Seaver College, Pepperdine University
I teach at a private, religiously affiliated liberal arts college in the Los Angeles area. Our students come from across the country and around the world, and thus are diverse in terms of race and gender. The stereotypical Seaver College student at Pepperdine University is upper-middle class, white, and active on campus and in the community. My goal for this post is to reflect on the representation of bodies and body-speech in an anonymous forum and interactionist ideas about social control.
As a student of symbolic interaction and a professor who often teaches a class in social psychology, I am interested in the social construction of the self. I often teach my students classic interactionist texts, including Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In this class, we focus on how people perform within roles—using their bodies, clothing, gestures, and speech to construct a “face” for use in interaction. We often discuss the inherent risk of losing face in interaction, as others may judge our performances and our “selves” as unworthy of consideration and respect. Because face-to-face interaction is risky, people often alter their appearance, speech, and manner in order to receive the praise, or avoid the approbation, of others. For Goffman and many others, this means an important part of social control is self-control.
An important part of self-control, then, is recognizing that others may react negatively to the “face” and therefore the self that one presents. A recent smartphone app, YikYak, changes this dynamic. The app allows users to write, read, respond to, and up or down vote anonymous posts within a 1.5 mile radius of their current location. Posts with a balance of five down-votes are deleted, and all posts disappear from the app eventually. Users can also read posts from other colleges and universities, theme parks (e.g. Disneyland), sporting events, on certain topics, even Hogwarts. The app is probably in use on your campus.
YikYak promises that users can post their “true” thoughts without the same level of risk that comes with face-to-face and online-but-attributed speech. In some ways, the app is a hyper-local version of the anonymous trolling that was so prominently featured recently in gamergate. Users still risk esteem, derision, or perhaps worse, being ignored, through the up or down voting system. Yet I think that this level of risk is minimal. After all, unless a user decides to share their posts or attributions are made on the app (truthful or not), reputations, and thus, “face” may be saved.
Over the past few weeks, I have been collecting screenshots of YikYak posts from people on our campus in Malibu. I decided to do a quick and dirty content analysis on the posts relating to bodies, gender, and sexuality. It became clear quite quickly that removing a measure of social control inherent in attributed speech resulted in what might politely be called politically incorrect posts. Many of these had to do with women’s bodies, heterosexual sex, sex acts, attributions of homosexuality directed towards fraternities and men’s residence halls, and more. Euphemistic references to female anatomy in a sexual context were common.
These messages, seemingly swiftly composed, with little concern for grammar, spelling, or punctuation, may speak to the immediacy of the sentiments expressed. In an environment where nearly all students know about the hook up culture but practices and definitions vary widely, hegemonically masculine expressions of sexual desire abound. Lisa Wade’s research suggests that most students will have somewhere between 4 and 7 hook ups throughout their undergraduate years.
For example, a presumably male, heterosexual user posts about “easy pussy” abroad, drawing upon local knowledge of Pepperdine’s international programs.
The only reason I’m sad I can’t apply for abroad is all the easy pussy I’ll be missing out on
Wrong priorities dude.
About half of our undergraduate students study abroad at some point. Utilizing the notion that one’s year abroad should be filled with fun, travel, and (sexual) adventure, this user laments the loss of that experience. Another message in the thread suggests that heterosexual men strive to compete with each other and achieve during college so that they may attract a suitable woman.
Pussy runs everything. That’s a fact
These messages share in the sexual objectification of women, reducing this group with a misogynistic euphemism.
Anonymous posts also feature commentary on fraternities and sororities. Not surprisingly, some fraternities receive negative posts regarding their sexuality, specifically attributing gay male sex acts to one or another group:
You can’t spell alotofbuttsex without ATO
Sigma Chi is still just a bunch of pussy ass douchebags
Post (attributed to a fraternity member):
Fuck my facial appointment interferes with my workout
Guy working out in his red frat shorts and vans: eat a dick
It is important to note how these put-downs often distance the writer from the presumably feminine activities of men who have sex with men and women, who are presumed to enjoy facials and fellatio. Sororities are mentioned primarily for their looks and financial status:
Kappa: “I can’t decide if I want daddy to get me a bmw or another boob job for graduation, maybe I’ll just get both.”
Most posts about fraternities and sororities illustrate what sociologists of gender, sexuality, and the body have long known about college life. An intense focus on women’s bodies, the stigmatization of the feminine in men and femininity in general, and heterosexism are common. For heterosexual men and women, there is an intense focus on being “hot,” in other words having the type of body that gets noticed and attracts (even anonymous YikYak) attention.
I close with some of the posts regarding women’s bodies.
“Ya that’s her. Our relationship is based on her ass...I have a relationship with her ass. I know who she is when I see it”
If titties could talk, what would they say?
Let’s bounce niggah
Ta ta for now!
Yeah so a boyfriend would be clutch right now
Tryna get fucked right in the pussy huh
Where my fat ass bitches in the club? My anaconda wants some.
The posts reflect patterns discussed above. The final user’s reference to “my anaconda” (i.e. my penis) comes from a Nicki Minaj song that samples and updates Sir Mix A Lot’s anthem “Baby Got Back.” Here the presumably heterosexual male poster suggests that “fat ass bitches” are his target for intercourse. These dehumanizing and sexist posts may give faculty and on-campus advocates for feminism, sexual health, and violence prevention some avenues for exploration with students. As always, there is much work to do in order to ensure that all people and all bodies are safe on campus.