I missed the chance to vote in this election by just a few weeks. And the U.S. missed its chance to elect its first female president. It was hard to watch Hillary Clinton, a woman who has spent her life serving the public, lose out to a man who used the debate stage and the campaign podium to disparage her looks, stamina, and reputation. But it wasn't surprising to me. Women and girls learn to accept this sort of behavior from boys and men early on; "locker-room talk" is a regular part of our lives. I should know — I've been on the receiving end in perhaps an unlikely place.
Model United Nations — in which thousands of students role play as delegates to the UN — is known for encouraging critical thinking, teamwork, and leadership. But in my four years of participating in the annual conference, in addition to public-speaking and negotiating skills, I believe that I got an education in something else: sexual harassment.
In addition to public-speaking and negotiating skills, I believe that I got an education in something else: sexual harassment.
The practice of note passing is integral to the workings of Model UN. Delegates pass notes to and from their peers so as not to disturb speakers during committee sessions. Most of the time, these notes are relevant to the committee’s goal and topic: Students silently confer about possible resolutions, arguments, or diplomatic actions to take against countries.
I have seen notes sent to female delegates, however, that I believe take an inappropriate tone. They range from merely flirtatious to crudely sexual. I’ve heard about notes with pornographic depictions of female students’ bodies, obscenely sexual propositions, or other vulgarities.
To me, the laughter didn’t seem malicious; students oblivious to the harassment simply perceived these crude notes as a joke. The adult moderators should have known better, but the response I saw was little more than a vague admonishment to everyone and no disciplinary action. It became clear to all the girls that advocating for oneself would be met with laughter, then silence. The notes continued, but no one ever raised the subject again.
Passing offensive notes is such a common experience that many schools’ teams hold a briefing before every conference to discourage the practice. The notes I have seen have one thing in common: They are not being sent to boys.
A lot of boys would say it's 'locker-room banter,' but some of it is sexual harassment. I have no patience for it.
Even at the Harvard Model UN, one of the oldest and most highly regarded in the country, there exists an unofficial “rose tradition,” in which, typically, male students will purchase roses and write accompanying notes to be given usually to a female delegate of his choice. The notes are read out loud by the moderators in an attempt at comic relief, and the messages almost always seem to allude to sex. One female delegate, Althea Sellers, told me that a note she received “was too inappropriate to even be read out loud, so I still don’t know what it said.”
Not only does this archaic tradition allow for an officially condoned stream of sexually explicit notes targeted at girls, it also encourages boys to buy roses for girls based on attractiveness. According to another female participant, who wished to remain anonymous, the rose-and-note custom can turn into “a contest about whoever the prettiest girl at Model UN is. If a girl gets a lot of roses, it means she’s hot. If she doesn’t get any, she can feel kind of shitty.”
Mini’s use of the phrase “locker-room banter,” an obvious nod to President-Elect Donald Trump’s remarks, elucidates our culture’s willingness to invalidate women’s experiences with sexual harassment. Mini went on to say that he believes there exists “a social acceptance of harassment towards girls in your generation. I don’t think there are a lot of positive role models of masculinity for boys. It’s not just a problem for the girls. What’s wrong with the boys that are doing this? That’s the question I have.”
Girls may 'jokingly' be asked to provide boys with sexual favors in exchange for 'aye' votes on their resolution papers.
When I reached out to Harvard Model UN about this issue, I was told that they do not “tolerate instances of harassment, discrimination, inappropriate behavior, or unwelcome advances of a sexual nature.”
“Given the sensitivity of these concerns, any such case that is brought to the attention of the Secretariat is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with the involvement of the conference’s senior leadership and individual delegates’ faculty advisors,” the statement read.
Until delegates feel safe in calling out sexist behavior, and sure that action will be taken to stop it, it’s likely that incidents will continue to go unreported.
I have also witnessed girls “jokingly” being asked to provide boys with sexual favors in exchange for "aye" votes on their resolution papers, or, of course, suffer the all-too-common characterization of assertive female students as “bitches.” (This cultural desire to pigeonhole goal-driven women as bitches is obviously a concept that stretches far beyond Model UN — not even a presidential candidate is immune to it.)
Though the United Nations prides itself on its ostensibly equitable representation of women at its senior levels, there’s actually not a lot of clear data regarding how many women the UN employs. What’s more, one of the candidates for the post of secretary-general, Susana Malcorra, has said that the competition for the position was pervaded by misogyny and gender bias within the UN.
As I transition into college and eventually retire from Model UN, I hope that both the high-school and real-world institutions progress in a way that makes them more equitable for female delegates.
I hope that our culture will cease its consistent invalidation of both women’s intellectual capabilities and their experiences with sexual harassment — both in Model UN and outside of it.