Saturday, January 31, 2009

To the Highest Bidder

This evening my university is hosting an event that makes me deeply uncomfortable, yet there's been not a peep of protest. Probably because it's "for a good cause."

Over the past two weeks I've gotten two emails asking me to support this event - a formal dance - either by attending or by purchasing an ad in the program booklet. This already struck me as vaguely weird. Why would students solicit faculty to buy ads? What am I selling, my ideas? They may be priceless, but their value on the open market is mighty low. Plus, I don't know any faculty who are keen on attending undergraduate parties. The colleagues I hang with understand the importance of appropriate boundaries.

But what really got me is this: The sponsoring groups are going to hold a date auction. Proceeds will benefit the March of Dimes. I don't care how good the cause, or how pure the students' intentions. The idea of a date auction still creeps me out.

First, there's the obvious insensitivity of evoking slavery in any lighthearted manner. There was nothing funny about slavery. The ritual of auctioning a person even for temporary services - no matter how much in jest, no matter how good the cause - can't help but echo the history of real slave auctions.

To complicate matters, this particular date auction is being sponsored by a historically Black fraternity. As a white person, I don't want to impute "false consciousness" to the organizers, but I do have to wonder if anyone thought this through. Is it possible for Black people to subvert the history of slavery by parodying it? Maybe, if the parody is very evident. But I don't see that happening in this case. There was nothing ironic in the email I received, and black-tie affairs don't usually mix with mockery.

Then there's the exchange of cash for a person's potentially romantic company. Now, I'm pretty sure that at this dance, both women and men will be auctioned as dates. Yet it means something different when a woman is "for sale." We don't live in a society where women routinely purchase men's sexual favors. Even if there's gender parity on the auction block, only the "sale" of women resonates with the gender inequities built into prostitution. I'm not ignoring the existence of male prostitutes, just saying that realistically, this auction is much less likely to conjure up images of a gigolo.

My concerns aren't just theoretical. A 2005 article from The Daily Northwestern quotes dean of students Mary Desler as seeing problems with date auctions:
"I think they have the potential of putting students -- women and men -- in compromising and hurtful situations." ...

"What if no one bids money for a date with someone? Might that be hurtful? What if someone purchases a date with someone else and there is something about the purchaser that makes the student feel uncomfortable or, even unsafe? What if something happens on that date that is hurtful?" she said.

"I was involved in a situation a few years ago that was not at all positive for the student 'purchased.' I can't forget that situation," Desler continued.
The article doesn't specify exactly what happened, but in a culture awash in masculine sexual entitlement, I'd worry that women could be at somewhat higher risk of sexual assault when going on a bought-and-paid for date. Most men will be perfectly respectful, I'm sure. But when a guy has put out cold cash for the woman's companionship, aren't the odds increased that he'll expect her to put out, too? To be sure, this is a problem with dating in general - and a good reason to insist on going dutch whenever you don't want to get physical with your date. It seems to me, though, that at the very least, "buying" a woman's company at a date auction is reinforcing rape culture. That's the last thing I'd like to see colleges supporting.

I get why student organizations turn to date auctions. They can raise hundreds of dollars and - unlike raffles or auctions of products - it's all pure profit without any need to seek donations.

Maybe I'm just a killjoy. Still, I'd love to see schools and universities actively discourage date auctions. Citing concerns much like mine, the Office of Student Activities and Leadership at the University of Michigan has issued a statement opposing them. (It's not clear whether this statement came out before or after a student group at Michigan held a date auction two years ago to benefit a Peruvian women's shelter - oh, the irony!) Am I asking too much to want my own university to adopt similar guidelines?

Update 2-1-09, 9:30 p.m.: Duh! I meant to mention this in the original post: Though I wasn't there at the event, I'm pretty sure date auctions are mercilessly heterosexist, too. Can you imagine the fuss if one college-aged dude tried to buy another? Maybe it'd fly as a joke - humor is the main way that students deal with discomfort about homosexuality, 'cause they know that overt homophobia is uncool - but never, ever as a for-real date. Then again, if the girls started bidding on each other, that'd be hawt. Ugh.


Heather Munro Prescott said...

No, you're not asking too much. It could be worse, though. The campus police department at my university held a "jail and bail" event to benefit special olympics. The concept is you pay for a "warrant" for a friend (or enemy) to get "arrested." Then they are put in "jail" and given a cell phone and told they have to raise their bail to get out. Not only disruptive to classes and such, but completely insensitive.

Sugarmag said...

Hi Sungold, You are not asking too much. The auctioning of dates has always struck me as a terrible idea.

In a date for pay situation I wonder who would pay for the date? Is that specified in the auction? It all sounds very awkward and uncomfortable. Yuck. What were they thinking?

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I am a board member of my med school's chapter of AMWA (American Medical Women's Association). The president of the club decided to have a date auction (without consulting me). When she told me about the idea, my stomach turned, but I went along with it.

We only auctioned off male medical students, and almost all of the people bidding were female medical students. We made a lot of money, hundreds more than any other fundraiser, and it all went to our local domestic violence shelter. Do the ends justify the means? I dunno. It still makes me uncomfortable, but I was pleased with the money we raised.

Sungold said...

Hey, thanks for all your comments!

Heather: Hoo boy. It's an especially nice touch that the campus *police* sponsored your event! I can imagine all kinds of creative ways to combine the "jail and bail" concept with a date auction ... all of which result in cell phones going off in class.

Sugarmag, I assumed that the "winner" of the auction would then also pay for the date. But I wonder how that works when it's a woman who "buys" a man's company? Does she still pay? That would seem logical, but this is not a terribly logical idea in the first place.

Mom TFH - thanks for stopping by. I can understand why you'd go along. Anything else makes you out to be a total party pooper. I felt like a bit of a grinch writing this post! And of course then the onus could be on *you* to come up with an equally lucrative alternative, which is apparently a tough task. The meanings do change if only men are being auctioned, but the old slavery connotations don't just evaporate.