Neo-Victorianism on Campus

Social Fabric by from The Weekly Standard, October 20, 2014

Sexual liberation is having a nervous breakdown on college campuses. Conservatives should be cheering on its collapse; instead they sometimes sound as if they want to administer the victim smelling salts.

It is impossible to overstate the growing weirdness of the college sex scene. Campus feminists are reimporting selective portions of a traditional sexual code that they have long scorned, in the name of ending what they preposterously call an epidemic of campus rape. They are once again making males the guardians of female safety and are portraying females as fainting, helpless victims of the untrammeled male libido. They are demanding that college administrators write highly technical rules for sex and aggressively enforce them, 50 years after the proponents of sexual liberation insisted that college adults stop policing student sexual behavior. While the campus feminists are not yet calling for an assistant dean to be present at their drunken couplings, they have created the next best thing: the opportunity to replay every grope and caress before a tribunal of voyeuristic administrators.

The ultimate result of the feminists’ crusade may be the same as if they were explicitly calling for a return to sexual modesty: a sharp decrease in casual, drunken sex. There is no downside to this development.

Let us recall the norms which the sexual revolution contemptuously swept away in the 1960s. Males and females were assumed on average to have different needs regarding sex: The omnivorous male sex drive would leap at all available targets, whereas females were more selective, associating sex with love and commitment. The male was expected to channel his desire for sex through the rituals of courtship and a proposal of marriage. A high premium was placed on female chastity and great significance accorded its loss; males, by contrast, were given a virtual free pass to play the sexual field to the extent that they could find or purchase a willing partner. The default setting for premarital sex was “no,” at least for females. Girls could opt out of that default—and many did. But placing the default at “no” meant that a female didn’t have to justify her decision not to have sex with particular reasons each time a male importuned her; individual sexual restraint was backed up by collective values. On campuses, administrators enforced these norms through visitation rules designed to prevent student couplings.

The sexual revolution threw these arrangements aside. From now on, males and females would meet as equals on the sexual battlefield. The ideal of female modesty, the liberationists declared, was simply a cover for sexism. Chivalry was punished; females were assumed to desire sex as voraciously as males; they required no elaborate courtship rituals to engage in it and would presumably experience no pang of thwarted attachment after a one-night stand. The default for premarital sex was now “yes,” rather than “no”; opting out of that default required an individualized explanation that could no longer rely on the fact that such things are simply not done. In colleges, the authorities should get out of the way and leave students free to navigate coital relations as they saw fit.

Four decades later, the liberationist regime is disintegrating before our eyes. The new order is a bizarre hybrid of liberationist and traditionalist values. It carefully preserves the prerogative of no-strings-attached sex while cabining it with legalistic caveats that allow females to revert at will to a stance of offended virtue. Consider the sexual consent policy of California’s Claremont McKenna College, shared almost verbatim with other schools such as Occidental College in Los Angeles. Paragraphs long, consisting of multiple sections and subsections, and embedded within an even wordier 44-page document on harassment and sexual misconduct, Claremont’s sexual consent rules resemble nothing so much as a multilawyer-drafted contract for the sale and delivery of widgets, complete with definitions, the obligations of “all” (as opposed to “both”) parties, and the preconditions for default. “Effective consent consists of an affirmative, conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed upon (and the conditions of) sexual activity,” the authorities declare awkwardly. The policy goes on to elaborate at great length upon each of the “essential elements of Consent”—“Informed and reciprocal,” “Freely and actively given,” “Mutually understandable,” “Not indefinite,” “Not unlimited.” “All parties must demonstrate a clear and mutual understanding of the nature and scope of the act to which they are consenting”—think: signing a mortgage—“and a willingness to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way,” declare Claremont’s sex bureaucrats. Never mind that sex is the realm of the irrational and inarticulate, fraught with ambivalence, fear, longing, and shame. Doing something that you are not certain about does not make it rape, it makes it sex.

The policy’s assumption of transparent contractual intention may be laughably out of touch with reality. But its agenda is serious: to rehabilitate the “no” default for premarital sex, despite a backdrop of permissiveness. In fact, the policy goes even farther into the realm of Victorian sex roles than simply a presumption of female modesty. Females are now considered so helpless and passive that they should not even be assumed to have the strength or capacity to say “no.” “Withdrawal of Consent can be an expressed ‘no’ or can be based on an outward demonstration that conveys that an individual is hesitant, confused, uncertain, or is no longer a mutual participant,” announce Claremont’s sexocrats.

Good luck litigating that clause in a campus sex tribunal. The female can allege that the male should have known that she was “confused” because of what she didn’t do. The male will respond that he didn’t notice any particular nonactivity on her part. Resolving this evidentiary dispute would not be helped by bedside cameras—the logical next step in campus rape hysteria. Pressure sensors would be needed as well to detect asymmetries in touch.

With or without cameras, adjudicating college sex in the neo-Victorian era requires a degree of prurience that should be repugnant to any self-respecting university. A campus sex investigator named Djuna Perkins described the nauseating enterprise to National Public Radio in June: “It will sometimes boil down to details like who turned who around, or [whether] she lifted up her body so [another student] could pull down her pants. There have been plenty of cases that I’ve done when the accused student says, ‘What do you mean? [The accuser] was moaning with pleasure. He was raising his body, clutching my back, exhibiting all signs that sounded like this was a pleasurable event.’ ”

Rather than shrinking from this Peeping Tom role, college administrators are enthusiastically drafting new sex rules that require even more minute analysis of drunken couplings. Harvard, also assuming that delicate co-eds cannot summon the will to say “no,” now allows females unfettered discretion after the fact to allege that they were sexually assaulted by conduct they silently regarded as “undesirable.”

We have come very far from the mud-drenched orgies of Woodstock. Feminists in the neo-Victorian era are demanding that written material that allegedly evokes nonconsensual sex be prefaced by warnings regarding its threatening content, so that female readers can avoid fits of vapors and fainting—a phenomenon known as “trigger warnings.” Earlier this year, Wellesley College students petitioned for the removal of a statue of a sleep-walking, underwear-clad middle-aged man, whose installation on college grounds immediately caused “apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault” among many students, according to the petition. A hyperventilating, publicity-seeking senior at Columbia University is carrying around a mattress with her everywhere she goes on campus, like Jesus bearing his cross, until Columbia expels her alleged “rapist.” Ohio State University underwent a four-year investigation by the U.S. Education Department for its crude marching band culture, even though the only assault female band members may have experienced was on their sensibilities. Many girls, we belatedly rediscover, don’t enjoy bawdy sexual humor as much as boys do.

It turns out that when you decouple the sex drive from modesty and prudence, it takes armies of elected officials, bureaucrats, and consultants to protect females from “undesirable” behavior. Virginia’s governor Terry McAuliffe is establishing a task force on campus sexual violence comprising up to 30 top state officials and representatives from law enforcement and higher education. Connecticut is requiring colleges to form sexual assault response teams, on the model, presumably, of active shooter response teams. California has just enacted a law mandating that colleges receiving state funds require students to be in “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement” in order to engage in sexual activity, agreement that is “ongoing throughout a sexual activity and that can be revoked at any time.” Gloria Steinem and a gender studies professor from New York’s Stony Brook University explain in the New York Times: The California law “redefines that gray area” between “yes” and “no.” “Silence is not consent; it is the absence of consent. Only an explicit ‘yes’ can be considered consent.” In other words, California’s new statute, like many existing campus policies, moves the sexual default for female students back to “no.”

But isn’t this bureaucratic and legislative ferment, however ham-handed, being driven by an epidemic of campus rape? There is no such epidemic. There is, however, a squalid hook-up scene, the result of jettisoning all normative checks on promiscuous behavior. A recent case from Occidental College illustrates the reality behind so-called “campus rape.” Girls are drinking themselves blotto precisely in order to lower their inhibitions for casual sex, then regretting it afterwards.

The freshman complainant, Jane Doe (a pseudonym), began her weekend drinking binge on Friday, September 6, 2013. She attended a dance party in the dorm room of John Doe, another freshman whom she had just met, and woke up the next morning with a hangover. She soon began “pregaming” again—that is, drinking before an event at which one expects to drink further. Jane drank before a daytime soccer game and continued during the evening, repeatedly swigging from a bottle of orange juice and vodka which she had prepared. Around midnight, she went to a second party in John Doe’s dorm room, still drinking vodka. John, too, had been drinking all day. Jane removed her shirt while dancing with John and engaged in heavy petting on his bed, sitting on top of him and grinding her hips. Jane’s friends tried to shepherd her home, but before she left John’s room, she gave him her cell phone number so that they could coordinate their planned sexual tryst.

When she arrived at her own dorm room, John texted her: “The second that you away from them, come back.” Jane responded: “Okay.” John wrote back: “Just get back here.” Jane responded: “Okay do you have a condom.” John replied: “Yes.” Jane texted back: “Good, give me two minutes.” John texted: “Knock when you’re here.”

Before leaving her dorm room, Jane texted a friend from back home: “I’m going to have sex now.” Jane walked down to John’s room at approximately 1 a.m., knocked on his door, went in, took off her earrings, got undressed, performed oral sex, and had sexual intercourse with him. When an acquaintance knocked on John’s door to check up on her, Jane three times called out: “Yeah, I’m fine.” Shortly before 2 a.m., Jane dressed herself and returned to her room. On her way there, she texted her friends vapid messages, complete with smiley faces, none of which mentioned assault. She then walked to a different dorm where she sat on the lap of another male student whom she had met the night before, talking and joking. The next day she texted John asking if she had left her earrings and belt in his room and asked to come by to pick them up.

Now someone who asks a male if he has a condom, who conspires with him to have sex, who announces to a friend that she intends to have sex, who voluntarily goes to his dorm room in order to have sex, who has sex through no coercion or force on the male’s part, is as voluntary and responsible an agent in that sex act as the male. Any male on the receiving end of such behavior, who is asked if he has a condom before a planned sex act, is going to rightly assume that he is facing a willing and consenting partner. And yet Occidental, under investigation from the Obama administration for ignoring sexual violence (a baseless charge), found John guilty of assault and expelled him. Though Jane’s actions and statements seemed to indicate that she consented to sexual intercourse, John should have known that she was too incapacitated to consent, the adjudicators concluded.

This finding rests on a neo-Victorian ethos which makes the male the sole guardian of female safety. John and Jane were equally drunk. They both agreed to have sex. Neither of them remembered the actual moment of intercourse afterwards (though Jane remembers the oral sex). Yet John is viewed as the primary mover in that sex act, and the only member of the pair obligated to evaluate the mental capacities of his partner. Jane, however, could be deemed equally guilty of having sex with a partner who was too drunk to consent. In the neo-Victorian worldview, however, females have no responsibility for their own behavior, while the male is responsible not only for himself but for his partner as well.

Pace the feminists, the Occidental case is emblematic not of “rape culture” but of the emotional fallout from sexual liberation. Jane was a virgin before her tryst with John. She only decided to report her intercourse to the Occidental authorities, after prompting from her college advisers, when she realized how much it had affected her psychologically. She saw that John “wasn’t fazed by what happened at all” and appeared to attend classes without difficulty, whereas she found herself distracted and unable to concentrate. She should not have to risk the discomfort of seeing him, she concluded, and thus, Occidental should expel him.

Jane’s reactions are understandable, if hardly grounds for expulsion. While there are thankfully few actual rape victims on college campuses, there are thousands of girls feeling taken advantage of by partners who walk away from casual sex with no apparent sense of thwarted attachment. That such behavior conforms to the ground rules for campus sex doesn’t matter. What campus feminists call “post traumatic stress disorder” and fear of getting “raped” again is often rather a female’s quite natural embarrassment at reencountering a sex partner whom she barely knew and with whom she has no continuing relationship. Girls losing their virginity are at particular risk of being emotionally ambushed by drunken hook-up couplings. Though sexual liberation has stripped virginity and its loss of any formally recognized significance, the lived experience can be more momentous than girls are prepared for.

The conservative response to campus rape hysteria has been only partially helpful. The main line of attack has been to say: “Yes, campus rape is a grave problem. But because rape is so serious an offense, all such charges should be tried in criminal court, not in flimsy college tribunals.” As a strategic move, this position is unimpeachable. Requiring that every campus rape allegation be sent to the criminal justice system would end the campus rape movement overnight. Very few alleged campus rape cases are brought to the police because the accuser and her counselors know that most cases wouldn’t stand a chance in court. During a debate last month (in which I participated), Occidental College professor Caroline Heldman, a leader in the campus rape movement, asserted that campus rape cases should not be taken to criminal trial because juries are steeped in rape culture—i.e., they cannot be trusted to convict. (Heldman also argued that the preponderance of evidence standard which Obama regulators are forcing on colleges for rape findings is too high. Apparently requiring that the fact-finder have a negligible 51 percent certainty that a rape occurred does not guarantee enough convictions.) So conservatives are right to call the rape hysterics’ bluff by arguing: If you believe that this is rape, treat it as such.

Conservatives are also right to criticize the glaring due process deficiencies of campus rape tribunals. Those deficiencies grow more egregious by the day. They include the absence of such traditional safeguards as a defendant’s right to cross-examine his accuser, to which one can now add the wholly subjective standards for what constitutes illegal behavior, such as whether it was “undesirable” from the female’s point of view. Colleges are under enormous pressure both from the Department of Education and the press to deliver more convictions; the New York Times has been running a series of articles about campus rape which presume that any acquittal in a college rape case constitutes a miscarriage of justice.

But some conservatives are making two errors. The first is to agree that campus rape is a significant problem, en route to calling for its adjudication in court. If campus rape were the epidemic that the activists allege, there would have been a stampede to create alternative schools for girls. Instead, every year the competition among girls (and boys) to get into selective colleges grows fiercer. Sophisticated baby boomer mothers start their daughters’ preparation for college earlier and earlier. The Obama White House asserts that campus rape “survivors” suffer a lifetime of psychological and physical trauma, yet females are graduating from college in ever more disproportionate numbers, after which they go on to have lucrative careers, with no evidence of crippling mental injury. The bogus statistics thrown around by the feminist-industrial complex—a one-in-four to one-in-five incidence of sexual assault among undergraduate girls—dwarf any known crime rate, even in the most brutal African ethnic wars. In 2012, Newark, New Jersey’s rate for all violent crimes—murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—was 1.1 percent; its rape rate was under .02 percent. Activist researchers attain their 20-25 percent rape incidence statistic by the strategic phrasing of questions and the exquisite parsing of definitions. In a 1986 Ms. survey that sparked the campus-rape industry, 73 percent of respondents whom the study characterized as rape victims said that they hadn’t been raped when asked the question directly. Forty-two percent of these supposed victims had intercourse again with their alleged assailants—an inconceivable behavior in the case of actual rape. Sixty-five percent of females whom a 2000 Department of Justice study deemed “completed rape” victims said that they did not think that their experiences were “serious enough to report,” nor did their alleged “victimization” result in physical or emotional injuries.

The campus rape crisis, in other words, requires ignoring females’ own characterization of their experience. There is simply no reason to concede any factual legitimacy to the rape hysterics, even as a debating tactic, since doing so only prolongs the life of the campus rape myth.

Conservatives’ second error is a tone of occasional exasperation at the burgeoning college sex regulations. Do the bureaucrats’ rules misunderstand the nature of sex? Do they take the fun out of it? You bet! And what’s not to like? Leave laments about the inhibition of campus sex to Reasonmagazine.

To be sure, the new campus sex regime puts boys in danger of trumped-up assault charges heard before kangaroo courts. But the solution is not more complex procedural protections cobbled over a sordid culture, the solution is to reject that culture entirely. Just as girls can avoid the risk of what the feminists call “rape” by not getting drunk and getting into bed with a guy whom they barely know, boys, too, can radically reduce the risk of a rape accusation by themselves not getting drunk and having sex with a girl whom they barely know. Mothers worried that their college-bound sons will be hauled before a biased campus sex tribunal by a vindictive female should tell them: “Wait. Find a girlfriend and smother her with affection and respect. Write her love letters in the middle of the night. Escort her home after a date and then go home yourself.” If one-sided litigation risk results in boys taking a vow of celibacy until graduation, there is simply no loss whatsoever to society and only gain to individual character. Such efforts at self-control were made before, and can be made again.

Unlike the overregulation of natural gas production, say, which results in less of a valuable commodity, there is no cost to an overregulation-induced decrease in campus sex. Society has no interest in preserving the collegiate bacchanal. Should college fornication become a rare event preceded by contract signing and notarization, maybe students would actually do some studying instead. At present, many students drink through the entire weekend without worrying about any academic repercussions. Maybe colleges should assign and grade some real homework instead of wasting faculty and administrator time drafting cringingly lurid consent scenarios. Rather than passing out tips on orgasm and the use of sex toys—a staple of campus health centers—colleges might send the message that they expect students to learn the periodic table, read the Greek tragedies, and understand the evolution of constitutional government. Parents might get some value out of their extortionate tuition payments, and boys might catch up to girls’ graduation rates.

There are no sympathetic victims in the campus sex wars. While few boys are guilty of what most people understand as rape, many are guilty of acting as boorishly as they can get away with. Sexual liberation and radical feminism unleashed the current mess by misunderstanding male and female nature. Feminists may now be unwittingly accomplishing what they would never allow conservatives to do: restoring sexual decorum.

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

 © 2014 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.