Milam’s Musings, milambc@miamioh.edu

Feminists, despite having the best of intentions, have gone too far in their efforts to respond to sexual assaults on college campuses.

I consider myself a feminist because I believe there are systemic issues at play in our patriarchal society, most salient in rape culture.

Rape culture is evidenced by how much rape goes unreported (68 percent, according to RAINN), with how many college campuses cover up rape for a variety of reasons (94 institutions have pending Title IX investigations from the Department of Education, according to ThinkProgress) and the enormous rape kit backlog (400,000 according to The Daily Beast).

Even with all of that in consideration, feminists are missing the mark by focusing so much on the “college rape crisis.” In other words, white, middle-class feminists are dominating the conversation and because of that, the focus is on college rape.

As point of fact, women who don’t go to college are more likely to be raped than women who do.

Callie Marie Rennison, writing in The New York Times, talks about a study she co-authored with Lynn A. Addington where they examined the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey data from 1995 to 2011.

“We found that the estimated rate of sexual assault and rape of female college students, ages 18 to 24, was 6.1 per 1,000 students. This is nothing to be proud of, but it is significantly lower than the rate experienced by women that age who don’t attend college — eight per 1,000,” she said.

Disadvantaged women — that is, women with little money, few resources and little education — are the ones who “bear the brunt of the harshest realities, including sexual violence,” she said.

Rennison cautions against the obvious: nobody is saying ignore sexual violence against the wealthy and the educated, but it’s important to be cognizant of which voices (white, middle-class) are dominating the narrative. To elaborate on the race point, black women are more likely to be raped (18.8 percent compared to 17.7 percent for white women), but black voices and the intersectionality of feminism and race are hardly cornerstones of modern, mainstream feminism.

Or what about the patronizing white savior complex applied to Muslim women wearing the hijab? Myriam Francois-Cerrah gave a talk to the Oxford Union and spoke about how dominant white culture subjugates people of color to a second class status and, specifically, women.

“When it comes to alternative conceptions of feminism, the feminist movement has been doggedly resistant to including alternative voices,” she said.

These critiques of white feminism, which means mainstream feminism, are important to be cognizant of and to work to change. It’s also important to temper our use of “epidemic” when applying it to college rape when the statistics just don’t bare it out.

The feminists of today have come to embody everything that they purport to be against. That is to say, they more closely resemble a conservative movement in the mainstream rather than a progressive one. Perhaps most ironically, their rather Puritan conception of sexual encounters has reduced a woman’s agency and autonomy, which then has the effect of leaning too heavily on men. 

One relevant case study can be found within the folds of this newspaper. University Editor Emily Tate wrote an opinion piece (“Males may find themselves at the mercy of women in alcohol-related hookups”), which was much maligned.

Most of the ire I saw was directed at her statistics and the conclusions she drew from them. First, her statistic that one in 12 men have admitted to the legal understanding of rape (despite not labeling themselves rapists) is accurate. On the other hand, the statistic that one in four women will be the victim of sexual assault is now widely disputed.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, someone pushing legislation to fine schools for underreporting rape, even took the stat off her website.

Secondly, the conclusion Ms. Tate drew from the statistics does not at all seem controversial.

“These don’t add up. So, perhaps we should consider that a female’s definition of sexual assault does not always align with a male’s. That, of course, is the issue,” she said.

Is it not the issue that men and women understand sexual encounters differently, thus leading to murky territory over consent?

Now, about that definition of sexual assault. In a Letter to the Editor (“It’s On Us: Affirmative consent standard reduces ambiguity”), the authors believe their definition eliminates ambiguity.

“Any person who initiates sexual activity is responsible for obtaining a verbal ‘yes’ from the other person throughout the sexual encounter,” the authors said.

I find that deeply troubling. It goes to my point of applying a conservative, Puritanical conception of sex on men and women. Obtaining a verbal “yes” throughout negates potential nonverbal cues and takes away the sexy from the sex. They argue it erases ambiguity, but what does “throughout” look like in practice?  It’s also important to note that rape occurring in this ambiguous space of drunk consent is not all that common. Amanda Marcotte for Slate noted as much.

“The high rates of campus sexual assault are due mostly to a small percentage of men who assault multiple women,” she said.

As for the crux of Ms. Tate’s article, that the adjudication process has gone too far in hurting men in the name of protecting women, she’s also right in that critique.

Another Slate writer, Emily Toffe, offers a blistering review of the new documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” which probes sexual assaults on college campuses, when she says moral panic has “clouded our ability to rationally assess the problem.” Toffe further acknowledges that it’s good to teach a generation of young men that it’s never okay to pressure women into sex.

But, “We are also teaching a generation of young women that they are malleable, weak, ‘overwhelmed’ and helpless in the face of male persuasion,” she said.

Indeed. As Ms. Tate noted, drunk men are responsible for their actions, whatever they may be, but the process says a drunk woman is not. She’s just a helpless victim. This goes against everything I understand feminism to be in terms of empowering women and giving them their due agency. Whether a woman consented or not is being turned over to college bureaucracies to adjudicate, which, again, diminishes a woman’s control over her own body.

Feminism ought to be able to handle necessary self-examination, to see how their solutions are doing and if they’ve gone too far. It is my belief that they have.

Worse yet, much like a conservative strain of thought, feminists of today want to censor differing viewpoints. Many of Ms. Tate’s detractors wished The Miami Student had never published her piece. Why?

If the feminist movement is not elastic enough for self-awareness, self-evaluation and self-critique with a spectrum of differing viewpoints, then it’s not the strong movement it purports to be.

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