Education, Features, Feminism

Campus Counsellors and the Politicization of Sexual Assault

A few years ago, a student came to my office in tears. Earlier in the day she’d stood in the doorway of the computer lab, telling me she didn’t think she would make it through class. Her face had been swollen and tear-stained. She was a confident young woman, so her appearance surprised me. When I expressed concern, she said she would drop by my office later. It was the last day of the spring semester.

When she showed up, she told me she’d been sexually assaulted several days earlier. We’d established a good rapport over the semester, and so I did my best to console her. She seemed convinced her life had been ruined, but did not want to go to the police. A visit to a rape crisis centre had left her shaken.

Her new view of herself was distressing. I’m not sure what inspired me, but I asked her how old she was. When she said 21, I asked her if she wanted to do some math. I reached for a pen and paper. Together we calculated how many days she had lived so far. After that we calculated the hours in those days, then the minutes. When we arrived at that last, astronomical number, I asked her how long the assault had lasted. She estimated it had been 20 minutes. We then calculated how many more minutes she would need to reach my age, which at the time was 44.

That’s when I drew a timeline on a sheet of paper. It was made up of three parts: the minutes of her life to date, the 20 minutes of her assault, and then the 23 years of minutes that would take her up to 44. I was putting the assault into temporal perspective, stressing that one bad event lasting a few minutes wouldn’t diminish her life before it happened and didn’t have to diminish her life afterwards. I also said that despite the assault, most of her life was still ahead of her, and that she had a certain amount of control over the way in which it would unfold. As such, I said, she could choose to recover—when she was ready—because “women do it all the time.” I added that this was a perspective that victims rarely heard but was nonetheless valid. Her eyes lit up when I said this.

If this student had been any younger, or any less assertive, I might have spoken differently. But she was plucky and athletic (she had both mental and physical confidence), and I shuddered at the thought of her receiving “politicized” support. What I mean by that is the narrative extolled by university trained feminists that implies assault victims are victims for life and have been irreparably damaged. It’s a pernicious double-whammy, a child, metaphorically speaking, of over-zealous Neighbourhood Watchers and feminist victimology. That’s because installing the idea of permanent victimhood into the minds of those freshly victimized is powerful: despite the face of kindness that comes with this support, it can be as chauvinistic and as disempowering as the most boorish, sexist man. It’s one thing to help a young woman use her anger as a source of strength; it’s quite another to allow a group to use it to advance an ideology. We’ve institutionalized the latter to the detriment of far too many women.

It’s unpleasant to criticize those who support sexual assault victims. But the outpouring caused by the Weinstein scandal, and subsequent revelations regarding other celebrities, has opened more than one vista. These revelations are remarkable not only for their scope, but also for their contradictions. For example, the absence of police reports in Harvey Weinstein’s case raises questions about whether his victims were interested in justice or leverage. Their decades’ worth of collective silence is curious too. How much of his behaviour was genuinely transactional, and why did so many people, not all of whom were direct victims, collude? The sweeping statements being made about gender inequality, spurred on by the scandal, reveal only a partial picture.

This is where some of Camille Paglia’s ideas about sex and social class come in handy.  Her comparison of working and middle class women (offered in a clip since removed for copyright reasons) is particularly apt:

My observation is that working-class women of every race are able to deal with anything in the way that affluent upper middle-class white girls are not. [The latter] are trained to be compliant and to be pleasant; they have soft voices and their manner is tentative. I see the working-class women on the street. They have their big language. People say something to them sometimes [and] if it’s sexual, the middle-class girls regard it as a horrible affront and intrusion. But a working-class woman says thanks because she knows she looks fabulous.

Paglia’s characterization of working-class women is important because it identifies a significant void in our institutionalized approach to sexual assault. On the one hand, there are politicized counsellors who expect women to cede to a particular kind of leftist worldview in which ‘patriarchy’ and men are the omnipotent and omnipresent enemy. On the other, is a patrician, upper-middle-class approach, in which women voluntarily cede their independence to campus administrators or crisis workers who act as parental proxies. The problem with both, of course, is that they are based on the idea that women are natural losers when it comes to sex. Since that’s not always true, what’s missing is an option reflecting other possibilities, an option that doesn’t strip women of their agency or require them to cede anything.

Since these options originate in the academic world—the home of organized feminism—and replicate themselves widely, how do we fix the problem?

Whether its patricians want to admit it or not, there is a new caste system forming in our universities. It began in North America in the late ’80s and now its most vocal adherents can be found in arts departments or in the various “studies” departments the system has spawned. That’s not to say all hierarchies, especially those based on the acquisition of knowledge, are bad; a competitive system that rewards the few does help the many, and not all of us can attain Ph.Ds. But apart from STEM domains, hierarchies of knowledge, along with the rewards of accomplishment, are being edged out by another, less salubrious structure based on “equalities of outcome.” Despite this ostensible goal, the result is still a caste system, and one which its supporters doggedly insist is democratic. Some astute observers think otherwise.

Another anecdote is helpful here. As a new college teacher in the mid-90s, I often taught night courses. One fall evening, on my way home, I walked down a street flanked by long narrow backyards on the left and an empty industrial building on the right. It was after 10 PM, and the streets were deserted. A car circled the block twice and then a third time. The driver had slowed down as he passed me the second time and stopped and got out of his car the third. As he did so, I went on the offensive. I strode towards him, yelling that he was a creep and a jerk and he should get back in his car and leave me alone. Within a few seconds, he’d done just that.

This man may have been dangerous, or he may have simply lacked the intelligence to realize what his behaviour signified. Regardless of his intentions, I made myself appear fearless and aggressive, one strategy of many I’d learned from other women when I was much younger. Although I wasn’t traumatized by this event—I’d acquitted myself well after all—that night has become something of a barometer for me. For example, had this happened in 1985, at the beginning of my four-year undergraduate degree, I would have been praised by my feminist friends. By the end of my graduate degree, six years later, that praise would turn into discomfort.

That change in attitude reflects the honing of the caste system mentioned earlier. Campus patricians believe in the necessity of a quasi-judicial system to deal with identity or gender-based offences. It’s a system that diverts the unpleasant burden associated with these offences to administrators who have the authority (and some would say the pleasure) to adjudicate them. Paglia makes two valid points about these systems: first, universities are ill-equipped to handle serious crimes like sexual assault; second, administrators shouldn’t be playing at proxy parenthood.

Along with the patricians are another group working toward the similar goals, but whose main strategy is protesting. These activists are social media savvy and often advocate no-platforming and even violence as viable strategies to fight their opponents. These are young people who drown out invited speakers and shut down public debates.

What’s interesting about these two groups is their relationship to one another. Despite having at least one common goal—to see identity or gender-based crimes punished—it’s rare to see members of these groups mixing socially. In fact, I suspect there is a mutual wariness, one kept from view, that reflects the extreme ends of the spectrum they occupy. On the one hand, patricians are, as Paglia says, tentative and apt to turn to an authority when problems arise. The protesters, on the other hand, see themselves as necessary vigilantes. A more blunt assessment would be that the patricians need protection and the protesters are willing to be their thugs. That might sound harsh, but the fact that they don’t mix points to the ambivalence a reticent group might feel toward a high-profile group, especially one willing to do violence. The reticent group might appreciate the protection, but they’re afraid of their protectors too.

My barometer story supports this point. Days after it happened, I attended a woman’s studies meeting attended mostly by arts professors. When we discussed the safety of night school students, I brought the story up. At the very least, I thought it would make for an interesting anecdote, and one that pointed to the successful use of a simple strategy. What I wasn’t prepared for were the moues of distaste that flashed around the room until one of the professors changed the subject.

It’s a disappointing experience I’ve had, or observed, many times since. Any talk of loud, belligerent behaviour, even when enacted to a good purpose, elicits the same embarrassed responses. I’ve learned not to take it personally because my attitude gives me an advantage: I was willing to be belligerent because, unlike my colleagues, I wasn’t hamstrung by a class consciousness that values good breeding above all else, and teaches women to put a calm demeanour and good manners first. Paglia is right when she says less sheltered, working class women come armed with a stronger sense of self-preservation. Mine came from having post-war, immigrant parents who learned the hard way that sometimes there is no help coming.

Between the vigilantes and the patricians is a wide swathe of female students who could benefit from the kind of practical advice that helped me all those years ago. They could be told the real risks of living on a campus or in a downtown core that is not like the small communities or suburbs they come from. We could teach them workable security strategies and encourage them to eschew lady-like (or “professional”) behaviour in favour of speaking up to protect themselves. We can also tell them that adopting a paramilitary approach to the opposite sex isn’t necessary either; when they are committed to staying alert and learning how to manage risks, they will naturally be safer.

The fact is that many young women on campuses today are apolitical. They are there to study and not to cultivate a new identity, apart from the one that will emerge organically as they acquire more knowledge. What these multitudes could use is less handholding and enforced protection. In fact, they should be told the truth as they prepare to live in the real world, a world that in fact can be dangerous for everyone.

 

Irene Ogrizek is a writer, teacher, and editor based in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Visit her website here: http://www.ireneogrizek.com. She can be found on twitter @ireneogrizek

Filed under: Education, Features, Feminism

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Irene Ogrizek is a writer, teacher, and editor based in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Visit her website here: http://www.ireneogrizek.com

20 Comments

  1. charlescrawford says

    “What I wasn’t prepared for were the moues of distaste that flashed around the room until one of the professors changed the subject”

    Superb article. What was it EXACTLY that these appalling weak useless so-called arts professors find distasteful in what you said. Pl elaborate!

  2. Superb indeed! Thank you for this. Your thinking is flawless and mirrors what I’ve felt all my life, especially after two bouts with sex agression. The current discourse is profoundly damaging to girls, and boys alike. We need to change this.

  3. Cynthia P Garrett says

    Excellent. As someone who advocates for college students accused of ‘sexual misconduct,’ I have always been concerned that today’s young women too readily embrace victimhood, and the long term impact that is likely to have on their lives. It is shocking the types of behavior these women insist has ruined their lives – messy, drunken encounters which we used to label learning experiences. The underlying message that women lack the power to protect themselves is destructive and embarrassing to someone like me who thrived on the power and freedom handed to me under women’s liberation.

  4. Thanks for the article. I just happened to be watching a discussion between Camille Paglia and Jordan B. Peterson on his channel called Modern Time, posted last month on Youtube, and when Peterson mentioned that it was the daughters of older parents who had waiting to become successful upper middle class who were behind the cause of their daughters over-protected, privileged expecations who had yet formed an idea of the real world who are not being educated about the real world, who are the ones most likely to fall into the politically motivated victimology bandwagon that will totally disempoer them in later life.

  5. Ms. Ogrizek, great article, thank you. I’m 58 and my wife & I come from humble, working-class origins. Education–thank you, GI Bill–and the income that comes with it propelled us to the middle-class. Without a doubt a middle-class upbringing & environment produces, on average, better results than a working-class background does. I can see that in my sons. But it’s also true that, as suggested in your seventh paragraph, a working-class background breeds a certain toughness & grit that a middle-class upbringing might not. Life is a series of trade-offs.

  6. Sam Butler says

    Many of the scenarios that have come up recently wouldn’t even require the kind of aggressive response the author describes here. They’d just require the woman to say ‘No,’ to move away, or to signal in any one of a million possible ways that she isn’t into what’s going on. At work in the past year or so I’ve heard men just asking women out described as harassment (even, on one occasion, a man asking a woman if she had a boyfriend). There’s a simple way to avoid going out with a man who asks you out if you don’t want to: you say no, or you make an excuse. Yes, it’s awkward, but negotiating that awkwardness without accusing the man of harassment or implying he’s a creep should be seen as a basic social skill for women, just as being able to take rejection from a woman without calling her names is rightly seen as obligatory on the part of men.

    • What if the woman- or man!- has the freeze response? You can’t control that. Some people say no or fight and then freeze if the assault continues. Obviously if the perpetrator honestly believes there is consent then its not a crime, but they are responsible for getting consent. Not moving away doesn’t always mean consent, it could be the freeze response.

      • Yes, you can control it. Training. Martial arts training, specifically. Karate, Aikido, Kendo, Tai Chi even. Or archery.

        Also, and I know you’re going to hate this, shooting. Guns are loud. Learning to manage the startle response and the flinch response is part of shooting.

        Trained people don’t freeze. They do what they are trained to do, because under stress humans default to their training. If they don’t have any, they default to fight, run or freeze.

        But now we are back to expecting you to DO something to protect yourself, which is of course completely unacceptable in academic society.

  7. Anonymous says

    Once when I was a teenager a much older man started performing a sexual act on me. I went along with it for a while, and then once I decided I wasn’t enjoying it I made it clear, and he stopped. I wasn’t traumatised at all, and I don’t blame him or think he did anything wrong. I was drunk but I did consent. I was young but of legal age and would have been very annoyed at the implication that I wasn’t able to make decisions of my own. I just don’t understand what anyone would get out of me being ‘traumatised’ by that episode. If he’d been prosecuted or ostracized for that I would have thought it unjust. But it does make me laugh when women make a big fuss about someone trying to kiss them after a date.

    • “I did consent”. That’s the difference. You weren’t traumatised because nothing wrong or criminal happened here- you were of legal age (not that all victims of underage sex feel traumatised- some like it because they gave what the law calls “real consent” and don’t agree with the law) and you wanted it, when you didn’t, he stopped. Sounds like a great time, go you. That’s absolutely nothing to do with sexual assault. As for the women who didn’t like dates trying to kiss them, it was because, unlike you, they didn’t consent.

  8. One thing this excellent article did not get into is the definition creep of what is considered assault. President Obama included consensual sex involving drugs or alcohol in his public assessment of what constituted assault, and unwanted passes or benign incursions into personal space are being magnified into assault as well.

    Concomitant is the institutional (and now culturally widespread) conditioning that holds that these so-called assaults are traumatic and deserving of institutional intervention, simultaneously breeding psychological distress and contempt for what are perceived as failures of the system.

    Kind of funny how all the stifling excesses that society rebelled against in formalized religious practice are being ushered right back in by roughly the same segments of society that wanted apostasy to begin with. I suppose since we don’t have, in the US, a kind of parallel to separation of church and state to help resist these new, secular incursions into our social moral autonomy, we’ll have to figure something else out.

    • You may be surprised to learn that these “excesses” used to be much greater. US universities used to expel all pregnant students (but not the male students who got them pregnant) and discipline students for sneaking out of their accommodation after curfew or going into the opposite sex’s dormitory. Some colleges disciplined students for drinking alcohol or having sex. Universities have always disciplined students both for crimes (vandalism, drunk and disorderly) and non-crimes (cheating). Expulsion was not invented to deal with sexual assault; in fact universities’ powers have become more and more limited compared to the 1800s through to 1930s.

  9. Carl Sageman says

    As others have said, this is a superb article. This is the voice of reason that’s missing almost everywhere one turns. Other than this author and Christina Hoff Sommers (the factual feminist), why is almost nobody saying what this article says? Thank goodness for Quillette!

    What I loved about this article
    – superb critique of the Weinstein scandal that has gone unsaid anywhere else
    – superb critique of feminism and how it harms women (even when trying to help)
    – superb critique of confidence for women without feminism
    – superb critique that one bad event isn’t the end of your life
    – superb critique on “equality of outcome” rather than equal opportunity

    What I didn’t like about the article
    – it is unintentionally divisive (unnecessary emphasis on “women” rather than people). I raise this because this is a fundamentally backward step our society has taken
    – it mischaracterises middle class women

    Men and women (see, no divisiveness!) are schooled in manners and politeness. That doesn’t mean subservience. I know some amazing men and women who speak eloquently and behave gracefully. It doesn’t necessarily make them a pushover. Many people are passive and prefer to avoid confrontation. Confusing manners with passive behaviour is sending a terrible message to our younger generation.

    I saw an excellent video a few days ago about sexual biology, evolution and behaviour. Part of the concept was that men and women are more likely to abuse in different ways. The guy in the car (in the article above) is at least as likely to attack another man than sexually assault a woman (based on crime statistics). The point I’m trying to make is that we are all victims (men and women) of predators (both male and female), despite how the article caged the scenarios.

    In modern times, we’ve lost the notion that anybody can be a victim and anybody can be a perpetrator. I largely ( ur. It solely) blame feminism for this divisive and blinkered view of the world. Even though the article does a wonderful job, it still plays the same divisive narrative. I see it as a form of Overton window. If I recall correctly, the Factual Feminist said men are far more likely to be victims of assault than any other form of attack. You’ll notice that the assault of innocent men is never talked about. It’s part of creating a perception of normality (an Overton window). I also recognise that it’s hard to judge this article in isolation for what is an absolute social pattern. However, if we don’t recognise unnecessary divisiveness, we will continue the antagonistic cycle that feminism perpetuates.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1yGLz_Av6ho

    Thank you so much for being one of the few authors (and sites) willing to criticise feminism. I firmly believe the pill is significantly under rated and feminism significantly over rated.

  10. From yesterday’s Guardian

    Should I report sexual harassment if I then slept with the man?

    A reader wonders whether she should call out a senior staff member who pestered her inappropriately, before they had a relationship

    The dilemma Should I report sexual harassment I received even though I later had a sexual relationship with the harasser? Years ago I worked as a volunteer for a political party and while showing me some work on a computer, a senior staff member repeatedly touched my knee. He said sorry, and then did it again, about seven times. He finished by saying: “I’ll need to report myself for sexual harassment now.”

    At the time I laughed as I was really not sure how else I could respond. Months after I split from my husband, the harasser started to pursue me, giving me the attention I had been so lacking. Vulnerable, emotional and drinking too much, I started a relationship with him. I also used him for a job reference, and have his glowing praise for my work on my LinkedIn profile.

    I was an adult who made poor decisions, but with the stories in the press I wonder if I should report his behaviour. Or have I invalidated the harassment, and let women down, by sleeping with my harasser and using him for a job reference? I know I will get abuse for this.

    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/nov/26/should-i-report-sexual-harassment-if-i-then-slept-with-the-man

    How did we get to the point that this would be given a serious response and that the comments which The Graunian did not delete repeatedly describe this as ‘grooming’?

    • Simon says

      She’s asking a genuine question, that’s allowed. Don’t silence her.

  11. Pingback: Campus Counsellors and the Politicization of Sexual Assault - PoliSpin

  12. theunderscoretraveler says

    Years ago, my daughter was vacationing in Cancun and was going to rent a car to drive out to visit some sights. One of the men in her group wanted to go along – and that fine as they’d split the rental.
    On the way out, my daughter driving, he indicated that he expected to share the room along with benefits. My daughter didn’t reply just drove on; in a little while, she stopped the car, saying she thought there was a flat. Her companion hopped out to have a look and she drove off.
    She stopped a couple of hundred yards down the road and left his bag there by the road.

    When she returned from her sightseeing trip and rejoined the group in Cancun, the young man didn’t say a word.

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