What the Weinstein Effect Can Teach US about Campus Sexual Assault
By Vanessa Grigoriadis
New York Times
November 15, 2017
|Derek Abella/Pratt Institute|
The outpouring of emotion over stories of sexual harassment in the workplace has been shocking and inspiring. After Harvey Weinstein’s sins were reported by The New York Times and The New Yorker, women (and men) in entertainment and a host of other industries have come forward with sickening tales of their own. The calls for greater accountability — meaning sustainable change beyond companies firing a handful of terrible, famous men — seem genuine.
This moment of clarifying anger is particularly impressive given the recent lack of respect paid to another type of victim, one who dominated the news directly before Mr. Weinstein’s fall from grace: the college sexual assault victim. Even as debate about sexual harassment at institutions as disparate as Fox News and Artforum rages on, we have entered a period of backlash regarding student-on-student sexual assault on campus.
About six years ago, colleges began offering better support and justice for victims, pushed in part by a grass-roots movement among students themselves. But in September, pundits across the political spectrum approved when the Education Department rolled back some Obama-era rules that had broadened protections for college sexual assault victims, ostensibly because they robbed accused students of their right to due process in campus courts. Obama’s rules were already pro forma at some colleges before his 2011 federal guidance, so I believe the backlash isn’t truly about government policy, but discomfort about the change in how students approach the problem of sexual assault today.
The number of students who have come forward publicly with stories of sexual assault has skyrocketed, but the number of students who are willing to report sexual assault to their administrators is still relatively tiny. In 2014, 20.2 million students attended college in the United States, but they reported only about 6,700 sexual assault incidents to their universities compared with 2,200 reports in 2001. The increased visibility of victims in college may seem alarming, but it almost certainly does not reflect a spike in the number of sexual assaults. It reflects a much more positive trend: Like today’s actresses, college students are casting off the shame of victimhood to tell their stories.
I witnessed this firsthand as I traveled to four-year residential universities around the country to interview students, administrators and parents about the state of sex on campus. What I heard was exciting in many respects: Young women are becoming more comfortable with asserting their bodily autonomy. Their growing refusal to submit to nonconsensual encounters should count as progress. How this plays out on campus is different from the Weinstein effect in key ways, but the point is, students have been at the forefront of what it means to be more outspoken about misconduct. They also offer us a preview of where the country might be going next.
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Campus sexual assault may be a trickier problem for society than workplace harassment of subordinates. When one of the most successful producers in the history of Hollywood uses his lofty position to lure powerless young actresses into hotel rooms to violate them, it’s easy to regard him as a monster. There’s a different dynamic on college campuses. Despite the cliches about predatory football stars targeting defenseless freshman girls, student-on-student sexual assault often doesn’t involve an obvious power differential. It also rarely happens during daytime classes or university-sponsored activities, or in the regulated spaces that might be more analogous to a workplace. Sexual assault happens mostly in students’ social lives, at fraternity houses, off-campus apartments and dorms.
The dynamics of sexual immaturity at colleges have also blurred the lines slightly. Students have varying amounts of sex education and were more likely to learn what they know from pornography or other media that perpetuate America’s toxic gender norms — the kind that may teach a boy to push an unwilling girl as hard as he can in the bedroom because that’s how a real man has sex. Add to that parties, drinking, lack of supervision and an absurd amount of student leisure time on some residential campuses, and you get all sorts of messy situations, particularly of the type involving blacked-out students.
What’s more, on campuses today, the definition of sexual assault is broader than elsewhere in the country. The criminal standard for sexual assault varies greatly from state to state, but groping isn’t usually much more than a misdemeanor, if that. Yet at many universities, both public and private, students must hew to an extraordinarily high standard of communication to ensure that their sexual conduct is appropriate and consensual. These students must follow some principle of “affirmative consent,” which is colloquially called “yes means yes.” Reckless abandon in the bedroom doesn’t cut it. Students must receive a spoken “yes” or an unmistakable sign of pleasure or consent from a partner to escalate, and proceed with, each stage of a sexual encounter.
“Yes means yes” is a great standard. It could help many men (both in college and out of it) proceed not only with caution but also with compassion for their sexual partners, because they must regard them as individuals with sexual desires rather than merely objects of gratification. But “yes means yes” is still a high bar for students, who as a cohort know very little about sex, let alone how to talk about it. By and large, kids aren’t taught the right vocabulary to distinguish between sexual assault and bad sex. This means that a number of accused college men are caught in a time of transition about our understanding of the definition of sexual assault.
On campus, the young college women and men I met were not, by and large, arguing about whether certain acts occurred in the bedroom. Many young men who say they have been falsely accused of sexual assault do not deny that the sex at issue happened in the way their accusers described it. Instead, they argue that their conduct — while perhaps not outstanding and worthy of gold stars — was still acceptable. It’s not “yes, you did!” versus “no, I didn’t”; it’s “yes, it was consensual!” versus “no, it wasn’t!”
The solution is not to roll back protections for students, but to be clearer about expectations for them and create more avenues in college (and earlier) to talk about sexual respect and ethics. Because what students complain about — even when it doesn’t rise to the level of assault — is often deeply demeaning. While most students I met agreed that a student who snakes a hand under a girl’s dress is guilty of assault, some of them argued that a guy who grinds on a classmate on the dance floor without permission is guilty of the same. Both are examples of disrespect, though to me the first is the only one that rises to the level of sexual assault.
As more and more women (and men) come forward about their sexual assaults at the hands of famous individuals or in the workplace, the adult world will have plenty of confusion about “what counts,” too. There will be stories where the definition of consent will be in dispute, as on campus, and the risk of a post-Weinstein backlash is just as possible.
The cultural shift around sexual assault is a necessarily messy process, one that will take years to resolve fully, and it involves a lot more than than reining in powerful men. We must encourage discussions among one another by carefully broadening our understanding of sexual violence. At the same time, we should educate young people on appropriate behavior rather than cutting them off by focusing on insufficient due process in campus courts.
In the meantime, we should be reassured that there is very much a positive side to this cultural upheaval: Kids in college are starting to talk about sex in a more personal and open way than ever before, and not just as a matter of politics but as a matter of pleasure. They’ve learned, as one female student put it, that “sex is about me too. I’m supposed to be enjoying this. It’s not all about you.”