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It’s good to be male

Andrew Nesi | Wednesday, March 26, 2008

At a lunch on Monday, a mother of four told me why her oldest daughter didn’t go to Notre Dame. A teacher at her prestigious all-girls Connecticut prep school told her, with some certainty, that Notre Dame was “sexist.”

The mother continued: the teacher’s statement was outrageous, evidence of her non-Catholic, East Coast bias and her narrow-minded belief that Notre Dame is a football team first and a school second.

The mother was probably right. Still today, most New York suburbs – particularly wealthy, WASPy New York suburbs – don’t view Notre Dame the same way most Chicago suburbs do.

But as the mother dismissed the assertion of sexism as mere ignorance, I cringed and kept my mouth shut, only nodding and smirking and shoving enough snap peas in my mouth that I wouldn’t have to respond.

Because, in at least one sense, the teacher was right too. There is an embarrassing gap between the treatment of women and men at Notre Dame even today. Admitting women, adding a gender studies program and showing the Vagina Monologues on campus shouldn’t be trumpeted as signs that we’re a place that treats male and female students equally. We don’t.

In many ways, we’re still a boys club.

The evidence seems almost too obvious, too often whined about among students around campus, to merit a column. Among students, this observation is tired. But we don’t talk about it publicly, we never demand a change.

There are different standards in men’s and women’s dorms. Sure, the DuLac in Farley is the same as the DuLac in Fisher, but students know the rules aren’t the same in practice.

Any male dorm – and, yes, that includes Morrissey – is far less harsh than is any female dorm on campus. While it varies case-by-case and individual-by-individual – there are lenient RAs and Rectors in women’s halls, there’s the occasional jerk in men’s (you know who you are) – the experience of getting caught vomiting in Alumni is less serious than the experience of getting caught in PE. And this can’t be dismissed as necessary dorm autonomy. There is a consistent difference in treatment and discipline between male and female dorms.

I don’t know why the difference exists. There is something of a boys-will-be-boys side to it, I’m sure. There’s also a practical concern: as a general rule, men taking shots aren’t as quick to become a liability (though there are plenty of lightweighted exceptions). Most importantly, there’s also still a sense of paternalism to it. A Frosh-O sign half-joking reassures freshman parents that a particular women’s dorm has been “protecting your daughters from Zahm” since its inception.

Walk through campus on a Friday night at 10 and you’ll see the perverse effects of this protect-the-girls sensibility. The harshness of women’s’ halls forces girls to go off-campus or to men’s’ halls for parties. And while I don’t have any hard data to back this up, it sure seems like this causes some girls to drink more (male-purchased) alcohol and discourages them from returning (plastered) after parties.

This is a bad thing. And not just because it costs me more money. To vastly over-generalize something that too many Notre Dame students know from experience, pushing freshmen girls to Turtle Creek never ends well.

Put simply, women’s dorms don’t actually protect their residents by being harsher on alcohol and parties. Instead, they push them to more dangerous situations over which hall staff has less control. The means undermine the end. The halls take worse care of their residents precisely because they try to take better care of them.

Our women’s halls ought to treat our women the same way our men’s halls treat our men. (Treating the men as we now treat women isn’t an option – it would just force more kids to go off-campus and compound the problem). It’s not a change in policy, per se. It is a change in culture and attitude.

It means less draconian punishment in women’s halls. It means the willful ignorance towards underage drinking that pervades men’s halls. It means hiring the sort of hall staff who can enforce rules without being judgmental, who care more about the overall person than the rule they break, and, most importantly, who demonstrate that care by staying lenient when possible and understanding that female Notre Dame students are best served if they are treated similarly to male Notre Dame students.

And for students, it means actually publicizing the double standard. Everybody knows it, yes. But we never hear about it in a public forum. Rather than only whining behind the scenes when they get in trouble, students need to proactively make an issue of it.

Until then, though, the high school teacher’s analysis of Notre Dame as a sexist place seems embarrassingly accurate. No doubt, this sexism manifests itself in ways I can’t see; ways that are apparent only to a female eye. But I don’t need to be a girl to watch, and experience, the double standard our men and women face.

We’re thirty-five years into our co-ed experiment and at Notre Dame, it’s still a good thing to be a male.

Andrew Nesi is a junior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn. This weekend, his five-year-old sister told him that she was “cheering for Obama for President” because he could “bring more rainbows.” He can be reached at anesi@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.