Confronting Sexual Themes

November 30, 2006

As she walked across campus last fall, Claire Lauterbach began to notice a disturbing pattern in the posters that adorned kiosks and bulletin boards advertising weekend parties.

One pitched a "pimps and ho's" gathering; a second featured "secs and execs"; and a third "the president and the intern." Sexual themes dominated the ads.

"They all portrayed women in a very sexualized capacity," says Lauterbach, a junior and Baldwin Scholar. "I personally didn't feel like this represented all women at Duke, and I was curious to know how other women felt about having women defined in such a way."

That inspired a yearlong effort by Lauterbach to promote conversation on the image and position of women in undergraduate culture. Among other things, she organized an exhibition of the posters and sponsored discussions about what the poster images say about Duke's social scene, power dynamics, sexual relationships, and the treatment of women. In addition, she and a classmate conducted a survey of undergraduates' attitudes about the kinds of explicit and implicit messages found in the posters.

For the exhibit, Lauterbach sought the help of the Panhellenic Association, which represents ten sororities comprising 40 percent of undergraduate women. Senior Kate Guthrie, director of public relations for the Panhellenic Association, helped garner support for the exhibit, which included two-dozen party posters, and came to be known as the "Images Project."

Guthrie says the support for the project from the Interfraternity Council, the Inter-Greek Council, and the National Pan-Hellenic Council was significant. (Most of the posters were from fraternities, with a handful from sororities, selective living groups, or clubs, Lauterbach notes.) "It was a positive step, especially from the Greek perspective, for these groups to come out in public and say, ‘These are things we find important,' " says Guthrie.

The exhibit was on display this past spring in the Bryan Center, East Campus Union, and Wilson Recreation Center. Visitors were encouraged to write responses to the posters in an accompanying notebook. Lauterbach says some women wrote that the posters made them feel objectified, some alumni writers wondered why undergraduate women would put up with such ads, and some men expressed support for addressing the issue.

However, others, she says, didn't think the posters represent a problem, and some fraternity members said they felt targeted by the display.

The important thing, Lauterbach says, is that her peers are now engaging the topic critically. "You can't change a social system unless you first talk about it and understand it," Lauterbach says. "I think people are more open to talking about it, but it's hard to face, of course."

Lauterbach's efforts prompted at least one fraternity to rethink its advertising policies. Chi Psi recently adopted language stating that its members will no longer use "potentially derogatory images" in their advertising.