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." ...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.
"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.
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.