The Magazine

Feminism and Its Discontents

‘Rape culture’ at Harvard

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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If we take the anonymous Harvard woman student as exemplary, her example shows that the feminist model of sexual independence is not suitable for women, and perhaps not for men either. The feminist model of sexual independence wants women to be equal to men; it is therefore taken from the independent male whose main feature is the ability to walk away from sex afterwards. This borrowed model is actually the predatory male from whom the Harvard woman suffered, and whom feminism imitates and paradoxically glorifies. He is adventurous in sex, but this is because he is not too impressed by his adventures. He walks away after “good sex” just as after bad sex, neither captivated by the first nor much dismayed by the second. Cool! The premise of independent sex is that sex is no big deal. And this is precisely what the Harvard woman found to be unsuitable and untrue to herself. 

Here is what she said in her open letter: “I do not care about my future anymore, because I do not know who I am or what I care about or whether I will still be alive in a few years.” Quite a commentary, isn’t it, on the social construction accomplished by the feminist, gender-neutral rulers of Harvard? And, as we shall see, those of the Obama administration.

One could understand feminism generally as an attack on woman as she was under “patriarchy” (that concept is a social construction of feminism). The feminine mystique was her ideal; in regard to sex, it consisted of women’s modesty and in the double standard of sexual conduct that comes with it, which treated women’s misbehavior as more serious than men’s. Instead of trying to establish a single standard by bringing men up to the higher standard of women, as with earlier feminism, today’s feminism decided to demand that women be entitled to sink to the level of men. It bought into the sexual revolution of the late sixties and required that women be rewarded with the privileges of male conquest rather than, say, continue serving as camp followers of rock bands. The result has been the turn for the worse that we see in the plaint of the Harvard student. What was there in feminine modesty that the feminists left behind?

In return for women’s holding to a higher standard of sexual behavior, feminine modesty gave them protection while they considered whether they wanted to consent. It gave them time: Not so fast! Not the first date! I’m not ready for that! It gave them the pleasure of being courted along with the advantage of looking before you leap. To win over a woman, men had to strive to express their finer feelings, if they had any. Women could judge their character and choose accordingly. In sum, women had the right of choice, if I may borrow that slogan. All this and more was social construction, to be sure, but on the basis of the bent toward modesty that was held to be in the nature of women. That inclination, it was thought, cooperated with the aggressive drive in the nature of men that could be beneficially constructed into the male duty to take the initiative. There was no guarantee of perfection in this arrangement, but at least each sex would have a legitimate expectation of possible success in seeking marital happiness. They could live together, have children, and take care of them.

Without feminine modesty, however, women must imitate men, and in matters of sex, the most predatory men, as we have seen. The consequence is the hook-up culture now prevalent on college campuses, and off-campus too (even more, it is said). The purpose of hooking up is to replace the human complexity of courtship with “good sex,” a kind of animal simplicity, eliminating all the preliminaries to sex as well as the aftermath. “Good sex,” by the way, is in good part a social construction of the alliance between feminists and male predators that we see today. It narrows and distorts the human potentiality for something nobler and more satisfying than the bare minimum.

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