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.