In a September 7 speech, as reported in the Washington Post, Education Secretary Betsy De Vos “announced plans to scrap an Obama-era civil rights policy that pushed colleges to take a harder line against campus sexual assault but drew fire from critics who said it trampled on the due process rights of the accused.” Then, on September 22, she actually did the deed.
The critics were right, and even many anti-Trump observers have come to agree, greeting the De Vos action with what might be described as a quiet nod. Indeed, the De Vos decision exemplifies a remark Thomas Friedman made a few weeks ago: Just because the Trump Administration, or even the President, says something doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Secretary De Vos is right that the Obama Administration “weaponized” its enforcement of Title IX, forcing colleges to use the lowest possible standard of proof in order to obtain convictions, almost always of men accused by women of sexual harassment or assault.
So let’s hope that, whatever other very bad ideas she brings to the job (I detect several), her decision will succeed in putting an end to the Kafkaesque “men are rapists” misuse of Title IX. Perhaps that will also put paid to the corresponding misuse of the UCMJ (Unified Code of Military Justice) in the military—or at least at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, where I am now thick into year 31 as an English professor. I don’t wish De Vos or the President well in general, but in those few precious rare cases when they’re right, we cannot afford to let our political preferences mess up a prospect for positive change.
This would be a good time, too, to re-think the premises that led to the bizarre abuses of Title IX in the first place. Title IX began, in case you have forgotten or (youth that you are) never knew, during the Nixon Administration as a reasonable reform that prevented discrimination against women in colleges that received public funding. The impetus for it concerned something as relatively bland as women’s sports teams: Why should colleges and universities exert themselves to provide opportunities to men for intercollegiate and intermural sports activities, but deny the same opportunities to women? It was a traditional form of unfairness, but it was unfairness all the same and deserved to be corrected. I don’t remember anyone at the time thinking that such a reasonable proposition would end up being one of the slipperiest slopes in American legal history. So how did that happen?
To simplify somewhat, it happened because feminism met postmodernism, the two became infatuated with one another, drank too much one evening, fooled around, and produced an illegitimate offspring: the crazy idea that the potential for men to rape women is behind all male-female sex.
Rape is a terrible crime, and men usually commit it. For much too long too many men got away with it, because the system was rigged to deter women from speaking out. From these twinned facts and that intolerable reality Susan Brownmiller concluded in a 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, that all heterosexual intercourse is based on coercion. Feelings of love and ideas about marriage and family apparently have nothing to do with any of it.
This idea, which is in a sense a weaponization theory of social relations, is akin to the idea that all social hierarchies in history have been based on efforts by the powerful and wealthy to legitimize their plundering of the commons via the original sin of private property. In the postmodernist version of this idea, what most of us think of as law, democracy, and the rest of the institutions of a liberal society—whether believed to inhere in natural law or based on some other moral foundation—are really just distracting palliatives for the masses that excuse and hide the plunder. Postmodernists do not credit any foundational truths, only the power of hegemonic narratives and “structural violence” to devise pretexts for unfair competitions. So in this way of thinking, what police and prison are to the victimized downtrodden in general, the threat of rape is to all women.
Other feminist theorists, including Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, picked up and elaborated Brownmiller’s basic idea. Dworkin, in her book Intercourse, argued that what passes for normal male-female sex is in fact an act of domination by men over women. MacKinnon’s most influential notion is her insistence that men “objectivize” women by looking at their bodies divided into parts. According to this view, the mere fact of being male makes men “natural predators” in our “culture of rape” who treat women like objects.
In some parts of the world, this caricature seems to fit. In eastern Congo and Rwanda, where I taught before the civil war and genocide, combatants regularly used rape as a weapon of social terror. But it’s not true here. Do young unattached men and women drinking too much at parties sometimes go astray? Of course they do, but this is a very narrow slice of a wide spectrum. Few Western women are under threat walking normally along a city street, or eating with their family (or even alone) in a restaurant, or attending a music concert. The problems aren’t general; they’re specific to specific situations and should be addressed as such. Very likely, the “mean world syndrome”—George Gerbner’s label for what happens when people confuse reality with high-shock-value fiction as communicated by mass commercial media—has played a role here in exaggerating the degree of male predatory sexual behavior to which women are vulnerable.
However it came about, the idea that male sexuality is all part of a spectrum anchored by rape has entered our treatment of what we call “sexual assault” in the military and civilian colleges. Rape has in many states, and under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), become legally joined to a spectrum of perfectly normal male sexual actions that are thus tarred by association. An attempted kiss that is rejected is reported as a case of “sexual assault” ranking right up there with rape.
Men know these aren’t often the same, and so do normal women. But if they talk back they are instantly silenced as being a part of the “culture of rape,” or for using “hate speech.” So they sit in silent fury while people who fundamentally misunderstand them tell them how horrible they are in their very natures. They are told that while their “victims” are never responsible for their behavior, because they are creatures constrained by “structural violence” in a system of patriarchal domination, young men are responsible for their behavior no matter their testosterone rushes or the ambiguous circumstances in which they may find themselves. The men then vent to their buddies; they don’t accept and cannot even understand the wild talk they’ve just heard, and they won’t change their behavior because of it. And the vicious circle of wild accusation, hurtful astonishment, silence, and more wild accusation continues.
I doubt this situation is healthy for our society, but I’m sure it’s unhealthy for the U.S. military. Having taught more than 3,000 mostly male midshipmen over three decades, I’ve seen how destructive the military’s embrace of extremist anti-male positions has been on the morale of these young men and their willingness to cooperate. Right now our society, led by elites who have normalized and bureaucratized a lower-common-denominator version of the Brownmiller thesis, is attacking men. And men don’t like it. Neither do most women, by the way, who actually like men.
While we’re at it, nor is it true, as Catherine MacKinnon insisted, that men are reprehensible because they “objectify” women and have to be forced or shamed to stop doing so.
First, it’s risible to think that most men want to have sex with objects. But it is true that we grade women physically. We do see bodies, and respond to them as bodies rather than as people. But at least in the military, and I suspect outside it too, this isn’t particularly aimed at women; it’s just something men do. In the military we’re worse with other men than we are with women. Come to the main weight room at the Naval Academy at eight o’clock at night to see hundreds of jacked, sweating, straight (well, most of them) boys “objectifying” themselves in the mirror—and the other guys around them. Every guy knows who has the biggest guns and pecs, and whose legs need work. All men in the military instantly rate—and give or withhold respect to—the new officer who enters the room for the first time based on what he looks like.
And that’s a problem now in the military. In a sub-world defined for millennia as a rite of male passage where men compete with each other and “objectify” each other far more than they do women, we now see a sudden influx of women—whom men are not supposed to see as women. This is like asking a 9-year old to look at an ice cream cone and pretend it’s spinach.
And nobody goes home at the end of the day: You are home. You live with these women, and saying that they are “sisters in arms” doesn’t make them your sisters. It gets worse if your mandatory training tells you you’re bad if you have any sexual thoughts at all. Why shouldn’t you? You see the male LT as a man and rate his pecs. Why shouldn’t you look at a woman’s chest? And are men wrong to associate the military with masculinity, as if several thousand years of conventional attitudes can be whisked away by a training lecture? Who thinks you can change all this by telling men they’re ill-informed? If that’s you, good luck with that.
As it happens, both male and female midshipmen object to the overall tone of “men are potential rapists” in the training sessions, usually led by female midshipmen, and they object to the fact that parallels are always drawn with gang rapes, which midshipmen are forced to say loud and clear that they abhor—as if somehow not saying it means they approve of them. The presupposition here is that men are beasts who can’t be reasoned with. The only way to control them, we conclude nowadays, is by coercion: more legal action, more prosecutions, more lectures about the destructive nature of men who predate upon women who are helpless damsels unable to protect themselves.
In fact, most men are reasonable beings, and women can grasp how we think and function, so as to make informed decisions for themselves. This has been going on for at least several thousand years, as best anyone can tell. Indeed, ironically enough in light of feminism’s articulated core goal, the image of women at the bottom of this crazy idea that all men are latent rapists is that all women are helpless victims waiting to be victimized. It is not healthy for women to adopt a victimization psychology, and most women don’t. More important, perhaps, it is not even remotely an accurate depiction of female reality in the West for at least the past four or five centuries.
The current attack-and-litigate approach fails to understand the most fundamental fact about men: Male sexual attraction is situational. Men do not indiscriminately throw themselves on helpless victims; we work within very narrow constraints that make most of the world an unambiguous sexual no-fly zone. Men observe these constraints in order to achieve what they think may be an achievable objective, which for most is a satisfying sexual relationship in the context of a loving, family-oriented future. If you watch too many shoddy movies you might thing that most men consider this sort of circumstance a kind of consolation prize, but it’s simply not so. At least amid sober reflection about their futures, that is what the vast majority of young men want, and want deeply.
As it happens, most women are typically located within this sexual no-fly zone: mom and sis certainly; married women; underage females; and female bosses. Women men are responsible for are too, like the female soccer players on a team coached by a male. Men know these rules and by and large respect them. If men were really just physically out-of-control creatures, we’d come on to most women most of the time—but we obviously don’t. So treating us as if only coercion, in the form of threats of shaming and litigation, will beat back our urges is not only an erroneous theory of the case, it’s downright dysfunctional for everyone, because it distorts the rules in such a way as to disorient men and women alike.
Which brings us to why college produces so many problems. What is the optimal situation these days for young men to meet unmarried and potentially available young women? Right: college. In today’s culture, men can be fairly sure that women are willing to have sex with somebody, even if not with them. In a rational man’s mind, a small chance is very different from no chance. Now add a party not held during business hours, to which attendees comes of their own free will, and all typically try to look attractive. Then add alcohol to reduce inhibitions. Most of us don’t have to guess what can happen next, because it’s easier simply to remember what happened next.
Such a party—common as they may be—is a small slice of life within a relatively small slice of society. Amazingly, it usually comes off without causing big problems. Do we still need to talk about it? Sure, but with the men, not at them. No one can talk at men in such a way as to stop them from taking any kind of sexual initiative, and, quite possibly, most women would not like them to stop. In any event, the guilty-until-proven-innocent “incipient rape” approach is definitely a loser. As Ben Shahn once famously said, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”
Besides which there’s no indication that, all of a sudden, things are worse for women now than before. Nothing has changed in the world to justify this bizarre turn of attitude toward young men. So whoever said that ideas don’t matter—not to exclude very bad ideas—doesn’t know what he’s taking about.
But given that we have defined an exploratory kiss as legally the same as rape, and that prejudiced advocates have gotten to decide if the “victim” was assaulted or not (as the famous study that is cited for the claim that 20 percent of college women will be assaulted did), then of course has been easy to proclaim a new crisis. Any clever and willful individual can make it seem as though something has changed just by jerking around definitions and statistics.
Of course college men sometimes do go too far, and so do some men in the military. Nobody justifies sex by force, or the coercion of sexual favors for advancement. But it’s just not true that colleges and the military have lately been awash in rape—read the newspapers to see frequent conflation of reports of rape with those of sexual assault, which for the UCMJ and many state laws includes “unwanted sexual contact.” [For documentation on this see the newly released book The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Assault on Due Process at America’s Universities by K.C. Taylor and Stuart Johnson—especially Chapter 2, “Misleading Through Statistics.”]
In the civilian sphere, the Obama Administration struck out into new territory by using the Title IX act of the Department of Education as a weapon against colleges receiving Federal funds (almost all do) to cast men as creatures always up for bad behavior who must be reined in by use of coercion. This legitimation of feminist-postmodern ideology naturally led to more complaints of sexual assault, more prosecutions, more expulsions. It also led to a further ballooning of the Title IX careerist track within colleges and universities, which essentially produced hordes of paid scolds to find such complaints, and, if necessary, occasionally to gin them up.
In colleges as in the military, as things have been before September 22 (and we’ll see what the De Vos decision changes and how long change will take), the alleged victim of sexual assault has typically been referred to simply as “the victim” (presupposing a guilty party) and receives a “victim’s advocate.” The woman (as it usually is) has had an unlimited period of time to decide that whatever happened was not what she wanted to happen, which is license for her to be a victim deserving of default sympathy. And it’s only her view of things that has counted. There is no other purported crime where the subjective view of one of the two people involved alone has decided whether a crime has been committed.
What has been going on under the mantle of Title IX in recent years bears a certain resemblance to the Salem witch trials of 1692. A wrong theory (that the devil or lesser demons can “possess” people and make them do strange things; that all men are demonic in that they are potential rapists) leads to hysteria, the invention of facts that aren’t (“spectral” evidence then, statistical evidence now), and not incidentally to the empowerment of some people over others. That leads in turn to prosecutions that come up well short of due process as that phrase is normally understood, then usually to convictions. As far as I know, no innocent men have literally been hanged yet, as nineteen innocent people were in late-17th century Massachusetts, but that is probably not for want of desire on the part of some.
If women do not like the status quo on campus or in the military and want change, the first thing to note is that what passes for effort now is not working. That usually suggests that something is wrong with the theory of the case.
My modest suggestion is that, to begin with, those who feel aggrieved should begin to devise a better approach by talking with men rather than at them. Nowadays all that young men hear in institutional settings is the feminist view of how they work and who they are, which is fundamentally flawed. But they typically don’t argue, at least not at the Naval Academy; they just tune it out. That often leads those people trying to “fix” men to think they have succeeded, but they haven’t. The men have merely left the room, puzzled and often more than a bit hurt. Even misguided policies rammed through Congress or invented by reg writers cannot change men.
Getting Title IX to do again what it was initially intended to do is a good idea. True, some present Title IX enforcer zealots at colleges and universities may eventually have to find other employment. But change always entails challenge. I hope Secretary De Vos’s decision puts us on a path to a better way to deal with the real challenges we face. We’ll likely have a better chance of meetings these challenges if we begin anew with a more realistic assessment of what the challenges actually are.