Why does this column of the Manitou Messenger exist? Maybe it exists just as an outlet for people like me to dish out scandalous analogies, but I like to think it has a greater intended purpose. I think that this column, and organizations like the Wellness Center or the Sexual Assault Resource Network SARN, exist as a demonstration of St. Olaf’s commitment to fostering healthy student relationships that promote mutual respect and equality.
This past week, on Feb. 24, the Catholic Student Association and the College Ministry Office hosted a talk by a woman named Sarah Swafford called “Navigating Relationships.” I, personally, was struck by some of the language and messages she conveyed both on her Website and in her talk. At 4:00 p.m., there was a talk for “women only.” It was later clarified that men were allowed, but it was intended to be an intimate conversation among women on perfectionism and competition St. Olaf men never worry about those things, right?. I thought I would list some of the highlights of this talk, and challenge you to question if this is how we should talk about women in healthy relationships on campus.
My biggest concern lies with Swafford’s lists of desirable feminine and masculine qualities in a relationship. She does list similar qualities for both the masculine and feminine, however for only feminine she lists: patient and flexible, graceful and sincere, gentle and kind. In contrast, for masculine qualities she lists: leader, provider and protector. I am not saying that these aren’t all virtuous qualities for which we should strive. However, to divide them by gender and to perpetuate the idea that men should be the leaders and providers does not foster mutuality and equality in relationships. This also concerns me because it was one of the first things I found on her Website. Therefore, whoever arranged and approved this speaker would be aware of her reductionist and archaic views on gender roles.
It is also clear on her Website that part of her platform is to promote healthy and positive body image and discuss how that can positively affect relationships. This is great. I agree, and I think that many others would agree that empowering both men and women to be confident and healthy benefits any relationship. However, in her talk, her message was distorted by her own body shaming and health motives. For example, she mentioned that even though she was pregnant she looked like a “beached whale.” Besides that and other comments she made about her weight, her ending point was that we should love our bodies because “men don’t even really mind how much we weigh.” The problem with this is that it implies that women should care about their bodies and health not for our own happiness and agency in life, but only in regard to how to find and attract a man.
Lastly, also supported by the previous two issues I raised, Swafford’s speech was completely heteronormative. In this case, I mean heteronormative in the fact that every aspect of relationship and relationship issues were between men and women. A couple of quotations from her Website to demonstrate this are, “Become the woman of your dreams, and you will attract the man of your dreams,” and “All girls are waiting for Mr. Right.” Trust me, Sarah – not all girls are doing that. While people are entitled to their own opinions, the College Ministry Office is associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ELCA which supports all forms of sexuality in faith. The College Ministry Office supported this speaker, though her messages do not align with the ELCA views of mutual faith and virtue in all relationships.
While the messages in Swafford’s speech and on her Web site may run true for many people, I have to ask – is this the kind of take on healthy relationships that St. Olaf’s College Ministry Office should be promoting? What do you think?
I encourage you to look at Sarah Swafford’s Web site: www.emotionalvirtue.com.
Also please feel free to contact me with your opinions or email the College Ministry Office with any concerns about this issue: firstname.lastname@example.org.