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So when I was on Al Jazeera English this afternoon talking about trigger warnings (link coming soon), they played a clip of someone mocking the British Union of Students’ Women’s Campaign for requesting that delegates use “feminist jazz hands” instead of applause on the plenary floor at a conference this spring. I talked about this on Twitter when it happened, but never got around to writing it up, and since I didn’t get the chance to chime in on the show, I’ll take a moment to do it now.

I think using “jazz hands” instead of clapping at a conference is a great policy. Here’s why.

I’ve participated in, and chaired, a lot of big student meetings. They can be hugely intimidating for people who aren’t used to public speaking. However old you are, whatever background you come from, it can be terrifying to get up and speak in front of hundreds of people. And that’s particularly true if — as at a national activist conference — what you’re going to be saying is likely to be contentious, or deeply personal, or complex.

Because of this, every deliberative body has rules of protocol. Often they ban outbursts — either positive or negative — from the floor while someone is speaking. That’s not new, or weird.

But jazz hands instead of clapping? That’s weird, right?

Nope. I’ve seen it plenty of times before, and with good reason.

Applause can drown out the speaker, particularly in a big room. It also slows everything down, dragging out the proceedings and gumming up the works. Beyond that, even positive feedback from an audience can be distracting, even disconcerting. It’s easy to lose your train of thought if people start clapping when you’re not expecting it. (I speak in public for a living, and I have for decades, and I still sometimes get thrown off by applause.)

Also, just as booing or hissing or other negative responses can make people less likely to speak up in the future, cheering or clapping for one speaker can discourage  others from disagreeing. And it’s not even necessarily about fear — you may decide the body has its mind made up, so you don’t say the thing that could in reality make them reconsider.

For all of these reasons, my personal preference when chairing a plenary is that all audible expressions of support or opposition to speakers be disallowed. It makes meetings run far more smoothly and quickly, and encourages the kind of engaged, robust deliberation you’re looking for.

So yeah. It’s easy to mock wacky feminist students and their wacky feminist ways. Always has been, always will be. But this time the wacky feminists were right and their mockers were (and are) wrong.

If you ask President Obama what portion of female college students are raped, he’ll tell you the number is one out of every five. If you ask critics of the current movement to combat campus sexual assault, they’ll tell you that widely quoted figure is hugely unreliable.

Today we have one more piece of data, and it largely backs up the president.

A new study, published this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, finds that 15.3% of female students at one New York college were subjected to rape or attempted rape in their freshman year. If you expand the scope of the question to include the following summer, the figure jumps to 18.9%.

So what’s behind these numbers? The study, which defined sexual assault more narrowly than some others have, looked at two categories of rape — assaults committed through force or the threat of force, and assaults committed while the victim was incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. The authors found that 7.3% of women surveyed experienced at least one attempted or completed forcible rape in their first academic year, while 12.1% experienced attempted or completed rape by incapacitation.

Does the 15.3% figure for the first year suggest that the one-in-five number is actually too low? Maybe not. This is only one college, remember, and these kinds of statistics are never precise. Other studies have found that sexual assault is most common during the early stages of college, and this report backs that up — the authors found a twenty-five percent drop in the number of students experiencing sexual violence from the fall semester to the spring.

More troublingly, the authors also found that many women in the study were subjected to more than one sexual assault in their first year. Although they didn’t break out those numbers directly, it’s plain from their data that many of those assaulted in the spring (and the summer) had been assaulted in the fall as well.

The study asked about sexual assault earlier in life, and found that it was widespread as well — some 28% of women in the survey said they had experienced rape or attempted rape between their fourteenth birthday and enrollment in college. (Most of these sexual assaults seem to have been attempted, though the study doesn’t provide that analysis explicitly.)

One of the study’s most chilling findings is the extent to which previous sexual assault — particularly sexual assault by incapacitation — predicted future assaults. Forty-one percent of the women who reported rape or attempted rape by incapacitation before college reported the same experience in their first collegiate year, compared to just ten percent of those who had not been subjected to sexual assault by incapacitation in high school. For rape by force in college, there was a similar gap between those who had experienced assault by incapacitation before and those who had not — twenty-three percent versus six percent.

The authors don’t attempt to explain the cause of this gap, which is seen again (though to a much smaller extent) among women who had experienced forcible sexual assault before college. Different observers will interpret the data in different ways — a fact which underscores the importance of this study and our desperate need for more data in this area.

Critics of anti-rape activism frequently highlight gaps and contradictions in our statistical understanding of sexual assault as cause for skepticism or mockery. It’s true that there’s a lot that we still don’t know, and that relying too heavily on any one statistic is dangerous. Does this study prove that one in five college women will experience rape? It doesn’t. That’s information we still don’t have.

But what this study, and studies like it, do accomplish is moving us toward a better understanding of the scope and nature of our society’s sexual assault crisis.

We know that by even the most conservative estimates, hundreds of thousands of women are sexually assaulted in the United States each year. We know that a significant — and disproportionate — number of those rapes and attempted rapes take place on campus.

But we don’t actually know much for sure beyond that. Anyone who tells you with any specificity how frequently sexual assault occurs in our colleges or in our society is lying, or guessing. But that fact is itself damning — a reflection of how long we ignored rape in this country, and how early we are in our efforts to come to grips with it.

Note: Most of the figures in this piece are taken from the full JAH study, which is not currently available to the general public online.

In a short video that was posted online late Wednesday, a student advisor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia is seen confronting a black student in the college’s advisement office, telling him that continuing to wait for an advisor after being told to fill out an appointment form is “harassment.” Twice in the thirty-second video the advisor — who is white — threatens to call campus police, and the video ends with her leaving to do so. The clip has gone viral on social media today with the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanKSU, and Kennesaw State has tweeted that “a formal complaint process” is underway.

The student’s demeanor is calm and agreeable throughout the video, and there is no indication that he has caused any disruption — he’s sitting in a chair in what appears to be the office’s public waiting room.

The student, Kevin Bruce, has posted an account of the context of the incident. In it, he says that he had previously attempted to resolve an advisement issue by email without success, and that when he was told to speak to an assistant he said he’d prefer to wait for the department’s head academic advisor, Margaret Tilley. (The woman in the video, Abby Dawson, is another member of the advising staff.)

Now, it’s possible that there’s some backstory here that would render Dawson’s actions more comprehensible, but it seems relevant that a number of KSU students have gone public today with complaints about similar behavior on her part. At least two of those students have posted what they say are screenshots from recent email exchanges.

One of the screenshots is of a complaint a student lodged against Dawson just three weeks ago. In it, the student — a recent tranfser — says that he showed up at 12:47 for a drop-in appointment scheduled for a 12-1 window, and that Dawson berated him for lateness and failure to follow protocol, refusing to help him or give him her name.

In the other exchange a student writes to Dawson saying that she’s waitlisted for a summer class that’s a pre-requisite for two she needs to take in the fall, and asks — politely — whether it would be possible to take the three as co-reqs instead. When Dawson responds that this would violate policy, the student responds with a quick “Thanks! So even if it’s going to put me behind there are no overrides?” Dawson replies, “I will not continue to answer the same question.”

Again, it’s possible that these accounts are fabricated or doctored or incomplete in some way. But on their face, they seem to show a pattern in which Dawson repeatedly reacts to minor breaches of etiquette or protocol with abrasiveness and aggression. It’s not unreasonable to show up at a quarter to one for a quick consult that was slated for a one-hour window ending fifteen minutes later. It’s not unreasonable to ask whether there might a way around an academic regulation that’s threatening to stall your progress toward your degree. It’s not unreasonable to offer to wait in an administrator’s office until she has time to see you in person rather than trying to deal with an aide.

Administrators don’t have a responsibility to accede to these kinds of requests — some rules have no loopholes, some late arrivals can’t be accommodated, and some admins don’t have time to deal with unexpected drop-ins. But to say that you can’t always accommodate a student’s wishes doesn’t mean that you have the right to respond abusively.

And it absolutely doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to bring in the police. We’ve seen over and over in recent months how quickly and unexpectedly interactions with the police can turn deadly — particularly, though by no means exclusively, for young black men. When you escalate a minor disagreement with someone by calling the cops, you’re putting them at risk. Risk of violence, risk of death, and risk of unwarranted arrest and imprisonment. When a student advisement professional does it, it’s an appalling breach of their duty to the students of their campus.

Maybe there’s an explanation for all this. Maybe none of it is what it seems. If that’s the way it shakes out, I’ll be first on line to say so.

But right now it all looks very bad.

Late last year, after a minor Twitter brouhaha, I put up a blogpost criticizing author Christina Hoff Sommers’ views on the prevalence of rape in America. Today Sommers responded to that post with a four-pronged rebuttal, prompting a round of demands from her followers that I reply.

I’m happy to do so.

Sommers takes issue with my position on four issues — her role in the culture wars of the 1990s, the validity of a 2011 CDC study on rape, her analysis of the 2010 National Crime Victimization Study, and her position regarding rape in the contemporary United States. Let’s take each one in turn.

1. The Culture Wars

In my original post I said that anyone who was “around for the so-called Culture Wars of the mid-1990s” would likely remember Sommers, whose book Who Stole Feminism? “was a centerpiece of right-wing attacks on mainstream feminist theory and organizing at the time.”

Sommers describes this as a “faulty or fabricated” account, saying that she is a Democrat, that Nadine Strossen and Erica Jong wrote her fan mail, and that she, not her critics, represents “mainstream” feminism.

But Sommers is rebutting arguments I didn’t make. I didn’t say that Who Stole Feminism? was a right-wing or an anti-feminist work (although many prominent feminists have). I said that it was a centerpiece of right-wing attacks on mainstream feminism. Which it was.

Right-wingers and anti-feminists absolutely loved Who Stole Feminism? It was glowingly reviewed in practically every prominent conservative publication you can name and endlessly cited by feminism’s critics in print, online, and in face-to-face debates.

You couldn’t poke your head over a feminist parapet in 1995 without having Sommers’ book hurled at your head, is the point. Whether Sommers intended it to play that role in national debates around feminism or not, that’s a role it played.

2. The 2011 CDC Rape Study

In the video to which I was responding in my blogpost, Sommers characterized the CDC study’s questions in this way:

“No-one interviewed was asked if they had been raped or sexually assaulted. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. Now, 61.5% of the women the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced what the CDC called “alcohol and drug facilitated penetration.” Now, what does that mean? I mean, if a woman was unconscious or incapacitated, then every civilized person would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape. Indeed, a non-trivial percentage of all customary sexual intimacy, including marital sex, probably falls under that definition.

There’s a lot going on here, so before we get to my prior critique of this passage and Sommers’ rebuttal, let’s unpack it a bit.

Sommers criticizes the CDC for not asking respondents if they had been raped or sexually assaulted, calling that a “straightforward” question. But the question is anything but straightforward. State laws vary widely in their definitions of rape and sexual assault, as does colloquial usage. To find out whether a person has been subjected to a particular kind of sexual assault, it’s necessary to ask them specific questions.

And what specific questions did the CDC use to, as Sommers put it, “determine whether the responses indicated sexual violation”? The primary one was this: Whether anyone had “used physical force or threats of physical harm to make [the respondent] have” oral, anal, or vaginal sex.

That’s not a vague question. It’s not an ambiguous question. It’s a simple, clear, narrow framing of the issue. And by that definition, using respondents’ answers to that question, the CDC estimates that nearly fifteen million American women have experienced rape in their lifetimes.

The second question the CDC used in that survey was the one Sommers characterized as asking about “alcohol and drug facilitated penetration,” suggesting that it was a catch-all term for any “sex while inebriated.” But let’s look at what that question, in the context in which it was asked, actually says:

“Sometimes sex happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications. This can include times when they voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs or they were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or consent. Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault.

“When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people have ever…had vaginal sex with you? Made you perform anal sex? Made you receive anal sex? Made you perform oral sex? Made you receive oral sex?

That’s a lot of verbiage, to be sure, but it repeatedly and explicitly frames the issue under discussion as one of non-consensual activity, specifying at the top that it’s referring to circumstances in which an individual is “unable to consent to … or stop” sexual acts and then later asking about times when “you were … unable to consent.” In the questions about oral and anal sex (though not vaginal) the questioner returns yet again to the question of consent, asking whether someone had “made you” perform or acquiesce to those acts.

Go back and read Sommers’ gloss on this question again, and see whether it strikes you as a fair and accurate summary.

It didn’t strike me as one, so I said this in my post:

She suggests that the CDC counts consensual “sex while inebriated” as rape — indefensible, if true — but she does so by selectively and tendentiously quoting from the questionnaire. In fact, that section of the questionnaire — read to all respondents, but never mentioned by Sommers — states specifically that the questions within it concern sexual contact that “happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications.”

Sommers knows this, but she deliberately excludes it from her writing and speaking on the topic in order to facilitate her misrepresentation of the CDC report.

In today’s rebuttal, Sommers accuses me of selective quotation since I left out the third and fourth sentences from the question. But in her video she quoted none of the language at issue, and in a 2014 Time magazine piece she quoted only the two I left out, omitting the initial statement that the questions to follow concern non-consensual sex specifically.

Do I think the CDC’s question was worded as well as it could have been? No. Do I think it left open the possibility of misinterpretation? Yes. But whatever its flaws, the question began with an explicit, unequivocal declaration that the question concerned non-consensual sex. If Sommers has publicly acknowledged that fact before today, I’m unaware of it. (And yes, I just spent a good fifteen minutes Googling.)

One more item on the CDC study before I move on.

In the video, Sommers declared that “61.5% of the women the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010″ had responded in the affirmative to the question about drug and alcohol facilitated assault. It would be easy to assume from this phrasing that only the remaining 38.5% of those categorized as having been raped were so identified as a result of saying that they had experienced sexual assault as a result of “physical force or threats of physical harm.”

As it turns out, however, many of the women in the study had experienced multiple forms of sexual assault, and only 41% of the study’s reported assaults were in response to the drug-and-alcohol question. If Sommers had a good reason for using the potentially misleading 61.5% figure instead of the far more straightforward 41% number, I haven’t heard it.

I raised this issue in my original post, by the way, but Sommers didn’t address it in her reply.

3. The 2011 NCVS

In my blogpost I contended that Sommers was exaggerating the differences between the CDC’s rape rate and that obtained by the Department of Justice’s more conservative National Crime Victimization Survey by comparing completed rape numbers from the NCVS with completed-plus-attempted rape numbers from the CDC. In her response today, Sommers says I was “wrong.”

This one is easy: I was wrong.

Here’s how it happened. The NCVS report Sommers cited gave an estimate of 188,000 rapes in the United States in 2010, the figure Sommers relied on. But another report on the same data — this one analyzing only rapes committed against women — found that 143,000 women experienced completed rape that year, while another 89,000 experienced attempted rape. Since the NCVS report did not state explicitly that the 188,000 figure included attempted rape, I concluded that the discrepancy between the 188,000 number and the 143,000 number was a result of the exclusion of men from the second sample, and that the 188,000 figure applied only to completed rapes.

But like I say, I was wrong.

It turns out that the DOJ changed the way that it tabulates rape statistics in 2011. By counting incidents of rape rather than victims of rape, the new formula produces higher numbers. And while the the survey Sommers cited in her video used the old formula, the one I found — analyzing statistics from the same study conducted in the same year — used the new one. My interpretation of the data was plausible, but incorrect. I apologize for the error, and I’ll be correcting the original post.

4. Sommers’ Views on Rape

In the tweet that started this whole exchange, I said that Sommers had fallen further “down the rape denialist well” than I’d previously realized. That phrase — rape denialist — was one that incensed her supporters on Twitter, and explaining it was one of the things I set out to do in my post.

In today’s Facebook post Sommers said that “contesting statistics about rape is not the same as trivializing the crime or being a ‘denialist.'”

I agree with this. In fact, I agree with it so much that I said essentially the same thing myself in a response to a comment on my blogpost more than five months ago:

“The problem that I have with Sommers, ultimately, isn’t that she believes that there are fewer rapes happening in this country than I do. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the statistics, and reasonable people can disagree about which ones should be taken the most seriously.”

So if it’s not our disagreements on which statistics are most reliable that led me to use that term, what was it?

Well, it’s a few things. Partly it’s her misrepresentation of the data, which I addressed in part above and may say more about in another post. But more than that it’s her rhetoric.

According to the NCVS, which Sommers has described as the “gold standard” of sexual assault statistics, three hundred thousand rapes were committed in the United States in the most recent year for which we have information. According to the CDC, something like twenty million American women are survivors of rape or attempted rape — and that remains true even if you, like Sommers, discount their alcohol and drug statistics as unreliable.

In the face of all this, Sommers has described the rape crisis in America as “manufactured.” She has compared it to the Satanic ritual abuse hoaxes of the 1980s. She has declared that there is a “false accusation culture on campus,” and she has approvingly signal-boosted supporters who compared rape accusations to the Salem witch hunts.

This is not the language of statistics. This is not the language of reasoned debate over the precise magnitude of a serious social problem. This is the language of denial.

Earlier this week I participated in a Bloggingheads debate on contemporary campus free speech and sexual violence issues, alongside Robby Soave from Reason magazine. I’m working on a full writeup of that debate, but I just came across one particular moment that I’d like to highlight.

I don’t usually quote myself at length, but I think this response — to a suggestion from Soave that we’re currently seeing an “authoritarian, moralizing, Victorian policing of students’ sexual lives” on campus — is worth foregrounding.

“Let me put it this way: It is absolutely beyond arguing that we saw a hundred times — a thousand times — more, and more pernicious, policing of students’ sexual lives before the sexual revolution than today. The problems that we’re dealing with now in terms of policing sexual behavior are problems of figuring out how to deal with predators in a free society. The problems that we were dealing with half a century ago were the problems of a society in which women had essentially no recourse when they were subjected to sexual predation — a society in which not only did they have no recourse when they were subjected to sexual predation, but also a society in which even voluntary, consensual sexual activity was routinely punished in extremely draconian ways.

“So we are getting better at prosecuting rape in this society — and rape rates are, by plenty of indications, declining — and we are also getting better at not prosecuting consensual sexual activity. You know, we’ve had an assumption here, a sort of unstated assumption, that we’re talking about heterosexual activity, but if we’re talking about sexual activity more broadly, all of these campuses — many of these campuses — were punishing consensual homosexual activity in extremely vicious and horrific ways. And even heterosexual sexual activity was being punished regularly half a century ago, and overwhelmingly the people who were punished in those cases were women.”

To get where we want to go, we need to understand where we’ve been.

About This Blog

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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