Saint Mary’s University, located on a small campus in downtown Halifax, is known for its friendliness and collegiality. It has a fine athletics program and is popular with international students. It is also, apparently, a hotbed of rape culture. The proof came last fall, when someone videotaped students singing coarse chants during freshman orientation week, and Saint Mary’s hit the headlines.
There are no published statistics for sexual assaults at Saint Mary’s, and not a shred of evidence that sexual misconduct is common. Nonetheless, the usual grovelling ensued. A task force was struck, which produced a sweeping 110-page report with recommendations to overhaul the entire campus culture. “These chants highlight the prevalence of sexualized violence and the evolution of a rape culture in our society, both of which are huge societal challenges in Canada and around the world,” the report said.
To stem the tide of violence, Saint Mary’s and many other universities have adopted a new standard for consensual sex. No longer is silence – or even a muted “yes” – good enough. Consent must now be enthusiastic and continuous at every stage of the proceedings. Nova Scotia student groups have launched a new advocacy campaign, called More Than Yes, to spread the word. “Sex without enthusiastic consent is not sex at all. It’s sexual assault or rape,” proclaims its website. Supportive campus administrators have taken to wearing buttons saying “Consent is sexy.”
So here’s the $10 question. Can a woman consent to sex when she’s been drinking? Universities have decided that the answer is no. “We heard that students don’t understand that it is illegal to have sex with someone who is drunk because they can’t give consent,” says the Saint Mary’s task force report. Although that sentence is crafted to be gender-neutral, its warning is directed at men. It means that drunken sex is tantamount to rape.
Is there a double standard here? Indeed there is. Men are treated as potential rapists, and women as their helpless victims (or, in current parlance, “survivors”). If two young people get hammered and have drunken sex, he is responsible for his behaviour, but she’s not responsible for hers. And even if she does say “yes,” it’s up to him to figure out whether she means it.
As Wayne MacKay, the law professor who wrote the Saint Mary’s report, told Maclean’s: “Clearly the focus needs to be on the fact that men need to have a better understanding and stop raping.”
Let’s be clear about a few things. Obviously, someone who is passed out or barely conscious cannot consent to sex. Men, who have physical size and strength on their side, have an extra duty to rein in their disinhibitions whether they are under the influence or not. And some men really are predators who deliberately target women. But the truth is that a great deal of alcoholic sex basically involves “stuff I wouldn’t have done if I was sober.” Once upon a time, a young adult woman might regard such an encounter as an unfortunate learning experience and move on. Today, she’s told it’s a devastating trauma that’s not her fault.
According to authorities, sexual assault on campus is ubiquitous. One typical claim, made by University of Windsor psychologist Charlene Senn in The Globe and Mail is that the rate of rape or attempted rape ranges between 18 per cent and 24 per cent. “Add in harassment, groping and sexual coercion, and the percentage of female students who say in surveys that they experience this behaviour during their college years rises to 60 per cent,” the story said.
The belief that universities are hotbeds of sexual violence is fuelled by inflated statistics that are widely repeated as the gospel truth. For example, the widespread claim that one in five female students is sexually assaulted comes from the Campus Sexual Assault Study, a survey of more than 5,000 U.S. university women. Like many such studies, it stretches the definition of assault to the breaking point. The vast majority of the incidents it records involved alcohol. But the vast majority of the women who reported these incidents did not believe they had been raped – even in cases that involved penetration. Two thirds of the women didn’t think these incidents were serious enough to report to the authorities. (Journalist Cathy Young has analyzed this study in detail and written at length about it.)
The consequences of this phony rape scare are troubling. On some U.S. campuses, due process has been thrown out the window. Men accused of sexual assault are deemed guilty until proven innocent, and some have been expelled. Even the Obama administration has weighed in, announcing a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. California is considering legislation that would codify the doctrine of “affirmative consent” on campus. Universities everywhere are busy setting up more task forces, awareness sessions and sexual-violence response teams, while demonizing the allegedly toxic jock culture of male athletics.
The manufacture of “rape culture” is a triumph of ideology over substance. It has inflated a serious but uncommon threat into a crime wave. It infantilizes women, strips them of their agency and treats them like Victorian damsels in distress. As for those armies of would-be rapists lurking in every shadow – they’re your sons, your grandsons, your nephews and your brothers. I used to think the war on men was an exaggeration. I don’t think so any more.