National Post Barbara Kay: The frosh week code

National Post - Wednesday September 11th, 2013

In the heat of the moment, teens often tend to collude in suspending moral judgment while both sexes egg each other on in breaking taboos.

Embarrassed by a “frosh week” gone awry, administrations and student governments at St. Mary’s University in Halifax (SMU) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) have been scrambling to defuse criticism sparked by Internet outings of rape-trivializing rituals.

At an event called “Turf Burn” at SMU, student leaders and volunteer “facilitators” led 400 freshmen in a chant whose lyrics riffed on the letters of the word “young”: “Y is for ‘your sister’,” “U is for ‘underage’,” and “N is for ‘no consent.” The same chant on a bus ferrying freshmen between events at UBC was recorded on Twitter.

At a news conference, SMU president Colin Dodds claimed to be “shocked by this incident.” He promised to strike a task force, mandated to bring about a “culture change” on campus. From this, I infer that Dr. Dodds believes the chant was symptomatic of “rape culture,” a phrase one frequently hears nowadays as a reflexive explanation for any incident that seems to make light of rape.

But there is no rape culture on Canadian campuses, if by that we mean an epidemic of men sexually assaulting women. Unwanted sexual advances do occur, of course. But actual proven instances of rape are relatively rare.

In real rape cultures, such as in large parts of South Asia or Africa, women are at high risk of rape with low expectations of social or legal support once they are victimized. Here in the West, it is the opposite: Rules of sexual etiquette are rigorously communicated to males, and allegations of rape typically are taken seriously.

Since roughly half the chanting students in the SMU video are women, it’s not really clear that there’s any sort of deep cultural meaning here. Indeed, the puerile chant may even have been designed to mock the hyperbolic deference universities pay to the issue. But whatever the chant’s inspiration, there is an interesting sociological lesson to be drawn from the somewhat contradictory statements made at a news conference by Jared Perry, the now-former president of SMU’s student government, who resigned when the incident was outted in the media.

Perry admitted that he has personally sung the chant every year since he arrived at SMU in 2009, as part of what he assumed was an ongoing tradition. But at the same time, he says the chant he led this time happened “in the heat of the moment.” He further realizes, after four years of singing it, that “the lyrics are disgusting, they are terrible.”

And it’s not just him. Perry says he has no idea why nobody in his group of 80 facilitators (none of whom would comment at the news conference) considered the chant inappropriate, even though just days before, he and other student leaders had met with police and university officials to talk about sexism and sexual assault. Perry now realizes that singing the chant was “the biggest mistake” of his life.

Perry’s post-exposure epiphany reminds me of teenage girls who consent to participation in unsupervised, orgy-like parties, but change their story when they are “slut-shamed” online afterward. In youth culture, there seems to be a kind of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mentality.

In the heat of the moment, teens often tend to collude in suspending moral judgment while both sexes egg each other on in breaking taboos. Only in the sudden helicopter noise and glare of external adult censure do these young people feel a wash of shame (or at least professed shame), as their moral compasses spring back to life.

At the SMU news conference, President Dodds expressed regret that SMU had failed to “oversee and guide student leaders.” But as he must know, it has been quite some time since university administrations have seen themselves as ‘in loco parentis’ where moral guidance on sexual matters is concerned. Indeed, it has been some time since many parents saw themselves in that light. But in adolescence and even in emerging adulthood, young people need to know they are being watched. Vegas will still be there when they’re old enough to handle it.

National Post