It is timely to shine a light on how universities handle complaints of sexual misbehaviour on campus. In articles this week Rebecca Urban has documented concerns about fairness and justice. It’s no answer to say all such matters are better left to police. Clearly a campus investigation must defer to police once it is clear a criminal offence may be involved. But misconduct short of criminality engages a university’s duty of care. Administrators must take steps to discourage these practices and apply sanctions in serious cases.
The risks are found in concentrated form in residential colleges. Some have a history of boorish hazing with a nasty sexual edge. Reports have turned up claims of sexual assault. Universities are trying to detoxify this culture but it can be deeply entrenched and some official remedies have seemed blunt, dubiously effective and unfair. There is no easy preventive when students at the age of sexual experimentation and disinhibited by alcohol commingle in celebration of new-found liberty away from parental scrutiny. Of course students not in college also can go overboard. Sensible parents can do little more than counsel their sons and daughters about the risks.
There is another campus culture at work, a semi-official one created across several years by activists and timid or co-opted administrators. Its influence is reflected in policies, strident campaigns and student attitudes. It is a politically correct culture with a bleak, conflict-ridden take on gender relations. It is programmed to assume the worst, to see sexual misconduct almost everywhere. For some time, much effort has been put into reassuring victims of sexual misconduct that they will be listened to and supported. That’s necessary, but within the grievance culture it has morphed into a deep-seated bias in favour of the person who presents as a victim. In such cases it may be too easy to satisfy the burden of proof on the balance of probabilities, the test used by campus investigators. What one student took as tacit consent last night can become bitterly regretted sex by morning, and sometimes a full-blown accusation. A distinctive feature of those steeped in grievance culture is a lack of interest in the intentions of an accused or the nuances and context of the incident giving rise to a complaint.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who co-wrote The Coddling of the American Mind, says he believes the explanation lies in social prestige. This is awarded in the form of victim status by peers, so that the focus is directed away from the accused towards collective approval.
Identity politics is endemic on some campuses, dividing a messy world into victims and oppressors. In this climate, a good-faith attempt to test the veracity of claims of misconduct, or to take account of ambiguous circumstances, is angrily dismissed as “victim-blaming”. We must not exaggerate the extent of the grievance culture problem, which appears to plague elite universities with entitled students emerging as activists. Still, it can do real damage.
As recently as the 1960s and 70s, we thought the contraceptive pill and counterculture had liberated sexuality from its risks and strictures, heralding the amorous agency of women. In theory we are still liberated today; yet sex has become radioactive, the domain of offences to be denounced in public with a permanent social media record of the sex oppressor’s humiliation that cannot be escaped with a grovelling apology. True, the sincerity of the mea culpa often appears doubtful and the #MeToo movement has exposed some shocking abuses. But it also conflates mere bad sex and clueless flirtation with outright sexual assault. And it has revived an almost Victorian idea of the vulnerability and passivity of women.
The times are ripe for a correction and university administrators would do well to consider how to insulate sexual complaint investigations from the excesses of victim-cheering. It has to be independent and fair. But don’t expect this any time soon. Psychologist Bettina Arndt has launched a campus debate, tailor-made for the inquiring minds of young adults, about whether there is research evidence to support claims of a rape crisis. It is a good question, but many on campus only shout her down.