‘Rape Culture’ and Free SpeechPosted: December 12, 2013
Cathy Young writes: Much has been said about the campus “war on rape” and the way it imperils students’ due process rights, but there is another casualty as well: the free exchange of ideas on college campuses when it comes to the subject of sexual offenses.
A particularly revealing recent example comes from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. On November 5, Katherine Krueger, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Badger Herald, ran a long piece explaining why the previous day’s edition had featured a letter to the editor from a student named David Hookstead questioning the existence of “rape culture.” Krueger wrote that she had made the decision to run the letter “after careful deliberation and debate with our managing editor and opinion editors.”
The fact that Krueger felt the need to justify the letter’s publication is remarkable enough; but the reason she gave for publishing it was even more striking. Hookstead’s letter, you see, was an object lesson in “what rape culture looks like,” since it expressed “morally repugnant, patriarchal and offensive” views that are “an embodiment of rape culture” itself.
Asking for It?
And what exactly are those abhorrent views? Krueger wrote that Hookstead “peddles the horrifically misguided beliefs that sexual assault victims were asking for it with their clothing or behavior, were drunk or are flat-out lying about being raped.” But in fact, the letter says nothing at all about victims “asking for it.” As for “drunk” and “flat-out lying,” here’s what Hookstead wrote:
Not everything that is claimed to be rape is actually rape, and false accusations only take away from the credibility of real victims.
For example, I’ve heard many women tell me they regretted having sex with somebody, and that if anybody asked them they’d just lie and say they were too drunk to remember. It’s people like them that are huge problems. Why are women so desperate to demonize men that they’ll lie about being raped?
Hookstead’s letter, it should be said, is not a particularly well-constructed argument (and, given that he’s a junior majoring in political science, not a particularly flattering testimony to the quality of education at UW-Madison). His comment about women demonizing men is phrased in a way that seems to generalize about all women (of course, feminists have no problem with similar generalizing language about men and rape). And, early in his piece, he makes a statement both confrontational and condescending: “I know that people are out there on the fringe of reality who are going to criticize me for what I’m about to explain–but somebody has to explain this.” Nonetheless, Hookstead’s response to the shibboleth that “we can prevent rape by teaching men not to rape” is actually quite sensible, if not very elegantly written:
Anybody who’s ever watched the news knows that rape is illegal, and yet the above paints the picture that our society is failing to educate young men on rape. Secondly, it implies that education can prevent true acts of evil. We teach kids not to murder and rob, but people still do it. Once again, you can’t always stop criminals.
The letter, which also notes that men are not the exclusive perpetrators of sexual assault, concludes with a fairly uncontroversial plea: “Let’s focus on those that truly need our help, and let’s stop evil people when we can.”
Here’s Krueger again, explaining the letter’s publication:
We hoped this piece would be torn limb from limb in the ensuing fray, and we haven’t been disappointed by the quality of the campus’ impassioned debate in response to the letter.
While many of the responses condemned Hookstead’s reprehensible opinions, others came out of the woodwork in support of his ideas.
Ironically, Krueger’s article unintentionally offers a rather damning picture of the ideological uniformity that exists on the UW-Madison campus on issues related to sexual assault. Students, she writes, are often “lulled into complacency on these issues” because there is “an understanding that everyone’s on the same page.” Needless to say, her idea of “debate” is one in which heretical ideas are “torn limb from limb” (one can only imagine how feminists would respond if a male writer used such violent imagery in calling for vehement criticism of a feminist piece) and ultimately stamped out of existence. Again and again, Krueger reiterates that such “hateful” and “ugly” opinions are utterly unacceptable and responsible for the perpetuation of rape culture itself, and that it’s “infuriating” that “this is an actual view held by more than a few UW students.”
Unanimity of Thought
Unfortunately, the climate at UW-Madison is in no way unique in this regard. In my recent article about the bizarre University of Ohio incident in which a public sex act involving two drunk students led to a rape charge (eventually dismissed by a grand jury for lack of any evidence of non-consent), I noted the virtual unanimity of support for the “victim” on the campus. The student newspaper, The Post, ran several letters denouncing “rape culture”–and one from a dissenter, journalism major Tom Pernecker, who questioned whether such a culture was in fact prevalent at the university. Pernecker wrote that “if both parties head home inebriated and one party calls rape on the other party this serious accusation should be taken with a grain of salt” and pointed out that if a sexual act is to be considered nonconsensual solely on the ground of intoxication, the alleged victim could also be seen as “raping” the alleged perpetrator. While Pernecker was not subjected to the same avalanche of abuse as Hookstead, a letter that appeared inThe Post the very next day concluded with a stark accusation: “You question whether rape culture is a problem. You’re perpetuating it now, Tom. You’re a part of it.”
A number of academic feminists are fairly straightforward in their belief that criticism of “rape culture” ideology should be not only condemned but suppressed. Recently, the London School of Economics held a widely publicized panel on rape in its “Debating Law” series. Two of the four speakers, law professor Helen Reece and prominent attorney Barbara Hewson, challenged feminist orthodoxies on consent and “victim-blaming” (ironically, their principal argument was that rape should be treated no differently from other crimes–which was once a feminist position). Shortly afterwards, there was an outraged editorial in the online feminist legal journal Feminists @ Law, based at the University of Kent. The editors expressed their dismay at “LSE Law’s decision to give a platform to Reece and Hewson’s dangerous and unsupported views,” asserting that there was “an onus on the LSE Law Department to ensure that the ideas that are being disseminated do not feed dangerous stereotypes about women being responsible for the sexual violence perpetuated against them.”
To the anti-rape activists and their supporters, discussing false accusations or disputing the notion that a woman who has sex while her judgment is impaired by alcohol is a rape victim is not just expressing an opinion that differs from theirs: it amounts to enabling the rape culture, helping silence victims, and undermining rape prevention efforts. It is hardly surprising that they believe these views should be not only condemned but suppressed.
More than twenty years ago, when the campus crusade against date rape was in its infancy, a University of Michigan student who had posted in a discussion on the school’s electronic bulletin board pointing out that some allegations of rape could be false received a warning letter from a school administrator. His comments, the student was told, reflected an “insensitive and dangerous attitude” toward women and could result in a charge of “discriminatory harassment.”
Thankfully, so far, the use of administrative penalties against dissent from rape-culture ideology has been uncommon–partly because, at least at public universities, such a definition of sexual harassment would quickly run afoul of the First Amendment. But, as the outrage over Hookstead’s letter in The Badger Herald demonstrates, a student who publicly voices such “repellent” and “patriarchal” views risks an extremely strong and nasty social backlash. After all, according to the editor of the student newspaper, the only purpose of airing dissent is to bring it out into the open so that it can be attacked, shamed, and finally eradicated.
Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday, is a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics and Reason.