By Ashley DeLeon
Kaylee Sayers ’23 recalls the day she discovered a disturbing social media post about a classmate of hers while scrolling through Instagram. The post exposed her peer’s full name, and publicly announced that someone wanted to engage in sexual activities with her. Sayers clicked on the account, and found over 200 posts targeted to multiple students at St. Michael’s College. “I hope I don’t see my name,” she said quietly.
The Instagram account, @smc.crushes, emerged on the social media platform on Jan. 28, 2021, accruing over 300 followers since its launch. The account’s content ranges from innocent crushes to fantasized sexual desires, with many posts highlighting specific body parts that people find most attractive about their peers. This information is posted nonconsensually, with the targeted individual’s full name attached.
“This account is all in good fun, and is meant to be an anonymous way to show someone on campus you appreciate them or are thinking about them,” the account admin stated through direct message. The account admin, who did not disclose their identity, claims that a conscious effort is made to filter negative responses and censor content based on Instagram’s guidelines. However, sexually suggestive language is rampant throughout the page, with sexualized emojis and overt phrasing found all throughout. “We created this account because it was previously an SMC tradition that ran on Facebook, and we thought it would be fun to bring back on Instagram since that seems to be more of the platform of choice these days,” according to the account admin.
Women are disproportionately targeted on this platform more than men, according to Sayers. This has led some to question the true intent behind this account. “Almost the entirety of the page is committed to boiling down intelligent, talented, and kind women, many of whom I have had a class with or know, to their bodies,” she said. Though she recognizes the demeaning nature of comments directed to men, Sayers noted that the amount of content sexualizing female students is overwhelming.
According to an anonymous male student, however, it is believed that the intentions of this account are not so blurred after all. “I think this page overall has simple intentions, and does not necessarily purposely objectify the subject. However, it does post direct quotes. This gives it an objectifying effect,” he said.
Few people have commented under the page’s sexualized posts to bring awareness to the claimed objectifying nature of the account. Some women have even conceded to sexualized posts directed towards themselves, and comment in support of them.
According to Traci Griffith, lawyer and associate professor of Media Studies, women have always been seen as objects, and it has been a long time technique (often used in the advertising business). “Social media makes it even worse because anybody can produce it. It’s called citizen journalism,” she said.
A 2018 research study conducted by Stef Davis Kempton, associate professor of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, observed two Instagram accounts and its impact on one’s identity, gender, and sexuality constructs. The study, titled, “Objectification, Sexualization, and Misrepresentation: Social Media and the College Experience,” observed the posting rituals of two college-targeted, sexualized accounts. Content, comments, and popularity were examined closely.
Kempton detected patterns in the objectification of female college students and their submissiveness to men. “The view of women as objects rather than individuals re emphasizes the idea that men should be able to determine a woman’s worth by her use-value. Men use and gaze upon women as they see fit, disregarding any individuality,” according to the textual analysis.
In an exclusive statement to The Defender, Kempton explained that “women tend to self-objectify to earn a sense of validation, acceptance, or attention,” especially from men.
“The collegiate environment perpetuates this because there is a disproportionate amount of young people in that population and they are all competing with each other,” she said. This competition spans farther than academic and athletic competition, as vying for friendships, social status, and romantic or sexual attention becomes a social competition.
Kempton agrees that the objectification of women has been normalized in mainstream media, and how “it’s easy to see how women would normalize self-objectification in an attempt for male attention,” she explained. “Many times, this objectification comes in the form of sexualizing ourselves and portraying ourselves as sex objects to stand out from the competition. Social media, especially, perpetuates self-objectification because we get instantaneous validation through likes and comments.”
A number of submissions were submitted jokingly, according to Sayers. “I could tell which posts were submitted as jokes, likely between friends from the way they read and feel, and others as well. The joking aspect of the page was not lost on me,” she said. However, she noted a clear divide between friends submitting their other friends, and people taking the opportunity that anonymity provides to objectify women at the College.
Lily Denslow ‘22 agrees. “I have noticed that many people are submitting complimentary things about their friends and crushes on campus,” she said. “In that way, I think it’s a great venue to lift up members of our community.”
The rapidly emerging account has raised questions about ethics and legality. “You don’t have a right to anonymous free speech in the First Amendment. There’s a court that might interpret that into the First Amendment, but there isn’t a right to anonymous speech,” Griffith said. The second part to this issue, she noted, is an administrative obligation to protect and ensure a safe learning environment for students.
Dawn Ellinwood, vice president for Student Affairs, agrees that the College has an obligation to ensure a safe environment for students. However, “…if the account is anonymous and not affiliated with SMC, we may not be able to do anything,” she said. “Please know we would investigate and attempt to find the person responsible but in past cases that involved social media, we were not able to get the information we needed unfortunately.”
“The decision to comment on another person’s appearance is insensitive, a sign of unexamined privilege. And to do so on a public, anonymous online platform? Well, even if it feels innocuous (or potentially empowering) it really isn’t okay,” said Maura D’Amore, professor of English and program director for Gender Studies. “The person you name and describe didn’t have any say in the matter. There’s no way to consent, no two-way communication,” she stated.
“Although these submissions are most likely meant to be complimentary and flattering, it’s important to remember that another person’s body is not your business, unless that person consents to share it with you,” D’Amore emphasizes.
According to Denslow, the community needs to re-evaluate what is considered acceptable on social media. “Posting that you want to get with someone or that someone is ‘gorgeous’ or ‘beautiful’ or even ‘sexy’ is one thing, but posting about how big someone’s assets are is something else entirely,” she said. “As a community, I think that we need to think long and hard about what it means if we are ok with objectifying both men and women in our community on a public platform.”