the university would never take action against them.
And when someone threatened to stab me to death and I reported them to security and the psych center and the dean, I still saw that person regularly around campus, after.
I remember reading statistics about rape on campus somewhere, and then somewhere else. Those numbers were so high. And I remember being in a class where the professor asked who thought a girl wearing tight, revealing clothes was “asking for it” and almost everyone raised a hand. As though they were too oblivious to even pretend not to be a part of a statistic about what people really think about things.
And I don’t think it’s great to go through life getting offended by everything you encounter. I think sometimes you really need to just laugh it off.
But sometimes you’re getting offended for a good reason. And if enough people get offended, maybe we’ll stop universities from protecting the wrong people and leaving the people they’ve wronged vulnerable. Maybe we’ll stop pretending that everyone is safe in college. And that college is always an environment where intellectualism reigns supreme.
The guys who wrote the newspaper weren’t necessarily the same guys who yelled things at me in the hall or pinned the enormous sign on the bridge to the women’s school campus that read “Get Back In The Kitchen” or who punched holes in the wall or who told people they’d had sex with me when they hadn’t.
I knew that, of course. And maybe they were just joking around.
But I was offended because it was wrong. And because being wrong made it part of something larger. Something that made college a little bit dangerous for me. A little bit dangerous for a lot of people. Sometimes a lot dangerous, for some.
And when I think about that, I’m still offended.
* * *
Do you get offended easily? What does it take to offend you?
Unroast: Today I love my lips.