This article was published originally in Commentary
In February 2015, Columbia University—currently ranked the fourth most distinguished academic institution in the United States by U.S. News and World Report—announced that all its students, undergraduate and graduate alike, would be obliged to take part in a “Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative.” This “new, required programming,” the Columbia bureaucracy explained, was designed to explore “the relationship between sexual respect and community membership.”
Columbia’s students were given a menu of “participation options.” They could watch a minimum of two preselected videos about “rape culture” and gender identity and write a “reflection” about what they had learned. They could attend film screenings about sexual assault and masculinity and engage in a monitored discussion afterwards. They could create a “work of art” about the “relationship between sexual respect and University community membership.” Or, if they identified “as survivors, co-survivors, allies, or individuals who have experienced forms of secondary trauma,” they could attend workshops on “Finding Keys to Resiliency.”
Options in the “Finding Keys to Resiliency” module included a “mindfulness workshop” on “cultivating nonjudgmental awareness and being more present for their experience.” If attending the book launch for SLUT: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism got one too agitated about female oppression, one could unwind at a “Yoga class for women” or a “knitting circle.”
To help students organize their required “reflections” on the videos, Columbia provided a set of questions suggestive of a New Age encounter session: “Kalin [a speaker in a video] shares his ‘why’ for passion around prevention education. What is his why? If you have a passion for prevention, ‘what is your why’?”
Another prompt suggested, “Reflect on the idea of manhood as discussed in this talk. What is the interaction of the constructs of manhood and power dynamics?”
The Columbia administrators were careful to avoid any possible misunderstanding that they themselves had failed to “cultivate nonjudgmental awareness” when it comes to college sex. One of the films on offer, The Line: A Personal Exploration about Sexual Assault & Consent, is “told through a ‘sex-positive’ lens,” according to Columbia’s promotional materials.
But Columbia’s “nonjudgmentalism” extends only so far. There was no give-and-take about participation in the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative. The materials announced that it was “essential to arrive on time and participate” in the film screenings and discussions; late arrivals would not be admitted. Attendance at all events would be taken and passed on to the authorities. (This is a far stricter standard than Columbia applies to mere academic classes, where attendance policies are up to each instructor and usually lax.) Students who failed to log the requisite sexual-respect hours and complete the requisite sexual-respect assignments could be blocked from registering for academic coursework—or from graduating.
The rollout, which hit just as students were taking midterms, was a shambles. The computer portals for registering often didn’t work; many students couldn’t find participation options that were still open and that fit into their class schedule or that weren’t restricted to specific groups such as the “LGBTQ community.”
Despite the administration’s admonitions, some Columbia students decided that studying or researching their dissertation took priority over proctored discussions on “how gender affects relationships.” And so they neglected to do their sexual-respect assignments before the deadline ran out.
Columbia has now lowered the boom. In July, it started notifying the recalcitrant students that they were no longer in “good administrative standing.” Such a declaration is no small matter. Columbia treats a loss of administrative standing as seriously as an academic default; failure to repair one’s administrative standing can lead to dismissal.
By July, however, the options remaining to laggard students for demonstrating “sexual respect” had shrunk. No longer could a student view a webinar on “Transgender Sexuality and Trauma” or attend Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen to satisfy the requirement. By now, in order to restore his administrative standing, the non-sexually-respectful student could only watch a recorded TED talk and write a “reflection” on his experience.
One of those recalcitrant students is a Ph.D. candidate doing serious archival research on a central figure in Western civilization. He reports that a number of his liberal graduate-student colleagues are also in trouble for not taking part in the initiative: “Even they felt the requirement was quite infantilizing and they had better things to do with their time, like actual academic work and teaching undergraduates.” That Columbia would elevate this “burdensome distraction” to the level of actual academic responsibilities, he notes, is “yet more proof that universities have lost their bearings entirely.”
But the initiative signals something more worrisome than just Columbia’s distorted priorities, according to this refusenik. “People like me might be losing the right simply to be silent, to be left alone,” he writes. “For the first time I, along with anyone else remotely willing to dissent, am not even being allowed to stay quiet and keep my opinions to myself. The initiative implies that agreement with the ideology—indeed, with a university-mandated code of sexual ethics—is actually required for attendance at this institution.”
In fact, the sexual-respect initiative never challenges the regime of drunken hook-up sex. To do such a thing, of course, would not be “sex-positive.” Rather, the initiative simply assigns wildly asymmetrical responsibilities and liabilities within that regime, consistent with the current practice of college administrations everywhere.
One of the initiative’s videos portrays two females drinking frenetically at a series of dance clubs; a male disengages one of them and escorts her to her dorm room where he has sex with her, allegedly non-consensually because she is too woozy from the boatloads of booze she consumed to offer proper consent. The moral of the video is that bystanders should intervene if they think that someone is too drunk to agree to sex with a stranger. Several additional interpretations come to mind. First, that university administrations should perform an “intervention” on the entire booze-fueled hook-up scene. Second, that females almost always have control over whether they end up in a mentally compromised state and should therefore be careful to avoid such a condition.
This second reading is unthinkable in today’s university, however, where the male is always responsible for regretted couplings, and the female a wilting victim. If this sounds like a resurrection of Victorian values, that’s because it is, but with one major difference: The modern college co-ed retains the prerogative of unbounded promiscuity (think: “sex-positive”), while also retaining the right to revert at will to a stance of offended innocence.
If Columbia felt compelled to take on the issue of “sexual respect,” it could have done so in a way that actually had intellectual value, had it remembered that its primary mission is to fill the empty noggins of the young with at least passing knowledge of mankind’s greatest works. Civilization has grappled for thousands of years with the challenge of ordering the relationship between the sexes and has come up with more sophisticated solutions than forcing males to watch videos on escaping the “man box.” Reading Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene would offer students an elegant take on sexual respect, albeit one grounded in the now taboo virtues of chivalry and chastity. If “relevance” is necessary, Mozart’s Don Giovanni might provide an example of “bystander intervention,” as when Don Giovanni’s aristocratic peers try to hustle the peasant girl Zerlina away from his clutches.
Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, however, were unblinkered about the male sex drive, something about which contemporary feminists can’t make up their minds. To recognize the specific hungers of the specifically male libido puts one dangerously close to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes. And it is precisely the force of the male sex drive that makes the norms of courtship and modesty so important for carving out a zone of freedom and civility for females.
Feminists, by contrast, are inclined to reduce the male libido to a political power play that has more to do with keeping females out of the boardroom than getting them into the bedroom. If gender “power dynamics” are really what lead men to aggressively seek sex, then a lecture from a TED “anti-sexism educator” might be relevant. But if, in fact, men pursue sex because they want to have sex, then a different set of strategies is called for. And one of those strategies might be to tell females in blunt terms: Don’t drink yourself blotto, take your clothes off, and get into bed with a guy you barely know. A sexual-assault counselor will never utter those empowering words, however, because preserving the principle of male fault is more important than protecting females from “rape.”
Naturally, the Columbia initiative embraces the conceit that college campuses are filled with shell-shocked female victims of rape culture who might collapse at any minute from the trauma of college experience. It is for them, explains Columbia, that the “Finding Keys to Resiliency” module was designed. The “Finding Keys to Resiliency” option allows “individuals who identify as survivors” and their “allies” to “incorporate wellness and healing into their day-to-day lives…from trauma-focused therapy to healing circles, from dance and movement to yoga and mind/body work.” If, however, you are a religiously conservative student who believes that premarital intercourse is immoral (a few such closeted throwbacks still exist), you are out of luck. There is no module for you.
Predictably, the sexual-respect initiative created more trauma for Columbia’s wilting co-eds, but not always in the expected ways. One “survivor” was forced to wait 45 minutes outside her “survivors-only” workshop, only to be told that the workshop had been cancelled. “Sitting there waiting with no word caused me to panic,” she told the Columbia Spectator. The university had failed to provide her with a Victorian fainting couch.
The sexual-respect initiative undoubtedly triggered, to borrow a phrase, by Columbia’s most famous self-identified survivor: the recently graduated Emma Sulkowicz, otherwise known as the “mattress girl.” Sulkowicz belatedly claimed that she had been raped by a fellow student with whom she had been having intermittent casual sex. When Columbia, after a lengthy investigation, failed to find her alleged rapist guilty and expel him, she started carrying around a dormitory mattress in protest. This yearlong stunt, for which Columbia granted her academic credit, earned Sulkowicz rapturous accolades from the campus-rape industry and inspired scores of student imitators at other campuses.
If anyone needs the qualification of being a “self-identified” survivor, it’s Sulkowicz. After her alleged rape, Sulkowicz sent fawning emails to her alleged rapist, begging to get together again. Two days after the incident, Sulkowicz texted him: “Also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr.” A week later she suggested that they hang out together: “I want to see yoyououoyou.” Two months later, she texted: “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!”
It took Sulkowicz six months to decide that she had been raped. Columbia was indubitably right not to find her sexual partner guilty, but it lost the public relations battle anyway over its alleged mistreatment of rape “survivors.” Thus, Columbia’s burgeoning campus-rape boondoggles, including the “Sexual Violence Response” unit and the new “Special Adviser to the President for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.” This special adviser, a self-described decades long “social-justice advocate,” was soon elevated to executive vice president, heading a new Office of Community Life. From there, she designed the sexual-respect initiative.
I asked the Columbia administration how many students had lost their good standing as a result of not participating in the sexual-respect initiative. The chief of staff for the Office of University Life would only respond, “Because it was a University requirement, there was a high compliance rate with the program.” That may sadly be true. Columbia, after all, has power on its side. Even the most obstreperous comments about the mandate on the Columbia Spectator student-newspaper website were calling for civil disobedience within the confines of the initiative: “Make sure to record every word spoken. If just one feminist gets out of line: walk out, claim you were traumatized by a trigger and file a grievance….Demand to take your class with men, because women trigger your false rape accusation.”
The American university’s plunge into triviality may have become irreversible. To the narcissism of identity politics and victimology can now be added the quackery of “healing circles” and “mind/body work.” Columbia proudly claims that it has developed one of the first university-wide programs on sexual respect in the nation. Expect desperate one-upmanship to follow as our national descent into a new academic Dark Age accelerates.