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In the Fever Swamps

Sexual Assault Summit Logo Comp.jpgSexual assault on Dartmouth’s campus is a real problem — anyone who denies that assertion has not spent time discussing the issue with young women at the College. For decades I have heard thoughtful undergrads describe events that befell them and many of their friends. Yes, alcohol is always part of the equation, but so are predators who maneuver vulnerable students into searingly regrettable situations. Just what percentage of students are assaulted is unclear, but the figure is significant.

By all accounts, Phil Hanlon’s administration did a bold thing in hosting this week’s conference on assault. Several presenters talked about the longstanding difficulty in finding a venue for the event. Of course, as this space has observed, the College will take it on the chin for doing so alone. I wonder if the administration spent any time investigating whether the other Ivy schools had an interest in co-hosting the event as a sign that they, too, take the problem seriously.

That said, as Alexandra Arnold recently noted here, both peer-reviewed research and local experience point to a small number of students being responsible for a great many assaults. Yet all of the event’s polished presenters — many of whom seem to have presented the same material many times; in fact, several of them had worked as stand-up comedians — had a tremendous investment in the notion of “the water in which we swim.” Speaker after speaker asserted that our entire society is at fault for sexual assaults, and that incitement to assault is all around us in the media, the general culture, in rape jokes, and even in children’s nursery songs (not that I have ever heard the ballads that were sung by two of the speakers).

Different presenters had trolled the internet for evidence of the objectification of women’s bodies (avant garde fashion ads directed at women seemed particularly at fault), the glorification of violence against women, and rape images. Dartmouth Professor Susan Brison described the entire world as deeply misogynistic, and more than one speaker made statements to the effect that, “Any time a women leaves the house, she fears being raped, harassed and beaten.”

Perhaps the latter statement is true of the women at the conference (90% of the 250-300 people in attendance), but the assertion is a long way from reflecting the attitudes of most women. Activists and victims have a particular worldview, but, no matter how justified, it should not be allowed to dictate policy. In this instance, such shrillness undercut the seriousness of many of the speakers.

Sexual Assault Conference.JPGSpeaking of policy and its dictation, one session of the conference was entitled Sexual Assault on Campus: Federal Perspectives. The speakers were Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and Anurima Bhargava, Chief of the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. These self-assured, well spoken regulators insisted that it was their role to enforce “the law,” not withstanding the fact that prior to the Obama administration, Title IX had never been interpreted to cover sexual assault.

Both women seemed to believe that the world of higher ed should bend to their will — for its own good — and that we’ll all be better off if the effort against assault is piloted from Washington. Bhargava mentioned that this year alone she had threatened four schools with the complete loss of Federal support and grants unless they complied with her department’s orders. Questions from the audience about “safe harbors,” so that schools can know if they are in compliance with regulations, were met with derisory laughter from the audience. The consensus seemed to be that the Feds could not do enough to force schools to follow rules developed in D.C.

The whole proceeding recalled for me the fight against crime in the 1960’s and 1970’s: for decades, many people asserted that criminality was “a social problem” that was difficult, if not impossible, to solve, stemming, as it supposedly did, from social injustice and inequality. That idea turned out to be untrue. Since the 1980’s, strong enforcement and the incarceration of a relatively small number of criminals have returned us to low crime rates not seen since the 1950’s. Despite the unsupported ideological posturing of other speakers, David Lisak’s research, which he presented with special conviction at the conference, leads self-evidently to the conclusion that enforcement efforts should be specifically directed at predators (here and here). Notions of a rape culture distract from the needed fight against only a few culpable people, and worse, they generate a pushback when this idea leads all men to be tarred with a broad brush.

The coming months will make clear in which direction the College’s bureaucrats will go.

Addendum: The press was not allowed to attend the conference’s working groups, which addressed specific issues of prevention and enforcement. These groups will report on their recommendations in several months, perhaps at another conference.

Addendum: MindingTheCampus notes that the conference organizers chose not to include any civil libertarians or defense attorneys among the presenters.

Addendum: Several speakers commented that the U.S. military was far more energetic in working transparently against sexual assault than our leading universities. The military is forthcoming with detailed statistics about its problem; colleges were accused are being motivated by PR to downplay or even hide the gravity of campus assault. David Lisak asked pointedly if schools want to behave honorably or whether they will choose to conduct themselves in the manner of the Catholic Church.

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