17 April 2013

University tribunals

I don't know if this story is true, but I know that it's plausible.

I am a feminist. I have marched at the barricades, subscribed to Ms. magazine, and knocked on many a door in support of progressive candidates committed to women's rights. Until a month ago, I would have expressed unqualified support for Title IX and for the Violence Against Women Act.

But that was before my son, a senior at a small liberal-arts college in New England, was charged—by an ex-girlfriend—with alleged acts of “nonconsensual sex” that supposedly occurred during the course of their relationship a few years earlier.


On today's college campuses, neither “beyond a reasonable doubt,” nor even the lesser “by clear and convincing evidence” standard of proof is required to establish guilt of sexual misconduct.

These safeguards of due process have, by order of the federal government, been replaced by what is known as “a preponderance of the evidence.”

It's trivial to notice that the criminal justice is horrifically ineffective in protecting women from nonconsensual sex, largely through dismissiveness about women attesting to their experience. But a standard which assumes that women would never lie is terrifying.

In a discussion of this story on Facebook, a male friend observes

Women have tremendous power over men.

I replied at length.

It's tricky.

On balance, men as a class still have power over women. It's categorically less skewed than it was fifty years ago, but the bottom line is unmistakable: society advantages men and disadvantages women.

But this is the sum of a system of injustice which also creates meaningful injustices for men. I think we can recognize that the injustices against women are categorically greater while still objecting that the injustices against men need correcting. (Indeed, because these are interlocking systems, I suspect that one cannot fully correct the injustices women experience without also attending to the injustices that men experience.)

The model of the civil rights movement against racism adopted by feminist rhetoric proves misleading in this respect. Racism doesn't have significant injustices which cut the other way, but sexism does.

And the forms of power women have over men are largely threats that men face from extraordinarily unscrupulous women exploiting systems that serve typical women. This is very different from the way that injustices women encounter come from the exercise of power by typical men unconscious of the effect that they are having.

The flawed analogy to racism, the overall condition that women are treated less well by society, and the power that women do hold over men being largely a threat from atypical women makes men's vulnerability to the operations of power from women invisible to most women.

The story I linked is an example of a form of power that women don't notice because it would not occur to them that it could be used for ill. Women's sphere of experience is the pervasive threat of being coerced into sex through social pressures and violence. Saying that women making false accusations of rape is a threat to men sounds absurd to them, like a denial of the very real rapes that happen horrifyingly routinely.

But men have commonly had the experience of an encounter with a woman who was more unscrupulous than they realized at first and think to themselves, there but for the grace of God ....


It occurs to me that it would be useful to link my long note about the challenges men face in getting their heads straight about consent.

No comments: