Peter Wood wrote a deeply weird blogpost for the Chronicle of Higher Education last week. (It’s since been reposted on the website of the National Association of Scholars.) In it, he simultaneously mocks colleges for excessive programming against rape and sexual harassment and bemoans the abandonment of “character education” on the campus.
Wood’s primary example of this hypocrisy is Hamilton College, which he says conducted an illegitimate “emotional and cognitive intervention” against male attitudes that might lead to rape while rewarding Alessandro Porco, a poet who published “rape fantasies,” with a plum teaching assignment. I’d heard about the Hamilton orientation program before, and was a little startled at the allegation about Porco, so I went and looked up the poem in question. It’s titled “Ménage à Bush Twins,” and this is it in its entirety:
a cento composed of ESPN Sportscenter anchor catchphrases
solid spank, major league
crank. Like gravy
on a biscuit, it’s all good.
That’s a double play,
if you’re scoring at home… or
if you’re scoring by your-
self. Dare I say –
Barbara, Jenna, the First twins –
I’m not sure if I know
what the pitch is, but it tastes like chicken.
This just in: Bush is good, jelly
to the donut, baby! – Let it three.
That’s it. That’s the whole poem. Now, granted, fantasies about threesomes with sisters are pretty ooky — although an evening watching sitcoms will demonstrate that they’re squarely within the bounds of what Wood calls “ordinary masculinity.” But ooky wasn’t Wood’s complaint. Rape was. And there’s no rape here. No rape imagery, no rape fantasies. No rape.
“How,” Wood asks, does Hamilton’s appointment of this poet “square with the hyperventilating concern of the college’s administration to sanitize the minds of Hamilton’s male students so that they are free of the wrong kinds of heterosexual desire? How does any of this fit with the Office of Civil Rights’ concern about sexual harassment on campus?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but even rhetorical questions sometimes have answers, and the answer to this one can be given in a single word:
Wood is appalled by the “prurience” of the American campus today, by its “cheap eroticism.” He doesn’t see how it’s possible to “educate about ‘sexual harassment and sexual violence’ on one hand, and promote sexual license and vulgarity on the other.” If this is not “a complete contradiction,” he says, “it is pretty close to one.”
The central error in Wood’s approach to the subject comes at the end of the essay, when he declares “license and restraint” to be “awkward partners.” Because it’s not “restraint” that lies at the core of anti-rape education, but respect and empathy. The premise of such programs isn’t “we know all men want to rape, but please don’t act on those desires,” it’s “there’s a clear line between proper and improper sexual expression, and here’s where that line lies.”
For Wood, sexual freedom and sexual predation go hand in hand. But that’s not my experience, and it’s not what history tells us. History tells us that the deeply repressed, deeply repressive campus of the 1950s was not a place free from sexual violence. Indeed, it tells us the opposite — that as our society has embarked on what Wood calls its “descent into cruder, more vulgar, more openly sexualized” forms of expression, rape rates have plummeted.
When Wood introduces “Ménage à Bush Twins” for the first time, he describes it as en example of the author’s “rape fantasies.” When he makes reference to it again at the end of the piece, he replaces the word “rape” with the word “erotic.” It is that slippage, that confusion which feminists refer to when they talk about rape culture — the term is not an indictment of sex, or of masculinity, but of the eroticization of violence and coercion.