Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin
queerbychoice

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Dear Prudence: Why Do You Hate Female College Students?

Slate.com's "Dear Prudence" advice columnist (a.k.a. Emily Yoffe) is neither dear (to me) nor prudent, and no self-respecting woman or woman-respecting man should ever go to her for advice.

I didn't reach this conclusion due to anything I saw in her actual advice column. But I think it's fair to consider other things she's written recently when evaluating her qualifications to dispense advice. What I saw, or at least what I saw first, that led me to the rest, was her latest opinion article, "The Problem With Campus Sexual Assault Surveys: Why the Grim Portrait Painted by the New AAU Study Does Not Reflect Reality."

The article starts out sounding relatively reasonable. She's writing about a recent survey in which 23% of female college students from 27 of the most elite American colleges who responded to the survey reported that they had been victims of "nonconsensual sexual contact . . . rang[ing] from penetration to kissing to being groped over one’s clothes." She's seeking to dispute the notion that 23% of American female college students have actually been victims of such things. She points out that not all of these actions are as serious as rape. Okay, that's fair, though they're still rather unpleasant things to be the victim of. She points out that the survey found that only 3.2% of the respondents reported being victims during their college years of "unwanted penetrative sex" that was "completed" and "physically forced." Um, okay, but you know, that leaves an awful lot out. It leaves out unwanted penetrative sex that was completed while the victims were unconscious. It leaves out unwanted nonpenetrative sex that was physically forced and completed. Are these things not that big a deal to her? If a student was forcibly subjected to unwanted sexual contact to the point of orgasm and even beaten half to death in the process, perhaps even permanently scarred, mutilated, burned, etc., but no actual penetration of an orifice was involved, does the absence of penetration make the incident dramatically less serious than it would be if some orifice or other had been penetrated by something or other? What magical power does she think orifices have to determine the extent of emotional damage done?

(This focus on penetration is, admittedly, not just her own bias: it's a bias that's actually built into the FBI's legal definition of "rape." But that does not make it valid, just common.)

Still, so far she is at least pointing out things that appear to be factually true, even though her interpretation of the significance of such facts seems rather off.

She mentions that alcohol is often involved in campus sexual assault. Okay, I don't dispute the factual correctness of this, though I do wish that she - and so many others who mention it - would explicitly call out the fact that alcohol is not universally involved in every campus sexual assault ever, so it is really not as if all that female college students need to do to avoid ever getting raped is to avoid ever getting drunk, and then they'll magically be perfectly safe. Getting drunk can certainly increase their risk, but there are plenty of women who get sexually assaulted without having consumed any alcohol. Plenty. So let's not gloss over that, please.

She also points out that 27 of the most elite American colleges are not actually representative of all American colleges. Okay, that's also fair, though I don't think many people ever really claimed that they were. (Campus sexual assault is generally associated with settings such as dorms and frat houses associated with campuses that students actually live on, not with cheaper, commuter schools full of older students who are more interested in trying to improve their career prospects than in getting drunk and reveling in freedom from parental oversight.)

Her best point, in my opinion, is this: "While 150,000 students filled out the survey, it was offered to almost 780,000 students, which makes for a disappointingly low response rate of around 19 percent. . . . [I]t raises questions as to whether those students who did take the survey were more inclined to have been victims of sexual assault, thus inflating the results." This is a perfectly reasonable point. And despite my objections to some other points I've mentioned above, I would not have ended up utterly furious at her if I had just read through all of the above and not clicked through to the second page of her article.

At the top of the second page, she goes entirely off the edge of the real world into utter delusion. Here is the beginning of the second page:
Another confounding factor in the attempt to determine the incidence of sexual violence is the discrepancy between what women assert on surveys and what they report to the authorities. Studies consistently show that most women who say in surveys that they were victimized do not file complaints to the authorities, and this is the case with the AAU survey as well. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 20 percent of student rape and sexual assault victims went to the police. The AAU survey found that 25.5 percent of women who said they experienced nonconsensual penetrative sex by force reported this to someone in authority at their university. In the AAU survey, the women who said they experienced nonconsensual penetration but did not report it were asked why. The most common answer, chosen by 58.6 percent of aggregate respondents was, “I did not think it was serious enough to report.” At Yale, this answer was chosen by 65.4 percent of the respondents who said they had experienced forced penetration. What are we to make of respondents who attest that they’ve experienced such a vile assault yet don’t find it serious enough to report?
SERIOUSLY? In an effort to estimate the actual prevalence of sexual assault among female students at elite colleges she is seriously citing the rates at which such assaults get reported to the police???

What are some things we can safely assume about the overwhelming majority of female students at 27 of the most elite American colleges?

1. They are generally between the ages of 18 and 21. Maybe 22 occasionally.

2. They are generally extremely economically dependent on their parents, because they sure can't afford most of those colleges on their own with only a high school degree to their names and most of their time devoted to schoolwork.

3. Their parents are generally fairly wealthy, so maintaining good relations with their parents is probably even more important to their futures (the female college students' futures) than it would be for students of poorer parents.

4. And . . . their parents are probably not going to be thrilled to hear that their 18- to 21-year-old daughters are having sex. In fact, even if the parents are actually relatively open-minded, the daughters are probably still going to be utterly horrified by any prospect of their parents potentially finding out that they (the daughters) are doing anything even remotely approaching having sex.

"Who's having sex?" you ask. "Aren't we talking about sexual assault here, not sex?" Yes, but campus sexual assault tends overwhelmingly to happen in situations that started out with the victims initially consenting to something or other, or doing something or other that they probably do not want their parents to hear about. What teenage girl wants to try to explain to her parents that she was willing to consent to some sexual acts but not others, or that she wasn't willing to consent to anything sexual but was perfectly willing to get extremely drunk at a frat party?

"Who says she needs to tell her parents?" you ask. "Aren't we talking about telling the police, not her parents?" Yes, but telling the police inherently implies a serious risk of publicity. If you tell the police, it goes into a crime log and journalists can write news articles. Maybe they won't use your name - maybe - but if it becomes a big enough news story, amateur investigators on the Internet will sooner or later dig your name up and spread it around. Besides that, if the case goes to court - and what's the point in reporting it to the police at all unless you're hoping it will actually be prosecuted? - you'll presumably have to testify, and if the court appearances are scheduled not to conflict with your classes, they probably will conflict with school vacation times when your parents are probably expecting you to go home to visit them, and explaining why you can't go home to visit them is going to be severely awkward.

The next paragraph of the article continues:
Even given the established reluctance of victims to report, there is an inexplicable chasm between the depredations that the survey portrays as a common experience and the low rate at which women go to the authorities. Let’s look again at Yale. About 60 percent of Yale’s female undergraduates completed the AAU survey, a total of 1,721 women. Of those, Yale says 14.3 percent, or 246 women, said they experienced nonconsenusal [sic] penetration or sexual touching during the 2014–2015 academic year. But also according to Yale, which makes public all reported complaints of sexual assault in a semi-annual report, only 14 undergraduates reported to university authorities having experienced any kind of nonconsensual sexual encounter during that same academic year. Of those complaints, one was withdrawn, and at least one was an accusation by a male student against a female one.
Those 246 women said they experienced nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching. Could you please show me any woman anywhere who believes there's any hope in hell of the police bothering to prosecute anyone for nonconsensual sexual touching that falls short of penetration? If there's actual penetration to the point of (male) orgasm you could at least get a rape kit done; it might feel like there's some sort of value in getting the DNA evidence on file. (At least, if you haven't ever heard the phrase "rape kit backlog" it might.) But if there wasn't any penetration, there usually isn't going to be any useful DNA evidence to support your case, either. It's going to be your word against his, and unless there were witnesses looking on the whole time (and if there were, why did they do nothing to intervene? and if they did nothing to intervene, why would you expect them to take your side in court either?), there'll be nothing at all to break the tie between your word and his. Which means you have no case. So why would you bother to put yourself through all the unpleasantness of reporting what happened to the police?

So it does not surprise me at all that there is a vast disparity between the number of female students who reported on the survey that they had experienced any kind of nonconsensual sexual encounter and the number who reported such an experience to the police. And I do not feel that this in any way whatsoever implies that the number who reported such an experience on the survey is inaccurate to any degree whatsoever. It might be possible to make an argument, as Dear Prudence wants to do, that the number who reported such an experience on the survey is inaccurate; however, citing the lack of reports to the police is a ridiculously laughable basis upon which to attempt to make such an argument. To argue that teenage girls must rarely get sexually assaulted since they rarely report such assaults to the police is only marginally less absurd than arguing that preschool-aged children must rarely have their toys stolen by their siblings since they rarely report such thefts to the police. We are not talking about populations that have any reason to feel the police will care about protecting them from this particular crime.

While seething over all this, I closed my browser window. Then I decided I wanted to reopen the article and go on seething some more over it. So I tried Googling it. Before I found the actual article I'd been seething over, I first found a rebuttal to a previous article that Dear Prudence had written on the same subject last year. The earlier article by Dear Prudence is called "The College Rape Overcorrection," and as with her latest article, some of the points she makes in it are valid . . . but the article also shows significant bias against believing female victims of campus sexual assault and making a serious effort to protect female college students from such assaults. The rebuttal is by someone named Josh Beitel, who, as far as I can tell, has never published anything else. Which is too bad, since he did a good job with this piece. One of the best points he makes, though, he takes from the Feminist Philosophers' Blog, which in turn took it from a Huffington Post article by Tyler Kingkade, titled "Males Are More Likely to Suffer Sexual Assault Than to Be Falsely Accused of It."

That's it. That's the point right there, in the Huffington Post headline: males are more likely to suffer sexual assault than to be falsely accused of it. So if your concerns in regard to campus sexual assault are heavily focused on the students accused of committing such assaults, you're not looking out for the interests of male college students in general but simply for the interests of male college students who get accused of sexual assault. Which . . . yes, it is in fact possible to be falsely accused of committing sexual assault, and therefore yes, some sort of concern for due process is valid. But to assert that the system has already been "overcorrected" to favor victims over accusers seems much less justified. Here's a quote from Josh Beitel's rebuttal:
The irony, of course, is that Yoffe has no statistics to back up her claim of systemic male victimization. Her evidence, starting with the story of Drew Sterrett and culminating in the claim that “in the past three years, men found responsible for sexual assault on campus have filed more than three dozen cases against schools,” is entirely anecdotal. Yoffe herself is willing to concede that evidence suggests “there were 32,500 assaults in 2012” on campus. That’s in a single year, and is most likely a gross underestimate. And yet to Yoffe, 38 (potentially) falsely accused men over 3 years is an injustice that is far more important to investigate than 32,500 female students sexually assaulted in 1 year.
But there are other details in the article by Dear Prudence last year that I also want to call out the bias in.

The article starts out with a description of how a student named Drew Sterrett got accused, possibly falsely, of committing sexual assault. There are details that cast some doubt on whether it was really sexual assault or not. For one, the alleged assault took place on the bottom bunk of Drew's bed while Drew's roommate was in the top bunk listening to the whole thing. Presumably the alleged victim could have screamed and the roommate would have heard her. This doesn't conclusively prove that the victim actually consented, but it certainly suggests (if Drew's roommate is being at all honest) that she didn't frantically beg for assistance from all possible sources. If this was in fact a sexual assault, then, the victim does not seem to have behaved particularly rationally. Well, sometimes people do not behave rationally. And perhaps she had some reason for thinking that the roommate wouldn't help her. Still, it is fair to say that the case against Drew Sterrett doesn't exactly seem to be airtight. I seriously doubt that he could ever be convicted in a court of law on the basis of this story.

But I think it's important to remember that this isn't about convicting him in a court of law. Nobody sent him to prison. What happened was, first, he was removed from the dorm of the alleged victim and forbidden to attend any of the same classes as the alleged victim, and then later, after some efforts at further investigation that admittedly were not as thorough as a jury trial, he was eventually suspended from attending that particular college until after the alleged victim graduated.

The eventual suspension was not a small inconvenience. Presumably he was attending that college because it was the best college for him, in terms of price and location and programs offered and so on. It is genuinely unfortunate if he suffered this - and also the sheer humiliation of being accused of a crime he didn't commit - if he didn't actually commit the crime. Still, it also was not really the end of the world. And it is not at all clear to me why Dear Prudence thinks the horror of an occasional student being mistakenly suspended from attending a particular college campus when he didn't actually commit sexual assault but merely had legally allowable sex with a partner who afterward was unhappy with him about it outweighs the horror of tens of thousands of actual victims of actual sexual assault being forced to choose between dropping out of their own preferred colleges or else living in constant danger of encountering around campus the person who sexually assaulted them.

I'm not saying that Drew Sterrett's college evaluated the evidence in his case properly. That's certainly questionable. I'm just saying that even if it didn't, that's just one case at one college, and if administrators made a mistake in that one case, it doesn't mean that the entire system of evaluating whether to suspend accuded perpetrators from their schools on far less evidence than would be necessary to convict them in a court of law is unfairly biased against the accused perpetrators.

Dear Prudence also reports that the alleged victim told her own roommate at one point (according to the roommate) about the incident this way: "I said no, no, and then I gave in." This is interesting phrasing. I get the impression that Dear Prudence reads it to mean that the alleged victim herself admitted that no sexual assault took place: she said no, no, but then she gave in and consented, and then they had sex. But this is only one way of reading what is actually a very ambiguous statement. Another way of reading it is that she said no, no, but then he succeeded in forcing sexual contact on her against her will, and then she gave in by ceasing to bother to actively resist, since it was already too late to prevent the whole thing from happening. Which is not actually an unreasonable decision to make, if your motivation for actively resisting was to preserve your sense of identity as being a person who had not had any sexual contact with this other person, and once that cause is already lost, you just decide to hope that maybe you can at least get some sexual pleasure out of this rather than adding the misery of going home sexually frustrated on top of the misery of being sexually assaulted. That's the thing about sexual assault: it can be extremely unwanted on the emotional level and yet still be pleasurable on the physical level. And because of that, no matter how desperately you wanted to prevent it from ever happening at all, you might not necessarily want to stop it from continuing once it's already started.

People do not like to acknowledge this. But you can't get very far in understanding the complexity of sexual assault without acknowledging the uncomfortable realities of it.

Dear Prudence later suggests, citing the alleged victim's roommate's opinion as evidence, that the alleged victim made up a false story accusing Drew Sterrett of sexually assaulting her because her mother had found her diary in which she had written about the incident, and her mother had been horrified that her daughter was behaving in a sexually wanton manner, and the alleged victim had felt a need to defend her honor by telling her mother that she hadn't actually consented to any of what she wrote about. I find it remarkable that Dear Prudence has no difficulty acknowledging here that female college students might be so horrified by their parents finding out about their sexual behavior that the students might be driven to such desperate and pathologically callous extremes as falsely accusing consensual sexual partners of rape - and falsely accusing them of this not just in private conversations but to actual university administrators charged with investigating and punishing such things! - yet seems oblivious to the notion that this same horror of their parents finding out about their sexual behavior might also drive actual sexual assault victims to take the much less extreme, far more harmless step of simply not reporting a sexual assault to the police.

I do want to acknowledge again that not every point Dear Prudence makes in the article is invalid. But she seems to me overwhelmingly biased against the alleged victims and in favor of the alleged perpetrators. Has it never occurred to her that the fact that perpetrators who actually are guilty are unlikely to be in any rush to admit it and may be every bit as loud as any falsely accused are in proclaiming their innocence?

I came across a different news article today that had nothing to do with Dear Prudence and nothing to do with college campuses but a lot to do with sexual assault. This one is from my own local area: "Accused Rapist Sues Alleged Victim for $250,000." I read it with, initially, an open mind: this man's life was significantly disrupted by the fact that he was convicted and jailed for rape. There was DNA evidence, but he said she'd consented. Wasn't it possible that he might be telling the truth? I probably should have had a less open mind, actually, considering how unusual it is for anyone to actually go to jail for rape, but . . . I had an open mind. Until I got to the part about how a second woman had also accused him of raping her in a separate incident. Really, two different women decided to falsely prosecute him for the same crime even though he never actually committed it? Nope, not buying that. This man has no business being allowed to file lawsuits against his victims.

We need to recognize that actual rapists are very much in the habit of claiming they've been falsely accused. We need to recognize that they generally have nothing whatsoever to lose by doing so. And we need to recognize that only a fairly small number of women are sufficiently pathologically callous as to falsely accuse people of sexual assault and carry those accusations to the point of doing serious damage to those people's lives. This fairly small number of women is not entirely nonexistent; that's true. But the system is not biased in favor of accusers. The system is biased at every turn against actual victims: they generally have a lot to lose by reporting sexual assault to the police, and even if they do report it, the amount of evidence required to bring a case to trial, let alone to actually convict anyone, is very rarely available. And even when it is available, often the police never get around to actually testing the rape kit! And if the victim at any point behaved as anything less than a textbook-perfect model of how every prosecutor could ever wish that any victim behaved, she probably ceases to have a case in a court of law.

And for that reason, I think it's extremely appropriate that when a case is evaluated by university administrators rather than in a court of law, and the punishments at stake are not prison but simply suspension from a particular college, the amount of evidence required to suspend an alleged perpetrator should be lower than it would be in a court of law. And the fact that victims often don't report crimes to the police should certainly not be regarded as reason to doubt that the crimes actually occurred.

And that's why I think no self-respecting woman or woman-respecting man should ever go to Dear Prudence for advice. I know she's not acting in her capacity as Dear Prudence in these articles. But I've chosen to call her Dear Prudence throughout this because I think these articles absolutely ought to be regarded as relevant to her qualifications for her role as Dear Prudence. Among the people who might write to her for advice are, presumably, sexual assault victims. I do not think Slate.com ought to be giving this woman a platform to dispense advice about people's personal lives and relationships.
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