Is campus rape a pandemic or a panic?
In the December 7 issue of the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot broke one of today’s sternest moral embargos—stepping over the line just enough to put mention of the social anxiety about Satanic day-care child abuse in the 1980s and 1990s in the same paragraph with mention of the social anxiety about campus rape in the 2010s. Talbot didn’t equate them, exactly, but she did at least set them near each other in the conclusion of her account of the fiasco of Rolling Stone’s publication last month of charges of fraternity rape at the University of Virginia. Believe the children! was the cry back in the days when an enormous swath of the nation somehow convinced itself that Satanists were sexually abusing children at day-care centers. And Believe the victim! is the cry now.
These days, the prosecution of day-care center owners and employees is commonly listed beside the Salem witch trials as a leading example of what sociologists call “moral panic” in America—where the word panic is precisely chosen, derived from the frenzied madness induced by the goat-legged god Pan. And the current pandemic of campus rape? The much-quoted figure that one in five young college women has been sexually assaulted remains unproven, which doesn’t mean necessarily false. But the trouble with moral panics is that they create a swell that carries along a great tide of people—and that they also create a skepticism in those who perceive in them the shape of the kind of cultural anxiety that seems so mockable to later generations. Who now defends the Salem witch hunts? Who now still thinks that covens of Satanists were hidden in America’s child day-care centers?
In the aftermath of the McMartin case and all the other horrendous day-care prosecutions, innumerable newspapers and magazines carried long thought-pieces about the causes of the panic. It was common, for instance, to opine grandly on how the guilt felt by working parents, unable to care for their children during the day, was easily transformed into a responsibility-assuaging belief in evil agents actively injuring their young. (I won’t link to any of those thumb-sucking essays, since I’m pretty sure I wrote one myself at the time.)
Now, there may well be a horrifying amount of rape happening on America’s campuses; even if the number is not large, a single rape is one rape too many, as we’re supposed to say—and rightly so. Still, among those who perceive what they think is the shape of a moral panic in all the agitation, some attention has been paid to the ostensible causes, with much of it focused on the way feminist-dominated rape-crisis centers, Title IX offices, and women’s-studies departments are reaping (even if unconsciously) the fruit of a 1970s feminist theory that all male sexual activity is a form of rape, and thus all men are rapists.
Hanna Rosin, one of the journalists instrumental in the breakdown of the Rolling Stone story about the University of Virginia, has quoted Joan Didion’s line that the anonymity afforded a raped woman may be “guiding the victim to define her assault as her protectors do.” But Didion’s observation points to a potentially larger narrative problem, as the modes by which colleges treat and defend the young women who come to them with trauma, like the modes by which colleges pursue those women’s malefactors, can force individual experiences down into well-worn channels. Her story becomes their story, and all particularity is lost in the generic.
That can be particularly dangerous when we’re talking about the crime of rape. The Catholic writer Mary Eberstadt (a friend, I should disclose) has written brilliantly on the changes wrought by the sexual revolution, particularly in her 2012 book