‘Victim Feminism’ and Sexual Assault on Campus
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently scrapped Obama administration guidance on how campuses investigate sexual assault — rules that many male students had opposed because they called for a low threshold of proof to determine guilt. Interim guidelines are in effect while a new process is developed.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The War Against Boys” and “Who Stole Feminism?,” has coined the term “victim feminism,” a school of thought she believes exaggerates the sexual assault problem. Ms. Sommers has argued all along that the Obama model didn’t work. We get her take on what the change means.
In your view, what was wrong with the Obama administration’s sexual assault policies?
In the past few years, many of our campuses have descended into a kind of sexual McCarthyism where due process was suspended and the presumption of innocence was replaced by “guilty because accused.” An untold number of college students have been subjected to injustices in these campus rape tribunals. The important thing is to establish due process. The standard of guilt is important, but not nearly as important as due process, where both sides are fully informed of the process and allowed to question the legitimacy of the evidence.
What is equity feminism and how does that play into the ongoing sexual assault controversy on campus?
Equity feminism is just about gender equity. It wants for women what it wants for everyone — fair treatment, respect and dignity. On today’s campus, equity feminism has been eclipsed by what I call “fainting couch feminism,” which views women as fragile and easily traumatized. It calls for special protections for women in sexual assault cases because it views women as an oppressed and silenced class.
You also call it victim feminism. What has been its effect?
I think the rape culture theory was just an outgrowth of this infantilized view of women. The fainting couchers enlarged the meaning of sexual assault to include a lot of activities that most of us don’t think of as sexual assault. They collapsed the distinction between regretted sex and rape. An equity feminist does not assume that all sex under the influence is assault, or that men are automatically to blame. That’s not to say that sexual assault isn’t a real problem on campus.
Are college administrative tribunals capable of policing this issue or should it be handled by law enforcement?
They’re a mix of professors, sometimes students and an assistant dean or two typically assembled to resolve cases involving plagiarism or someone caught drinking in the dorm or smoking pot. Are they prepared to adjudicate murder, arson and kidnapping? Rape is a serious crime. I think they lack the training and resources to investigate and adjudicate felonies. When there’s a serious allegation of assault, it should go to the police and the courts, and universities shouldn’t be pressured to set up a judicial system where students can be found guilty of a major crime by a mere preponderance of the evidence.
So what’s the role of the university?
Not all cases are going to go to the police. A lot of bad things are going to happen that are less than a felony but need some attention. These students have to live together and to go to class together. It’s reasonable to have some kind of procedures, to counsel and be understanding and protective and listen to both sides and work out an arrangement. And I think a major source of the trouble is binge drinking. I certainly think alcohol prevention programs are part of the solution. Some women say that is blaming the victim. Teaching people how to avoid becoming victims isn’t blaming the victim. It’s common sense.
How are colleges dealing with harassment, and how do you think that should change?
The Supreme Court set a very high standard for what counts as legally actionable harassment between students. The behavior has to be so severe and pervasive that victims are denied equal access to an education. But at this moment across the country, campus officials are quietly amending the Supreme Court standard so harassment includes anything that makes another student uncomfortable. Even jokes, satire and offhand remarks can lead to charges and have. Title IX was never intended as a guide to good manners.
Some people have proposed expanding Title IX of the Education Act to make sure women aren’t discriminated against in college science programs. How do you feel about that?
For many years, activists and scholars have waged this campaign to use Title IX to improve women’s prospects in the sciences, just as they did in sports. But science is not a sport, and men and women play on the same team. There are very few women who can compete in wrestling and basketball, but there are many women in the top ranks of every science and no one doubts their ability to compete on equal terms. If Title IX is used, it’s going to create a two-tiered system.