For students across the country, exam season is upon us. What better way to pass the dull hours than online sexual harassment?
Spotted: University of York Library was set up so that bored students could liven up revision sessions by sending in anonymous messages about fellow library-goers – specifically, fit fellow library-goers. Students running the Facebook page have recently responded to calls to moderate comments by suspending posting for the time being.
Spotted is just one of many similar pages in use across the country. The first I remember coming into contact with was Fit Finder a few years ago, and they are now so common that some unis have multiple pages. They tend to spread quickly and almost as quickly become forums for sexual harassment and low-level bullying. All the posts have been deleted from Spotted, but a similar page from students at the same university might give a bit of an insight into the type of ‘tips’ sent in. Here are a few from Spotted in The Harry Fairhurst Library-York:
To the sexy blonde in the pink top – you even looked beautiful with half a banana in your mouth. I want to be that banana.
fairly attractive brown- eyed brunette girl on the second floor, only to notice her forearms are in dire need of a waxing. there’s wanting to keep warm then there’s that. her arms look like she should live in the woods
Stopped?, a Facebook event set up in response to Spotted, invited students to send in the following message:
Cat-calling, whether shouted on the street or silently posted online, by man or by woman, is sexual harrassment. Your page facilitates silent and anonymous sexual harrassment and body-shaming of women and men in the library, and this is wrong. Everyone has the right to work in a safe space free from harrassment. As the page owners you are responsible for the content you re-post. If you cannot accept that level of responsibility, then you should close the page.
The people behind the page have since stopped publishing messages, saying that:
It is simply not worth the trouble and is a waste of everybody’s energy, especially at this time of year when everybody is revising. That is not to say we will not resume at some point, however we would have to look in to some form of moderation to prevent the problem from surfacing again.
The reaction was pretty predictable. There was a fair amount of opposition to the page and several were quick to commend the response. However, the banter brigade were out in full force to protect freedom of speech and tell everyone that they just need to lighten up. Here’s one comment on an article from the student newspaper Nouse:
God, people here just can’t take banter. Honestly, you are all pathetic! It’s just a joke! Get a sense of humour! I don’t understand. Why did you leave daddy! WHY DIDN’T YOU LOVE ME?
Ah, the any-woman-who-want-respect-has-daddy-issues response. Hilarious. Classic LAD. While we’re on tired, misogynistic stereotypes, she’s probably a massive whore because she can’t get over the fact that daddy left, amirite? And calling a desire not to be publicly objectified while people get on with their studies pathetic is a pretty solid argument.
Another comment posed the following thought-provoking question:
Why is York a city of boring virgins, discuss.
There are two widespread and deeply-entrenched ideas at play here. The first is that there is a correlation between someone’s level of sexual experience and how ‘fun’ they are as a person. If you believe that – come on, grow up.
The second is that someone’s tolerance (or lack thereof) of sexual objectification or harassment is a reflection of their own sexual behaviour. People who believe this may well be speaking from experience, and assume that people are prudes because they don’t often take them up on the offer of a quick shag, shouted from across the street in the middle of the afternoon. Any guy (or girl) who thinks that making mindlessly objectifying comments is going to get them laid probably isn’t getting laid very much.
Labelling it ‘banter’ suggests there’s humour involved – but, like a lot of examples of laddish ‘banter’, the joke is funny only for those making it. Sites like Spotted rely on objectifying and drawing attention to people who aren’t in on the joke, much like street harassment or bullying. The anonymity of the posts simply adds to the problem, as it removes any accountability for what’s said. Apart from being stalker-esque, it creates a power imbalance. The person making the comment can’t be challenged as they can’t be identified, and the person the comment is about is unable to respond.
For anyone struggling to get to grips with how this kind of ‘banter’ might constitute sexual harassment, let me put it in terms that might be easier to understand: it’s creepy. No one’s condemning finding other people attractive, even in the exam hall or the library. If you do find someone attractive, there are a few options you can take:
1. Notice, think ‘they’re hot’, and move on with your life.
2. Invite them out for a drink when the exam or the day’s cramming is over.
3. Stare continuously and/or make lewd comments as you walk past them on your way to the Modern History section.
4. Send in an anonymous tip to be posted in a public forum online.
Options #1 and #2 are fine. As long as you’re polite about it, asking someone if they’d fancy a drink some time is unlikely to provoke much of a negative reaction – and as long as you’re happy to take rejection well, it’s not harming anyone. When you start to think about the options, numbers #3 and #4 start to look a bit… well… creepy. No?
Take this comment from a similar Facebook page from the same university as an example:
To the girl in the yellow T shirt, i think you are looking beautiful today. I spotted you outside smoking whilst I was in my mac..Would love to share a cigerette with you again.
Ok, so in comparison with some of the comments published, the sentiment’s not that bad. It’s certainly not as squirm-inducing as “to the girl with the black bow, come and rub my bow-ner?”, or “To the sexy blonde in the pink top – you even looked beautiful with half a banana in your mouth. I want to be that banana.” And yet, it’s still creepy. If you’ve shared a cigarette with someone and want to see them again, why not just tell them? Maybe you could even swap numbers if she’s interested. Why publish the sentiment on Facebook anonymously via a third party?
It will be interesting to see if other universities follow suit and abandon their own pages, or whether they will continue to gain popularity until they’ve reached the end of their cycle and the next fad comes along. I suspect the latter, but it’s been a while since we’ve had a Fit Finder-style fad at my university. Still, in the time it’s taken me to write this blog post I’ve been followed by a promising new start-up called Leeds Exam Hotties on Twitter. Perhaps banter’s not dead here after all.