When Elliot Rodger opened fire near the University of California–Santa Barbara college campus, two of his victims were blond women from what he termed “the hottest sorority” on campus. On YouTube and in his 141-page manifesto, Rodger had declared his intention to kill “hot” sorority girls in retribution for their unwillingness to have sex with him. The feminist blogosphere’s response to Rodger’s murders has been to argue that he was not an isolated, crazy gunman, but that his actions were representative of a broader misogynist culture. A research study that we completed earlier this year at a large state university supports these assertions.
On the campus we studied from 2011-2013, students of both sexes not only accepted but embraced extreme and alarming sexist language that objectifies and hypersexualizes women. We spoke with 44 students directly in focus groups, as well as 379 others who responded to an anonymous survey, and the vast majority of them found the ranking of women by appearance and sexual prowess commonplace and of little concern.
The study was centered on a message board called College ACB (standing for “Anonymous Confession Board”), an online forum individualized for campuses nationwide, which was active on this campus at the time. College ACB was launched in 2008, created by two Wesleyan graduates as a safer alternative to Facebook for college students to post their “true thoughts” online. Unfortunately, the safety is afforded only to the posters, who can contribute anonymously; it’s not safer for those named in posts, who are identified with first and last names as “Smokin’ body, always down with the Alpha Taus” or “into BDSM and has been known to snort coke off guys’ dicks.”
Students we spoke with and surveyed expressed a desire to go to the board out of “curiosity,” to find out how sororities are ranked when rushing, and generally used the board without criticism or objection. Many accepted the posts as true (unless they knew the subjects of posts, then they might use the board to defend their friends), and they freely posted comments about their peers like, “A naked pic went around her high school of her getting it from behind from, like, a 40-year-old.” Anonymous comments on the board ranged from ranking the “hottest sororities” on campus to identifying by name women who ostensibly give the “best blow jobs,” have the “best tits,” are the “easiest fuck,” the “hottest Asians,” or are willing to participate in the “kinkiest sex.”
Together, we spent a lot of time lurking on College ACB, and the vast majority of posts were about women, and the vast majority of those ranked women as sexual objects, or denigrated their sexual activity while praising it at the same time—it was a slippery slope from “gives great blow jobs” to “biggest slut on campus.” You can dismiss the PUAHate forum that Elliot Rodger frequented as having a niche audience, but its misogyny is not so different from what we saw on the campus-wide message board every day.
When we asked sorority women in particular if they objected to girls being ranked by their physical appearance, they demurred. After all, why object? Sororities gained status if women deemed “hot” were members. Furthermore, many could not understand why anyone would object to these rankings. When we pointed out that men were rarely ranked in similar terms, these young women simply shrugged and seemed to accept this inequality and the extreme language used to describe women. One woman recounted posts about a girl repeatedly called “slut” and slammed for having a “foursome the summer before college,” saying the posts prejudiced her against the girl later: “I actually met her and it’s unfortunate because I had that idea in my head. I don’t know if she is really crazy in bed but she’s very nice and we’re friends now.” Yet the label of “hotness” was, generally, welcomed, as were posts detailing women’s sexual abilities.
Students rarely admitted, even in our anonymous survey, that they posted on the board or knew posters, and there was some disagreement as to whether most posters were men ranking women, or sorority women trashing other groups’ members. Given that posts are anonymous, we couldn’t determine who was doing the posting, but it’s clear that women were active members of the board. In fact, while students were noticeably uncomfortable discussing the board, almost no one denied using it, and few declared their intention to boycott or clean it up—even when we attended a senior women’s studies seminar and queried those in attendance about the board’s content, only a few said they would boycott. When we posted two feminist interventions on the message board, claiming its posts were sexist and inviting readers to respond, we were met with utter silence; no one posted a response (though the posts did garner three “thumbs down”). Finally, we surveyed students to ask if they knew anyone who was boycotting the board. One student responded yes, a friend was boycotting. Why?
“Feminism LOL,” the student wrote.