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Okay, it’s not just #GamerGate. This passage, from one of his newspaper columns in 1944, applies pretty broadly to online political discourse in all sorts of settings.
“The thing that strikes me more and more — and it strikes a lot of other people, too — is the extraordinary viciousness and dishonesty of political controversy in our time. I don’t mean merely that controversies are acrimonious. They ought to be that when they are on serious subjects. I mean that almost nobody seems to feel that an opponent deserves a fair hearing or that the objective truth matters as long as you can score a neat debating point. When I look through my collection of pamphlets — Conservative, Communist, Catholic, Trotskyist, Pacifist, Anarchist or what-have-you — it seems to me that almost all of them have the same mental atmosphere, though the points of emphasis vary. Nobody is searching for the truth, everybody is putting forward a “case” with complete disregard for fairness or accuracy, and the most plainly obvious facts can be ignored by those who don’t want to see them.”
A new piece went up at the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday titled Why Campuses Can’t Talk About Alcohol When It Comes To Sexual Assault.
When I saw it this morning, I clicked on it eagerly. The subject of alcohol and campus sexual violence is an important one, to my mind, and the subject of why campuses — specifically administrators — don’t want to talk about it is even more important.
So when I opened the article, I was hoping to find a discussion of how the 21-year drinking age pushes alcohol use underground, making it more difficult for students to sensibly manage their consumption. I was hoping to find a discussion of the role of fraternities, athletic teams, and alumni in fostering a climate of binge drinking on certain campuses, and of administrators’ hesitance to take on such powerful college constituencies. I was hoping to find a discussion of the ways in which bans on alcohol use in dormitories can render victims of sexual assault hesitant to bring complaints for fear of facing disciplinary action for drinking, and of the fact that such fears are too-often justified. I was hoping to find a discussion about the various ways in which members of college and university communities are dissuaded from raising these issues, and punished when they do.
I found none of that. Instead, I found twenty-nine paragraphs on how women can reduce their risk of sexual assault by limiting their drinking and on the “taboo” against mentioning it.
Now, I’m not going to spill a lot of ink in discussing this supposed taboo, but the reality is that women in our society are constantly bombarded with messages about the risks of excessive drinking in relation to sexual assault, and that such messages typically place the onus of preventing such assaults on the victim of the crime, rather than the perpetrator. There’s no taboo against presenting such messages — what there is, rather, is real concern about their efficacy and morality. To her credit, Wilson notes this debate, and gives space to those who fall on the other side. But she repeatedly undermines their arguments, as when she follows critiques from two activists with the line, “but some students are willingly vigilant.”
Vigilance against sexual assault and concern with the unintended consequences of victim-blaming rhetoric are not mutually incompatible. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing. There may be a place in campus sexual assault prevention efforts for discussion of safe drinking, for instance, but any such discussion must foreground sexual predators’ intentional use of alcohol to degrade their victims’ ability to resist and to report sexual assault, a subject to which Wilson devotes only three sentences of a 1600-word essay.
Campus sexual assault is not a problem that can be eliminated through fostering virtuous behavior on the part of potential victims. It is not even a problem that can be eliminated by cracking down on individual perpetrators. It is a structural, systemic problem with deep roots in the society and in educational institutions themselves. Yes, alcohol plays a role in such assaults. But those assaults, and that drinking, does not take place in a vacuum. It’s not the alcohol, not the drinking, that fosters sexual assault, but the cultural and institutional structures in which the drinking is embedded.
Those structures are what need changing, so if we’re going to have a conversation about this topic, let’s have that one.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has a piece out this morning offering three suggestions on how to curb rape on campus.
Some of you may be cringing right now, as Douthat’s record on women’s issues is pretty poor, and indeed there’s a lot to cringe over in today’s column. But he’s getting at a real problem, and by my lights two out of his three proposals are worthy ones.
Douthat exaggerates when he says that “nobody — neither anti-rape activists, nor their critics, nor the administrators caught in between — seems to have a clear and compelling idea of what to do” about campus rape, but it’s true that the crisis is a persistent one, and that — as I’ve written before — there’s a lot of disagreement about how to approach it. It’s also true (though not quite, and not only, for the reasons Douthat offers) that after-the-fact remedies for sexual violence are a poor alternative to prevention.
Prevention is Douthat’s focus in this piece, and he admirably (mostly) refrains from victim-blaming within it. Instead, he proposes lowering the drinking age, cracking down on “Blutarskian excess,” and re-imposing some parietal rules — regulations restricting students’ private social activities. Let’s take these three one at a time:
First, Douthat is right that raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 three decades ago had the effect of driving much campus alcohol consumption underground. If you can’t drink freely in public, you’re likely to drink more copiously in private, and if you can’t be seen carrying around a beer, you’re far more likely to drink harder alcohol in a rushed and uncontrolled way.
Douthat fails to name the central factor linking covert drinking with sexual assault, so I will: it’s sexual predators and predation. The drunker students get, the more power rapists will have, and the more covert and unstructured drinking is, the easier it is for rapists to cajole and coerce potential victims to drink to excess. Lowering the drinking age would give students better ways to regulate their own alcohol consumption, better opportunities to look out for each other, and the increased safety that comes with openness. Crucially, as well, lowering the drinking age would free up colleges to reform their own alcohol rules, and remove fear of college sanctions and criminal prosecution as barriers to survivors of assault coming forward.
Douthat’s second suggestion, that campuses crack down on parties, is handled deftly. He is absolutely right to frame that problem not one of neglect but of complicity — as he notes, college administrators have an interest in keeping alumni, big-time athletes, and fraternities happy, and thus bear responsibility for their “often-misogynistic excesses.” Frats, jocks, and their alumni donors have too much power on campus, and are too often given the green light to wield that power in ugly, violent ways.
It’s with his third suggestion that Douthat and I part ways. Here’s the nub of it:
Finally, colleges could embrace a more limited version of the old “parietal” system, in which they separated the sexes and supervised social life. This could involve, for instance, establishing more single-sex dorms and writing late-night rules that apply identically to men and women. Bringing a visitor to your room after 10 p.m. or midnight might require signing in with an adult adviser, who would have the right to intervene when inebriation seemed to call consent and safety into question.
This need not represent a return to any kind of chastity-based ethic. The point would be to create hurdles for predators, clearer decision points for both sexes and — in the event that someone sneaked an intended partner in, and the encounter ended badly — a reason short of a rape conviction to discipline or expel.
I don’t have a problem with posting someone at the door of a dorm requiring late-night guests to sign in. I’m sure that already happens at some campuses, and I suspect that where it doesn’t it’s at least as much a matter of financial constraints as it is concern for students’ liberties. Tasking RAs or RDs with gently monitoring guests’ (and hosts’) level of inebriation might also be reasonable, were current drinking policies reframed along less punitive lines.
But single-sex dorms were the rule back in the bad old days, and sexual violence on campus was rampant. Sexual predation thrives in artificially segregated environments, and our casual, day-to-day social openness across gender lines is an asset, not a liability, of the contemporary campus in the fight against sexual assault.
Penalizing students for sneaking in late-night guests, moreover, is no solution to the problem of rape. If the penalties are to be assessed solely against the perpetrator of such an assault then the policy will simply be a mechanism for punishing students for crimes of which they haven’t been charged or convicted, and further weakening of campus judiciaries’ already inadequate due process provisions. If, on the other hand, the penalties are meted out to victim and perpetrator alike, than the threat of such punishment will discourage reporting and make a just outcome even more difficult to obtain.
In order to effectively fight sexual assault on campus, we need to look to the ways in which current policies and practices foster such violence and aid sexual predators. Their policies should be reframed in students’ interests. Reforming drinking laws and campus alcohol regulations does that. Curbing the frats and the jocks and the alums does that. Imposing gender segregation and punishing students for bringing home guests does not.
Okay, so here’s a thing about last night’s Louie: Louie was angrier when Pamela tried to leave his house without kissing him than he was when she threw out all his furniture. A lot angrier.
That’s pretty messed up.
As bad as the almost-rape episode from two weeks ago was, this week’s pair bothered me more. Because the kind of pressure he was putting on Pamela this time was a hell of a lot more insidious.
Going in for the kiss when you don’t know if it’ll be reciprocated. Mooning around someone instead of asking them out. Wheedling to get someone in the sack instead of finding out whether they’re interested in doing so under their own steam. That constant push to get what you want, and then the pout when you don’t get it — every fucked up coercive trick guys pull to nag and guilt and cajole women into sleeping with them was on display on Louie last night.
And why? Because Louie’s goal was never to figure out whether he and Pamela could work together in a way that would work for both of them. His goal was always just to get her. Get her to kiss him. Get her to go on a date with him. Get her to fuck him. Get her to be his girlfriend. Get get get get get.
And no matter how often we get told that that’s romantic, it’s not. Because the getting isn’t about Pamela, and it’s not about them as a couple. It’s all about him. It’s always about him, just like it was with Amia, just like it’s been with every woman this season. And instead of interrogating that, instead of thinking about how we as men are constantly being socialized into that creepy predator role and brainstorming how to unlearn it — or having Pamela call him on his shit in a way that would have been far more shocking, far more transgressive, far more useful than the monologue he gave the fat woman last month — he gave his creep the happy ending.
Louis the writer populates his show with fascinating, smart women, but Louie the character has no interest in them. And since I figured that out, I’ve got a lot less interest in him.
A recurring theme in discussions of trigger warnings in college classes is the idea that students with PTSD should be going to campus disability offices, not professors, to ask for the assistance they need. This question has come up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds today, in response to the piece I just wrote for Inside Higher Education, and in the course of one such conversation my friend Andrea Chandler said a few things about her experience trying to work with the disability office at the college she was attending.
If you’re a professor and you think the disability office will handle this stuff, you need to read what Andrea has to say. If you think you don’t have a role in addressing these issues, you need to read what Andrea has to say. If you don’t understand that how you run your classroom could make the difference in which of your students graduate? Well, just read the damn thing:
Just getting the single accommodation I asked for, to bring my mobility service dog on campus, was a multi-semester nightmare.
Disability services on most campuses are an absolute joke. Try actually speaking to disabled students about what it takes to get even the simplest, most straightforward of accommodations. In my case, using my service dog meant first meeting the disability services guy, whose office wasn’t accessible. This is not unusual.
Then they wanted me to sign paperwork giving them access to my entire medical record, which would have disclosed more to them than I was willing to disclose. This was in addition to the specific paperwork from my doctor stating that my service dog was a medical necessity.
Finally, they wanted contact information for my parents or husband, to whom they would be reporting my academic progress.
It was only after I suggested we call the DOE Office of Civil Rights that they accepted that all they needed was that letter from my doctor. Until the following semester, when I had to have the exact same fight all over again, because apparently permanent disability is not a possibility schools have considered.
Meanwhile I was dealing with classrooms so stuffed with desks that they violated the ADA & Rehab Act standards on physical accessibility, instructors who constantly called attention to my service dog in class & who could never speak to me about class material without first trying to have a conversation about the dog, and even better were the instructors who made it clear they didn’t want a cripple in their classroom. When I suggested to Disability Services that the instructors needed training in dealing with disabled students *and offered to find DOE & DOJ training resources for free*, I was ignored.
So yeah, this isn’t my first rodeo where I’ve had someone come out and say I shouldn’t be in the classroom because I don’t fit their definition of what a student should be. I wish I were shocked by that attitude, but it’s very miserably common.
The biggest problem I see in the empathy-lacking anti-tw crowd is that they seem to believe that the prof-student relationship is all one way; in which student vessels receive knowledge from the prof and the professor does not hold a dialog unless it is of the Socratic type.
Maybe it’s just that I’m a long way from being an impressionable teenager but I’ll be damned before I deal with any more of that patronizing bullshit. What Angus has done with his content note and being willing to back it up by working with students is model a kind of education where the professor works in partnership with the students, offering them the basic respect of believing they know exactly what their capabilities are and that they *want* to be there, and to learn, but may need a hand. The profs I see on the other side are the kind that drove me (and others with disabilities) out of academia. They act like we’re faking disability to work the system, and forcing their own odious ideas of mental illness being something you can bootstrap your way out of onto students.
I honestly hope to God none of em ever end up in the same place I am, because I’ve seen it destroy people who do. And I hope they get the fuck over themselves.
(Reposted with Andrea’s permission.)