The recent drama at Brown University over a campus forum debating sexual assault could have been an episode in a sharp and outrageous satire of political correctness gone mad—complete with a “safe space” counseling group for undergraduates traumatized by the presence of heresy on campus and with one of the panelists opening her remarks by decrying the debate’s very existence. Of course, in the modern-day academy, fiction is rarely a match for truth.
The November 19 debate, sponsored by a campus organization called the Janus Forum, pitted writer and blogger Jessica Valenti, a leading voice in the anti-“rape culture” crusade, against libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy, who penned an essay earlier this year titled “The Big Lie of a ‘Rape Culture.’”
Cue the outrage: according to the Brown Daily Herald, “multiple students have said they feel the event devalues the experiences of sexual assault survivors on campus and goes against the University’s mission to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors.” Among those expressing such concerns was Undergraduate Council of Students President Maahika Srinivasan, who told The Herald, “It just seems like unfortunate timing in the way that we’ve been framing discussions of sexual assault for the past couple of months… Having this event now might seem like backtracking from the forward direction that we’ve been moving in.” (It’s unclear what timing Srinivasan would have considered preferable; the likely answer is, “Never.”) Meanwhile, senior Katherine Byron, a member of the Task Force on Sexual Assault, complained that “there is often a lot of pressure when there’s something going on about sexual assault on campus. … You feel like ‘I should go to this thing because it’s something that’s relevant to my experience even though it might be triggering or there might be views presented that are really hurtful to me.’” For students victimized by such pressure, Byron and others organized an alternative event in the same time slot as the Janus debate—a lecture by Lindsay Orchowski, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, titled “Research on Rape Culture.” (The Janus Forum organizers were somewhat frustrated by this move, since it wasn’t coordinated with them and seemed designed to draw people away from the debate.) Also scheduled for the same time was something called a “BWell Safe Space” in another classroom in the same building as the debate. According to The Herald, it would have “sexual assault peer educators, women peer counselors and staff from BWell on hand to provide support” to “students who may feel attacked by the viewpoints expressed at the forum or feel the speakers will dismiss their experiences.”
The aggrieved students also received implicit support from Brown president Christina Paxson. On November 14, Paxson sent out a campus-wide email about the university’s efforts to reduce sexual assault, which also mentioned the Janus forum. While Paxson did not explicitly condemn the event, she devoted a full paragraph to her disagreement with McElroy’s view that “sexual assault is the work of small numbers of predatory individuals whose behaviors are impervious to the culture and values of their communities.”
When the actual debate got underway, it turned out that Valenti, too, more or less agreed with those who wanted it banned. According to a liveblog of the panel, one of the first things she said was, “I’m tired of talking about rape culture in a context that assumes the existence of rape culture is up for debate.” During the question and answer period, when a student asked how a discussion of this issue could take place without such a debate, Valenti replied that she believes “the work has already been done.” The student pressed on, noting that many feel it’s “socially unacceptable” to question the existence of rape culture: “Someone told me that when you bring that conversation up, you are basically a rapist.” Valenti’s response? “I think when people get raped less, they’ll be a little less touchy about it.”
As proof of “rape culture,” Valenti cited a string of anecdotes—some unquestionably tragic but hardly indicative of rape being condoned (the suicide of a teenage girl who was allegedly gang-raped and was afraid of being labeled a whore), some subject to plenty of interpretation (an allegedly insensitive New York Times story about a girl who was assaulted). She invoked Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who has been in the news lately for her “art project” of carrying her mattress around campus until her alleged rapist is expelled: “In the end, the panel find her attacker not responsible, and Emma said she felt like a shell of a human being.” She mentioned the female students at Columbia and Barnard who “started writing the names of their rapists on the walls of bathrooms when the administration did not act.” She asserted that “stopping someone from telling a rape joke or saying they got ‘raped’ by a test” could be “a start” toward changing attitudes that give rapists “social license to operate.”
One thing Valenti was decidedly not interested in talking about was problem of proving guilt. Indeed, during the question and answer period, the first question that came up was, “How do you weigh the cost of subjecting someone who is a victim of a crime to an emotionally draining process against victimizing someone who is not guilty of the crime?” McElroy, who had earlier ended her remarks with a reminder to “not build justice for women on injustice for men,” responded by saying that it’s a very complex question and that the best answer is to weigh the evidence carefully in every single case, “assuming that the woman is no more important than the man.” When the moderator asked if Valenti had a response, her reply was revealing: “Not really. I don’t really understand the cost-benefit analysis. But research that has been done shows that expulsion doesn’t happen often on campus. I don’t think that justice is really happening.”
Later, when another member of the audience brought up the need to support both the accuser and the accused, Valenti responded, “In an ideal world, absolutely. But in the society we live in now, we need to side with the survivors. That might not be a fair and equal thing, but that’s how I think it has to be.”
Nor did Valenti address the creeping redefinition of rape. When a student asked about the difficulty of defining consent and pointed out that a woman’s enthusiastic “yes” to sex might not be regarded as consensual if she is drunk, her response seemed to evade the issue of alcohol altogether: “I don’t think it’s difficult. Just lying and staring at the ceiling is not yes… We should always be enthusiastic about sex.”
From the liveblog account of the debate, it’s fairly clear that ending “rape culture” according to Valenti requires more or less uncritically accepting any claim of rape, wholly supporting the “survivor,” and dismissing concern with fairness for the accused until such time as we have achieved “an ideal world.” No wonder Valenti and her supporters don’t want debate.
If there’s a glimmer of hope in this latest debacle at Brown, it’s that some students in positions of influence, at least, haven’t succumbed to the authoritarian temptation. The Brown Daily Herald editorialized in support of freedom of expression, endorsing a proposal to move Ochowki’s lecture to a different time so that students should not have to choose between the two. The editorial concluded by urging the Brown community to “ensure that the ability to freely discuss the issue—regardless of opinion and stance—will be supported and facilitated, not dampened.” Alas, in the current campus climate, the opportunity for such open discussion needs to be not simply protected but restored.