Frosh silliness and all that…a sociological take.


In Canada.com, Laura Strapagiel writes on September 18, 2013,

Although there is no evidence that student leaders were directed to lead first-year students in a chant endorsing rape, it was part of the oral traditions of UBC’s Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS), according to a report released today.

The University of British Colombia tasked a fact-finding panel with investigating an offensive frosh-week chant recited during bus trips by first-year Sauder School of Business students and activity leaders.

The chant, which also caused controversy at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University, went like this: “UBC boys we like them young. Y is for your sister. O is for oh-so-tight. U is for underage. N is for no consent. G is for grab that ass.” In some variations, “G” stands for “go to jail.”

In addition to releasing the panel’s report, UBC announced Wednesday that CUS will be making a voluntary contribution of $250,000 over three years to help fund a “professional position to provide student counseling and education on sexual abuse and violence.”

“After serious consideration, we believe it is essential that the C.U.S. and all FROSH leaders make tangible amends,” said UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope in a statement. “At the same time, the whole UBC community needs to embark upon deeper, transformative and lasting change that would make such chants entirely and obviously unacceptable in our community.”

So, can we come to some (sociological) understanding of what this is all about?  Yes, we can, but it’s not simple.  First thing, there is the chant itself and it’s two variants.  The first variant must be considered as an outright invitation to first year male students to go find an even younger female student to rape.  The second variant is more complex and can be read as a cautionary tale as in ‘if you rape my underage sister you will go to jail.’  Second thing, there is the issue of the UBC administration’s reaction to the events.  Punish the students and embark on a “deeper, transformative and lasting change that would make such chants entirely and obviously unacceptable in our society.”  I’d like the reporter who wrote the piece in Canada.com to follow up in a few months to see just what UBC’s president has come up with to undertake this “deeper, transformative and lasting change.”  I’ll bet nothing comes of it.  I’m sure the UBC administration is hoping the whole thing blows over and soon.  Well, there may be a token attempt at something, maybe a forum or some workshops, but nothing more.   Frankly, I expect most people will forget about this within a very short period of time.

So now what?  Well, the social dynamics that underpin this whole scenario are really quite fascinating.  There are a number of avenues of investigation here.  For instance, the chant itself and its implied assumptions about the nature of sex between young men and women, that is, that men must overcome, forcibly if necessary, a young woman’s need to protect her virginity.  Then there’s the fact that these are young people and young people have always done things that piss off their elders as a way of ‘carving their own path’ in life.  Any talk of rape, especially in a tight-assed university setting is bound to piss off a lot of older people, especially ones with young daughters (I’m still one of those).  Mission accomplished here as evidenced by UBC’s response, which is another issue all in itself. Using the chant to ‘do something naughty’ and create solidarity among students is a related issue and an important one.  I’ll address these issues in blog posts over the next few days.  I’m not offering any solutions here, like Toope is, but rather observations on the nature of morality, ours and others, as it relates to sexuality, in particular, but also to business in a limited sense.  However, this is not a rant about the evils of capitalism, of business or about the evils of anything else.  What I want to do here is comment on the moral context in which such events can occur and how they are treated by the ‘morally upstanding’ among us.  It’s just a bonus for me that the students in question at UBC are business students because today business and the market occupy the moral high ground in our world.  We judge so much of what we do by its effects on the ‘bottom line.’  So, I’ll start with the nature of sexual relations in our world and then move on to other issues like the need for students to stand out yet fit in, and the need for those who occupy positions of moral ‘leadership’ in our world to make sure our world is morally clean and upstanding allowing no breaches of the moral wall that surrounds us all.

Sex.  Much has been written about it.  Confusion abounds.  Procreation by the process of coitus is fairly straightforward to understand.  We ‘have’ sex, we may very well make babies, that’s if we’re a male and a female.  Sex between gays and variations thereof is not procreative sex.  That’s pretty clear, I think.  Procreative sex is about biology, penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs.  That said, procreative sex is regulated in very complex ways and has been ever since we’ve been writing things down and probably way before too.  We’re not the only sexually reproducing species that regulates sexual behaviour, that is who can have sex with who, when and how.  Many species have mechanisms for regulating sex.  We speak of ‘instinct’ when we refer to sex among non-human species, but nonetheless, sex is regulated.  Often, the physically and socially dominant individuals of a species are the only ones to procreate as in wolves and African wild dogs.  Among primates, sex generally goes to the dominant members of the troop, but there is a lot of sex on the side type behaviour.  Among Bonobo chimps, sex seems to be recreational but it also serves a purpose of keeping peace in the troop.  It also serves a procreational function, of course, but paternity is not an issue among bonobos.

There are many problems that arise with human sexuality. One is that we have a long gestation period and it takes a very long time to raise an infant to self-determination and adulthood.  Procreative sex has its consequences and can be very expensive in time, effort and resources.  That problem is compounded by the fact that men and women can be attracted sexually to a number of other men and women.  There’s no evidence to suggest that human beings are naturally monogamous and a lot to suggest otherwise.  Another thing is that closeness, physical contact, nasty experiences with members of the other sex, neurological wiring and many other factors mean that humans, like bonobos, are often quite happy to have sexual relations with members of the same sex or with whatever comes along, animal, vegetable or synthetic.  Some of the most popular porn sites on the internet are bestiality sites.  A popular practice among some men is to have life size sex dolls.  Is sex with a sex toy still sex?  Well, we sure talk in those terms.  So, humans are, let’s say, open to possibility when it comes to using their sexual organs.  I coined the term ‘monosex’ when I taught a course on love and sex a few years ago, to describe masturbation and the fact that many people prefer it to anything else.  Apparently we don’t even need partners.

Of course it’s very important here to separate love and sex.  Love is a sentiment of emotional attachment that can, but needn’t have anything to do with sex.  Romantic sex is not always loving sex, although we generally think of romance and love as intertwined.  Love can exist in many social situations and describe relationships between mothers and children, men and women, men and men, women and women, men, women and flags, football, sausages, cars, sunsets, pets, forests and a pretty close to infinite number of other things.  We ‘love’ all kinds of things.  Sex describes one way of expressing love, but it also goes way beyond that and often has nothing to do with love.

So, sex is all over the place and procreative sex is a particular variant that ends up producing offspring and those little guys are essentially considered property.  Randall Collins in his book Sociological Insight refers to offspring as generational property.  Other forms of property he identifies that are regulated by marriage contracts are domestic property and erotic property.  Erotic property is exclusive rights over another’s body for sexual purposes.  Domestic property refers to pots and pans, houses and cars.  The point here is that sex is regulated in our world or rather what derives from sex is regulated.  For as long as we know, sex has been regulated to achieve certain social ends.  Who one can have sex with, when, where and how are all regulated by mores and laws in our society and in one way or another in all societies now and historically.   Morality is the context in which sex is regulated.  Although it’s clear that sexual mores are broken all over the place all the time, we still feel the pressure of sexual ‘propriety.’  Although things are changing we know that extramarital or extra-relational [my new term, I think] sex (cheating) is bad.  We know that pre-marital sex is bad.  We know that children are not supposed to be sexual, neither are old people (yuck!).  Most important, we know that children and adults are never to engage in sexual relations under any circumstances.  We know that sex in public is bad.  We also know that people do it for the ‘thrill’ of it.[1]  We know that both parents have a responsibility to raise their offspring.  We all know these things but we also know that these things don’t count as much in real life as they do in ideological terms.

So, I’ve put this off long enough.  Young men and women are sexual by nature.  Biology gives them the tools to have sex pretty early in life.  In our world, however, it’s not morally acceptable for them to engage in sex until they’re told it’s OK.  We have rules around how young people are to behave sexually and celibacy is it!  We don’t know when exactly it’s ok to have sex as a young person.  Waiting until marriage doesn’t cut it anymore.  It’s now a matter of ‘let’s discuss it when it happens.’  We’ll make the best of it.

However, the crux of the situation for me is the moral responsibility that is placed on young women to protect their virginity at all costs or at least to avoid the label of ‘promiscuous’ or ‘slut.’  Young women are supposed to suppress their sexual drives and be ‘responsible.’  This automatically sets up an adversarial relationship between young men and women.  Women must protect their virginity.  Young men must respect that and suppress their own sexuality.  But, for many young men, the challenge is that of a safe-cracker. Conquest is big on their minds!  They’re supposed to be real men, after all, aren’t they?   Can I get into her pants?  Young male bodies are telling them to carry on, get it going.  Damn the torpedoes!

I can’t imagine how rape and other variant of sexual assault are not more common under these circumstances and why young people in the prime of their youth at university would not want to challenge the moral prescriptions that define their sexuality.  Young men and women chanted the Y.O.U.N.G. chant at St-Mary’s university and at UBC (and on many other campuses, no doubt).  This is, in my mind, a protest against contradictory social mores.  The reaction of the university administration as protectors of the dominant moral code in our society underlies the seriousness of the proscriptions we impose on young people and their inherent sense that there are serious issues with them.

Obviously not all young men and women are conflicted about sexual mores.  Some of them are staunch defenders of social proscriptions against extra-moral sexual relations.  There is a lot of diversity in the population.  That said, all youth are pressured to conform to social mores under the threat of rejection, opprobrium and shunning.  Young people have a strong need to ‘fit in.’ That may mean going along with the Y.O.U.N.G. chant or opposing it depending on what group is strongest in its pull to conformity.  But I’ll leave that to another time.


[1] There are porn sites dedicated to public sex.

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