Like any other school of thought, feminism has factions within its discourse. The fact that there are three "waves" in modern American history is evidence enough of this. (Some would argue there are many more feminist periods than just the three, too.) There are too many wildly different divisions within feminist theory to name them all in a single breath, but one that has been in the spotlight recently is the contested topic of "victim feminism" — something Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Who Stole Feminism, spoke to The New York Times about this week.
In the interview, Sommers outlined what she describes as "fainting couch feminism," that is, the idea that modern feminism has trained or enabled women to see themselves as victims. The conversation was specifically framed around the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and how colleges and universities respond to and prevent it.
In September, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos peeled back Obama-era Title IX guidelines for handling campus sexual assault, and is temporarily allowing schools to use a higher standard of proof to prove an assault took place than what the Obama administration required. Permanent guidelines are expected to be set in place within a few months, but the undoing of the previous guidelines means schools may place a heavier burden of proof on the victim, rather than the accused.
In her Times interview, Sommers argued that schools are sometimes too quick to go to the police and that the definition of harassment has become too broad on school campuses. Sommers makes at least five distinct points about how she understands the perceptions and policies of sexual assault in America's colleges.
"In the past few years, many of our campuses have descended into a kind of sexual McCarthyism where due process was suspended and the presumption of innocence was replaced by 'guilty because accused," Sommers said.
While the cornerstone of the American justice system is that those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty, national statistics on sexual assault paint a distinctly alarming picture. According to figures from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. And beyond this, data shows that men who self-report rape might have a strong likelihood of being serial offenders. (According to NSVRC, 63.6 percent of men at one university who self-reported acts that could be classified as rape or attempted rape admitted to repeatedly doing so.)
Then, of course, there's the age-old argument that spurned individuals, for whatever reason, are making up rape and assault allegations. But according to NSVRC, only between two and 10 percent of allegations turn out to be false.
"Fainting Couch Feminism"
"On today’s campus, equity feminism has been eclipsed by what I call 'fainting couch feminism,' which views women as fragile and easily traumatized," Sommers said. "It calls for special protections for women in sexual assault cases because it views women as an oppressed and silenced class."
Setting aside that victim advocacy is not unique to sexual assault cases, national data shows that the vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report their experiences. NSVRC reports that more than 90 percent of victims, on college campuses in particular, remain silent about their assault. And if 90 percent of a single group of people are keeping assault experiences to themselves, then that silence is endemic.
But beyond all of that, implementing special protections for sexual assault victims does not mean that women are oppressed and silenced at all. Protecting victims acknowledges that sexual assault is an extremely traumatic experience and that those who say they experienced it should be treated with sensitivity and care.
And lastly, Sommers implies that the systems in place to protect victims of sexual violence are only in place for women. This argument, framed as a women-only issue, erases male victimhood; according to NSVRC, one in 71 men will be raped in their lifetime.
Regretted Sex And Rape
"The fainting couchers enlarged the meaning of sexual assault to include a lot of activities that most of us don’t think of as sexual assault," Sommers said. "They collapsed the distinction between regretted sex and rape."
The so-called "fainting couchers" point to several things here: that women tolerate (or handle very quietly) a lot of inappropriate behavior because it has been normalized, and that many women consent to sexual encounters they may not actually want to have because many women have been socialized to prioritize men's desires over their own.
Her argument ignores the different factors that might contribute to a woman feeling pressured into sex, and further implies that all consent is willfully given. Sometimes, women consent to sex because they feel coerced. Sexual coercion can take many forms. A woman might say yes to sex because they feel obligated to please a partner, because they feel threatened, or to avoid angering their partner, for example.
Working Out Arrangements
"Not all cases are going to go to the police... It's reasonable to have some kind of procedures, to counsel and be understanding and protective and listen to both sides and work out an arrangement," Sommers says.
Granting college administrators the power decide which cases of sexual assault should go to the police is an extremely slippery slope. Effectively, it runs the risk of putting the reins entirely in the hands of a college's public relations team. No college administrator wants his or her institution to make headlines for sexual assault. It will undoubtedly hurt the institution's image and, potentially, their applications and enrollment. If they are given the choice, there won't be a way to guarantee that the college is prioritizing a potential victim over its own public image.
If, as Sommers argues in her interview, college administrations shouldn't feel pressured to set up a formal, thorough judicial system to prosecute crimes, they also shouldn't feel pressured to define what those crimes are. Going to the police is a way to make sure that professionals, trained in sexual violence and other violent crimes, are the ones deciding if criminal behavior took place.
"Teaching people how to avoid becoming victims isn’t blaming the victim. It’s common sense," Sommers told the Times.
Again, this is an argument in favor of normalizing harmful behavior. There is a difference between teaching someone to lock their door at night to prevent robbery, for example, and teaching someone that their bodies inherently make themselves targets for assault.
Studies have shown that teaching women to defend themselves or watch out for each other in "risky" situations is not necessarily effective at preventing sexual assault. While it may seem logical at face value to know how to shield oneself, perpetrators of sexual violence often sit in positions of power. As researchers at Wayne State University — who are working on a study to prevent sexual violence among young people — explained in The Washington Post, the only person who can totally prevent sexual assault is the would-be perpetrator.
Broadening What Harassment Is
"But at this moment across the country, campus officials are quietly amending the Supreme Court standard so harassment includes anything that makes another student uncomfortable," Sommers said. "Even jokes, satire and offhand remarks can lead to charges and have."
It's almost become cliché to accuse young people today of being overly sensitive. What role so-called "safe spaces" play in academic thought is a point of contention, especially between faculty and students. But when it comes to harassment, schools should prioritize making and maintaining safe communities.
Enforcing and encouraging conscientious interpersonal habits that ensure a safe living and learning environment for everyone, and not just the dominant sociological group, is not a bad thing. Easing the trauma that people experience while in school is not about Supreme Court decisions, but about treating others with respect and sensitivity. The fact is that most people go to school to learn, and if a peer or professor or staff member is inhibiting that from happening, that's not fair. Treating each other with respect, especially in communities that rely on and encourage debate and discussion, should be a given.
Sommers isn't the first person to use the term "victim feminism." Writer and political advisor Naomi Wolf wrote about it back in 1993, in her book Fire With Fire. In it, she argued that victim feminism paints women as weak, and that to counter this, women should use their "power," i.e. through in engaging with politics, economics, and social impact.
In the context of sexual assault on college campuses, however, power structures can work against victims or potential victims. Sommers may believe that there is a sexual assault "Red Scare" taking place, but if national statistics are to be believed, so few victims come forward that a McCarthyism-level of conspiracy seems very unlikely, if not utterly impossible.
Editor's Note: This op-ed does not reflect the views of BDG Media and is part of a larger, feminist discourse on today's political climate.