The Unlikely Place I've Experienced "Locker-Room Talk"

Illustrated by: Mary Galloway.
Madeline Polkinghorn is a high-school student and member of Model United Nations. The views expressed here are her own.

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.
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In addition to public-speaking and negotiating skills, I believe that I got an education in something else: sexual harassment.

I’m a high-school senior from Maine, and for three years I competed with my school’s Model UN delegation at the state level. In 2015, I qualified for the conference hosted by Harvard University, which, in contrast to the conference in Maine that hosts only a few hundred local students, welcomes more than 3,000 from around the world. The open sexual aggression I witnessed against female students, though, stayed constant.

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.
Photo: Courtesy of Madeline Polkinghorn.
One of the notes that a female delegate Althea Sellers said she received while participating in Model UN.
In my experience, protesting these notes carries with it the risk that teachers won’t support you, and that your peers will think of you as humorless. During my freshman year, a classmate once objected to being sent numerous sexual notes, and was laughed at by virtually every student in the 200-person committee — including the girls.

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.
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A lot of boys would say it's 'locker-room banter,' but some of it is sexual harassment. I have no patience for it.

Ben Mini, Model UN advisor
One boy, who requested anonymity, said only: “I don’t send them, and boys don’t get them, obviously. So I wouldn’t know.”

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.”
Photo: Courtesy of Madeline Polkinghorn.
Another note Sellers said she received.
In an effort to gain some insight on the note passing from an administrative standpoint, I talked to my school’s Model UN teacher, Ben Mini. “Everyone thinks note passing has been a huge problem, and one reason is that it sometimes crosses the line. I understand why many young women might consider some of the notes as harassment," he told me. "A lot of boys would say it's 'locker-room banter,' but some of it is sexual harassment. I have no patience for it."

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.”
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Girls may 'jokingly' be asked to provide boys with sexual favors in exchange for 'aye' votes on their resolution papers.

To combat this, Mini usually briefs students before the conference with a short spiel on appropriate behavior, which he has found to be effective. In addition, Maine Model UN has a page on their website dedicated to note passing, which states that “any inappropriate notes will be collected, and the delegate’s advisor will be notified.” Though I can’t speak for the Maine Model UN’s administration, I have personally never seen this disciplinary measure carried out.

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.

The year that I participated, I didn’t see any inappropriate notes being brought to the attention of leaders, but that to me seems like a big part of the problem — the fear of speaking out. 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.)
Photo: Courtesy of Madeline Polkinghorn.
A note about her country's position on abortion that Sellers said she received.
In my four years at Model UN, I took little notice of these casual displays of sexism (perhaps due to having internalized the normalization of misogyny within our culture). But my attitude changed when news started circulating in the fall of 2015 that it was highly likely a woman would be selected to the next secretary-general of the UN. Alas, Portugal’s former prime minister, Antonio Guterres, snagged the position instead — and I can’t help but imagine what it would mean to the girls who dedicate their time to Model UN to see a woman in that role.

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.
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