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The Real Story at UVA: Trying To Tame What the Sexual Revolution Unleashed

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Joseph Bottum - published on 12/09/14

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 

Adam and Eve After the Pill, and she notes the cultural redefinition of sex as a zone somehow outside morality: Nothing we do in the gymnasiums of our beds can be wrong, if it’s what we feel like doing.

Now follow the logical consequences that flow from that definition. If what we choose can’t be wrong, simply because we choose it, then the only wrong sex is sex we do not choose—rape, in other words. Of course, human experience, from the Ancients to the Moderns, suggests that sexual desire is complicated, peculiar, and riven with guilts and second guesses. But the sexual revolution’s redefinition of virginal chastity as a kind of psychological sickness left subsequent generations with no widely shared moral vocabulary to describe the bad experiences inevitable in the widely ranging sex they were encouraged to have.

No vocabulary, that is, except the language of rape. We live in a world where a straightforward novel of sexual sadomasochism such as Fifty Shades of Gray can top the bestseller list, like The Story of O rewritten for suburban housewives, and anything appears to go. And yet, somehow, we are also seeing enormous growth in the concept of rape, as it colonizes even distant fields in proof that not everything goes.

But there is no contradiction here. What Rolling Stone first published as the story of the young woman in Virginia—thrown through a glass table, penetrated by multiple men while others watched—is rape by anyone’s definition: a horrendous crime for which everyone from the fraternity president to the school’s administrators ought to have been indicted, if it were true. This was a violent physical rape, we were told, not merely some form of “sexual assault” (a category expansive enough to include an unwelcome kiss). But what about the college experience Lena Dunham describes as rape in her recent memoir? Or the awkward and subsequently regretted sexual encounter with which Emily Yoffe opens her important essay in Slate, an encounter for which a young man was hounded by the University of Michigan?

Rape is the only bad sex, by definition, and if what a particular young woman experienced seems to her bad sex, then what she experienced has to be rape. In the absence of any other vocabulary to express the thought of unpleasant coupling, it must be expressed—it must be understood—in terms of rape.

We could insist that this is a failure of logic and language, operating to detriment of women who have been raped in the older, stronger sense of the word. Operating to the detriment of male students and the colleges themselves, for that matter: Yoffe reports that 72 percent of the money that the colleges’ insurance companies are paying out for on-campus sexual assault is going to young men wrongly disciplined.

I want, however, to turn the thought upside down and suggest that the current agitation about sex on campus derives from something else—something deep in the incoherence of the sexual revolution. Even at our colleges, the truths of human experience and human nature are beginning to reassert themselves. They’re doing so in a particularly strange and, I think, damaging way. Nonetheless, sexual manners are being recreated, mostly because they have to be. The sexual revolution licensed sexual predators, and we cannot live with the result. Yes, these new manners are bizarre and unhealthy. They require a destruction of male sexuality they cannot achieve, and they are being driven by sociopolitical activism and due-process-deficient college tribunals.

Still, we shouldn’t be surprised by the turn to something possibly resembling moral panic about sex on American campuses. Why wouldn’t we panic about the current sexual situation of our young people? Possessing only the brutality of the sexual revolution’s denial of human nature—lacking a graceful account of the body, understanding neither chastity nor sexual maturity—these young people are uniquely at risk.

Joseph Bottum is a #1-bestselling writer of Kindle Singles on Amazon and author most recently of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. Follow him on Twitter@JosephBottum.

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