All posts by Cathy Young

Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday, is a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics and Reason.

Professor Laura Kipnis–She Faced Title IX Charges for Writing an Essay

It is not too early to say that Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis, professor of film studies at Northwestern University, will be one of the most important books of 2017. Kipnis gained some notoriety two years ago when she was hauled before her school’s Title IX investigators on a complaint of creating a sexually hostile environment because of an essay she wrote criticizing the campus sex panic, with a focus on the case of Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern professor brought down by accusations of sexual misconduct toward an undergraduate and later also a graduate student. (See Minding the Campus coverage of the case.)

Now, Kipnis tackles the same subject in a book that takes an unsparing look at the current campus climate, from the witch-hunts to the trigger warnings. And she does so from a liberal feminist point of view—one of the things that exasperates her most about this new climate is the infantilization of women, reduced to eternal helpless prey—that makes it difficult to dismiss her as a backlash peddler. Even the devoutly feminist New York Times opinion writer Jill Filipovic, who assailed as misogynistic another book on the subject, Campus Rape Frenzy by K.C. Johnson and Stuart Taylor, described Unwanted Advances in the same double review as “persuasive and valuable” if “maddening.”

CATHY YOUNG: So, the genesis of the book is that you wrote the essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the then-ongoing Peter Ludlow case at Northwestern and the excesses of Title IX and what you called the “sexual paranoia” on campus—and then you got hit with a Title IX complaint.

LAURA KIPNIS: I was writing about this increasing climate of sexual paranoia, and I knew about the Peter Ludlow case. But I didn’t know anything about Title IX until I got this letter saying that there was a Title IX complaint against me.

CATHY YOUNG: So at the time you were writing your essay, did it ever occur to you that you could be the subject of a complaint?

LAURA KIPNIS (laughs): Oh gosh, no. I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone that you could be the subject of a Title IX complaint for writing an essay. When I got the letter, I was immediately curious—was this the first time someone had applied Title IX to an essay. But of course, there’s no way to know that, because it’s not public and there’s no centralized database of cases. We’re starting to hear more as these cases hit civil courts. They’re popping up every day and they’re new variations on the theme, which is really capricious prosecutions of people on strange grounds.

CATHY YOUNG: Did you find any other cases in which someone was targeted for a Title IX complaint based simply on something they wrote?

LAURA KIPNIS: I did have a case—sometimes, you’re not clear, is it precisely a Title IX case. I had a case of a professor of intellectual history [where] a student complained about his assignments on gender. Sometimes these complaints go through various administrative offices and I’m not sure they’re precisely Title IX. One of the problems in writing about this stuff is, you don’t always know—you know what somebody told you. You don’t have the documents, you don’t have the whole picture. So I’m not sure, off the top of my head, if I know of another case where it was simply speech. But sometimes speech would get brought into these cases—like, a poet who was asked, why are you teaching poems with sexual content, that sort of thing.

CATHY YOUNG:  Did you have any concern that you could get in trouble again because of the book?

LAURA KIPNIS: Oh yes, definitely. I think I could be subject to some of the same charges of retaliation [against Ludlow’s accusers]. Although, since I was already found innocent on the retaliation charges, it would be difficult to bring those charges again. But they could.

CATHY YOUNG: What has the overall reaction been to your book? Are there reactions that have surprised you, pleasantly or unpleasantly? 

LAURA KIPNIS: I’m obviously pleased that the reviews have been so overwhelmingly positive. The first review from an explicitly feminist site also just came out—Broadly—which was a subtle and positive reading of the book. What’s most surprised me is that I expected a lot of discussion—and a lot of pushback—in the feminist media and blogosphere and I haven’t seen that. You tend to see what’s posted as people usually tweet things once they’re up, though there may be things I’ve missed.

Maybe the pushback is to come. What’s been great is that even reviewers who say they’re to some degree irked by the book—the two New York Times reviewers—have been honest enough to say that it’s also persuasive and “necessary.”

CATHY YOUNG: This climate of what you call sexual paranoia today—in the 1990s, there was, as I’m sure you know, a lot of debate about the sexual climate on campus, about sexual assault, sexual harassment. Then this discussion more or less dropped off the radar and lay dormant for a number of years, and now it’s back. Do you see a difference between the way this issue played out in the nineties, as compared to today? Did you pay attention to it in the nineties?

LAURA KIPNIS: Oh yes, particularly to the anti-porn feminist contingent, [Andrea] Dworkin and [Catharine] MacKinnon. I think that is a lot of the difference—[in the 1990s] a lot of the energy and mobilization had to do with pornography under their auspices, and I think the same impulses are persisting now, but without pornography. I think most students—that I encounter, anyway—think that porn is benign, but this issue of campus rape culture is having such an ascendant moment now. I think the impulses are the same.

CATHY YOUNG: Is there a difference in the level of support from students? Obviously, anti-rape activism on campus existed then, but it seems that there’s a much larger percentage of the student body that is swept up in this today. Is that your impression as well?

LAURA KIPNIS: That’s what’s so hard to gauge. It’s not like we have data on this. There’s a lot of attention being paid to rape culture activism, and maybe in some ways, it’s seen to dovetail [with] or have the same kind of constituencies as, Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movements, whereas I think they’re politically different sorts of movements. But I don’t know how much support there is on campus! My own students—I should backtrack and say, the students who marched against me during that campus protest and the students who brought a complaint against me, these were not my students; these were students I didn’t even know.

My own students—they have social concerns, but I don’t think, for the most part, they’re activists. What percentage of students [on my campus] would say they’re in support? I don’t know. There are a lot of students who feel like they need to be on the right side of the issue. So there are people—say, people in student government—it’s a [big] concern to them to make sure that they’re known to be on the right side of the issue. And even frat presidents make all those public statements to indicate that they’re on the right side of the issue, that they support survivors, that they take sexual assault very seriously.

CATHY YOUNG: How did your students react to the charges against you? Were you allowed to discuss the case with them?

LAURA KIPNIS: Yeah, sure. No one would have disallowed it, it’s just—my own students didn’t bring it up, so it’s not like I would have devoted a class to talking about my own situation.

CATHY YOUNG: Were they aware of what was going on?

LAURA KIPNIS: Oh, yeah. My students—they’re sort of sweet. I actually did say to some students that I knew—we were talking in a casual way, and I said, “How come nobody ever brought up the fact that there has been this protest march against me?” They treat me with some irony, and one of them said, “Oh, Laura, we knew about it.” But nobody said anything! (laughs) Maybe they thought it would be impolite.

CATHY YOUNG: Some polls show that there’s a lot more support among students today, compared to ten or twenty years ago, for the idea that you shouldn’t express things that are hurtful to someone else—that offensive speech which triggers someone or causes them emotional damage should be regulated. Is that something you’re seeing? Do you think there is a troubling level of support for censorship, in that sense, on campuses?

LAURA KIPNIS: I’m probably a frustrating interviewee, because I have a hard time generalizing. (laughs) I don’t know. Is there a general level of support for something? I haven’t seen any polls on this. With my own students, they are very much individuals. I think because of the kind of education they’ve had, they’re very attentive to issues about minorities, about discrimination, about social justice, about using language that would make minority people feel stigmatized—any kind of minorities. I remember a discussion recently in a class where somebody used the word…

I remember a discussion recently in a class where somebody used the word… (pauses) What was it? It was some synonym for… maybe somebody said “mentally handicapped,” and somebody said, “I don’t like that term.” Or maybe it was some other term, and he preferred “emotionally handicapped” or “intellectually handicapped.” You have things like that crop up, where somebody thinks someone else’s language is problematic. So yes, I have seen that happen in my classes. Certainly on things like gender, sexual orientation. At the same time, I think they’re very open-minded to the difference, which I think is an upside.

CATHY YOUNG: Speaking of campus speech, your appearance at Wellesley caused quite a controversy, with some professors publicly stating that speakers like you are harmful and shouldn’t be invited. Do you have any further campus appearances planned? Obviously, you’re not Ann Coulter, but are you concerned about protests getting out of hand?

LAURA KIPNIS: I’m going to the University of Oregon and Simon Fraser University at the beginning of May, but not expecting trouble. I’m obviously not as deliberately incendiary as someone like Coulter or Milo [Yiannopoulos], who clearly want to provoke a reaction and are invited for that purpose. So I’d be surprised if anything like that arose, especially since so many of the reviews have made persuasive arguments on behalf of the book.

CATHY YOUNG: Moving on to sexual misconduct, there’s been a lot of debate about whether Title IX is a good way to handle accusations of sexual assault on campus, or should we be channeling those complaints into the justice system and try to refer them as much as possible to the police for a real investigation. Where do you come down on that? Do you think the Title IX system just needs reform so that it doesn’t run roughshod over the rights of the accused the way it has recently, or do you think that we should be working toward deemphasizing it as much as possible and try to work within the actual justice system?

LAURA KIPNIS: The problem is, both sides are a mess. The obvious thing to say is that the campus system has been a kind of overcorrection in response to the feeling, and the actuality, that the justice system and the police have overlooked rape and sexual assault too much, and that it was too difficult for students who’d been assaulted to work their way through that system. The problem is that the on-campus system seems to be very unprocedural. They obviously don’t have the rules of evidence that you would want to see, but they also don’t have real fact-finding capabilities.

When a Title IX officer on campus does an investigation, she or he doesn’t have subpoena power, that kind of thing, and is free to ignore evidence that they want to ignore. I’m not a policy person; I’m a cultural critic. I was in a discussion the other night with Seamus Khan, who’s at Columbia and he’s a sociologist who works on these issues. So I said I thought, if you’re talking about rape, forcible sexual assault, these should be handled by the police—because, for one thing, to expel somebody is not sufficient punishment for assault. And he made the point, which is a good point, that one reason to avoid that system is that it’s often been very unfair to minorities, we know the situation of black men in the criminal justice system. So either way that you come down, there are huge problems.

CATHY YOUNG: Obviously, a lot of the cases that you’re discussing don’t rise to the level of criminal sexual assault, but they may involve one student behaving badly toward another. Do you think there is a place for some sort of campus system that could handle non-criminal but damaging conduct within the community, without necessarily labeling it as rape? 

LAURA KIPNIS: I think that’s a really interesting idea. Because I do think campuses are communities, and the idea of some sort of community judgment or community standards where grievances are brought forward and heard—it’s a really interesting idea. Because the fact is that there is a lot of shitty sexual behavior that goes on, and the majority of it is by men toward women, and anybody who thinks that’s not the case I think has their eyes closed. So, I’m very much in favor of emphasizing an educational approach to this, and especially educating women in how to get themselves out of situations that aren’t going well, out of situations that don’t feel good.

I really do think, the more students I talk to, that there are a lot of women having sex in ways that are either physically uncomfortable or emotionally injurious or some combination, or things have happened that they didn’t want to have happened, people are drunk out of their minds. And honestly, having some drunken guy on top of you who outweighs you by 80 lbs. may not be the world’s best experience. So, I think all that should be talked about more openly, in ways that stress education over regulation.

CATHY YOUNG: So, in a way, this whole debate over “is this rape or is it not rape” is taking us in the wrong direction, isn’t it?

LAURA KIPNIS: I would have to say, and maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned on this point—I think the dividing line is the use of physical force to [make someone] have sex, and I do think that’s a criminal matter.

CATHY YOUNG: Or if we’re talking about someone who is not just intoxicated but physically incapacitated, to the extent that they are unable to remove themselves from the situation.

LAURA KIPNIS: Absolutely true. But then you get into questions that are complicated—how drunk is too drunk to consent, the fact that people can be in a blackout state and seem conscious. I think people are trying to draw hard and fast lines, and Title IX investigators are in that position of making pronouncements in fuzzy situations.

CATHY YOUNG: One of the things that the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter [from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights] did with regard to sexual assault on campus, besides requiring a lower standard of proof for Title IX complaints, was to prohibit mediation in such cases. Yet it seems that in many of those gray-area situations—for instance, where someone felt pressured into sex but didn’t feel able to speak up—mediation would be a much better way to go. What’s your opinion on that?

LAURA KIPNIS: It seems like a strange mistake, and I don’t understand it at all. Some of these measures really push in the direction of policing and turning campuses into increasingly carceral atmospheres—where mediation I think would make much more sense, and would also be educational as opposed to punitive.

CATHY YOUNG: You mentioned before that there’s a lot of bad behavior going on sexually on campuses and most of it is by men toward women, and it includes women feeling pressured into things they don’t really want. To play devil’s advocate: do you think the way we see this is also partly rooted in very traditional ideas about sex being something men get from women? For instance, if it’s a guy having sex with a woman he wouldn’t have had sex with when he was sober, it’s difficult for people to see him as a victim, even if he feels bad about it the next day. There are studies where almost as many young men as women will say that at some point they went along with a sexual situation they didn’t want, but it’s not part of our cultural language to see these men as having been done wrong.

LAURA KIPNIS: My sense is that there are a lot of contradictory ideas or subjectivities floating around when it comes to gender and sex. I have the sense there are a lot of women students who have three or four different positions on it at once: on the one hand, they want to have sex like the guys, and this could be meaningless and they’ll be the aggressors in the situation and then they’ll ditch the guy, and that’s all fine, and then that kind of competes with this other position of feeling you have been wronged and that sort of thing.

I also do think there is a lot of gender traditionalism that comes out—I say this in the book—when people drink. The more people drink, you get the sense that men become more aggressive and women become more passive, partly because they’re just more incapacitated by alcohol. So it may be that there are guys who have sex in circumstances when they didn’t want to, I’m sure that’s completely true. I do think that men—maybe this is stereotyping, but men are the ones who are more willing to force a situation, to pressure somebody, to coerce, to plead, to persuade. Maybe women have other tactics that they use—that we use to get sex from a reluctant guy. But the problem is, you’ve got this gender traditionalism in the mix with this supposed gender neutrality—we’re all equal here, and girls and guys are all on an equal playing field.

CATHY YOUNG: Still, in some of the situations you discuss in your book—including the one with Ludlow, especially his relationship with the graduate student—the women are very aggressive at times, and may even be in a quasi-dominant position. So isn’t it a lot more complicated?

LAURA KIPNIS: With the grad student, I feel on firm ground saying that, because I read their text messages and emails. I definitely think that was more in love and she had more power in the relationship, partly because she had another [boyfriend]. That’s not something that gets taken into consideration in these proceedings.

CATHY YOUNG: You also mentioned this one case in which the woman sued [claiming she was too drunk to consent], and there was evidence that she had made aggressive sexual advances toward the accused and his friend—

LAURA KIPNIS: Yes, in Colorado.

CATHY YOUNG: And she did get a disciplinary finding against her, because the other man, the friend, made a complaint about her making non-consensual advances toward him.

LAURA KIPNIS: Yes, but that’s a case where she got a $800,000 settlement also.

CATHY YOUNG: And the accused man, in that case, another grad student, was expelled?

LAURA KIPNIS: Yes, he was.

CATHY YOUNG: That was another interesting example that seemed to go against a pattern of intoxicated women being more passive—she was anything but.

LAURA KIPNIS: That’s true—good point.

CATHY YOUNG: Are you familiar with the Amherst case where they were both drunk but he didn’t remember anything, and her text messages showed that she made advances toward him? It seems that in a lot of cases this is very complicated.

LAURA KIPNIS: I like the position that you take on it—in some ways, I agree with you, in other ways, I’m trying to balance all of this out. But I like that that’s what you stress—female agency.

CATHY YOUNG: A number of social conservatives, such as Wendy Shalit in A Defense of Modesty, have argued that the real problem is that we have been chasing a utopian idea of equality instead of recognizing that traditional norms served women best by assuming that they will not have sex in casual situations. Their argument is that those norms empowered women to say no [without having to justify it]. Do you think there is anything to this argument? Should we be more sensitive to traditional notions of sex differences, or go forward to more equality?

LAURA KIPNIS: I don’t find Shalit’s argument compelling at all. I don’t know where to even start with this. (laughs) The version of feminism I would subscribe to looks at historical structures as opposed to inborn [gender differences]. Maybe propensities are inborn, but I also think that these are social structures, and if you’re a feminist you want to push toward ones that allow for women and men to have equal lives and equal versions of autonomy and equality in personal lives. This idea of gender traditionalism as something to [aspire to]—this could not be more inimical to what I think.

CATHY YOUNG: Well, the argument some would make—in the book, you referred to an incident your mother had in which a professor was literally chasing her around the desk and she was batting him away, and you were saying it’s ironic that a woman in that pre-feminist era seemed to be more assertive in fending off unwanted male advances than many women seem to be in our feminist age. And this is where some would argue that partly, in that era, it was presumed that women would reject male advances; there was a social framework in which women were supported in say no or even slapping a man in the face if he was sexually aggressive.

LAURA KIPNIS: Oh, come on—there were also women getting raped, there wasn’t access to birth control. There has certainly been a tremendous amount of progress on the gender front. It’s not like you want to look backward with nostalgia at the good old days when professors were chasing women around [the desk]. I don’t, anyway.

CATHY YOUNG: One area that you didn’t really get into in the book is that there’s a racial angle to a number of these campus cases—minority men who are accused of sexually assaulting white women, and some of these accusations definitely have questionable circumstances. Do you find it odd that at a time when there is so much sensitivity to minority issues, and especially to the issue of minority men being mistreated by the police, there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of that in the progressive community on campus?

LAURA KIPNIS: I’ve heard that there are some student groups that are aware of that. There was some kind of conference—a student conference at Brown, I believe, a couple of years ago, and it was under the auspices of “fight the carceral versions of Title IX.” The term “carceral feminism,” I think, gets brought up by people—and I think it is feminists on the left, who call themselves leftists—who are trying to make that issue be known.

CATHY YOUNG: Do you see the situation [with regard to Title IX] changing at all under the Trump administration?

LAURA KIPNIS: I think everyone is waiting to see what [Betsy] DeVos and these new people in the OCR are going to do. I can only think that they’re going to dial back on the “Dear Colleague” letters. But the question is what that means on the ground because these infrastructures are already so much in place, and with the student activists there is so much pressure to keep the adjudication machinery going—the Department of Education might dial back and it still might not change on campus. I think what will change [the situation] is these cases moving through the civil courts, and some of the decisions that are coming down are really, I think, forcing campuses to review the due process issues. It does seem like it’s all heading for some kind of clash. When we all assumed that [Hillary] Clinton was going to be President, that’s what I assumed—that this would end up, perhaps, in the Supreme Court, over the constitutional issues that are raised by Title IX. At this point, I don’t know—I don’t think anyone is really predicting.

CATHY YOUNG: Perhaps the flip side of this is that the cultural left—for lack of a better word—has been incredibly energized by Donald Trump’s election. Could this lead to more pressure from campus activists? In the current atmosphere where so many people feel there is a “war on women” coming from Washington, do you think there is going to be more of a backlash against anything that’s seen as rolling back protections for women? 

LAURA KIPNIS: That’s a good point; I hadn’t really thought about it, but it makes sense to me. [But] like I said, I think that with more and more of these cases hitting the courts, I think that will achieve some kind of turnaround. Maybe Congress will also subject this to congressional review at some point.

CATHY YOUNG: With your book among others, do you that we will see more of a pushback in the liberal and progressive community against some of the overreach—not only on Title IX but on “safe spaces,” with regard to both sex and speech?

LAURA KIPNIS: I think there will be rethinking,  particularly as more information gets out. I think the issue is that, in terms of Title IX, the information isn’t out there because it’s all confidential. The book by [K.C.] Johnson and [Stuart] Taylor, I think, puts more information out there. I wish it had had a different title—Campus Rape Frenzy seemed to be appealing toward a certain crowd, toward right-wing or anti-feminist sensibilities. [But] it was really thoroughly researched, far better than my book on explicating the tangled history of Title IX.

I do think that people who consider themselves liberals are concerned, certainly, about speech issues. Any classic liberal is concerned about speech [and] due process issues, for sure.

CATHY YOUNG: As far as getting more information out there, do you think the confidentiality rules for Title IX cases should be relaxed?

LAURA KIPNIS: Yes, absolutely. I don’t see a reason for it, particularly since these cases are hitting civil courts and a lot of them under “Doe” directives, where it’s “Jane Doe” and other pseudonyms in the cases. There should be far more transparency than there is. That doesn’t mean people’s names have to be used. But I do think that, as I exposed some of this information because these documents were not, as far as I understood it, confidential—I think just people reading about how these decisions are made and how preponderance is achieved has been shocking for some people, who thought this was all a fair process.

CATHY YOUNG: That was one of the fascinating things in your book—you shed a lot of light on what exactly goes on with the preponderance standard, where it seems to be a matter of, as you put it, either guesswork or caprice.

One final question: at one point, there was an active group called Feminists for Free Expression, which did a great deal to counteract the Dworkin-MacKinnon anti-porn feminism. Is there a need for a group, either feminist or more broadly progressive, in opposition to some of the speech and sex regulations that we’re seeing now?

LAURA KIPNIS: I would love that. You know, my sense is that there are a lot of people who are afraid to say what they really think. People have said that to me personally and in emails. They want to be seen as being on the right side of these issues. But the more people speak out about the bizarre experiences that they’ve had, the sort that I’ve had, and talk about what’s going on behind closed doors—maybe more people will come forward, and such a group would be a possibility.

Feds Fund Search for Microaggressions

Earlier this month, The Washington Free Beacon, the conservative online newspaper, reported that the National Science Foundation was spending over half a million federal dollars “to videotape male engineering students while they work in labs” to see if they are committing “microaggressions” against women. The Daily Caller was more openly sarcastic, with a headline that read, “Feds Blow $548,459 To Study ‘MICROAGGRESSIONS’ Toward Female Engineering Students.”

But was the derision deserved? The description on the NSF site made me wonder if the University of Michigan-based study might have some potential merit, despite being titled “Microaggressions in Engineering Student Teams.” Granted, the term “microaggressions”—coined in the 1970s to denote subtle unintentional slights based on race, gender, and other group characteristics—often refers to absurd “offenses” such as calling America a melting pot or getting ethnic names mixed up. But the University of Michigan study ostensibly focused on real biases, conscious or not—such as female engineering students in coed teams being relegated to less important tasks or having their input ignored. Is this worth studying? Certainly, if there is evidence that such a pattern exists. Without further details, dismissing the study as a waste of tax dollars seemed somewhat harsh.

After an email exchange with the principal investigator, University of Michigan psychology professor Denise Sekaquaptewa, I found out that the press reports had some inaccuracies: for one, the study does not focus solely on men’s microaggressions toward women but also tracks offenses by women, toward other women and sometimes toward men. Yet, in a more basic sense, the critics were on point.  Whatever valuable data this study may yield, it is primarily an exercise in trivial pursuit coupled with speech policing—directed at a problem that may not exist.

What sorts of behaviors will count as “microaggressions” in the study, which will observe mixed-gender teams of students working on group projects for an engineering class? (Each team of four or five students agreeing to participate in the study will have three video-recorded work sessions.) Sekaquaptewa told me that it would be “a variety of negative behaviors including those that are considered microaggressions in the psychology literature”:

We code for the use of sexist or racist language, such as the use of gendered pronouns, making fun of an individual’s name (e.g., because it is hard to pronounce), or demeaning jokes; assumptions of inferiority, which includes ignoring or interrupting a team member such that an individual’s contributions are not heard, or expressions of surprise at an individual’s level of accomplishment; sexual objectification, such as general comments that objectify men or women, or unreciprocated advances; general rude behaviors, such as sarcasm, unwarranted criticism, condescension, or disengagement.

In other words, a student’s casual reference to a generic engineer as “he” is enough to the women on the team to be victims of a microaggression-riddled hostile climate. So is a single unreciprocated flirtation, or, presumably, a comment about the sex appeal of an absent student or an entertainer. (At least “objectification” is treated as a two-way street!).  And who decides when enthusiastic praise for someone’s accomplishment becomes an “expression of surprise,” or which criticism is unwarranted—or, for that matter, what jokes are demeaning?

At this point, no preliminary findings from the teamwork observations are available. But Sekaquaptewa did share some data from another portion of the study: interviews with 43 engineering students in ten focus groups, conducted in the fall of 2014. One in four had “experienced or observed microaggressions” during teamwork on a group project, and 72 percent “reported witnessing microaggressions” as part of their general experience at the College of Engineering.  (Of those, about half reported microaggressions based on race or ethnicity; a similar proportion reported gender-based microaggressions.)

Did some of these microaggressed-against students face genuine sexism or racism? Possibly so. But, in a fundamental way, the study is based on a faulty premise.

The study’s stated goal is to test whether microaggressions make the climate in engineering less friendly for women, “leading to a gender gap favoring men in the important engineering outcomes of learning, performance, and persistence” and contributing to women’s underrepresentation in the profession. Yet, while engineering remains a male-dominated profession, one thing that is not a factor in this is greater attrition among women in engineering programs. Earlier NSF-funded research, completed in 2005 and published in 2008-2009, disproved the notion that women drop out of engineering programs at a higher rate than men did. As tech blogger Stephen Mraz put it:

Women are a minority in engineering schools, making up only 20% of engineering grads. In contrast, women earn over half of the bachelor degrees in agricultural, biological, chemical, and social sciences. But women aren’t bailing out of engineering once they get a taste of it in college. In fact, the studies found that a female freshman in engineering is just as likely as a male freshman is to complete the course of study.

One can debate whether women’s much lesser likelihood of choosing the field is due to innate sex differences in personality traits and interests or to cultural forces including the “masculine” image of engineering—or to some mix of both. But microaggressions in college engineering programs are clearly not responsible for keeping women out.

This is confirmed by earlier and recent data. A study published in The International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education in 2014 found that, among mechanical engineering majors tracked from 1987 to 2010, women were more likely than men to complete their degree within six years — the gap was very small for whites but fairly sizable for black students. The authors also noted that, across all engineering majors, “women do nearly as well or better than men in all racial groups, and Black males and Hispanic males stand out as having low graduation rates in the starting major.”

(Interestingly, another recent study found that male students who leave science, engineering and technology programs are more likely than their female counterparts to drop out of college altogether rather than switch to another major—a fact that seems to support widespread concerns about males lagging behind in higher education. But don’t look for federal grants to investigate whether microaggressions are driving them out.)

What does Sekaquaptewa have to say about this? In her email, she insisted, “Although achievement gaps have recently decreased, there remains a gap in persistence for women,” (a claim contradicted by all available evidence). She added, “Women are much less likely than men are to stay in the engineering profession post-graduation.” The second assertion is true, but this gap seems to be related primarily to childbearing and childrearing. Again, one could argue that more should be done to help female engineers balance career and motherhood—but eradicating sexually objectifying comments and gendered pronouns in college engineering teams will do nothing to address this problem.

So yes, it’s fair to say that the NSF is wasting more than half a million dollars—pocket change by federal standards, but your tax dollars nonetheless—on a study that is likely to do little more than encourage petty grievances. Then again, I have learned one valuable thing: if a study has the word “microaggression” in its title, you absolutely can judge the book by its cover.

A British Uproar over ‘Girls in the Lab’

It was a shocking story that seemed to confirm the worst suspicions about sexism in science: a Nobel laureate asked to speak at a luncheon honoring female scientists announces that he’s a male chauvinist, then tells a stunned audience that “girls” in the lab are trouble because “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them they cry,” and finally suggests sex-segregated labs.

After the uproar, the Case of the Misogynist Scientist quickly fell apart, with new evidence that the offending remarks were an ill-advised but well-intentioned joke taken out of context. Yet, nearly five months later, the international scandal around British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt still continues, both in the social media and in the press—only now, it’s less about sexism than about honesty, integrity, and ideology among academics and science writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

It all started at the World Congress of Science Journalists in Seoul last June when Connie St. Louis, a science writer and head of a postgraduate science journalism program at City University London sent out an angry tweet complaining that the women in science luncheon at the conference had been “utterly ruined” by Hunt’s sexist remarks. It touched off a Twitter storm, followed by sensational news stories about the scientist who thinks women “should be banned from male labs.” An apology from Hunt was widely mocked as inadequate. Inevitably, Hunt was professionally defenestrated: he resigned from several prestigious positions.

Then, the turnaround began. Several people who attended the luncheon, including female science journalists, confirmed Hunt’s claim that in his brief improvised remarks, he had been trying to make a lighthearted, self-deprecating joke and finished on a serious note, praising the work of female scientists and expressing hope for their success.

In late June, a leaked report by a European Commission—an affiliate of which, the European Research Council, sponsored Hunt’s trip to Seoul—confirmed the same, with notes taken shortly afterward by an EC official who was present. In these notes, Hunt’s comments were summarized as:

It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt, an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.

Both the EC report and the new eyewitnesses also noted that, contrary to St. Louis’s claim of “deathly silence” after Hunt’s words, most of the audience reacted positively with laughter and applause.

Related: Science quotas for Women: A White House Goal

Finally, more than a month after Hunt’s downfall, a 12-second audio recording surfaced that caught the tail end of his fateful mini-speech. (Russian science journalist Natalia Demina belatedly discovered it among her materials and gave it to the Times with the help of Louise Mensch, a journalist and former Member of Parliament who has been one of Hunt’s staunchest champions.) In the audio, Hunt says, “Congratulations, everybody, because I hope—I hope—I really hope that there won’t be anything holding you back, especially not monsters like me.” The warmth and enthusiasm in his tone are in stark contrast to St. Louis’s retelling, which has Hunt capping a string of insults to female scientists by saying that he “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women.” And one can hear audience laughter and the start of applause before the audio is cut off.

These revelations were compounded by the fact that from the start, numerous women who had worked or studied with Hunt—including distinguished scientists such as Cambridge physicist Athene Donald—insisted that he always unfailingly supportive of female scientists and never treated women as anything other than equals.

ECR president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon also credited him as an active supporter of initiatives to help the advancement of women in science; ironically, it was partly because of his record in this area that Hunt had been sent to the Seoul conference to chair a session at which two female scientists presented their work.

Related: Shaky Studies on Women and STEM

Meanwhile, serious questions arose about the credibility of St. Louis. An investigation by The Daily Mail found what appeared to be considerable résumé-padding on St. Louis’s curriculum vitae on the City University website. (St. Louis claimed that her online CV was simply an “out-of-date version,” and the university undertook to help her “update” it.) There is also at least one past instance in which she was alleged to have misquoted people to advance an agenda—in that case, the claim that the science press in the UK was too cozy with industry.

Earlier this month, the controversy was revived by the resignation of eminent scientist Sir Colin Blakemore as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers. Blakemore said he had been frustrated by the group’s decision to continue unconditional support for Connie St Louis (a past ABSW president) and referred to her report on Hunt’s remarks as “unbalanced, exaggerated, and selective.”

“In the face of a controversy that’s dominated science journalism for four months, the board of the ABSW has simply brushed away serious complaints and refused to implement its own procedures,” Blakemore told The Guardian.

While the ABSW’s stance is disappointing, it should be noted that after the first days of the scandal, the British press overall did a good job of accurate, balanced reporting on the later developments. Even The Guardian, a paper sometimes viewed as the Pravda of the British left, published a semi-apology for its tendentious early coverage of the story in mid-July; more recently, its report on Blakemore’s resignation implicitly acknowledged the vindication of Hunt. The London Times ran a scathing editorial in July deploring the destruction of Hunt’s reputation by “kneejerk outrage” based on “thirty-nine words [that] were lifted wholesale from their context by a partisan witness of questionable credentials.” The BBC has defended its reporting but, in a letter last month in response to complaints, acknowledged that “our understanding of Tim Hunt’s remarks in Seoul, and the involvement of some of those who reported them, has evolved considerably.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. media have been considerably less conscientious. Thus, The Washington Post, which had covered the initial firestorm, dropped the story completely after a June 15 article on Hunt’s first full-length interview after the controversy, in which he complained of being “hung out to dry” over “jocular” remarks. Since then, the only reference to Tim Hunt on the newspaper’s website is in a column by oceanographer Julia O’Hern, who laments allegedly still-rampant sexism in science and points to Hunt as an example of “unfortunate” attitudes holding back female scientists (“Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt suggested in June that women working in laboratories would only fall in love with their male colleagues and cry when criticized”). Likewise, the New York Times completely ignored the reports challenging the initial portrayal of Hunt’s talk.

On July 1, Slate science columnist Phil Plait responded to the pro-Hunt backlash by portraying it as a typical reaction to critiques of “institutionalized sexism” and decrying the attacks on St. Louis’s credentials. Plait made no mention of the leaked EC report and dismissed Hunt’s “Now, seriously…” segue by invoking a single witness, New York University journalism professor Charles Seife, who strongly disputed it. (As it happens, Seife immediately had to backpedal on his simultaneous claim that Hunt said “the trouble with girls,” not “my trouble with girls”—which contradicted even St. Louis’s reporting.)

But the most egregious spin was offered in an August 29 Boston Globe article by Tom Levenson, professor of science writing and director of the graduate program in science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After summarizing the original account of Hunt’s offense, Levenson wrote:

The backlash that followed was probably predictable, driven by the impulse to protect a powerful man from the minor embarrassment of being exposed as an antiquated fool. Some prominent British scientists rallied to Hunt’s defense… A sustained and deeply misleading set of posts and articles soon followed, seeking to rewrite the record of that fateful lunch in Seoul, asserting that Hunt had been joking; that his remarks were misrepresented to bring a great man down.

Levenson made no mention of what those “misleading” posts and articles actually said; nor did he disclose the existence of an audio corroborating the revisionists’ claims. Instead, he stressed that Hunt “truly did say what he said, and subsequently affirmed that he meant it.” Of course, no one has ever disputed the accuracy of the words attributed to Hunt, only their context. As for the subsequent “affirmation,” Hunt did initially tell the BBC—in a hasty call from the airport, in response to a message that for the first time informed him his remarks had caused a scandal—that he was “trying to be honest.”

But, once again, context is crucial: Hunt explained that he “meant the part about having trouble with girls” and that he was referring to his own experience of “emotional entanglements” with female co-workers in the laboratory. (Hunt is married to Mary Collins, a distinguished scientist in her own right, whom he met when she was married to another man.)

When challenged on Twitter, Levenson dismissed his critics as “flying monkeys” and “apparatchiks.” When I asked how his insistence that Hunt is a male chauvinist squared with the testimonies of numerous women who said otherwise, Levenson replied that he never said Hunt was a chauvinist—only that Hunt’s words showed the prevalence of implicit, often unconscious bias. But that’s not what his Globe article said: Levenson explicitly castigated Hunt for his “antediluvian attitudes.”

More recently, after Blakemore’s resignation, Levenson went on the warpath again, proclaiming that no one “outside the Tim Hunt Brit-friends bubble” believed Hunt had been unfairly maligned.

This blatant dishonesty is compounded by conflict of interest. Since July, the Knight Center for Science Journalism at MIT has been headed by Deborah Blum, who was, from the start, a key figure in the anti-Hunt campaign. (While Levenson denied any conflict, Twitter user James Mershon unearthed a January 2014 blogpost in which Levenson says that Blum “is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.”)

At the time of the initial controversy, Blum immediately corroborated St. Louis’s account, as they had agreed in advance; since then, she has staunchly and vocally defended  the anti-Hunt narrative. Her own conduct raises some troubling ethical questions. For instance, at first, Blum strongly insisted that Hunt had confirmed to her he was serious about segregated labs—and even said that she “was hoping he’d say it had been a joke” when she spoke to him the next day. Later, she changed her tune, tweeting and endorsing the view that even if jocular, Hunt’s remarks were unacceptable and “awful.”

Why the witch-hunt? It is clear that, from the start, Hunt was a sacrificial lamb in a feminist crusade against sexism in science. Today’s feminists are heavily invested in downplaying progress and insisting that the situation is nearly as dire as a century ago when women often had to fight just for access to labs. When the Hunt story first broke, Ann Perkins, an editorialist for The Guardian, called it “a moment to savor”—not, as some thought, because of Hunt’s downfall, but because he had supposedly exposed still-rampant misogyny in the scientific world:

“The mask has not so much slipped as crashed to the floor.” On a similar note, Levenson wrote in The Globe, “To suggest Hunt had to have been joking is to say the practice of science has changed, that no longer is it as hostile to women as everyone concedes it was until not that long ago. … Hunt’s real accomplishment in Korea—amplified by the backlash in his defense—was to blow up such self-congratulation, reminding everyone a dishonorable history isn’t actually past.”

Of course, such a narrative has to ignore and suppress not only the evidence that Hunt’s words were a self-deprecating joke, but the numerous facts indicating his history of support for female scientists.

Disgracefully, this ongoing propagandist smear campaign is being supported by a number of academics—including Blum and Levenson, professors of science journalism at a leading institution. It is no less appalling that most of the American press has allowed the casual vilification of Hunt to continue. Earlier this month, National Geographic included Hunt in a “rogues’ gallery” of ignoble Nobel laureates including HIV/AIDS denialist Kary Mullis, white supremacist William Shockley, and chemical weapons inventor Fritz Haber.

A full accounting of the facts indisputably shows that Tim Hunt has been vindicated. It’s time for the academy and the media to step up and set the record straight.

Why ‘Yes Means Yes’ Rules Can’t Work

Despite criticism from all overthe politicalspectrum, so-called “yes means yes” sex rules are on the march. After California, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law on July 7 requiring all of the state’s universities to adopt an affirmative consent policy for sexual assault cases. Similar rules are set to go into effect at the University of Minnesota, though their implementation has been delayed by civil liberties concerns; New Hampshire and New Jersey are considering legislation that would tie funding for colleges to the use of affirmative consent standards. Meanwhile, reports from the field—and even the words of the people who champion these policies—leave little reason to expect anything but disaster.

Maybe an App Will Help

Take, for instance, a recent piece by Amelia McDonnell-Parry on the feminist site The Frisky, vehemently objecting to several new smartphone apps targeted to college students that purport to facilitate affirmative consent—for instance, by allowing partners to record a 20-second video stating their mutual consent to sex. McDonnell-Parry agrees with Apple, which has barred one such app as “icky.”  (Of course, many feel that way about “affirmative consent” rules in general.) She is particularly irked that the app is intended to provide proof of consent—which, evidently, amounts to supporting the heresy that women may lie about rape and that men can legitimately worry about false charges. McDonnell-Parry also argues that a recorded “Yes” should not be treated as final: “After all, consent, once given, is NOT locked in stone, and pushing the idea that the ‘consent discussion’ is over once someone has said ‘Yes,’ is downright dangerous.”

Interestingly, McDonnell-Parry believes that, contrary to what campus policies and consent workshops typically teach these days, agreement to have sex can be expressed through “indisputably consenting body language” as well as words. It does not seem to occur to her that, even aside from deliberate lies, someone who regrets a sexual encounter could genuinely come to believe that she (or he) never gave consent. We are thus back to a central problem with affirmative consent policies, even aside from the intrusive regulation of how people conduct themselves in sexual situations: proving that active consent was obtained is virtually impossible. Some supporters of these policies openly admit that they have no idea what kind of proof a wrongly accused student could offer to clear himself (“Your guess is a good as mine,” California Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune last year). Others, such as McDonnell-Parry, openly say that there is no need for proof since false accusations are not an issue.

The Times Weighs in

Meanwhile, the New York Times, which has consistently supported the campus rape crusade, has a new report intended to show an affirmative consent success story focusing on the University at Albany, a part of SUNY. Author Sandy Keenan writes, evidently with a straight face, “The consent definition within [the new law], officials say, is not intended to micromanage students’ sex lives but to reorient them on how to approach sex and to put them on notice to take the issue seriously.”

Many students, Keenan acknowledges, are resistant to being “reoriented.” Carol Stenger, director of the university’s Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence, laments that “men and women think the situation is a wash when both are inebriated” and that it “drives [her] crazy.” (Stenger never explains why they are wrong.)  The male student at the center of Keenan’s article, junior Tyler Frahme, initially complains that affirmative consent policies are not “gender-neutral” and “cast men in a predatory light.” However, his friend Jill Santiago, who has organized sexual assault prevention training, tells him that “if guys realize they have to ask and get permission … this could wind up protecting everyone.” (That sounds suspiciously like the ultimate heresy: suggesting that men need to be protected from false accusations.)

A Little More Comfortable

At the end of the article, Keenan reports that when she called Frahme about a month later, he told her that, to his own surprise, the policy has changed his behavior and he is now “practicing consent almost religiously.” Specifically, he checks for consent—with questions like “You O.K. with this?” and “Do you still want to go ahead?”—“once or twice during sexual encounters with women he knows well, and four or five times during more casual or first-time hookups.” And how’s that working? Frahme tells Keenan that “it’s getting to be a little more comfortable,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement; however, he also reports that one first-time partner thought his questions were a devious way of manipulating her into bed. Assuming that Frahme wasn’t pulling Keenan’s leg—just how many women is he talking about over a one-month period?—this raises the disturbing possibility that questions intended to elicit consent could be construed as a form of sexual pressure.

Keenan’s article, which also includes interviews with several young women, does contain one genuinely disturbing account of campus sexual violence. One of her female interviewees, a senior, told Keenan that her only sexual encounter during her four years at the school turned disastrous when her male partner became too physically aggressive and domineering, ignored her request to stop and her attempt to push him away, and covered her mouth with his hand as he forced himself on her. Dealing with this kind of sexual assault, in which the evidence often comes down to her word against his, presents a difficult challenge. But “consent policies” will do nothing to help: a man who is willing to physically coerce a woman into a sexual act, ignoring her verbal and physical resistance, won’t hesitate to claim that she verbally consented.

The Story of Tim

The type of male student most likely to be ensnared in “affirmative consent” policies, and the type of incident likely to be reclassified as non-consensual, is illustrated by a revealing story on Cracked.com, a website oriented toward young adults that combines a hip style with leftist cultural politics, titled “5 Things I Learned Committing A Campus Sexual Assault.”

The article tells the tale of “Tim,” a student who approached the website to tell the story of how he committed a sexual assault (the details of which were apparently confirmed by his university). During the summer, between semesters, Tim and his college friend “Vicky” went out for a night of bar-hopping during which they had four or five drinks each, held hands and engaged in sexual banter, stopped briefly at a sex shop, and then went to Vicky’s place where they sat down on the couch to watch DVDs with Vicky’s head resting on Tim’s chest. At some point Tim began rubbing Vicky’s back, then moved his hand down underneath the waistband of her jeans, encountering no objection—indeed, he thought she felt her shift toward him—and proceeded to stroke her breasts over and then under her shirt. According to the article, “This all went on for an hour or so” before Tim hugged Vicky good-bye and went back to his own room.

The next day, Tim was shocked when a friend of Vicky’s confronted him and told him that “people had gone to jail for doing what he’d just done.” While Vicky never went to the police (and it’s extremely unlikely that the police would have taken such a case), she did file a complaint with the college. Tim was found responsible, and while his only punishment was a reprimand, his life on campus has been turned upside down by the requirement to stay 50 feet away from Vicky.

According to Vicky, the reason she didn’t rebuff Tim is that she had dozed off, woken up to find Tim touching her, and “froze in fear.” This claim seems extremely far-fetched, given the intimate situation and the lack of any indication that Tim might be violent. (Since Tim does not sound like a sociopath, it also seems extremely unlikely that he would not notice Vicky was frozen stiff.)  If grown women are so fragile and so terrified of men, that’s a rather depressing statement about prospects for gender equality.

It’s hard to tell what actually happened in this case, especially since Tim, who is racked by guilt, is extremely anxious to avoid anything that may smack of “victim-blaming.” It may be that Vicky didn’t quite know how to tell him to stop and the incident was a genuine misunderstanding. It may be that she was more willing than she admitted to herself; Tim’s narrative repeatedly stresses that she was a “good girl” who would never agree to sex. (Both of them are religious, and the convergence of “progressive” sexual politics with old-fashioned sexual guilt is one of the curious aspects of the piece.)

Cracked.com author Ryan Menezes stresses that even if Tim innocently misread the signals, it doesn’t mean his “victim” was any less traumatized. But people have plenty of traumatic experiences that aren’t criminal. Stipulating for the moment that Tim should have been more attentive to Vicky’s signals, there were many possibilities for a non-punitive resolution—including, perhaps, university-provided counseling and mediation.

Would affirmative consent have helped avoid such a situation? Doubtful. It is easy to imagine a similar scenario in which Tim asks Vicky if she’s okay with this and Vicky nods or even says yes—and then makes a complaint within the campus system, claiming, in all sincerity, that she felt too intimidated to say no.

“Yes means yes” will not stop sexual predators. It will turn more sensitive young men like Tim into victims of a college “judicial” system rigged so that the accused virtually cannot win.

The Strange World of Social Justice Warriors

Culture wars over “social justice” have been wreaking havoc in many communities, including universities and science fiction fandom.

The ordeal of Northwestern University film professor Laura Kipnis, hauled before a campus gender equity tribunal for publishing a critique of academia’s current obsession with sexual misconduct, has brought the backlash against “political correctness” to reliably left-of-center venues such as Vox. But this is only the latest incident in the culture wars over “social justice” that have been wreaking havoc in a wide range of communities—including, but not limited to, universities, the literary world, science fiction fandom and the atheist/skeptic movement.

The progressive crusaders driving these wars have been dubbed “social justice warriors,” or “SJWs,” by their Internet foes. Some activists on the left proudly embrace the label, crowing that it says a lot about the other side that it uses “social justice” as a derisive epithet. But in fact, this version of “social justice” is not about social justice at all. It is a cultish, essentially totalitarian ideology deeply inimical—as liberals such as Jonathan Chait warn in New York Magazine—to the traditional values of the liberal left, and not just because of the movement’s hostility to freedom of “harmful” speech.

At the core of social justice dogma is fixation on identity and “privilege.” Some of this discourse touches on real and clear inequities: for instance, the widespread tendency of police and others to treat African-Americans, especially young and male, as potential lawbreakers. Yet even here, the rhetoric of privilege generates far more heat than light. University of California-Merced sociologist Tanya Bolash-Goza, who accepts the social justice left’s view of pervasive structural racism in America, points out that the term “white privilege” turns what should be the norm for all—not being harassed by cops or eyed suspiciously by shop owners—into a special advantage unfairly enjoyed by whites. (Indeed, in its dictionary meaning, “privilege” refers to rights or benefits possessed by the select, not by the majority.) This language speaks not to black betterment but to white guilt. It also erases the fact that the “privilege” extends to many non-white groups, such as Asians.

Privilege rhetoric offers an absurdly simplistic view of complex social dynamics. A widely cited essay by pro-“social justice” sci-fi writer John Scalzi seeks to explain privilege to geeks by arguing that being a straight white male is akin to playing a videogame on “the lowest difficulty setting.” Does the white son of a poor single mother have it easier than the daughter of a wealthy black couple? As a minor afterthought, Scalzi mentions that “players” in other groups may be better off if they start with more “points” in areas such as wealth. But generally, the “social justice” left strenuously avoids the issue of socioeconomic background, which, despite upward mobility, is surely the most tangible and entrenched form of actual privilege in modern American society. Rather, the focus is on racial, sexual, and cultural identities.

While social justice discourse embraces “intersectionality”—the understanding that different forms of social advantage and disadvantage interact with each other—this virtually never works in favor of the “privileged.” Thus, intersectionality may mean recognizing that disabled battered women suffer from both sexism and “ableism.”

Recognizing that disabled men may be at greater risk for spousal abuse because disability reverses the usual male advantage in strength? Not so much. To acknowledge advantages enjoyed by the “oppressed”—for instance,gender bias favoring female defendants in criminal cases or mothers in custody suits—is pure heresy. The only moral dilemma is which oppressed identity trumps which: race or gender, sexuality or religion.

This hierarchy of identity politics can lead to some bizarre inversions of progressive values. Thus, because Muslims are classified as “marginalized” and “non-privileged” in the West’s power structures, critics of misogyny and homophobia in fundamentalist Islam risk being chastised for “Islamophobic” prejudice. Charlie Hebdo, the staunchly left-wing French magazine murderously attacked in January in retaliation for its Mohammed cartoons, was denounced bya number of leftist critics who felt that the magazine’s satirical barbs at Islam (along with other organized religions) amounted to “punching down” at the powerless. The men with guns who shot twelve Charlie staffers were presumably punching up.

On the other hand, since Jews in Western society today are seen as more privileged than not, social justice discourse sheepishly sidesteps anti-Semitism—surely one of the most pernicious forms of bigotry in Western history. Salon, more or less the Pravda of today’s social justice left, recently ran a piece arguing that the coming reboot of the X-Men franchise should reinvent its character Magneto, a Jewish Auschwitz survivor, as black in order to “get real about race.”

The practical effects of such “social justice” ideology be seen in the communities where it flourishes (mainly on college campuses and online). It is a reverse caste system in which a person’s status and worth depends entirely on their perceived oppression and disadvantage. The nuances of rank can be as rigid as in the most oppressively hierarchical traditional society. A white woman upset by an insulting comment from a white man qualifies for sympathy and support; a white woman distraught at being ripped to shreds by a “woman of color” for an apparent racial faux pas can be ridiculed for “white girl tears.” However, if she turns out to be a rape victim, the mockery probably crosses a line.

On the other hand, a straight white male trashed by an online mob for some vague offenses deemed misogynist and racist can invite more vitriol by revealing that he is a sexual abuse survivor suffering from post-traumatic stress.

A recent controversy in the science fiction world illustrates this toxic atmosphere. A few months ago, many sci-fi writers and fans were shaken by the revelation that Benjanun Sriduangkaew, a young Thai female author, not only doubled as a militant “social justice” blogger but had a third identity as a notorious LiveJournal troll known for egregious harassment, including death and rape threats—often toward nonwhite, female, or transgender victims. Yet Sriduangkaew found supporters who saw the scandal as, in the words of a Daily Dot article, “an example of white privilege attempting to silence writers of color.” The article itself approached the question of whether she deserved forgiveness in nakedly political terms: “Sriduangkaew [is] an excellent, well-liked writer whose multicultural voice is an important addition to the sparse population of non-white writers in the world of speculative publishing. On the other hand, her troll voice has often worked to loudly silence other members of marginalized identities.” Some tried to defend Sriduangkaew by pointing out that most of her targets were white males.

In this climate, it is not surprising that a while male poet would write an agonized letter to a literary blog wondering if he should stop writing: he feels guilty about writing from a white male perspective but also worries that if he writes in the voice of women or minorities, he would be “colonizing” their stories.

Working to correct inequities is a noble goal—which explains the appeal of the “social justice” movement to many fair-minded people. But the movement in its current form is not about that. It elevates an extreme and polarizing version of identity politics in which individuals are little more than the sum of their labels. It encourages wallowing in anger and guilt. It promotes intolerance and the politicization of everything. It must be stopped—not only for the sake of freedom, but for the sake of a kinder, fairer society.

This article was published originally in the New York Observer.

Did ‘Mattress Girl’ Tell the Truth?  Not Very Likely

At least for now, Columbia’s mattress saga is over. Emma Sulkowicz, the student who spent her final year on campus toting a mattress to protest the school’s failure to punish her alleged rapist, graduated at the end of May; so did Paul Nungesser, the accused man who says he’s the real victim.

There was more drama at graduation: Sulkowicz toted her mattress onstage in defiance of school regulations and later accused Columbia president Lee Bollinger of snubbing her. In related news, posters branding Sulkowicz a liar cropped up near the campus; Nungesser was reported cleared on the last sexual assault complaint against him, this one from a male student; and, the next day, one of his two anonymous female accusers told her story on the feminist blog Jezebel.

An attempt at summing up this messy saga and its lessons comes from Emily Bazelon via Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Bazelon admits that l’affaire Sulkowicz drama highlights major problems with the current system of Title IX-based campus “justice”—including “utter lack of transparency,” which is not a bug but a feature of the system: federal law stringently protects the privacy of students involved in disciplinary cases. As a result, in an alleged rape case that has attracted international attention and scrutiny, we are mostly left with he said/she said accounts not only of what happened between Nungesser and his accusers, but of how the complaints were handled by the university. The records exist, including transcripts and video recordings of the hearings; but they are off-limits and likely to remain so.

Dispensing with Due Process

Bazelon believes this fiasco is a result of the current system’s growing pains—of “a transitional period in the evolution of how universities handle sexual assault.” But it’s hard to see what reforms would fix the problem. Even if school staff are better trained to investigate sexual misconduct reports—assuming that “better training” actually means more effective fact-finding, not more faithful adherence to believe-the-survivor dogma—this would not address the underlying issue: that activists like Sulkowicz want to dispense with any semblance of due process and refuse to respect any result other than culpability and punishment.

(Incidentally, while Bazelon correctly notes that “rape is extremely difficult to prosecute both effectively and fairly,” the kind of violent attack that Sulkowicz alleges—an excruciatingly painful anal rape during which she was hit in the face, choked within an inch of her life, and pinned by the arms—would be quite easy to prove, at least if promptly reported to the police. The physical evidence would have been overwhelming.)

One lesson of this case Bazelon doesn’t mention is that if universities are going to have rules for the disposition of Title IX cases, they need, at least, to enforce those rules in a fair and meaningful way. As Nungesser’s lawsuit against Columbia points out, all the parties in sexual misconduct cases are urged to do what they can protect the confidentiality of the process and the privacy of all those involved. Sulkowicz has repeatedly violated that rule with impunity; the male accuser, known as “Adam,” talked to Jezebel about his complaint while it was still under investigation, apparently with no consequences.

On Fulsome Display

Columbia’s craven acquiescence to Sulkowicz’s activism was on fulsome display in the graduation dust-up. A university email sent the previous day had reminded students not to bring large objects into the ceremonial area. When Sulkowicz arrived toting her mattress, she was apparently asked to stow it away for the ceremony; she refused, and she and her helpers were finally allowed onstage anyway. The university’s official statement, emailed to me by director of communications Victoria Benitez, noted, “We were not going to physically block entry to graduates who are ultimately responsible for their own choices.” In other words, compliance with the rules is a personal choice.

Another lesson is that the media need to exercise due diligence and skepticism when it comes to “survivor” narratives: not to treat accusers as presumptive liars, of course, but to ask questions and do the fact-checking. (In other words, “trust but verify.”) That is something journalists egregiously failed to do for months, when Sulkowicz’s narrative went unchallenged amidst massive publicity. The mainstream coverage today is much more balanced; Bazelon clearly presents this as a story with two sides and mentions some of the exculpatory evidence, including Sulkowicz’s chatty Facebook messages to Nungesser after the alleged rape.

Yet even now, failure to verify remains a problem. No one, as far as I can tell, has followed up on Sulkowicz’s claim (made in the annotations to her Facebook messages for Jezebel last February but never mentioned before or since) that the day after she was allegedly raped by Nungesser, she talked about it to a female friend “who explain[ed] it was rape.” If such a corroborating witness exists, why did she not testify at the hearing or come forward to support Sulkowicz? Can Sulkowicz give this friend’s name to journalists, at least on the condition that she won’t be publicly identified?

To state the obvious, the truth in this story is ultimately unknowable. But here’s what we do know.

Kept up A Friendly Act

Sulkowicz’s account of her rape strains credulity to the extreme. Sulkowicz accuses Nungesser of an extremely brutal assault that should have left her visibly injured (with bruises not only on her face but on her neck and arms, unlikely to be covered by clothing in August and early September in New York) and in need of medical attention. Yet no one saw anything amiss after this attack, and both Nungesser and Sulkowicz went on to chat and banter on Facebook as if nothing happened. Sulkowicz’s claim that she kept up a friendly act hoping to confront him about the rape seems extremely dubious, given the near-psychotic violence she alleges and the lack of any sign of unease or tension in their online conversations. (When I reread these archives recently, I checked the timestamps to see if there were any awkward pauses; there weren’t, not even when Nungesser asks Sulkowicz to bring more girls to his party and she replies, “I’ll be dere w da females soon.”)

Is Sulkowicz a “false accuser”? We don’t know that. It’s possible that something ambiguous happened between her and Nungesser that night—something that she later came to see as coercive and embellished with violent details. But I would say the odds of her account being factually true are very low.

Sulkowicz has demonstrable credibility problems.A few examples:

  • As Nungesser’s lawsuit notes, at one point in spring 2014 Sulkowicz wrote that she lived in daily terror of encountering her rapist on campus—while another statement she made around the same time shows that she knew he was spending a semester in Europe.Prior to her claim that she spoke to a friend the morning after the alleged rape, Sulkowicz had sometimes asserted that she didn’t tell anyone for several months, sometimes that she told a few friends.Last fall, Sulkowicz told the Times’ Ariel Kaminer that after filing a police report, she had elected not to pursue criminal charges because the process would be “lengthy” and “too draining.” Now, she tells Bazelon that she stopped talking to investigators because “the police were visiting her apartment unexpectedly.”
  • The multiple charges in this instance do not make for a stronger case because they are demonstrably linked to each other; what’s more, there is evidence backing Nungesser’s claim that he was targeted for a vendetta based on the belief that he had raped Sulkowicz.
  • One of the other two female accusers, “Natalie”—Nungesser’s freshman-year girlfriend—filed a complaint after talking to Sulkowicz and (in Sulkowicz’s words) delving into their “shared trauma.” Her complaint was dismissed for lack of evidence after she stopped cooperating with investigators. Nungesser’s lawsuit says she claimed she felt obligated to have sex with him; Natalie herself told Bwog, the Columbia campus magazine, that he would often forcefully pin her arms back during sex and that she often cried when they were in bed. (She struggled with major depression during their relationship.)

Rape or Drunken Pass?

  • “Josie,” the accuser who authored the piece for Jezebel, admits that she filed her complaint with the encouragement of a “friend” who told her that Nungesser had been accused of raping another woman. As I have previously reported, that friend—to whom I have referred by the pseudonym “Leila”—was an officer in the Alpha Delta Phi coed fraternity to which Nungesser, Sulkowicz, and Josie all belonged. At the time, Leila was trying to get Nungesser ejected from the ADP residence because of Sulkowicz’s charges. (Josie also lived at the house; Sulkowicz did not.)Josie’s charge is the only one on which Nungesser was initially found culpable; that finding was later reversed on appeal, and a second hearing exonerated Nungesser after Josie declined to participate.Josie has given somewhat contradictory accounts of her decision to withdraw from the process. Among other things, she has repeatedly stressed that she had graduated from Columbia by then, without mentioning that the first hearing also took place months after her graduation in May 2013. (According to the timeline compiled by Nungesser’s parents, the original hearing was held September 26; the appeal was granted on October 28, and the second hearing was on December 13.)Even if Josie’s story is true, her complaint hardly corroborates Sulkowicz’s accusation. Sulkowicz is alleging a brutal rape; Josie is alleging a boorish drunken pass at a booze-soaked frat party. She says that Nungesser followed her upstairs after offering to help restock the bar, then tried to kiss her and pulled her toward him despite her protestations, until she pushed him off and left. Such behavior may meet the definition of sexual assault on the modern campus, but it is hardly the mark of a violent sexual predator. Josie herself says she did not think of it as “sexual assault” until she heard about the alleged attack on Sulkowicz.
  • The last and fourth charge from “Adam” has been all but definitively exposed as a fabrication, as I wrote on Reason.com last month after reviewing a leaked internal report by Columbia Title IX investigators. The report describes Adam as a highly “unreliable” complainant, partly because social media records contradicted his version of his interactions with Nungesser and backed Nungesser’s. Adam also made bizarrely paranoid claims that Nungesser “retaliated” for his complaint—before the complaint was filed—by sitting too close to him and his friends in class and complimenting a point he had made in a class discussion.The document also reveals that Adam first made his allegations to Leila while she was collecting accusations of sexual misconduct against Nungesser in the wake of Sulkowicz’s charge. Without explicitly confirming the existence of a vendetta, it notes that “at the time of the Complainant’s initial disclosure, at least several of his close friends … were [seeking] to evict the Respondent from the fraternity house.” Adam was a close friend of Natalie’s; Nungesser’s lawsuit also alleges he is a close friend of Sulkowicz’s.

Uncritical Reporters

While this is purely speculative, it is also interesting to note that the accusations against Nungesser first emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial in February-March 2013, when the moral panic about “rape culture” reached fever pitch in the media and “sexual awareness” events proliferated on college campuses. Is it possible that this atmosphere of hypercharged rhetoric about the ubiquity of sexual violence and its tacit toleration by American society encouraged at least some of the complainants to reinterpret their own experiences as assaultive?

With Nungesser’s lawsuit still pending, the story is certain to be back in the news. Perhaps, by the time it reaches its next round in the news cycle, the journalists who cover this case will learn some of its lessons and ask the hard questions.

In the meantime, there is certainly enough evidence to grant Nungesser the benefit of reasonable doubt not only in legal disciplinary proceedings, but in the court of public opinion. That is something he has been denied by Sulkowicz’s campaign and its mostly uncritical media reception.

The Mattress Story Under More Fire

My recent article in The Daily Beast exploring previously unknown details of Columbia’s high-profile “mattress girl” rape case—including the fact that alleged victim Emma Sulkowicz continued to have chatty and playful Facebook exchanges with alleged rapist Paul Nungesser for weeks after she says he brutally violated her and choked her within an inch of her life—caused a predictable stir in the feminist media. The principal argument seems to be that to regard such behavior as at all relevant to the veracity of Sulkowicz’s claims is to hold rape victims to an impossible standard of perfection. (I responded to some of these arguments in a column for RealClearPolitics.) On Friday, the backlash took a new turn with a “rebuttal” on Jezebel.com, a website that combines in-your-face far-left feminism with trashy celebrity gossip. While most of the Jezebel piece is an exercise in vitriol and juvenile snark, it also has some actual new content that purports to challenge my story but, in my view, actually generates more questions about the pro-Sulkowicz narrative.

This new content consists of Sulkowicz’s explanatory Continue reading The Mattress Story Under More Fire

The Debate at Brown

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.”) Continue reading The Debate at Brown

The MIT Rape Study and Other Sloppy Surveys

The latest alarming numbers on campus sexual assault come from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey which supposedly shows that 17 percent of female undergraduates have been sexually assaulted during their time at the school. Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Catherine Rampell has invoked these findings as a rebuke to those who have criticized earlier studies for inflating campus sexual assault statistics. But, in fact, the MIT survey starkly illustrates the very problems those critics have pointed out.

For one, there is the issue of response bias, acknowledged at the end of survey itself: only 35 percent of the MIT students who received the survey answered it, and it’s entirely possible that people who have had unwanted sexual experiences were more likely to respond. But, more importantly, there is also a question of how sexual assault is defined.

Continue reading The MIT Rape Study and Other Sloppy Surveys

Cathy Young: Groupthink Hits the Federalist Society

In its response to my column on my relationship with the Federalist Society’s speakers bureau, the Federalist Society claims that it continues to host events on the same topic that got me dropped from their list—challenging hardline feminist doctrines on “rape culture” and rape legislation—and speakers who share the same “basic perspective” as mine.

The response offers three examples: an upcoming panel at its Lawyers’ Convention, a discussion at the Los Angeles Lawyers’ Chapter, and a multimedia feature on its website. What’s missing here? A single event at a student chapter. This makes me wonder whether, in fact, debate on this subject is now effectively out of bounds at law schools.

Meanwhile, a past Federalist Society chapter president, Ron Coleman, has posted a remarkable comment on my column, arguing that the national leadership’s decision was probably shaped by a climate in which being associated with a group that takes a politically incorrect stance could affect the academic and future professional career of law students. I would say that that is the definition of caving to campus orthodoxy.

Mr. Coleman also implies (if I’m reading him correctly) that I “called out” the Federalist Society leadership out of bitterness at the loss of revenues from speaking engagements. I can assure him that I would have spoken out just the same if this kind of blacklisting had happened to someone else. In fact, several friends advised me against “burning my bridges,” suggesting that after some passage of time the Federalist Society might reverse the ban. Whether or not that would have possible, I chose to speak out because I think the current “chilly climate” (to borrow a feminist term) for campus speech is a dangerous problem.

Finally, in response to those who have pointed out that the Federalist Society doesn’t owe me anything: yes, I said as much in my article. The speakers’ bureau updates its list of speakers before each academic year. Had they told me they were not going to have me on their next year’s list for any reason—even wanting to make room for new speakers—I would have had absolutely no cause to complain and would have remained grateful for past speaking opportunities. Instead, I was abruptly kicked off the list and ordered to cancel already existing speaking engagements on the grounds of making unspecified offensive statements. (I realized that student feedback is confidential, but surely at least the comments could have been quoted without names.) I am still grateful to all the student volunteers, faculty advisors, and faculty members who debated me or commented on my events.

My purpose in going public was not to settle scores; it was to call attention to a troubling situation in which groupthink on “the rape culture” seems to be affecting even right-of-center organizations.

The Federalist Society Caves to “Rape Culture” Orthodoxy

George Will’s scheduled October 22 appearance at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio has drawn protests from those angered by his June column questioning the campus culture of victimhood and the anti-rape crusade. Anita Manur, director of the school’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, argued that Will’s commentary could “re-victimize and re-traumatize some of our students.” Likewise, when Scripps College decided to cancel a talk by Will, its president Lori Bettison-Varga noted that “sexual assault is … too important to be trivialized in a political debate.” In other words, debating the definition of sexual assault or the statistics on its prevalence is beyond the pale of acceptable speech.

Continue reading The Federalist Society Caves to “Rape Culture” Orthodoxy

The Brown Case: Does It Still Look Like Rape?

In late April, the media were abuzz with the tale of yet another horrific injustice inflicted by a university on a female student who had been a victim of sexual assault on campus. “Brown University lets rapist who choked his victim reenroll after a semester-long suspension,” thunderedthe headline on Salon.com. The reports were based on the account of Brown student Lena Sclove, who had addressed a campus rally of about 50 people on April 22 to denounce the university’s decision to let her alleged attacker, Daniel Kopin, return to campus. (Kopin was “outed” by the campus newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, in its April 23 news story on Sclove’s claims; while some articles left out his name, others, including Slate and Salon, did not.)

Sclove’s story was that on August 2, 2013, she was choked and sexually assaulted by Kopin–a fellow student whom she had considered a friend, and with whom she had “hooked up” in the past–after a party; she reported the assault to the university within two weeks (and, later, to the police), and after a hearing in October Kopin was found “responsible” on four counts of misconduct. While the university conduct board recommended a two-year suspension, which would have allowed Sclove to finish her studies before Kopin returned to campus, the senior associate dean of campus life reduced the suspension to one year and the vice president for campus life upheld the lesser penalty.  Now, Kopin was set to return next September and Sclove was “just so angry,” she told The Huffington Post. “I did not do anything wrong, and yet I’m the one who’s going to take time off or transfer.”

Continue reading The Brown Case: Does It Still Look Like Rape?

He Said, She Said–This Time Professor and Student

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A philosophy professor and a journalism student are involved in an unusual he-said she-said sex case at Northwestern. The student filed a federal Title IX lawsuit last month, alleging that professor Peter Ludlow sexually assaulted her two years ago and that the school took no disciplinary action, despite finding that he had engaged in “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances” (but not rape). Later, the young woman sued Ludlow himself. In fact, according to the university, Ludlow was denied a raise and an endowed chair, and was warned against one-on-one social contact with undergraduates and prohibited to drink alcohol with them–but was permitted to continue teaching with full privileges.  Brenda Slavin, the head of Northwestern’s Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention who investigated the case, has said that, contrary to the plaintiff’s claim, his dismissal was never considered or recommended.  Ludlow is currently scheduled to take a new job at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, where officials were apparently unaware of the harassment charges when they made him the offer.

Continue reading He Said, She Said–This Time Professor and Student

Trigger Warnings–A Ludicrous Step Toward Censorship

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Twenty years ago, critics such as Christina Hoff SommersDaphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, and Karen Lehrman described the bizarre “therapeutic pedagogy” in many women’s studies classrooms, where female students were frequently encouraged to share traumatic or intimate experiences in supportive “safe spaces.”  Today, at many colleges, academic therapism has spread to other fields.  Welcome to the age of the trigger warning.

The trigger-warning vogue began a few years ago on feminist websites, and then spread to other “social justice” blogs.  The idea behind them is that for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something that reminds them of the trauma can trigger painful flashbacks and panic attacks.  Initially, the warnings were primarily for sexual assault and partner abuse. Eventually, on some blogs, they spread to just about everything that could be potentially upsetting  to any person of politically correct sensitivities: sexism, racism, homophobia, “ableism,” “victim-blaming,” “slut-shaming,” “fat-shaming,” “body-shaming” and a host of other sins and oppressions.  (My personal favorite, from Melissa McEwan’s Shakesville site, is a warning for “discussion of gender policing”–that is, of norms dictating proper bounds of masculine and feminine behavior.  How startling to find such a discussion on a feminist blog!) Warnings for mere references to gun violence, suicide, self-harm and various mental disorders, as well as things that trigger phobias–from spiders to small holes (really)–have proliferated as well.

Continue reading Trigger Warnings–A Ludicrous Step Toward Censorship

A Warrior Against the ‘Rape Culture’ Speaks Out

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has been under heavy fire for running James Taranto’s February 10 column criticizing the double standard in campus policies that treat the man as a criminal and the woman as a victim when they have drunken sex–widely and egregiously misinterpreted as “if a drunk woman is raped, it’s as much her fault as the rapist’s.” On February 24, presumably for balance, the Journal ran an op-ed by an anti-sexual violence activist defending the government-backed campus crusade against (broadly defined) sexual assault. In a stroke of unfortunate irony, the activist who delivered the message was in the media spotlight a few years ago as a rape victim advocate–and, back then, she was defending a notorious rape hoax.

The February 24 column by Monika Johnson Hostler, president of the board of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, is a fairly unremarkable recycling of talking points. Johnson Hostler asserts that acquaintance rape is a “scourge of college life,” with one in five female students becoming a victim of rape or attempted rape. (Her source is the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study–which, apart from its dubious criteria for defining sexual assault, included non-penetrative unwanted sexual contact.) On the bright side, she seems to steer clear of the rhetoric that brands the average male college student a rapist, instead asserting that serial sexual predators who deliberately target incapacitated women “often blend into their schools and student communities with ease.” Of course, if that’s the real problem of college sexual assault, it’s not clear why the average college male must be terrorized with dire warnings that he could be an unwitting rapist if he fails to ascertain that his apparently willing partner is sufficiently sober (or sufficiently enthusiastic) to consent.

Rewind to 2006, when the sensational rape allegations against members of the Duke University lacrosse team were playing out in the headlines across the country–and when revelations of factual problems with the alleged victim’s account of the events began to raise questions about the rush to judgment. Johnson Hostler, then executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, was quoted extensively in a Cybercast News Service story on April 20 lamenting the critical media coverage: “Johnson-Hostler said the woman is being “re-victimized” by the public examination of her account of the evening’s events, and the scrutiny will “absolutely” discourage future rape victims from coming forward out of fear of embarrassment.”

Johnson Hostler also brushed off the suggestion that three young men facing charges in the case might be facing a painful ordeal if unfairly accused: “‘I think they’ll be glorified if they’re found innocent,’ she said. ‘The sensationalism of this case will go to another level if they’re found innocent.’ Johnson-Hostler added that a not guilty verdict would “allow people to say, ‘See, women do cry rape,’ a reference to the fable of the boy who cried wolf.”

Continue reading A Warrior Against the ‘Rape Culture’ Speaks Out

Want to Have Sex? Sign This Contract.

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The idea that sexual consent requires an explicit “yes”–one step beyond “no means no”–has long been the dogma of feminist anti-rape activists.  In the early 1990s, when Ohio-based Antioch College incorporated this principle into its code of student conduct to mandate verbal consent to each new level of intimacy, it was widely ridiculed as political correctness gone mad. Yet policies similar to Antioch’s, though not as detailed, were even then spreading to college campuses across the country.  In 1994, a senior at Pomona College in California was nearly prevented from getting his diploma because of a sexual assault complaint brought with a two-and-a-half year delay, in which the alleged victim admitted that she never said no but claimed that she never gave consent, which the college policy defined as “clear, explicit agreement to engage in a specific activity.”

Now, for the first time, this standard may be codified into law–not criminal law (as yet), but law regulating sexual assault investigations on college campuses.  SB-967, a bill proposed in the California state legislature in response to the “crisis” of campus rape, would establish “affirmative consent” as the standard for disciplinary proceedings for sexual assault complaints.  The bill allows that “willingness to participate” in sexual activity can be conveyed through “clear, unambiguous actions” as well as words, but also cautions that “relying solely on nonverbal communication can lead to misunderstanding.”

Continue reading Want to Have Sex? Sign This Contract.

Criminal Law and the Moral Panic on Campus Rape

gatto-thumb-250x187-846As the Obama Administration steps up the federal effort against an alleged epidemic of campus rape, some states are contemplating measures of their own. A recent Newsweek story on a bill pending in the California State Assembly, discussed by K.C. Johnson on Minding the Campus, raises a number of troubling issues: among them, potential spillover  from the campus crusade into the criminal justice system and actual spillover from the radical feminist blogosphere into the mainstream media.

The legislation, AB 1433, introduced on January 6 by Southern California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, requires colleges and universities to promptly bring to local law enforcement all campus reports of violent crimes (homicide, rape, robbery or aggravated assault) and hate crimes–unless the complainant requests anonymity.  Federal law–the 1990 Clery Act, named after Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old Lehigh University (Pennsylvania) student who was raped and murdered in her dorm in 1986–already requires colleges to record all crimes reported to campus authorities in a public log and in an annual security report, and to disclose them to the U.S. Department of Education.

Gatto, chagrined by the recent revelation that Occidental College in Los Angeles had failed to disclose two dozen sexual assault allegations in 2010 and 2011, decided to “streamline” the procedure by making it mandatory for schools to take all such reports to the police.  The bill states that victims of campus crimes should “have access to the expertise and investigatory powers of local police and sheriff’s departments,” which are “generally better trained and better equipped to fully investigate these crimes” than college authorities.

So far, so good.  Critics of the campus tribunals that give kangaroos a bad name have long argued that sexual assaults on campus should be handled by law enforcement and the justice system, not make-believe juries operating under capricious extralegal rules.  In a number of known cases, sexual assault complaints that led to a male student’s suspension or even expulsion from college were rejected by police and prosecutors as groundless.  In one such case, at Xavier University in Ohio, Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters actually went public to decry the expulsion of the student–basketball player Dezmine Wells, who had been previously cleared by a grand jury–as unfair.  In another, at the University of North Dakota, the accuser was actually charged with making a false report to law enforcement (and left the state to avoid arrest) while the accused, Caleb Warner, was expelled and banned from campus–a decision the university eventually reversed after a year-and-a-half legal battle.

While Gatto is appalled by the fact that very few reports of campus sexual assaults result in criminal charges, let alone conviction, he may not realize that many of these “offenses” would not qualify as sexual assault or rape even under the loosest legal standard.  They may involve being pressured or cajoled into sex with no physical coercion or threat of violence, or having sex when intoxicated but far short of incapacitation.  They may, in fact, involve nothing more than sex without affirmative consent–or even with affirmative consent that the accuser decides, months later, was given under duress.

Taking these cases to the authorities could, in theory, curb some of this theater of the absurd: a disposition of the legal charges in favor of the accused could help him within the campus judicial system as well.  (Meanwhile, in cases of actual rape, the perpetrator could face far more severe consequences than being expelled from college–which would still leave him free to victimize women elsewhere.)  In actuality, it is far from certain that Gatto’s proposal would work this way; being legally cleared of rape charges certainly didn’t help Dezmine Wells and would not have helped Caleb Warner without tenacious legal advocacy from the indefatigable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).  Moreover, in today’s atmosphere of moral panic about America’s “rape culture,” the influence could go the other way: if police departments and prosecutors reject most charges that are validated by college “courts,” they could find themselves under heavy political pressure to be more accuser-friendly.

The problematic nature of the bill is compounded by the fact that, due to input from campus activists whom Newsweek describes as “sexual assault survivors,” accusers will be allowed to decide whether their charges should be reported to the police or not.  (The alleged survivors told Gatto, and Newsweek, that they would not have gone to the campus authorities if they knew they would have to deal with actual law enforcement as well.)  Not only does this leave the universities’ “shadow justice system” entirely intact, it also underscores the extent to which feminist activism is pushing to make sexual assault or rape a subjectively defined offense.

As K.C. Johnson notes, the Newsweek article describes this situation entirely from the accusers perspective, uncritically repeating a Department of Justice report claiming that “college women are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the rest of the population” and “95% of rapes on campus will never be reported.”  But, actually, it’s worse than that: the article by Katie J.M. Baker also cherry-picks the evidence from that report.

According to Baker, “victims told the DoJ there were several reasons not to involve law enforcement officials, including  fear of being treated with hostility by the police and ‘anticipation that the police would not believe the incident was serious enough and/or would not want to be bothered with the incident.'”  Yet the 2000 article at the link shows that these were not the leading reasons women gave for not reporting the alleged rapes: “The common answers included that the incident was not serious enough to report and that it was not clear that a crime was committed.” Among the women the 2000 survey classified as victims of completed rape, 49 percent did not regard the incident as a rape; 46 percent did.

If this looks like deliberate bias rather than sloppy one-sidedness, perhaps that’s because it is.  Several Twitter users have brought attention to the fact that Baker came over to Newsweek from Jezebel.com, a leading website in the radical feminist blogosphere.  A look at her past work for Newsweek reveals that she began to write for the magazine last October; her debut was an essay responding to  Emily Yoffe’s much-debated article on Slate.com arguing that advising college women to avoid heavy drinking should be a part of sexual assault prevention. The tenor of Baker’s riposte can be gleaned from its title: “No. 1 Surefire Rape Prevention Tip For Ladies: Don’t Exist.”

Baker’s work on Jezebel.com, which presumably impressed Newsweek enough to warrant her hiring, is rather more colorful.  A January 7, 2013 blogpost titled, “Show This Depressing Graph to the Rape Apologist in Your Life,” starts with the words, “The next time some dick is all, ‘…but what about all those false rape accusations?’ show him this excellent (albeit very sad) graph…”  (The infographic Baker touted, which purports to illustrate the tiny percentage of rapists who are convicted and jailed and the even tinier percentage of accused men who are innocent, is based on such shoddy data that even radical feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte has criticized it as inaccurate.)

Baker is, of course, entitled to her opinions. Whether she’s entitled to write articles masquerading as news is a matter of Newsweek‘s journalistic standards.

The White House Overreaches on Campus Rape

Wednesday’s announcement of a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is the culmination of the Obama Administration’s years-long efforts in support for the feminist crusade against campus rape.  It is too early to tell what new remedies for sexual assault on campus the task force will propose.  So far, however, the initiative relies on the same old approach: wildly inflated numbers, the rhetoric of female victimhood, and complete disregard for any rights that the accused may have.

The report from the White House Council on Women and Girls, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” asserts that one in five female college students are sexually assaulted during their college years, with one 12% of these victims reporting the assault to law enforcement.  These figures draw on the Campus Sexual Assault Study, conducted in 2005-2007 at the request of the National Institute for Justice, and a 2007 federally sponsored national study of rape from the National Crime Victims’ Research and Treatment Center.

analyzed the CSA and its numbers nearly three years ago when the administration launched its first initiative to combat campus sexual assault in April 2011, with the “Dear Colleague” letter to college and university presidents from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.  The vast majority of the incidents counted as assault involved what the study termed “incapacitation” by alcohol (or, rarely, drugs).  But “incapacitation” is a misleading term, since the question used in the study also measured far lower degrees of intoxication: “Has someone had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep?”  This wording does not differentiate between someone who is unconscious or barely conscious and someone who is just drunk enough to go along with something he or she wouldn’t do when sober.  The questions related to sexual assault by physical force–particularly attempted sexual assault–are also worded so ambiguously that they could refer to a clumsy attempt to initiate sex, even if the “attacker” stops at once when rebuffed.

Three quarters of the female students who were classified as victims of sexual assault by incapacitation did not believe they had been raped; even when only incidents involving penetration were counted, nearly two-thirds did not call it rape. Two-thirds did not report the incident to the authorities because they didn’t think it was serious enough.

When feminists first began to draw attention to the problem of date rape thirty years ago, they argued that many women don’t realize forced sex is rape if it happens in a dating situation.  Even if it was true in the early 1980s, it is very unlikely to be true today, in the age of mandatory date rape awareness workshops on college campuses.

Moreover, the government’s numbers are wildly at odd with actual crime records.  Several years ago, Carnegie Mellon business professor Chad Hermann analyzed the number of sexual assault reported at Pittsburgh’s three major campuses (the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and Duquesne) and concluded that even if 90 percent of such assaults go unreported, a woman’s annual risk of sexual assault at these schools ranges from 1 in 3,700 to 1 in 650.  Spread out over four or five years of college attendance, that still adds up to somewhere between 1 in 130 and 1 in in 925.  There is little doubt that records from other campuses would yield similar results.

There is no doubt that sexual assault on college campuses–sometimes involving physical aggression, sometimes assaults on genuinely incapacitated women–is a real issue.  But the chase for the phantom rape epidemic can only trivialize this issue, redefining sexual assault to include sex under the influence or due to “verbal pressure”–and cast suspicion on male students, believed to have an army of rapists walking among them.

Already, many have expressed concern that excessive zeal in the campus “war on rape” is creating a “presumed guilty” mindset toward accused men.  One thing you will not find in either the official White House statement or the council’s report is any recognition that protections for victims must be balanced with fairness to the accused, or any acknowledgment of that such concerns legitimately exist.  Instead, the focus is exclusively on “survivors.”  The only mention of false accusations in the report is a passage decrying the “myth” that “many women falsely claim rape.” Cited in rebuttal is a 2010 article by University of Massachusetts psychologist David Lisak and his colleagues, which analyzes several studies (and a sample of its own) and concludes that “only 2-10% of reported rapes are false.”

Of course, the upper range of that estimate is hardly a trivial rate.  But there is another issue, too. Lisak’s numbers refer to cases in which a rape allegation is more or less definitively proven to be false.  Given how difficult it is to prove a negative, the existence of these confirmed false allegations suggests that a certain percentage of unresolved charges–in which there is no conclusive proof one way or the other–are likely false as well.

The orthodox feminist position, apparently endorsed by the Obama administration, is that unless a charge of rape is clearly demonstrated to be false, it must be true.  That is the very definition of “presumed guilty.”

(Photo Credit: AP/Politico)

‘Rape Culture’ and Free Speech

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Much has been said about the campus “war on rape” and the way it imperils students’ due process rights, but there is another casualty as well: the free exchange of ideas on college campuses when it comes to the subject of sexual offenses.

A particularly revealing recent example comes from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  On November 5, Katherine Krueger, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Badger Herald, ran a long piece explaining why the previous day’s edition had featured a letter to the editor from a student named David Hookstead questioning the existence of “rape culture.” Krueger wrote that she had made the decision to run the letter “after careful deliberation and debate with our managing editor and opinion editors.”

The fact that Krueger felt the need to justify the letter’s publication is remarkable enough; but the reason she gave for publishing it was even more striking.  Hookstead’s letter, you see, was an object lesson in “what rape culture looks like,” since it expressed “morally repugnant, patriarchal and offensive” views that are “an embodiment of rape culture” itself.

Asking for It?

And what exactly are those abhorrent views?  Krueger wrote that Hookstead “peddles the horrifically misguided beliefs that sexual assault victims were asking for it with their clothing or behavior, were drunk or are flat-out lying about being raped.”  But in fact, the letter says nothing at all about victims “asking for it.”  As for “drunk” and “flat-out lying,” here’s what Hookstead wrote:

Not everything that is claimed to be rape is actually rape, and false accusations only take away from the credibility of real victims.

For example, I’ve heard many women tell me they regretted having sex with somebody, and that if anybody asked them they’d just lie and say they were too drunk to remember. It’s people like them that are huge problems.  Why are women so desperate to demonize men that they’ll lie about being raped?

Hookstead’s letter, it should be said, is not a particularly well-constructed argument (and, given that he’s a junior majoring in political science, not a particularly flattering testimony to the quality of education at UW-Madison). His comment about women demonizing men is phrased in a way that seems to generalize about all women (of course, feminists have no problem with similar generalizing language about men and rape). And, early in his piece, he makes a statement both confrontational and condescending: “I know that people are out there on the fringe of reality who are going to criticize me for what I’m about to explain–but somebody has to explain this.” Nonetheless, Hookstead’s response to the shibboleth that “we can prevent rape by teaching men not to rape” is actually quite sensible, if not very elegantly written:

Anybody who’s ever watched the news knows that rape is illegal, and yet the above paints the picture that our society is failing to educate young men on rape. Secondly, it implies that education can prevent true acts of evil. We teach kids not to murder and rob, but people still do it. Once again, you can’t always stop criminals.

The letter, which also notes that men are not the exclusive perpetrators of sexual assault, concludes with a fairly uncontroversial plea: “Let’s focus on those that truly need our help, and let’s stop evil people when we can.”

Here’s Krueger again, explaining the letter’s publication:

We hoped this piece would be torn limb from limb in the ensuing fray, and we haven’t been disappointed by the quality of the campus’ impassioned debate in response to the letter.

While many of the responses condemned Hookstead’s reprehensible opinions, others came out of the woodwork in support of his ideas.

Ironically, Krueger’s article unintentionally offers a rather damning picture of the ideological uniformity that exists on the UW-Madison campus on issues related to sexual assault.  Students, she writes, are often “lulled into complacency on these issues” because there is “an understanding that everyone’s on the same page.”  Needless to say, her idea of “debate” is one in which heretical ideas are “torn limb from limb” (one can only imagine how feminists would respond if a male writer used such violent imagery in calling for vehement criticism of a feminist piece) and ultimately stamped out of existence.  Again and again, Krueger reiterates that such “hateful” and “ugly” opinions are utterly unacceptable and responsible for the perpetuation of rape culture itself, and that it’s “infuriating” that “this is an actual view held by more than a few UW students.”

Unanimity of Thought

Unfortunately, the climate at UW-Madison is in no way unique in this regard. In my recent article about the bizarre University of Ohio incident in which a public sex act involving two drunk students led to a rape charge (eventually dismissed by a grand jury for lack of any evidence of non-consent), I noted the virtual unanimity of support for the “victim” on the campus.  The student newspaper, The Post, ran several letters denouncing “rape culture”–and one from a dissenter, journalism major Tom Pernecker, who questioned whether such a culture was in fact prevalent at the university.  Pernecker wrote that “if both parties head home inebriated and one party calls rape on the other party this serious accusation should be taken with a grain of salt” and pointed out that if a sexual act is to be considered nonconsensual solely on the ground of intoxication, the alleged victim could also be seen as “raping” the alleged perpetrator.  While Pernecker was not subjected to the same avalanche of abuse as Hookstead, a letter that appeared in The Post the very next day concluded with a stark accusation: “You question whether rape culture is a problem. You’re perpetuating it now, Tom. You’re a part of it.”

A number of academic feminists are fairly straightforward in their belief that criticism of “rape culture” ideology should be not only condemned but suppressed.  Recently, the London School of Economics held a widely publicized panel on rape in its “Debating Law” series.  Two of the four speakers, law professor Helen Reece and prominent attorney Barbara Hewson, challenged feminist orthodoxies on consent and “victim-blaming” (ironically, their principal argument was that rape should be treated no differently from other crimes–which was once a feminist position).   Shortly afterwards, there was an outraged editorial in the online feminist legal journal Feminists @ Law, based at the University of Kent.  The editors expressed their dismay at “LSE Law’s decision to give a platform to Reece and Hewson’s dangerous and unsupported views,” asserting that there was “an onus on the LSE Law Department to ensure that the ideas that are being disseminated do not feed dangerous stereotypes about women being responsible for the sexual violence perpetuated against them.”

To the anti-rape activists and their supporters, discussing false accusations or disputing the notion that a woman who has sex while her judgment is impaired by alcohol is a rape victim is not just expressing an opinion that differs from theirs: it amounts to enabling the rape culture, helping silence victims, and undermining rape prevention efforts.  It is hardly surprising that they believe these views should be not only condemned but suppressed.

More than twenty years ago, when the campus crusade against date rape was in its infancy, a University of Michigan student who had posted in a discussion on the school’s electronic bulletin board pointing out that some allegations of rape could be false received a warning letter from a school administrator.  His comments, the student was told, reflected an “insensitive and dangerous attitude” toward women and could result in a charge of “discriminatory harassment.”

Thankfully, so far, the use of administrative penalties against dissent from rape-culture ideology has been uncommon–partly because, at least at public universities, such a definition of sexual harassment would quickly run afoul of the First Amendment.  But, as the outrage over Hookstead’s letter in The Badger Herald demonstrates, a student who publicly voices such “repellent” and “patriarchal” views risks an extremely strong and nasty social backlash.  After all, according to the editor of the student newspaper, the only purpose of airing dissent is to bring it out into the open so that it can be attacked, shamed, and finally eradicated.

The Hyped Campus Rape That Wasn’t

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If a satirist had set out to write a scathing parody of the campus crusade against rape, he could not have come up with anything more bizarre, or more ridiculous, than the real-life comedy-drama that unfolded last month at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

The scandal started, like many scandals do these days, in the social media. On Saturday, October 12, amidst the school’s Homecoming Weekend festivities, photos and a video of two young people engaged in a public sex act near the campus–the man on his knees performing oral sex on the woman while she leaned against a plate-glass window, half-sitting on its ledge–showed up online and promptly spread on Twitter.

On Sunday night, the woman in the photos, a 20-year-old Ohio University student, contacted Athens police to say that she had been sexually assaulted. The news media picked up the story; an October 16 report on the local television channel, WBNS-10TV, opened with the alarming announcement, “An Ohio university student says she was the victim of a rape.  Making it even worse, someone photographed the alleged assault and shared it on social media.” Within the OU community, there was widespread outrage, particularly at reports that at least a dozen people had witnessed the act. OU senior Allie Erwin lamented to 10-TV, ” Our first instinct as a community was not to intervene and help this woman, but to post it on social media, and make a mockery of probably the most traumatic experience of her life.

Continue reading The Hyped Campus Rape That Wasn’t

The Porn Professor Had a Meltdown

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The downfall of Hugo Schwyzer, gender studies professor and onetime darling of the feminist blogosphere–now revealed as a self-confessed “monstrous hypocrite” and intellectual fraud–has been one of the more bizarre spectacles to unfold recently on the Internet.  His strange case offers depressing insights into the sexual politics of the modern academy and the cultural left, and also says something about the brand of feminist-dominated “men’s studies” that currently enjoy academic acceptance.

Schwyzer–strictly speaking, not a professor but a soon-to-be-former tenured instructor at Pasadena Community College–has a formal background in medieval Scottish history. Much of his 20-year career, however, has been spent teaching sexier subjects such as gender studies, body image, and pornography.  In the last few years, the 46-year-old academic, with his engaging manner and boyish good looks, also emerged as something of a male feminist pop star.  He helped organize “SlutWalks,” protest marches to convey the message that a woman’s revealing dress is not an invitation to sexual assault.  He wrote for “cool” feminist websites such as Jezebel.com and for The Atlantic’s gender-issues web section.  He was a frequent guest on radio and TV and gave workshops (according to his website) “at institutions as diverse as Fuller Theological Seminary and Brown University.”

The Problem of ‘Accidental Rape’

In all these venues, Schwyzer’s message rarely deviated from the party line.  He opined that “white male privilege” was a key factor in mass shootings (even though, statistically, black and especially Asian men are somewhat overrepresented among perpetrators).  He warned that a man who took the absence of a “no” for a “yes” could find himself, morally if not legally, an “accidental rapist“–recounting his own dismay at a college girlfriend’s admission that she sometimes had sex with him when not in the mood because she didn’t know how to tell him. He argued that, in a “rape culture,” women are justified in viewing every man as a potential rapist, “presumed guilty until proven innocent.” He chastised middle-aged men for perpetuating insidious gender injustice by lusting after young women, though he engaged in that sort of lusting himself. He asserted that, while men may have real problems in today’s society, these woes are due entirely to men’s own failings (individual or collective), never to mixed signals from women or to male-unfriendly feminism. He publicly broke from a site called The Good Men Project after its founder Tom Matlack made comments critical of feminism and defended the idea of innate differences between women and men.

Yet in late 2011, Schwyzer’s presence in feminist ranks became controversial.  In a way, he was the victim of his own stardom–and of his trendy penchant for mixing social analysis with wanton self-disclosure. The anti-Schwyzer backlash was sparked by an interview posted to two influential feminist websites, Role/Reboot and Feministe, in which he discussed his troubled past, including not only alcohol and drug abuse but compulsively promiscuous sex, often with his own students (once, supposedly, four on a single class trip). Schwyzer presented his story as one of redemption: a reformed “bad boy” who, after three failed marriages, had finally grown into a good husband and father. Yet to his detractors, he was a predatory narcissist professing regret for his past wrongs while using them as career fodder.  “Why are you giving this animal a platform?” demanded a Feministe reader.  Things got more heated when someone dug up a year-oldSchwyzer blogpost with a shocking revelation: in 1998, during his battle with addiction, he tried to kill himself and an ex-girlfriend–also an addict–by turning on the gas oven while she lay passed out.

The fallout caused Schwyzer to be banished from Feministe and anathematized by some former allies.  Nonetheless, he largely managed to recover.  Many fans stood by him, and he still had friendly feminist outlets. By the summer of this year, he was reportedly on his way to a writing gig with Cosmopolitan. And then, with dizzying speed, it all came crashing down.

Blaming the Take-Down Culture

On July 30, Schwyzer abruptly announced his withdrawal from online writing, blaming “the toxicity of the take-down culture” and declaring surrender to “critics who wanted me gone from feminist spaces.” He also referred obliquely to family troubles; in his next-day interview with New York magazine’s ladyblog, The Cut, he disclosed an extramarital affair–but made no mention of the fact that he was about to be rather literally, and scandalously, exposed.

The other shoe dropped hours later: a website called The Real Porn WikiLeaks ran a story (warning: sexually explicit material) revealing Schwyzer’s “sexting” affair with 27-year-old porn actress/activist Christina Parreira, complete with Anthony Weiner-style photos (found on Parreira’s cell phone and released by her ex-boyfriend).   These X-rated chats took place in early 2012 when Schwyzer brought Parreira to speak to his “Navigating Pornography” class and included fantasiesabout sex in front of the students.

In the next few days, Schwyzer told interviewers that he was having a mental breakdown, partly due to going off his medication for bipolar disorder, and would take a leave from teaching to focus on his mental health and his marriage.  Then, on August 9, he returned online for a bizarre hour-long marathon of self-flagellation on Twitter. He denounced himself as a fraud (“I talked my way into teaching women’s studies on the basis of 2 undergrad courses”), abjectly apologized to his defenders (“I lied and manipulated and cheated so many of you”), and confessed to numerous other sins, from an extramarital affair with a woman half his age to blindness to the “class and white privilege” in his writings.

Affair with a Sex Worker

In an interview with The Daily Beast a few days later, Schwyzer disclosed that his paramour was another sex-industry worker he had met through his porn class.  He also maintained that he had not “crossed the line” with any students since 1998.  Yet online rumors persisted–culminating in a September 1 post on the Tumblr social media site by the pseudonymous “Meagan Moore,” a self-identified organizer of the Los Angeles “SlutWalk” in 2011. “Meagan” claimed that she was having sex with Schwyzer at the time–sometimes in his office–while enrolled in his “Women in American Society” class, and that at least one other student was sleeping with him that semester.  While “Meagan” stressed that she bore Schwyzer no rancor, did not feel abused and had initiated the relationship, she also felt that his continued lies undercut his professed effort to turn a new leaf.

On September 5, Schwyzer blogged his latest confession, confirming “Meagan’s” account and admitting that he had been having sex with students again since 2008.  A few days later, he posted an announcement that his academic career was over and that he would seek disability retirement on the grounds on mental illness (which would require PCC to continue paying part of his salary).  Unsurprisingly, he also revealed that he and his wife, who have two young children, are getting divorced.

What, then, are the lessons of this sordid saga?  In one of his penitent tweets, Schwyzer insisted, “I’m sui generis. I’m not symptomatic of a problem in feminism, I’m a reminder of what manipulative mentally ill [people] can do.”  While this comment was directed at ludicrous far-left charges that white feminists favored him due to racial bias, he would no doubt say the same–even more strongly–with regard to critiques of academic feminism and gender studies from the right.  It would indeed be unfair to use one person’s foibles to discredit an entire field; no discipline is free of academic misconduct.  And yet it’s hard to deny that this particular field, with its notoriously shoddy scholarship (such as the error-ridden and tendentious works of SUNY-Stony Brook sociologist Michael Kimmel, the leading light of “masculinity studies”) and its tendency to elevate the personal and the political over the academic, offers uniquely fertile soil for frauds, narcissists, and emotionally troubled manipulators to flourish.  (And that’s not even to mention the vast potential for academic mischief in porn studies.)

Not Interested in Other Men

Inevitably, the Schwyzer drama also says something about male feminism . And no, it’s nothing so facile as “male feminists are just trying to get laid” (though a sex addict organizing a SlutWalk is a near-irresistible setup for a joke). Schwyzer himself has said that both his feminism and his sex-seeking were ultimately about craving “affirmation and validation from women”; one way to get such validation, he told The Daily Beast, was by presenting “an idealized picture of what is possible for men.” His teaching and writing, he admitted, were always geared to women even when ostensibly addressed to a male audience: “I wasn’t really interested in other men. I taught a course in men and masculinity, and I cited male authors, but the whole way of designing the course was to get women excited about the possibility for male change, that they would then transfer some of that hope onto me.”

Granted, this insight is filtered through the lens of Schwyzer’s post-meltdown mental state; nonetheless, in the context of his writings, it rings true.  It is also particularly ironic given his assertion, in a 2011 article, that it’s wrong to blame women’s expectations for helping perpetuate gender-role pressures on men since men are “taught to get their primary affirmation from other men rather than from women.”

During the first round of the Schwyzer scandals in early 2012, another male feminist academic, CUNY history professor Angus Johnston, wrote a blogpost critiquing Schwyzer’s “paternalistic feminism.”  He noted Schwyzer’s apparent belief that “feminism calls him to protect the weak” and his tendency to see himself as a savior of vulnerable women, manifest in the way he wrote both about his students and about his ex-partners.  This is unquestionably true.  (The paternalism, moreover, is disturbingly sexualized; in his Daily Beast interview, Schwyzer explains that he sought to bond with female students by either sleeping with them or being their “idealized dad.”)  But one may ask if this paternalistic mindset is at the core of nearly all male feminism in its present form, when feminism itself is so skewed toward portraying women as ever-innocent, helpless victims of men.  Michael Kimmel’s paternalism may be less overt than Hugo Schwyzer’s, but it is ultimately no less condescending.  Feminists (of both sexes) who assert that men must never initiate sex without checking for clear consent may not explicitly depict women as passive fragile flowers, the way Schwyzer depicts his then-girlfriend in the “accidental rapist” story; but such a view is implicit in the assumption that women cannot be expected to rebuff an unwanted advance.

The Schwyzer affair also illustrates the bankruptcy of a female-centric approach to gender issues, in which women’s grievances against men are treated as sacrosanct while men’s concerns are ridiculed or condemned.  (And not trivial concerns, either: Schwyzer once wrote that for a man to feel devastated by the revelation that he has been tricked into assuming paternity of another man’s child is “utterly narcissistic.”)  If feminism for men boils down to “women good, men bad–but can and should do better,” that’s neither an appealing message nor a productive one.

‘Poor Pitiful Dudes’

There is a certain poetic justice in the fact that Schwyzer finally became the target of more-radical-than-thou activists for whom he was still too male-friendly–and that, having spent much of his career scoffing at sympathy for “poor pitiful dudes,” he found his own breakdown mocked with such comments as “grown men are fragile.” Yet the sheer indecency of the gloating over the woes of a mentally ill man (which Schwyzer clearly is, for all his faults) is enough to elicit sympathy, particularly when coupled with the grotesque inflation of his offenses.  (Thus, Schwyzer’s absurd self-indictment for “accidental rape” has morphed into claims that “he’s capitalized on sexually assaulting one of his partners by writing articles … blaming her for not saying no to him enough.”) The Schwyzer-bash is a stark example of leftist identity politics as “oppression Olympics” in which a straight white male can never win: he has been accused, in the same breath, of bullying “women of color” for complaining about an attack by a female Hispanic blogger, and of taking only men’s opinions seriously for singling out a male blogger’s Twitter attack as particularly hurtful.

Will Schwyzer’s rise and fall prompt some rethinking of campus gender politics?  Unfortunately, within the academy itself, that’s about as likely as the establishment of a Hugo Schwyzer Scholarship in Women’s Studies.  But for the rest of us, at least, his tale can be a cautionary one.

(Photo: Hugo Schwyzer at SlutWalk. Credit: Flickr).

Gender Engineering at Harvard Business School

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This semester, Harvard Business School marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of its first female students.  Just in time for the occasion, the New York Times ran a lengthy front-page feature on a new experiment at HBS intended to boost the performance of female students, which has tended to lag behind that of the men.  The article, by Jodi Kantor, is a confusing mix of lifestyle journalism and academic reportage based on extremely thin data; the program it chronicles seems to be an equally confusing melange of sensible measures and gender policing run amok.

In recent years, women have made up more than a third of students at Harvard Business School, coming in with test scores and grades similar to those of their male peers; but they were consistently underrepresented among recipients of academic honors.  Thus, the class of 2009 was 36 percent female–but only 11 percent of the Baker Scholarships, awarded to the top 5 percent of the graduating class, went to women. In 2010, women accounted for 38 percent of the students but 20 percent of the Baker Scholars.  This performance gap is the issue that the business school’s administration decided to tackle under the leadership of Dean Nitin Nohria–who, according to the Times, pledged to pursue a feminist makeover at the school when he was appointed in 2010 by Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first woman president.

According to the Times report, Dean Nohria’s team, which includes crusading professor-turned-administrator Frances Frei, “tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialized” and to address such issues as “the links between romantic relationships and professional status.”  Some of this effort is not quite as sinister and intrusive as it sounds: since women’s academic underperformance at Harvard Business School is due in large part to their less aggressive class participation, which counts for 50 percent of the final grade, the school offered class-participation workshops where female students were coached on such things as how to raise their hands more assertively.   (Since the workshops were directed at all women, not just those with confidence problems, they had the side effect of making some female students feel patronized.)  Coaching was also offered to junior female faculty, apparently with the effect of considerably improving their student ratings.

But overall, Kantor’s article leaves an unmistakable impression of Big Sister at work–an impression apparently shared not only by many male students in the class of 2013, but by many female students as well.  The administration provided stenographers to record classes so that professors did not have to rely on their memories for grading students on participation, as well as a software tool that kept instant track of the gender of students being called on.  The traditional case study method in which students are “cold-called” to offer solutions to business problems has been “rounded out” by–or perhaps downplayed in favor of–“a new course called Field, which grouped students into problem-solving teams.”  According to Kantor, the Field courses are widely resented; many students see them as pointless, and some even suspect that the extra work is intended to keep them too busy for partying (which the reformist deans view as detrimental to women’s academic success).  Moreover, “students used to form their own study groups, but now the deans did it for them.”

Students were also herded into mandatory meetings on gender relations which even a male student who described himself a feminist, and was sympathetic to the deans’ goals, found to be “forced” and “patronizing”; quite a few women apparently agreed.  One meeting, Kantor writes, was prompted by a female student’s mention to a faculty member that an unnamed male student had groped her in an off-campus bar. The “stumbling conversation” about sexual harassment was suddenly energized by a change of subject when one woman raised the issue of the social disadvantages faced by students who did not come from a wealthy or elite background.

Efforts to manage the student’s sexually incorrect social lives included a ban on wearing costumes to class for Halloween, in order to “head off the potential for sexy pirate costumes” (prompting class co-president Laura Merritt to ask if school uniforms would be next).  When Andrew Levine, director of the school’s annual spoof show, was placed on academic probation and barred from social events because some students had consumed alcohol in the auditorium after the show, students went into full-scale rebellion, donning T-Shirts that said “Free Andy” or “Unapologetic”–in a sarcastic reference to Frei, who frequently uses the word to describe the gender-equity program.

By one measure, the program has been a success: the grade gap between women and men at the business school has disappeared, with women getting nearly 40 percent of the Baker Scholarships in the Class of 2013.  Yet some faculty heretics are wondering if this accomplishment is partly due to inflated participation scores, given the strong pressure to produce improved results for women.  (Amusingly, Dean Nohria told Kantor that “he had no cause to think the professors had used the new software, and the subjective participation scores, to avoid gender gaps”–despite the strong message to professors that it was their responsibility to help solve the problem.)  It is worth noting, too, that at this point it’s unclear whether the improvement is permanent: the performance gap has fluctuated over the years and has been shrinking steadily since 2008, well before the Nohria-Frei “makeover.”

There is nothing wrong, of course, with taking steps to improve women’s performance in traditionally male-dominated fields–though one might legitimately wonder about the paucity of efforts to combat far more widespread male underachievement across the academy.  But these efforts may do more harm than good when they cause women’s performance to be seen as suspect or link women’s success to oppressive social engineering.

For now, the Harvard Business School reformists are vowing to continue their efforts.  Their concerns include such hard-to-control things as a tendency for women to be judged on their looks more than men, or the popularity of crude games in which students rate their classmates on what the Times euphemistically calls a “kill, sleep with or marry” scale–played not only by men but, horror of horrors, by women themselves.  It’s unclear what the gender-equity crusaders intend to do about that, or about the frustrating tendency of some of the business school’s top female graduates to choose family-compatible jobs over pioneering and higher-paying ones.  But at the very least, incoming students should brace themselves for more workshops.

(Photo: Women at Harvard Business School. Source: HBS.)

Hookup Culture–Great Publicity, but Not That Popular

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The “hookup culture” on college campuses has been a subject of much concern (and, one suspects, prurient interest) in recent years. The first dispatches from this new sexual battlefield, starting with reporter Laura Sessions Stepp’s  2003 article in The Washington Post and her 2007 book Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both, treated it as one in which women were clearly the losers, seduced by false promises of liberation and left vulnerable to exploitative casual sex, regret and heartache. Then came the feminist counter-narrative expounded in Hanna Rosin’s 2012 article in The Atlantic, “Boys on the Side” (and later in her book, The End of Men): brief no-strings liaisons, Rosin argued, are a savvy female strategy to avoid investing too much time or energy in college romance, prioritize career development, and still enjoy sex.

Last month, the New York Times ran a long feature in its Sunday Style section, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” which, despite some caveats, was largely a brief for the feminist side. Based on interviews with female students at the University of Pennsylvania, the story by Kate Taylor acknowledged the hookup culture’s negative aspects and profiled a couple of women who reject it. But its unquestioned star was “A.,” a driven, ambitious pragmatist whose sex life consists of regular encounters with a “hookup buddy” she doesn’t even like as a person (“we literally can’t sit down and have coffee”) and who would rather not make time for a real relationship.

The Conservative Attack

Some conservatives, such as Mona Charen in National Review, were quick to deride the Times story as propaganda that seeks to sell women on the “freedom” of empty sex and celebrates a degraded sexual free-for-all while covering up its reality of female misery.

Which is it, then?  Are college girls confidently pursuing the happy hookup or unhappily submitting to male exploitation while pining for true love?  The answer, most likely, is that neither narrative is quite true.  The sexual environment on many campuses certainly has its unsavory and damaging aspects–but the damage and discontent are by no means limited to women.  What’s more, the mindless promiscuous sex severed from all human connection is far less common than hookup hype–from both cheerleaders and detractors–would lead one to believe.

Take the assertion in the Times story that “traditional dating in college” has all but disappeared, replaced by hookups with no “emotional entanglement.”  Toward the end, the article itself cited facts that cast doubt on this claim, such as the finding in a major survey that 40 percent of college seniors have either never had sex or had only one partner.  Other data confirm that, while “traditional dating” in the sense of structured dates may be on the wane, relationships are not.  In the 2010 National College Health Assessment, based on a survey of nearly 29,000 students, just over a third of men and women alike had never had sex; 38 percent of men and 43 percent of female students had had only one sexual partner, while fewer than one in five men and one in six women reported more than two.  A mere six percent of male respondents and three percent of female respondents claimed to have had sex with six or more people.  (The survey’s definition of sexual relations included oral sex.)  More than half said they were in a relationship at the time of the survey.

Studies Undermine Media Reports

Media reports often greatly overstate the hookup culture’s dominance.  In 2010, a study at James Madison University in Virginia was widely reported as showing that “college students hooked up twice as often as they went on actual dates” (even though both sexes, and especially women, claimed to prefer dates to hookups).  But, in fact, these numbers referred to first dates vs. hookups (which don’t necessarily include anything more intimate than kissing).  Of the 221 respondents, mostly freshmen, 106–nearly half–were actually dating a steady partner at the time of the survey; 76 had been with that partner for at least seven months (and one was engaged).  These salient facts were missed in nearly all the reports; ironically, it took a feminist blogger to point them out.

Other studies paint a similar picture. In a study published last fall, researchers from the Miriam Hospital’s Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine in Providence, R.I. found that 40 percent of female first-year students had had at least one sexual hookup while in college but 56 percent had been in a sexual/romantic relationship (with considerable overlap between the two groups).  Only one in five “hooked up” regularly.

Elite campuses may not be hotbeds of “liberated” promiscuity, either. In a 2010 survey by the Yale Daily News (based on a sample of nearly 1,800 undergraduates who returned an email questionnaire, out of about 5,000 sent out), students reported an average of eight “make-out” partners but only two sexual partners overall, and one steady relationship.  In a similar Harvard Crimson study in 2009, the average student had had one sexual partner. These numbers would be higher if students who have never had sex were excluded from the pool–nearly one in three in the Yale survey, including men–but, even so, they hardly suggest a sexual jungle.  At Georgetown, nearly two-thirds of undergraduates surveyed in 2012 said they had sex only or primarily in committed relationships; one in ten pursued only random sexual hookups.

Hoping for a Relationship

Moreover, if “hooking up” is defined by a strictly no-strings attitude, many hookups may not qualify.  Stanford University sociologist Paula England, who analyzed data collected in 2005-2011 in the Online College Social Life Survey at 21 four-year colleges and universities, found that not only 39 percent of women but nearly a third of men reported being interested in a romantic relationship with their most recent hookup partner (only 38 percent of the men, and 25 percent of the women, said they had definitely not been interested in a relationship). In another study of about 500 undergraduates at Binghamton University in New York, half of both women and men who had hooked up reported that one of their motives was the hope of a relationship, though few actually expected a hookup to result in one.

Indeed, Penn students who criticized Taylor’s New York Times piece as a distorted picture of the campus sexual scene argued not only that romance at the university is far from extinct, but that there are other things besides romance and “meaningless hookups”; many relationships exist in a gray area between dating, “friends with benefits,” and “hooking up.”  (Responses from two young women who actually spoke to Taylor also offer some insight into the reporter’s agenda. Penn junior Amanda Wolkin recalled that all of Taylor’s questions had focused on how female students’ career ambitions affected their love lives.  Senior Arielle Pardes noted that she told Taylor she was in a serious long-term relationship with a fellow Penn student, yet neither she nor any other sexually active but monogamous student was mentioned in the article.)

Alcohol as a Crutch

Still, a “hookup culture” clearly exists, even if it is less pervasive and less inhumane than sensationalist accounts suggest. Such as it is, does this sexual culture hurt and exploit women?  On this issue, claims of female victimhood come both from conservatives (who think women are shortchanged by a false feminist ideal of liberation that disregards the feminine need for romance) and many feminists (who believe women are shortchanged by “gendered” sexual norms that privilege male needs).  But is there actual evidence of female immiseration?

Charen cites two factoids: women typically get drunk before a hookup, which suggests they need to “anesthetize themselves” before dabbling in anonymous sex; and “men get oral sex in hookups far more often than women do,” which suggests that women aren’t the ones calling the shots.

But while the first statement is accurate, it leaves out the fact that the hookup scene involves equally heavy male drinking: in the Online College Social Life Survey, men reported an average of five drinks before “hooking up,” women an average of four.

As for the oral sex gap, it may be largely a myth.  One graph based on the same surveys seems, at first glance, to reveal a huge disparity: while 30 percent of women and men reported reciprocal oral sex, 46 percent of women reported giving without receiving while only 24 percent had been only on the receiving end (male reports indicated an even larger gap).  Upon closer look, however, it turns out that these figures refer only to a specific subset of hookups: ones in which there was oral sex but no intercourse.  It also turns out that this happens in a surprisingly small minority of hookups: in this particular study, about 12 percent. Overall, 26 percent of women said they had performed oral sex in their most recent hookup and 22 percent had received it–a minor gap similar to the one in steady relationships.  Unreciprocated fellatio seems to be most common in first-time hookups, sometimes due not to male selfishness but to female reticence: in one sample of 43 college women, ten said they weren’t comfortable receiving oral sex in casual hookups and actively avoided it.

Are Women Being Exploited?

Other findings cast doubt on the notion that the hookup culture is an environment in which women get exploited and men thrive. While it’s true that, as sociologist and culture critic Lisa Wade of Occidental College puts it, “the economy of orgasm” in hookups favors men over women, it doesn’t serve men particularly well, either: in the self-reports in the survey mentioned above, male orgasm occurred in 44 percent of hookups, female orgasm in 19 percent.  Many of these encounters don’t go beyond kissing and touching; still, even sexual activity often ends with not only the woman but the man left unsatisfied–which may have to do with the amount of alcohol involved. (If these kids spent less time carousing and more reading Shakespeare, they might have known about this problem from the porter’s famous monologue in Macbeth, which observes that excessive drink “provokes the desire but takes away the performance.”)

All this suggests that in many ways, the hookup scene is not particularly healthy or fulfilling for either sex.  Indeed, while we hear much about women’s disappointment and regrets over no-strings sexual encounters, some studies find only slightly fewer negative reactions to hookups among men. (Slightly less than half of OCSL survey respondents, with a negligible gender difference, said they enjoyed their last hookup “very much.”)  According to other research, both male and female college students in long-term relationships have far fewer physical and mental health problems than their promiscuous peers.  And there is ample evidence that, all in all, both women and men would rather be in a relationship than hook up–even if women express this preference more strongly.  In the OCSL survey, a quarter of women and 38 percent of men agreed with the statement, “I don’t really want to be in an exclusive relationship now because I’d rather be free to date or hook up with multiple people”; but seven out of ten–men and women alike–wished there were more opportunities on campus to find a steady boyfriend or girlfriend.

No Need for Moral Panic

I asked Cassandra Hough, a Princeton alum and founder of that school’s pro-chastity Anscombe Society (and, more recently, of the Love and Fidelity Network which sponsors such initiatives at other colleges), whether conservative critiques of the hookup culture have focused too much on its harm to women and supposed benefits to men. In an email, Hough responded that while many men do desire meaningful relationships, “the conversation has tended to emphasize the effects of the hookup culture on women largely in response to the radical feminist voices that champion casual sex as central to women’s equality and liberation.”  Fair enough; but the result is that far too often, this critique turns into a conservative version of the same tendency to demonize men as predators and infantilize women as helpless victims for which conservatives have rightly criticized radical feminism.   Most disturbing, some conservative opponents of the hookup culture (such as Nathan Harden in last year’s book God and Sex at Yale) have embraced bogus feminist data on rampant campus rape.

How, then, should we approach the hookup phenomenon? For one, it would be a good idea to avoid moral panics. Yes, there are sordid and unhealthy sexual subcultures on many college campuses, though it’s hard to say whether this problem is any more pervasive than, say, thirty years ago (poll data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute show that approval of casual sex among college freshmen has dropped significantly since the 1980s).  Most college women and men, however, seek–and often find–steady committed relationships, at most dabbling in the hookup scene for a short walk on the wild side.

Ironically, one factor that helps sustain the hookup culture, and makes young people who shun it feel isolated, is the mistaken impression held by many students that “everyone is doing it.”  In this regard, articles that celebrate the hookup and articles that deplore it may have the same paradoxical effect of perpetuating the behavior.  Dismantling the myths would be far more constructive.

Uh-Oh–Here Come Masculinity Studies

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about my quest to track down a shocking “fact” from an acclaimed gender-studies textbook, The Gendered Society by Stony Brook University sociologist Michael Kimmel–that American teenage boys typically say they’d rather kill themselves than be a girl–and my discovery that not only was this claim based on a misreading of a thirty-year-old survey, but the book abounded in other factual inaccuracies and tendentious interpretations.  A few days later, on May 20, Stony Brook announced the launch of a new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, funded with a $300,000 start-up grant from the MacArthur Foundation–headed by none other than Kimmel, whom the press release lauded as “one of the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today.”

The Center, which will open this fall and will host regular seminars and forums as well as an international conference in 2015, is clearly meant to play a major role in  the emerging field of “masculinity studies.”  With this in mind, another look at Kimmel’s work and outlook is in order.

Like most academic work on gender, Kimmel’s writings are based on the premise that all traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity are socialized and oppressive.  While this is a debatable perspective that has an unfortunate tendency to turn into gender-studies dogma, it need not be anti-male; authors such as Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power (1993), argue that gender-role pressures and stereotypes limit and harm both women and men.  Ostensibly, Kimmel agrees (though for him, such pressures on men come only from other males and patriarchal structures); at times, as I noted in my analysis of The Gendered Society, he also stresses similarities between men and women to counter notions of a fundamental Mars-Venus gap.  Yet his work is pervaded by sweeping assumptions of male power that easily translates into knee-jerk male-blaming.  When Kimmel talks about men and boys–at least ones unreconstructed by feminism–it is often in a tone that ranges from ironic condescension to scolding rebuke and outright antipathy.

Porn Is a ‘White-Guy Thing’

A case in point: Kimmel’s best-known non-academic book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Guys Become Men (2008), which focuses on the American male in transition from boyhood to manhood.  Kimmel, who draws on interviews with nearly 400 “guys” in their late teens and early twenties, professes sympathetic concern for the young men he sees as both victims and enforcers of destructive codes of masculine conduct.  Yet the book offers such a relentless catalogue of male deficiencies and iniquities, such a parade of misogynistic, entitled, videogame- and porn-obsessed jerks that the concern eventually looks a lot like defamation.  (The main targets of this friendly fire are white men, since Kimmel argues that the dynamics of “Guyland” are rooted in white-male privilege and anger at its erosion; misconduct by minority males is relegated to the passing admission that “white guys do not have a monopoly on appalling behavior.”) Occasional disclaimers that not all young men inhabit “Guyland” and few conform to all of its norms hardly change the overall effect.  When Kimmel acknowledges that “most guys are not predators, nor criminals,” it is only to add that the sadistic bullies, rapists, and school shooters are “the farthest extremes on a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that stretches back to embrace so many young men.”

The quality of the social science behind Guyland can be gauged from one example: Kimmel’s claim that pornography is not just a guy thing but a white guy thing, with far less appeal to other ethnic groups. His evidence consists of comments from two Asian-American men, two African-Americans (an Emory University graduate and a graduate student) and a survey from the early 1990s indicating that black men report less frequent masturbation than white men.  Yet a study of actual pornography consumption by teens, published three years before Guyland, found roughly equal rates of porn use for white and black boys and higher rates for Hispanics. (A more recent report based on 1973-2010 General Social Survey data  concludes that nonwhite males are somewhat more likely to use pornography and that this gap widened in the 2000s.)

His Evidence Is Underwhelming

Elsewhere in the book, Kimmel makes a related claim promptly contradicted by his own research: that the college “hook-up culture” of casual sexual encounters is a “white guy thing” (emphasis in the original).  He quotes a couple of black students who assert that “hooking up” is viewed as “acting white.”  But non-anecdotal evidence from the Online College Social Life Survey, a collaborative project on which Kimmel works, turns out to be underwhelming: “[B]lacks and Latinos are somewhat less likely to engage in hooking up, and Asian students are far less likely to do so.”

As in The Gendered Society, Kimmel obliviously makes contradictory claims: for instance, that the sexual terrain of “Guyland” is male-dominated, with women playing by men’s rules, and that “guys” seek porn as a refuge from real-life sex which they see as female-controlled.  Concerns about overbroad redefinitions of sexual assault that include gray-area situations and misunderstandings are dismissed as backlash from victim-blaming “anti-feminists” (myself included); yet an account by one of Kimmel’s own interviewees starkly illustrates the validity of such concerns.  “Alex,” a college senior, found himself battling attempted rape charges after a drunken make-out session at an off-campus party–even though he stopped and apologized the moment the girl told him to stop.

While Kimmel admits that Alex is “a decent guy” and that similar cases “occur with alarming frequency,” he shows little actual alarm over the scary implications for young men.  Instead, he waxes enthusiastic about “rape awareness” measures that treat all men as potential rapists–such as “splash guards” on a college’s public urinals with the slogan, “You hold the power to stop rape in your hand.”  Tackiness aside, such a stunt directed at any other group would be readily seen as “hate” (imagine proposing that “You are looking at someone who can stop terrorism” be inscribed on bathroom mirrors at a campus Islamic center).

Misusing Data to Promote Ideology

Also worth noting is Kimmel’s active campaign against equal recognition for male victims of domestic abuse (an ironic crusade for someone dedicated to shattering male/female stereotypes). While men’s rights activists do tend to exaggerate “gender symmetry” in partner violence (most notably by downplaying women’s higher risk of injury), Kimmel’s anti-gender symmetry polemic, published in the journal Violence Against Women in 2002, is at least as skewed.  In a 2006 analysis on the politics of domestic violence scholarship, psychologists Donald Dutton of the University of British Columbia and Kenneth Corvo of Syracuse University bluntly accuse him of misusing data “in a direction favoring activist ideology” and trying to “manufacture” desired conclusions.

Thus, in critiquing studies based on the “Conflict Tactics Scale” questionnaire, which usually find similar rates of family violence by women and men, Kimmel invokes the 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey in which both women and men were asked about experiences of victimization: “The NVAW found that in 1998, men physically assaulted their partners at three times the rate at which women assaulted their partners.”  But that disparity was for reports of lifetime assault; for the past year, men reported such assaults at about two-thirds the rate of women.  (Men may be more likely to forget them over time for various reasons–including, perhaps, lack of cultural support in the victim role.)

Kimmel also cites leading family violence researchers Richard Gelles and Murray Straus as saying that “nearly three-fourths of the violence committed by women is done in self-defense.” But he omits the crucial fact that Straus later repudiated this claim as based on his own mistaken assumption that mutual violence was always male-initiated.

Near the end of his article, Kimmel offers an obligatory disclaimer: male victims do exist and deserve assistance and compassion.  Yet in The Gendered Society, a text widely read by college students, he discusses the abuse of men in a snidely dismissive tone, with sarcastic asides about O.J. Simpson’s claim to be “an abused husband” and a battered men’s shelter in Canada which quickly closed “because no one came to it” (the source for this factoid is unclear). Confusing and contradictory statistics are trotted out with no apparent purpose but to minimize the issue (at one point Kimmel cites old Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers showing that about 8 percent of partner assaults are on men, then adds that “perhaps it’s a bit higher” so that “as much as 3-4 percent of all spousal violence is committed by women”). The late sociologist Susan Steinmetz, who pioneered the concept of “battered husband syndrome,” is ridiculed as a crank who supposedly twisted a small study of couples with no husbands reporting abuse into “bogus data” of 250,000 husbands battered every year.  (In fact, Steinmetz’s estimates were based on several sources including a major national survey on domestic violence.)

A Men’s Auxiliary of Women’s Studies

“The study of men and masculinities” as conceptualized by Kimmel and his like-minded colleagues is, at bottom, an academic vehicle for a political attack on “white male privilege” (and, in practice, often on white males themselves), with little interest in either positive views of maleness or an understanding of male-specific problems that cannot be blamed on patriarchy or males themselves.   This is undoubtedly the brand of “men’s studies” that Stony Brook’s new Center will promote.  The makeup of the Center’s advisory board confirms as much: according to the press release, it features an array of Very Important Feminists including  Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler (of Vagina Monologues fame), Jane Fonda, and psychologist Carol Gilligan, along with a few honorary males.  It hardly comes as a surprise that, according to Kimmel, one of the Center’s primary functions will be dialogue between academics and “activists.”

One could make a good case for serious scholarship on the male side of gender issues.  The last thing the academy needs, however, is a men’s auxiliary of women’s studies.  Under Kimmel’s tutelage, that’s exactly what Stony Brook is going to get.

(Photo: Michael Kimmel. Credit: Creative Promotions Agency.)

A Classic Text on Gender–And It’s All Wrong

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A few months ago, a post with a shocking claim about misogyny in America began to circulate on Tumblr, the social media site popular with older teens and young adults.  It featured a scanned book page section stating that, according to “recent survey data,” when junior high school students in the Midwest were asked what they would do if they woke up “transformed into the opposite sex,” the girls showed mixed emotions but the boys’ reaction was straightforward: “‘Kill myself’ was the most common answer when they contemplated the possibility of life as a girl.”  The original poster–whose comment was, “Wow”–identified the source as her “Sex & Gender college textbook,” The Gendered Society by Michael Kimmel.

The post quickly caught on with Tumblr’s radical feminist contingent: in less than three months, it was reblogged or “liked” by over 33,000 users. Some appended their own comments, such as, “Yeah, tell me again how misogyny ‘isn’t real‘ and men and boys and actually ‘like,‘ ‘love’ and ‘respect the female sex‘?  This is how deep misogynistic propaganda runs… As Germaine Greer said, ‘Women have no idea how much men hate them.’

Yet, as it turns out, the claim reveals less about men and misogyny than it does about gender studies and academic feminism.

I was sufficiently intrigued to check out Kimmel’s reference: a 1984 book called The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective by psychologists Carol Tavris and Carole Wade.  The publication date was the first tipoff that the study’s description in the excerpt was not entirely accurate: the “recent” data had to be about thirty years old.  Still, did American teenage boys in the early 1980s really hold such a dismal view of being female?

When I obtained a copy of The Longest War, I was shocked to discover that the claim was not even out of context: it seemed to have no basis at all, other than one comment among examples of negative reactions from younger boys (the survey included third- through twelfth-grade students, not just those in junior high). Published in 1983 by the Institute for Equality in Education, the study had some real fodder for feminist arguments: girls generally felt they would be better off as males while boys generally saw the switch as a disadvantage, envisioning more social restrictions and fewer career options (many responses seemed based on stereotypes–e.g., husband-hunting as a girl’s main training for adulthood–than 1980s reality).  But that’s not nearly as dramatic as “I’d rather kill myself than be a girl.”

Hoping for clarification, I emailed Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University in New York and a leading scholar in gender studies.  Kimmel replied that he had indeed relied on the Tavris and Wade book; he added that he “had intended to remove the reference” as dated and would definitely do it for the next edition.  (The Gendered Society has gone through five editions since 2000; the fourth, cited in the Tumblr post, appeared in 2011.)  When I asked about the mismatch between his account of the study and his source, Kimmel promised to look into it after returning from a lecture tour; two weeks later, he emailed to say that he did not have The Longest War at hand and could not explain the discrepancy.  He conceded that he might have “misquoted” Tavris and Wade, noting that he felt this did not affect his overall argument and hoping that I could “evaluate the larger value of the book without being distracted by a single error.” 

What, then, about the larger value of The Gendered Society, described on its back cover as “one of the most balanced gender studies texts available”?  Unlike some conservative critics of feminism, I am sympathetic to Kimmel’s professed goal of a society in which women and men are individuals first regardless of gender, and to his argument that the sexes have far more in common than Mars-Venus rhetoric suggests.  Unfortunately, these principles coexist with a steady drumbeat of female victimhood and male wrongdoing–often backed by tendentious or downright distorted evidence.

Thus, The Gendered Society‘s discussion of gender in the workplace briefly acknowledges that women’s earnings are driven down by family-related work interruptions–but still treats gender gaps in pay and advancement almost entirely as the wages of discrimination, summarily dismissing the factor of sex differences in worker motivation. (Amusingly, Kimmel also asserts that mostly female jobs pay less due to sexism but doesn’t notice that in his own tables of the most single-sex-dominated occupations, the two highest-paid jobs–dental hygienist and speech-language pathologist–are nearly all-female.)  The narrative is often contradictory.  Thus, after citing staggering statistics of how many women are sexually harassed at work, Kimmel claims that the motive for harassment is almost invariably hostile–“to put women back in their place.” A paragraph later, he notes that the truth in sexual harassment cases is often elusive because the man may see “an innocent indication of sexual interest or harmless joking” where the woman sees sexual pressure. 

The chapter on “The Gendered Classroom” uncritically repeats tales of girls’ woes–for instance, that girls’ self-esteem “plummets” in junior high school–without mentioning that they have been strongly disputed, not just by critics of feminism but by mainstream psychologists.  The assertion that “girls’ IQs fall by about thirteen points,” compared to three for boys, is drawn from a 1935 book. (Ironically, Kimmel is then left scrambling to explain how “the systematic demolition of girls’ self-esteem, the denigration of their abilities, and the demotion of their status” results in a situation in which girls outperform boys academically at every level.)

Predictably, The Gendered Society also depicts American culture as saturated with male violence toward women. After quoting feminist anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday’s assertion that “the lower the status of women relative to men, the higher the rape rate,” Kimmel invites readers to consider what this says about women in the United States, which “has the highest rate of reported rape in the industrial world–about eighteen times higher than England.” 

Oh really (to borrow the title of Kimmel’s sarcastic sidebars intended to rebut different views of gender relations)? According to United Nations statistics, in 2010 the reported rape rate in the U.S.–27.3 per 100,000 people–was slightly lower than in England and Wales, at 28.8 per 100,000; in the six years previous years, it was 5 to 30 percent higher.  (Belgium’s reported rape rate in recent years has been similar to that of the U.S., and sometimes slightly higher; in Sweden, it stands at about 60 per 100,000, no doubt due to an unusually broad definition.)   Since Kimmel’s footnotes did not indicate the source, I emailed again to ask him about it; the best citation he could offer was an essay by feminist psychologist Patricia Rozee, “Rape Resistance: Successes and Challenges” in The Handbook of Women, Psychology and the Law (2005), which offers the (unsourced) claim that the U.S. rape rate is “twelve times that of England.” 

Kimmel also recycles the claim from feminist advocacy groups that “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the nation”; in fact, Centers for Disease Control and Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that women suffer about five times as many injuries from accidental falls and about twice as many from car accidents as they do from all violence (about a third of which is inflicted by partners or ex-partners). 

Meanwhile, research on women as perpetrators of domestic violence is dismissed as “a small chorus of voices shouting about ‘husband abuse,'” with no mention of the fact that many of these voices belong to female scholars (except for one paragraph ridiculing sociologist Suzanne Steinmetz) or that there are by now over 200 studies indicating similar levels of male and female aggression in relationships.  Kimmel also charges that such studies conflate aggression and self-defense, an argument that has been convincingly refuted.  His use of anecdotal evidence is equally skewed: noting that talk of female violence is belied by the lack of battered men asking for protection, he adds in a sarcastic aside that “O.J. Simpson did call himself an ‘abused husband.'”  But one could easily choose a different celebrity example–for instance, actor/comedian Phil Hartman, shot by his wife Brynn (who, friends’ accounts suggested, had been violent before) in a murder-suicide.

No scholarly text is ever error-free. But in the case of Kimmel’s book, there is a consistent pattern of using selective evidence and even pseudo-facts to stress women’s victimization and paint males (particularly American males) in the worst light. The  fictitious claim that most boys would choose death over girlhood–which will undoubtedly live on the Internet after it’s gone from future editions of the book–fits seamlessly into the big picture. 

Internet myths aside, The Gendered Society is widely used in college courses.  And if it is indeed the most balanced gender studies textbook available–which may well be true–that says a lot about the rest.