Sexism sells, but not on my campus

One.

As university students, we are familiar with the marketing strategies employed by businesses attempting to squeeze more cash out of our already barren bank accounts. Bulletin boards on campus are saturated with colourful posters advertising vacations, weight-loss miracles and club crawls, where images of attractive females are regularly used to draw the eye. How often do we fully consider the implications of the messages displayed on the walls of our university?

Until a few weeks ago, I was like any other student on campus; I would glance briefly at ads as I passed them in the halls but not pay them much notice. But recently, while walking through MacEwan Student Centre with a friend, my eyes fell on an advertisement promoting a Dinos soccer cabaret, depicting a man in a suit and tie, peering into the camera, while a woman draped herself provocatively over his shoulder, eyes closed and leaning in as though she was about to nibble his earlobe. The image portrayed in this ad was certainly tame when compared with the bountifully bosomed schoolgirls adorning nightclub ads; instead, it was the poster’s title that concerned me. In prominent cursive lettering at the top of the poster, the cabaret’s theme was declared: “Office Ho’s and CEO’s” [sic].

After staring in disbelief for several seconds, I tore the poster down, folded it and put it into my bag. People sitting nearby looked at me like I was crazy, and my friend shifted with embarrassment. I knew, though, that advertisements such as this one had no place in our university–or any university, for that matter. As students, we are an educated and enlightened population. What gross misguidance, miscommunication or misunderstanding had allowed this ad to slip under someone’s radar and onto countless campus bulletin boards?

The term “ho” is loaded with social implications and is inappropriate in any context. It seems that our generation has been so desensitized by the use of the term in popular music and youth culture that it has all but lost its meaning. “Ho” is commonly, but incorrectly, considered to be a milder form of the word “whore.” This is not so. “Ho” is the African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) pronunciation of “whore,” carrying the same meaning and negative connotations as the latter term. In short, “ho” quite simply equals whore. Would the Students’ Union ever produce or endorse an advertisement for an event called “Office Whores and CEOs”? Of course not. But the final version of the ad, posted in numerous locations on campus for several weeks, carried a title that for all intents and purposes said just that.

In addition to the outrageously inappropriate use of the word “ho,” the advertisement in question presents a clearly sexist view of gender roles in the workplace. By indicating that women working in offices are “hos” and their male counterparts are CEOs, the Dinos soccer advertisement perpetuates debilitating stereotypes against women. The concept of the “glass ceiling” is implicit in the title, indicating that while men may be able to occupy roles of power in a business setting, women are incapable of moving beyond a certain level of achievement. Additionally, the advertisement normalizes the notion of sexual harassment in the workplace, suggesting that men in positions of power can expect to receive sexual favours from their female subordinates, and that only by exploiting their sexuality might women exert any power in the workplace. I do not believe that Dinos soccer intended for their advertisement to carry these messages. However, for the 2.4 Million Canadian women who have suffered workplace sexual harassment, this insinuation is not a joke.

The event theme was conceived, advertised and carried out on campus without the epic student outburst that it deserved. It goes without saying that controversy creates a buzz when promoting a product, service or, as in this case, event. It seems that the exploitation of women in advertising has become so commonplace that we don’t even bat an eye when the theme of an event is based in blatant sexism. It is unfortunate that a club has felt compelled to stoop to the point of encouraging women to dress as prostitutes in order to ensure a good turnout at an event, thereby raising funds for their club. Although I was the only student to launch a formal complaint about this particular advertisement, I am not the only person on campus who was offended by the theme. I have learned that many, individuals on campus found the advertisement to be unacceptable.

In my experience, there is an immense pressure on both men and women to engage in or, at a minimum, to conform to sexism against women–as a woman, for example, refusing to laugh at a sexist joke or, heaven forbid, speaking out against sexist behaviour would be to mark myself as a bra-burning man-hater. I believe that this is one of the main reasons that more people who were offended by the “Office Ho’s” poster did not come forward in protest. But we need to ask ourselves, as women and as men, what we are willing to allow on our campus. Clearly, discriminatory messages of any kind should not be tolerated.

Two.

What made the “Office Ho’s” advertisement particularly vexing was the logo in the bottom left-hand corner; the stylized “SU,” for Students’ Union. The logo was small: perhaps the SU they knew they shouldn’t be making such a poster, and hoped that a less discerning eye would fail to notice that the ad had been produced “in house.” Given the SU stamp of approval on the ad, I decided that I would need to pay the SU a visit. On November 9th, I emailed Bev Hills, the SU’s communications Director, to notify him of my concerns. Mr. Hills was kind enough to respond quickly, and scheduled a meeting with me for the following Monday. He also informed me that he had forwarded my email to a Dinos soccer representative so that they would be aware of my complaints.

Mr. Hills was very understanding toward my concerns, but I quickly learned that there was no official means by which a student could launch a formal complaint about club postering. This presented a problem, given that it’s the SU’s job to answer to its students. Also, Hills pointed out that the SU lacks an explicit content policy for their advertisements, and that when concepts for advertisements are considered controversial, whether or not they are posted is determined subjectively by SU staff members. Again, because the elected student executives are in place to represent the interests of students, they should be involved in formal decision-making regarding potentially controversial campus events and postering.

On November 15th I brought a copy of the “Office Ho’s” advertisement into my sociology class. Under normal circumstances, wild horses couldn’t drag me up in front of 300 of my peers; however, because I felt very strongly about the issue, I steeled myself and facilitated a class discussion about the implications of such an advertisement for women on campus. The response I got from the class was incredible. Students enumerated many reasons why they were personally offended by the advertisement, and argued passionately against such messages on their campus. Topics of discussion included implications for female business students, elitist culture on campus, and the normalization of violence against women. The students were also interested to learn that the SU lacks an official means for students to complain about advertisements and events on campus. Because so many people agreed that the message communicated through the poster was unacceptable, I was encouraged to continue to pursue policy change within the SU.

Curious about the policies governing controversial advertising on other campuses, I emailed student executives at both Mount Royal College and the University of Toronto. Adam Boechler, the VP External and Tami Rothery, the VP of Student Life for the Students’ Association of Mount Royal College replied with the following statement:

“We can tell you right off the bat that this poster would have not been approved or posted by our Students’ Association. It is without saying that any cabaret or poster with the term ‘hos’ could be found offensive. While we don’t deem sexuality in itself to be offensive, the demeaning position which these phrases and images put both participants into is, in our opinion, inappropriate.

At SAMRC and the college as a whole, we promote an environment of respect and equality. The college employs a full time human rights advisor who works with students to ensure that the 13 grounds of discrimination, as defined by Alberta Human rights, are well known and respected by our community.”

It is almost ridiculous that Mount Royal College, which is substantially smaller than U of C, employs a full time advisor for issues affecting Human Rights, while the U of C has no such position. While we do have a Student Rights Advisor, she deals in academic and faculty appeals, rather than discrimination on campus. Similarly, the U of T has an elected Vice President of Equity, Shaila Kibria, whose mandate, according to the U of T website, is to “[work] towards ameliorating the status of women, minorities and other marginalised groups. [The VP Equity] is responsible for promoting anti-discrimination initiatives.” While Kibria was unavailable to comment on the “Office Ho’s and CEO’s” advertisement, Paul Bretscher, the President of the U of T Students’ Administrative Council had this to say:
“I think the ad is disturbing and degrading towards women. The Students’ Union [at U of C] should be working in the best interest of students, creating an inclusive and dynamic atmosphere that is free from demeaning characterizations of women.

Although our SU has no explicit policy banning such advertising, I could not imagine an instance where we would approve this ad. This clearly demonstrates a severe lack in judgment. Rules and regulations aside, common sense should prevail- it’s simply not appropriate for a students’ union to treat women like material sex objects, even if it’s for a fundraising event.”

On November 16th, I met with Shirley Voyna Wilson, the University of Calgary’s Sexual Harassment Advisor. Given that U of C has no Human Rights Advisor, I was curious to learn if complaining to the Sexual Harassment Advisor is an avenue by which a student can formally dispute campus advertisements of a sexist nature. Ms. Wilson informed me that because the U of C and the SU are independent of one another, I would have to work directly through the SU to affect change. However, she was interested in my project, and provided me with two newspaper articles about similar issues that have taken place in the last year. One was about the recent Bell Mobility ring tone campaign called “PimpTones”; an Ontario woman filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission about the ring tones, citing that they created a “poisoned environment” for women.

That article got me thinking about the legality of the “Office Ho’s” advertisement. I did some research into the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, and found section 3(1) to be relevant to the issue at hand:

“No person shall publish, issue or display or cause to be published, issued or displayed before the public any statement, publication, notice, sign, symbol, emblem or other representation that

(a) indicates discrimination or an intention to discriminate against a person or a class of persons, or
(b) is likely to expose a person or a class of persons to hatred or contempt because of the […] gender […] of that person or class of persons.”

Given that I have only a rudimentary understanding of human rights complaints, I contacted Geoff Moysa, who is a third year law student at the U of T. He emailed me back with his legal opinion on the matter, as well as his personal take:

“The poster reinforces a number of prejudicial stereotypes against women, and there’s precedent to suggest that the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission might find it discriminatory. Even if it’s ‘legal’, I think the SU showed extremely poor judgment by producing this poster and putting it up across campus. A university is supposed to be tolerant and inclusive. That environment is threatened when the student government-whose mandate it is to represent all students regardless of background-makes ads portraying professional women as sluts who exist to service their bosses. The university would never get away with putting on a Pimp and Ho party, and I don’t see this as being any different.”

Geoff also encouraged me to get in touch with Jennifer Koshan, a professor with the U of C faculty of law. One of professor Koshan’s areas of interest is equality rights, so she proved to be a valuable contact. In addition to asking her about the human rights implications of the advertisement, I also asked about the role of freedom of speech in the case of the “Office Ho’s” ad:

“Freedom of speech is not an absolute freedom. Alberta’s Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act prohibits publications and notices that discriminate or expose persons to hatred or contempt on the basis of a number of grounds, including gender (s. 3(1)). While free expression of opinions is also protected, there are limits to the freedom where it results in discrimination, hatred or contempt. Contempt has been defined as looking down upon, or treating as inferior.

Does the ad in question result in discrimination / hatred / contempt against women? Arguably it does expose women to contempt, on the basis that they are being looked down upon and treated as inferior by being portrayed as ‘hos’. The ad could also be seen as discriminatory for reinforcing negative assumptions about women as paid sex objects.”

Having talked to two individuals who supported my effort from a legal perspective, I felt somewhat vindicated. By this time I had spent more than a week actively pursuing the issue, and fortunately, I was soon to learn that I hadn’t been wasting my time.

Hot on the heels of my meeting with Shirley Voyna Wilson, I met again with Bev Hills at the SU. Mr. Hills had facilitated a meeting with Joel Lockwood, VP of Operations and Finance, in order to address my concerns with the policies dictating SU-endorsed postering. I pointed out to Mr. Lockwood that the 05-06 SU clubs manual, while presenting “strictly enforced” guidelines for where and when advertisements may be posted, provides no criteria for poster content. Lockwood was very helpful in responding to my complaints, and says he has already begun instituting policy changes to prevent potentially discriminatory material from being produced and posted for club displays in the future. The following is the public statement he made regarding changes to SU policy in response to the “Office Ho’s” advertisement:

“Since this incident was brought to the attention of the SU, I think [this student] has helped us identify a problem with the way we designed and approved posters for student run cabarets at the Den.  The Students’ Union, inherently, is too large of an organization to have every day-to-day decision passed through the elected student executive. However, it is our responsibility as elected representatives to be able to report back to the students of this university on what important decisions were made and why.  Decisions like this will now be decided upon by the student executive. This was never done in the past because nothing of this nature has ever come up, but the past events have shown its necessity.

Second, if for some reason in the future posters are approved that are found to be offending there will be an appeals process that will fairly and explicitly dictate how such a procedure will be handled.

It is my hope that the initiatives we have been working on [will] eliminate the possibility of the Students’ Union erroneously approving posters that are found to be offensive to members of the campus community, but if it does happen, elected students can be held accountable with an appropriate and fair appeals procedure that will be fair to the campus group hosting the event, and the student or group lodging a complaint.

I also want to illustrate the positive interaction the Students’ Union has had with a concerned student.  I always strongly encourage students who wish to see change at the SU or university to work with us to achieve positive change.”



Although Mr. Lockwood and I agreed that the posters would not be removed because of the proximity of the event, many of the posters had already been torn down. As I later learned, most of the posters had been taken down by Dinos soccer itself, acting on a request from Don Wilson, the U of C’s Director of Athletics. Almost all of the remaining posters had been defaced in an act of protest by the local feminist adbusting group FIRE.

Three.

Satisfied that the SU was taking steps to prevent a similar problem in the future, I turned my attention to speaking with representatives from the faculty of kinesiology. A student from my sociology class, who had been a Dinos athlete in the past, suggested that I contact Teresa Penner, the athletic services coordinator. I emailed Teresa, and she directed me to Don McSwiney, the new director of communications for the faculty of kinesiology. Having listened to Don on the CBC morning show “The Calgary Eyeopener” for many years, hearing “Hi, this is Don McSwiney” on my cellphone’s answering machine was a surreal experience. However, I was not so starstruck that I couldn’t meet with Don to discuss my concerns.

I learned from Don that the faculty of kinesiology requires all posters and advertisements to be cleared by the faculty before being posted in the building. In a statement on behalf of the faculty of kinesiology, Don explained the faculty’s action with regards to the “Office Ho’s” poster:

“We want to make it clear that the faculty of kinesiology does not condone or allow material like the poster in question to be posted within our building. This poster was not cleared by the faculty and when we were made aware of it, the material was immediately removed. It’s not really our place to make value judgments on our students’ social activities- but we must ensure that everyone feels comfortable within our facilities.”

It seems that there is a separate and apparently more stringent set of guidelines governing what can be posted within the kinesiology building. This begs the question: if derogatory messages aren’t acceptable for kinesiology students, why are they OK for everyone else at U of C?

In addition to pursuing policy change on campus, I was curious to speak with professors whose academic interests were related to women’s issues. I sat down with Dr. Andrea Williams, a professor with the faculty of communication and culture. Interestingly, Andrea had written an article for her university’s newspaper 20 years ago about a similarly sexist advertisement. Funny how things don’t change. Among other things, Andrea and I discussed the pressure on individuals to conform to sexism:

“The soccer teams who endorsed this poster maybe thought they were producing a hip, humourous invitation. However, the myth that women (or ‘hos’ to use the term in the ad) have to sleep their way to the top simply isn’t funny. This poster makes me wonder about the communication among the soccer teams: did any of the players who knew about this advertisement see it as sexist and if so, why did they not feel comfortable speaking out? […] Although [people] can wave the free speech banner all they like, such overtly sexist communication is not tolerated in most workplaces today, so why do these students feel entitled to flagrantly disregard–and disrespect–their audience here at the university?”

On November 21st, I received a voicemail message from Lauren Ramos with the Dinos soccer men’s team. We arranged a meeting, along with Jessica Horning, the representative for the women’s team, to discuss my concerns about the “Office Ho’s” advertisement. I was eager to meet with the Dinos soccer representatives, but I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive.

As it turned out, I really had nothing to worry about. Lauren and Jessica were very friendly, and while we didn’t agree on all points, our meeting was successful. Through their descriptions of how they organized the cabaret and the advertisements, I saw that they were guilty of nothing except trying to plan a good fundraising party. While their theme choice was inappropriate and short sighted, ultimately they were victims of a faulty mechanism on the part of the SU.

For Lauren, a second year student, the November 19th event was the first time he’d ever arranged a cabaret. He explained that the name for the cab was modelled after an event a team member had heard about: “Golf Pros and Caddy Hos.” Lauren and Jessica weren’t sure whether the event had been held at the U of C in a previous year, or at a different university. Once event details had been ironed out with Den staff, the SU communications department was contacted to begin the development of an advertisement. According to Lauren and Jessica, they were not made aware of any problems with the advertisement’s content during its production. Given their limited experience in organizing club events, Dinos soccer assumed that the proposed name was acceptable, and that anyone who needed to be consulted regarding the suitability of the event name would have been contacted by the SU prior to production. However, Jessica received an email from Don Wilson, the U of C’s director of athletics, indicating that he did not approve of the event name, and that it should be changed. It is not clear exactly when this email was received, but Lauren and Jessica indicated that it was after poster production had begun. The club came up with an alternative name, “Risky Business,” and proposed it to members of the communications department via email. Lauren stated that he indicated to SU staff that if the original name, “Office Ho’s and CEO’s” [sic] was appropriate it should be used, but that otherwise, the name “Risky Business” had been agreed upon as a back-up. Lauren says the SU communications representatives emailed him back with an indication that the original name was “a go”.

Not long after the advertisements had been received and posted, however, Lauren was directed by Don Wilson and other faculty of kinesiology members to take the posters down and change the event name immediately. Dinos soccer, Lauren and Jessica said, complied with these requests, although they were unable to change the event names on the tickets they had printed.

Speaking with Lauren and Jessica highlighted some serious issues within the SU regarding its cabaret planning process. After speaking with Lauren and Jessica, I briefly spoke with Joel Lockwood and Bev Hills again. When I had initially spoken to Mr. Hills about the advertisement, he had said that he’d indicated to the SU communications department the controversial nature of the advertisement when it was first proposed. However, in speaking with Lauren and Jessica, I found that Dinos soccer was unaware of concerns on the part of any SU staff member. Clearly, this is an example a problem with having SU staff members subjectively monitoring advertisement content. While Mr. Hills made his concerns known internally, the Dinos soccer representatives did not recall being notified. Had they been made aware of a potential problem, it is likely that they would have changed the event name prior to poster production, which would have saved them a lot of trouble.

Although I feel compelled to end this article by saying “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” in the case of the “Office Ho’s and CEO’s” advertisement, personal opinion has become irrelevant. The ad is an example of blatant sexism, and it is wrong. If nothing else, I hope that students will consider the implications of the ads they see on campus, and speak up if they are similarly offended or disturbed by any messages and images portrayed therein. Ultimately, this specific issue boiled down to a breakdown in communication between a club and the SU, and ineffective policies governing advertisement content. I am optimistic that the changes made to SU policy will prevent anything like this from happening again. Effective content monitoring on the part of the SU, and changes to the clubs manual will allow student groups to plan their events without worrying that their posters will be deemed inappropriate after it is too late to change them. The interests of all students on campus will be better served with an effective appeal process in place in the event that a student is offended by advertising material. I am happy that I was able to voice my concerns and affect change, and I have found the experience to be very personally empowering; even though as much as I might have relished it, I never really got to “stick it” to anyone.

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