Feminism is in control of America’s colleges and universities, where its principles at least are held as dogmas unquestioned and unopposed. Yet in what should be a paradise with those principles at work, women speak of a “rape culture” that sounds like the patriarchal hell we thought we’d left behind. One woman at Harvard (my place of work), an apparent victim of sexual assault, writing anonymously but very publicly in an open letter to the student newspaper that gained everyone’s attention, felt obliged to call herself “hopeless, powerless, betrayed and worthless.” In reaction, the university, already on alert, has sprung into action and created several new committees to consider what to do. The federal government is at hand to help provide what it describes as “significant guidance” to universities in this sort of situation, in which a single act of sexual assault can engender a “hostile environment.”
Sexual assault does not sound like a minor offense, but though it may be a crime, it does not have to be one in the current understanding. The young woman does not appear to have been raped, as defined by the criminal code, nor were the police ever involved. Rather, she was apparently pressured into having sex while under the influence of alcohol. She was the victim of a fellow student, a man who took advantage of her. The “rape culture” in colleges does not produce rape typically but rather instances like this of women cajoled into something they did not feel they consented to, either at the moment or later. Apparently the requirement of consent to having sex does not provide women the protection they thought it would. Apparently it does not stop predatory males but quite to the contrary gives them greater opportunity than they had under patriarchy, when women had less freedom but more protection.
To look at the principles of feminism will help to understand the situation. Two of them are most relevant: that there is no essential difference between men and women, and the corollary that men and women are not real beings but arbitrary “social constructions” containing nothing “natural” or permanent. The purpose of the first is to declare that men and women are the same, so as to give women, formerly the “second sex” (the title of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous founding book of contemporary feminism), an independence equal to that of men. Then the second has the function of guiding the construction of a society in which women’s independence will be secured. The two are maintained without proof and to the exclusion of doubt, and are not subjected to debate. If someone wants to call them “radical feminism” as opposed to moderate feminism that merely wants to improve the status of women, I do not object as long as it is clear that these two principles are the ground of today’s feminism.
The trouble is that the two do not work in concert. If “woman” is defined by society, by social construction, then women are dependent on society and not independent. They are defined not by their voices but by their voices’ being heard, not by their accomplishments but by being recognized for their accomplishments, not by their own intent but by their environment, hostile or friendly. One may see then what has happened to feminism. In answer to the eternal complaint of women that men do not listen to them, feminism had the ambition for the first time in the history of man to compel him to listen. The unintended result is that women are defined by their listeners, by their desire to imitate men, not by themselves. The feminist desire for independence is defeated by the feminist principle of social construction that was designed and adopted to achieve it.
Social construction is whatever society does. The idea sounds independent and liberating because it suggests that society can do anything it wants. Society can make a feminine woman, as under patriarchy—the sort of woman that the American founder of feminism Betty Friedan deflated in her famous book The Feminine Mystique (1963)—or it can make the gender-neutral woman the feminists have tried to produce. This would be a woman no longer confined by male definition but capable all around, especially in matters formerly reserved for men. So which is better?
The problem with the idea of social construction is that society, on its own, has no notion of what is suitable to construct. Both the feminine woman and the feminist woman are socially constructed, and equally so. Actually, when one says social construction, the meaning is political construction: Who rules society in order to make its conventions, the patriarchal males or the feminists? But then we still have to know which ruler is more suitable for women—and let’s not forget men and children.
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.
The hook-up culture denounced by conservatives is the very same rape culture denounced by feminists. Who wants it? Most college women do not; they ignore hookups and lament the loss of dating. Many men will not turn down the offer of an available woman, but what they really want is a girlfriend. The predatory males are a small minority among men who are the main beneficiaries of the feminist norm. It’s not the fault of men that women want to join them in excess rather than calm them down, for men too are victims of the rape culture. Nor is it the fault of women. Women are so far from wanting hook-ups that they must drink themselves into drunken consent—in order to overcome their natural modesty, one might suggest. Not having a sociable drink but getting blind drunk is today’s preliminary to sex. Beautifully romantic, isn’t it? The anonymous Harvard woman by getting drunk was unfortunately helping to pressure herself into consenting to a very bad experience. But she is right that the pressure comes with the encouragement of the culture. And the culture comes from the dogmas of feminism that made this mess for women and men too.
One more feature of the mess should not be omitted, the worsening of it by our federal government. Colleges today are under pressure not only from feminist students but also from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education. A recent letter from that office, one of a series, was sent to 55 colleges, addressed to “Dear Colleague” and containing what it called “significant guidance.” Anyone who thinks that the idea of a “nanny state” is an exaggeration should read this letter. The official author, who is the assistant secretary for the OCR, purports to be the colleague of the leaders of America’s universities but treats them as if they were children being instructed with a catechism. The form of the letter is Q-and-A, the questions innocent and submissive, the answers authoritative—usually you “must,” occasionally you “may.”
The purpose behind the letter is to create an area between the law’s commands and the law’s permissions that is “significantly guided” by the government, in which the government commands but leaves the responsibility of enforcement to the universities commanded. The universities have been required to set up (and of course pay for) a “Title IX coordinator” with the duty of preventing a “hostile environment” caused by sexual assault, which may or may not be a crime prosecuted by state and local authorities. The latter police the crime, and the universities are responsible, and open to penalties, for preventing the culture of crime. Harvard responded last year by appointing as its coordinator a woman lawyer formerly employed at the OCR. It has now answered last month’s letter by hastening to hire more staff for her office. Without the slightest sign of pushback, the university volunteers to aid in the ridiculous accusation against itself. The OCR’s ridiculous accusation (and this summary does not do justice to its many absurdities) is for having failed to establish a culture of sexual adventure that never results in misadventure.
In its vocabulary, the OCR fully adopts the feminist notion of gender neutrality so that the sex of the “complainant” or the “perpetrator” is never identified. Thus the obvious difference between the sexes in regard to sexual assault is never stated, the problem never described. Are most men really potential rapists as the term “rape culture” suggests, or are some of them merely taking what is offered? Are women so colossally imprudent as to desire to get into bed with such creatures? Does a gender-neutral environment exist that will please both sexes equally? Are both sexes not independent in different ways as well as dependent on each other? Will there be an end to feminist nonsense aided by government intrusion and university compliance?
These are easy questions, but they call for the independence of mind necessary to answer the hard question that comes next: How can we recover some sense of feminine modesty and male restraint?
Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.