I went to an event last month that was presented and paid for by a Catholic student club on campus, along with the Pastor’s Office. I am choosing to remain anonymous in posting this, since the last time someone publicly critiqued it, they were met with a very hostile and patronizing response from one of our college’s pastors.
A speaker named Sarah Swafford came to St. Olaf and gave two separate talks, the first for women only and the second for both men and women (I suppose that the non-binary folks aren’t welcome to either?). I went to the first one, which was titled Perfectionism and Competition and focused on the tense relationships that sometimes exist between women.
She talked about a myriad of topics after spending the first 15 minutes talking about her family, and the next 10 about how she got her start giving talks. With nearly half of her time gone, she began discussing her experience working with first-year college women as a “dorm mom.” Her first group was comprised of 142 women, with whom plenty of drama came along. “Where there are 142 women there are at least 142 men right?” she joked before talking about the “fallout of hooking up.” As someone who is as sex-positive as I am gay, I cringed.
She went on to talk about body positivity. Things were looking up when she showed us pictures of the different beauty standards of America’s past, displaying pictures of what we would now consider “plus-size” models in swimsuits. This glimmer of hope was quickly crushed when she described these women as “curvy girls. Like, normal girls.” I am twig-thin with small breasts — am I not normal?
Another thing that stood out to me was the quote, “Women spend 90% of their time worrying about how they look in a bikini.” I’m surprised that she was even able to stand up there for an hour long talk if that’s what was on her mind the whole time!
It got worse when she explained her reasons for why we need body positivity. She said that “The men who truly want to get to know you and might be future spouses someday don’t care about [your flaws].” That’s fair! In the end though, her message of self-love boiled down to “men don’t care, so you shouldn’t either.” She is highly overestimating how much I value the opinions of men about my body. Or anything, for that matter.
She concluded by talking about solutions. Her solution is for every women to make good male friends, but she also notes how incredibly difficult that can be. “It’s almost impossible in our generation for men and women to just be friends,” she explained. “You can’t even have them interact without it turning into a giant flirt-fest!” God, straight people are so weird.
In short, it was the most heteronormative thing I’ve ever seen.
Yes, even more than this.
After the talk, a couple of friends of mine went up to talk to her while I hung back and joked around with some classmates (“I know it’s hard to talk to me when 90% of your brain is dedicated to your bikini body, but try to focus!”). One of those friends is a trans woman, and she told Swafford that she wanted to be a psychologist for LGBTQIA+ youth when she is older. “That’s wonderful,” Swafford replied, “those people need a lot of help.”
Maybe it’s somewhat obvious that I wasn’t thrilled about the college’s investment in this particular speaker. Maybe they didn’t know what the talk would really entail, though? Perhaps her website gave the Catholic organization and the pastor’s office the impression that her talk on female competition would address the larger patriarchal systems in our society that teach women to see each other as competition. Since she did push her websites pretty heavily, I figured that I would check them out to get a better idea of the bigger picture.
The first place I clicked on chastityproject.com was the “homosexuality” icon on the front page, denoted with a rainbow flag. It contains many videos, some of which offer hesitant acceptance of marginalized orientations, gender identities, and intersex (MOGAI) people after spewing some pretty blatant homophobia. One of them literally uses the phrase “the gay agenda” while demanding that gay people remain abstinent in order to live out God’s will. In contrast, there is another video under the “‘Safe’ Sex” section (please note the scare quotes) titled “Cultural Imperialism” with horror movie music that states that the government advancement of LGBTQIA+ rights is “manipulation.”
Other parts of the site talk about why BDSM is wrong (because Jesus is the only one who should be whipped and beaten — I am 100% serious) and give false information about condoms, saying that you should opt for natural family planning as a contraceptive choice instead. They even have little misogynistic commercials — “I’m a Mac” “And I’m a PC” style — that offer up inexcusably false information about hormonal birth control while promoting the NFP method, which has a failure rate of about 24%.
What I’m saying is that the website is trash and that what Swafford had to say was trash. We deserve so much better than this.
We as a student body deserve programming that is positive toward and supportive of MOGAI individuals. At the very, very least, I believe that the programming presented to us should not be actively exclusionary towards marginalized groups or reinforce the toxic gender binary that is already actively dividing our society.
Or , if we are absolutely required to have programming that is extremely heteronormative, I would be willing to set aside my morals and stand for an hour next to the skeleton picture for a few hundred dollars.