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.