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Feminism and Its Discontents

‘Rape culture’ at Harvard

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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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.”

Jason Seiler

Jason Seiler

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.

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