Letter to the editor

Fixing “Take Back the Night”


As a junior at USC, I have been around three years of the Women’s Student Assembly and the Center for Women and Men’s admirable, weeklong effort designed to raise awareness about sexual violence.

As a brother of a beautiful sister, son of a beautiful mother, a friend of many beautiful women on this campus and a follower of Christ, I care deeply about violence against women.

Yet each year for the same reason, I find myself unable to take the event seriously or to actively take part in it.

The way the WSA has chosen to draw attention to itself (you know, with the giant — you know what I’m talking about … with “this is not a target” bannered across it — yeah, that) is entirely counterproductive to the overall objective.

Sure, it’s funny. Sure, it gets attention. But we are dealing with a serious issue, and one that deserves serious attention, not the awkward leering glances of drooling adolescent boys.

I am not saying it’s impossible to keep a lighthearted spirit and the ability to laugh in the midst of a serious problem; I think it is important and healthy to do so. What I am saying is it draws attention in the wrong fashion.

A major part of stopping sexual violence is in changing the way we view women. Women are much more than sexual objects, and although “this is not a target” is the correct message to be sending, the way it’s communicated still perpetuates the view that “this is, in fact, a target.” It is not only the biggest part of the display, it is the lasting image that will stick in your mind when you think about this week.

I also think it is worth considering how this is representing USC to prospective students, visiting parents and the community as a whole.

If USC MenCare put up a giant wooden male counterpart next to Tommy for an entire week, I can virtually guarantee visiting parents would be calling Student Affairs.

Women’s Student Assembly, I am on your side. I want to see an end to sexual violence.

And maybe I’m just a prude, but could you make it a little easier for me to be a part of this next year, without having to associate myself with the unnecessary sign?


Jesse Mentz

Junior, international relations

13 replies
  1. Jon
    Jon says:

    Why is there an appropriate place for a cardboard vagina? Who should decide what that is? You, Jesse? It’s the 1st amendment and stupid squeamishness over a VAGINA shouldn’t stop you taking on an incredibly important cause. In fact it is a very very trivial thing to ‘care’ about in light of what has been going on recently and people’s attempt to do something about it.

  2. Jade
    Jade says:

    As someone who directly organizes Take Back the Night every year, I can tell you that the vagina (go ahead and use the word!) is just like Lauren said – a beautiful thing. It is so much more than a sexual object. It is something to be honored. I

    I love that no one is the least bit uncomfortable with all the phallic symbols on campus.

  3. Kelsey
    Kelsey says:

    I fully support the statement that the giant wooden cutout is indeed saying, “this IS a target,” and in the very least, “this is a funny/public thing.” The female anatomy (and the male anatomy for that part) is something precious and beautiful and to be protected and honored–I believe that Men Care and the WSA would agree with this statement (correct me if I’m wrong). The wooden cutout does not say this; it crudely depicts it and robs it of it’s privacy, intimacy, and value. I’d be happy to say good-bye to that thing.

  4. Joe
    Joe says:

    You seem to miss the point of the letter. The letter agrees that there is need to bring attention to sexual health and sexual violence. The issue he brings up is not just simply the method, it’s the fact that this method’s success depends on nearly the same thing that leads to sexual violence, that people view women as sexual objects.

    The point is best summed up in the line:

    “…“this is not a target” is the correct message to be sending, the way it’s communicated still perpetuates the view that “this is, in fact, a target.””

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      I don’t follow…

      The author made many points. I didn’t specifically address the point you call attention to, frankly, because I don’t understand it.

      In all sincerity, how does an oversized depiction of female anatomy perpetuate the view that “this is, in fact, a target”?

      Hypothetically, if Men Care decided to host a table promoting the sexual health of men, and we decided to call attention to our table with an oversized penis, would you suggest we were objectifying men? Does the mere depiction of genitalia imply “this is, in fact, a target”?

      As long as we’re addressing this particular point, I would also suggest the author illustrates another reason to continue using the prop. If the depiction creates a “lasting image that will stick in your mind” that “this is not a target” then I would contend it has effectively served its purpose.

  5. Chris
    Chris says:

    Without knowing the motivations of the WSA or the Take Back the Night committee, even if the sole intention of the organizers’ use of the giant “you know what” was to garner attention for the cause, I fully endorse and encourage it’s use.

    The issues of sexual health and sexual violence need all the attention they can get, and if the biggest criticism of the methods employed is that they raise a few eyebrows or cause a few awkward glances, I think that’s a fair price to pay. If “it” weren’t there, how many more people would have walked past without even a moment of reflection?

    With regards to prospective students, parents and the greater community, I would suggest that a student population passionate about social justice would be selling point. Many prospective students are looking for a campus with opportunities to promote awareness and inspire change in their communities.

    Having been a member of Men Care for more than three years, I fully recognize that the topics of sexual health and sexual violence can be difficult to confront and discuss in an open forum… but it’s even more difficult when you can’t bring yourself to say, or type, the word vagina.

    I sincerely hope the mere sight of “it” isn’t the only thing preventing you from actively supporting a cause that you care deeply about. We need your help.

    • Kate
      Kate says:

      Is that really the kind of attention that should be drawn, though? A giant wooden cutout seems to suggest that the cause is the protection of a woman’s sexual organs as opposed to a woman herself. It’s a crude, cheap attention grabber that objectifies women solely by their genitalia and overwhelmingly diminishes the severity of such an urgent cause. Don’t we really want to say that women are MORE than their vaginas? This cutout captures the essence of the metonymical equation woman=vagina. We would be better served to promote woman’s humanity and gather attention in a more intelligent, tender way.

      • Lauren
        Lauren says:

        Actually, you have it all wrong. The vagina (why does everyone seem so embarrassed about using that word? VAGINA VAGINA VAGINA) is a rather integral part of the human body. It is not merely a sexual object or a “sheath for a sword” (which is the literal translation of the origin of the word “vagina”). And the display (which is used every year by the Vagina Monologues, the Women’s Theatre Organization, Love Your Body Day, MenCare, and many other fine organizations at USC) is a way of protesting the idea that the vagina is merely a sexual object. It isn’t. It is absolutely a beautiful thing, and we want to promote a culture that honors women AND women’s bodies for more than just sex. At the same time, we want to break down the barriers that tell women “you should be ashamed of your body, your sexuality, and especially that thing between your legs.”

        Men are allowed to use their penises as symbols of power and dominance all the time, not to mention for violence and hatred as well. What is wrong with women being proud of their bodies, their sexuality, and yes their vaginas? The point of having the display is to force people to talk about it and stop perpetuating the stigma. WOMEN HAVE VAGINAS. GET OVER IT. Women have sex. Women have sexual desires. But they are also more than sexual objects. We have agency. We have voices. And the vagina needs to be seen as more than just an orifice for some guy to stick his dick into. Period.

        • Kate
          Kate says:

          Clearly we understand the purpose of Take Back the Night in very different ways. As I see it (and as the event defines it), this is about “promoting awareness of and protesting against sexual violence.” This is not a men v. women, penis v. vagina, campaign, nor is it rooted in symbolism or innuendo. Instead it works to “empower men and women to feel safe in their communities” and equip them with the mindset to combat sexual aggression. With that purpose in mind, a giant vagina cutout–as I argued earlier–is counterproductive and makes Take Back the Night more about ego than compassion for victims of violence.

          • Lauren
            Lauren says:

            The vagina display is specifically used for the Sexual Health Fair and the Violence Abroad Fair every year. How is it inappropriate for either of those venues? Sexual health…healthy sex…healthy vagina…If we can pass out condoms and lube on campus without anyone ranting about it being inappropriate, why is it wrong to have an anatomical depiction of the vagina at the same event? For the violence abroad fair, we traditionally use it to be able to explain what Female Genital Cutting is, as we typically have a display describing that form of violence.

            I know exactly what TBtN is about. I have been intimately involved in organizing and facilitating the event for 3 years. And there is no doubt in my mind that the vagina display fits perfectly with the message of the events where it is present. It has been around since 2004 and has been used every year by multiple campus organizations that see the value and benefit of having it at their events.

            I never said this is about “men v. women,” but people don’t get this upset about phallic images anywhere (seriously, look around our campus…they are everywhere). Having one image of one vagina during two days of ONE week a year is not a big deal. Part of combating sexual violence is allowing women to own their sexuality and own their bodies. It is about granting women the freedom and venue to love themselves, love their bodies, and learn that they have the right to say no AND the right to say “hell yes!” Take Back the Night is by no means just confined to screaming “no means no!” We encourage consent and communication. We encourage healthy relationships, healthy sex lives (including abstinence if that is what someone chooses), healthy body image, and healthy self-image.

            Part of combating the misogynistic ideas that paint women as merely sexual orifices is reclaiming the female body and the vagina as OURS and as something we can and should be proud of. I can’t think of anything more empowering than to say “you have the right to say no and be heard, but you also have the right to acknowledge your sexuality and say YES and own it.” Women are repeatedly told that they should be ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality, their vaginas–we can’t even bring ourselves to use the word!! It’s ridiculous! Take Back the Night is anti-violence but also extremely sex positive. Consensual sex is a beautiful thing when people want to be engaging in it. And no one should be ashamed or told that their sexuality is unacceptable or should be hidden and shamed into silence. That is extremely counterproductive to the message of TBtN. Telling women to stop acknowledging their sexuality and their rights to healthy, consensual, mutually respectful relationships is also counterproductive.

    • Lauren
      Lauren says:

      The individual who wrote this letter actually did not attend the event. He walked by with a group of friends but refused to stop for even a few moments to show support. That is incredibly frustrating and far more offensive to ME than the display of an anatomically correct vagina (god forbid we all be adults here and recognize that a good 51% of this campus is walking around with a vagina between their legs…with so many phallic symbols all over this campus and guys constantly grabbing their crotch and “readjusting” themselves, we are constantly reminded of penises.)

      • Jesse
        Jesse says:


        I am deeply sorry if I offended you by my actions, and I assure you that was not my intent. It is true that I walked by the Thursday night event at Tommy, accompanied by a prospective student and friend from home as we walked back from a previous event we had been at. When we saw the event, we hushed our previously loud conversation out of respect, and I explained to her what the event was and its relation to the shirts in Alumni Park, which we had talked about earlier that day. I chose other plans that night, and it is true that I did not make attending the Thursday night event a priority. i can understand why that would be frustrating in some capacity.

        It was certainly not my intent to offend anyone, but I suppose that’s an inevitable side effect of writing any opinion piece.

        I think your final comment, about “readjustment,” helps to illustrate the point I was trying to make. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with the male or female anatomy, but there is a proper context and place for their discussion and display. As you seem to be mildly perturbed by “readjustment” in public (and understandably so), I am likewise put off by an explicit display next to Tommy.

        That said, i appreciate your comments and your feedback, and I hope that the event went well.

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