What to do about real predators on campus, without hysteria

In case you haven’t heard, Laura Kipnis’ article on campus sex, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” is candid. She offers both a personal and professor’s-eye-view of campus sexuality, starting with her experiences in the hippyish 70s and ending with the puitanical present. She’s right, of course, when she says power relations among professors, students and institutions have shifted: women are now delicate flowers, men are presumed rapists, and institutions, God bless their best intentions, are busy protecting us all from our weak-willed selves.

Kipnis is addressing the burgeoning (and disconcerting) phenomenon of expanding female vulnerability, that industry where social slights are churned into tragedies and sexual misunderstandings into rape. One symptom? Words that used to denote genuine horrors have become caught in the machinery and distended beyond recognition: As Kipnis notes, the word survivor now “encompasses both someone allegedly groped by a professor and my great-aunt, who lived through the Nazi death camps.”

Cathy Young is another writer who is equally candid. In a Washington Post article about sexual misconduct, she admits “there was the ex-boyfriend I thought I was seducing in the hope of getting him back — only to realize, the one time he finally said no harshly enough, that it had been more pressure than seduction.” My response to her disclosure was physiological and for a reason. I’d been in the same position once upon a time, as my body would have made clear had I been attached to a lie detector while reading those words.

When it comes to Kipnis and Young’s personal admissions, feminists should take note: admitting we’ve equally sinned as been sinned against is a great first step toward getting the pendulum back into the clock, never mind staying its current and injudicious course.

Here in Canada we’ve had our own sexual conflagration: radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s life was razed to the ground by revelations he’d been violent with women during sex. His claims that it was consensual and took place in a BDSM context sent the media, both social and mainstream, into snickering overdrive, with BDSM aficionados weighing in hourly, telling Canadians how to get BDSM just right. As a nation, we aren’t known for being lurid, torrid or even very sexy, but as Ghomeshigate unfolded, we sure tried. Along with minute details his intimate life came a parade of victims reaching back to his university years (Ghomeshi is in his 40s). For many, the sheer number of accusers, many of whom had suspiciously padded stories, proved his guilt. So much for the democratizing power of social media.

Cathy Young
Cathy Young, a columnist for Real Clear Politics

I’ve been on both sides of this debate: I’ve heard accusations I knew were insupportable and those I knew were true even without proof. And with that being said, I’d like to tackle a less palatable dilemma: What do we do with the real McCoys? How do we manage the genuine creeps, both male and female?

At one academic job I held, I dated a man for a few weeks. He was an arts colleague, albeit in a different field, and if I had to characterize our romance, I would say it never really sizzled. So as we simmered on low, he volunteered to cover two of my classes while I tended to some personal business out of town. After I returned, he mentioned two students in the class, a twosome of best friends. They’d come from an ethnic high school (college enrolment in Quebec starts as early as 16) and were comely in a way that had nothing to do with their looks: they asked good questions, made clever observations and were notably ungiggly.

He suggested that one of the students enrol in a special program he and a colleague had started, a specialized program within a program. He brought it up often enough that I made the suggestion to her more than once. The second (or third) time I did, something strange happened.

The best analogy I can make is this: imagine your computer screen being yanked diagonally for a second before snapping back to normal. Now apply that to reality. I was telling this young woman about the program when it happened–I experienced a reframing reality blip. After it passed, I saw a dubious look on her face, one bordering on suspicion. I immediately knew my insistence was not the problem; instead, something about my colleague’s suggestion was making her uncomfortable. So I back-pedalled, telling her she was fine where she was and that of course she was free to choose.

I broke up with this man shortly afterwards and was glad I did. At the end of the semester that young woman came to me for help. My colleague had invited her to his home. She didn’t want to go, but didn’t know how to get out of it. I asked if it was an unofficial social event–a party in other words–and she said no. (I did double-check afterward.) He was 42 and she was 17 and he’d given her a map to his house.

Although we both knew the significance of events, I responded by treating her dilemma lightly: I suggested she write him a note, which I would slip under his door, telling him her mother did not approve. When I realized I was counselling her to lie, I caught myself and suggested she actually tell her mother. However, I think we both knew she wouldn’t. What we were doing, we were doing in secret: I was an older woman helping a younger one dodge an unwelcome advance.

(Please scroll down to see my postscript, where I provide more details about why I chose to believe this student.)

Emma Sulkowicz
Emma Sulkowicz

I’m still not sure why I chose this route over reporting my colleague, but that young woman’s sensible attitude and calm demeanour were key. My instincts told me to keep the emotional temperature as cool as she had set it and to avoid instigating a drama. (I did have a quiet word with an administrator afterward.) I also realized, later, that my relationship with my colleague left me open to an accusation of sour grapes, and that her complaint might not be taken seriously because of it. By this time I’d come to see that the man was jaded beyond reach and had all the toxic defences to go with it.

So it wasn’t until 12 years later, and while I was at a different institution, that I heard about him again. He’d been called on the carpet for an inappropriate relationship and the student in question was claiming abuse. He’d hired lawyers and the young woman’s claims were successfully refuted. By the time I heard about it, he was on the brink of being reinstated. The only hold-up was a religious holiday.

This surface drama may seem like the real story, but it isn’t. The real story is my journey from that moment in my office when that young student approached me, map in hand, to the moment I stood on my former colleague’s front steps, knowing what the likely outcome of my intervention would be. So why did I help a group of angry women eject this man from an institution he obviously cared about? Why did I do this to him and not to other colleagues whom I knew had made similar errors in judgement?

There were approximately 36 hours between my hearing about this man’s latest contretemps and my knocking on the door of my neighbour. I used that time to do some serious motive-checking. I wanted to make sure that my own hurt feelings, as ancient as they were, were not informing my decision.

So what happened? In the intervening years, I’d exposed myself to a variety of theories about a variety of things. If that sounds hopelessly broad, it’s because it is: I’m a magpie when it comes to theories and the one I pulled out of a hat for this bout of introspection came from the world of business. It’s called Organizational Intelligence and is a form of knowledge management first popularized by business leaders like Peter Senge, he of the seminal book, The Fifth Discipline. Here’s a definition pulled, yes, from Wikipedia:

Organization Intelligence is the capability of an organization to comprehend and conclude knowledge relevant to its business purpose. In other words, it is the intellectual capacity of entire organizations…including learning mechanisms, comprehension models and business value network models, such as the balanced scorecard concept. 

My take on Organizational Intelligence is simpler and is based on a workshop I actually did with Senge. During discussions we drew analogies between the human body and the organization as organism. This is simplified, but works if we view good mental health as equivalent to good organizational health. So with that in mind, why did I turn this particular man in? It’s because he had a history of pushing boundaries when it came to having relationships with his students, and his assertion of personal rights had turned into the equivalent of a disease: it was chronic and disruptive. While some might admire his actions, in, say, the way we might admire the rabble-rousing of an Irving Layton or Normal Mailer, I asked myself: did his disruptions actually contribute to the wellbeing of the college and the world, or were they just the tantrums of an angry man-child?

Peter Senge
Peter Senge

Obviously I chose the latter view and then realized the theory worked more broadly. To wit: a student once asked me for a letter of reference. She was applying to a coveted program at a local university. I had no problem writing the letter; this student had performed well in my course. The problem? Along with the letter, I was required to fill out a form that asked me to assess the student on things like creativity, sociability and adaptability. Overall, I got the feeling the questions were really about common sense, as in does this student possess it or not?

That’s when things got tough. This student, like my colleague, had a penchant for pushing boundaries and they too involved sexual matters. She was in the habit of wearing extremely low-cut T-shirts and sweaters, and to make matters worse, she was very well endowed, a set of facts that added up to a form of mildly disruptive behaviour. Sitting next to girls who were more modestly dressed didn’t help (or boys trying to control their glances). That’s because along with making her look sexy, her wardrobe also telegraphed poor judgement: by even the most liberal standards, it was obvious her clothes were less suited for a classroom and more suited for a night out in the clubs. So I agonized. I felt a duty to be honest, but that meant marking her down, a step I knew would likely lose her a spot.

And this brings me to the subjects of sex, campuses and disruption.

When it comes to the recent rape scandals–like those at UVA and Columbia–one fact both sides agree on is this: universities lack the capacity to manage sexual complaints equitably. Emma Sulkowicz, the accuser in the Columbia University case, garnered global attention by carrying her mattress to classes. She did so as a visual protest against the university’s unwillingness to expel her alleged attacker. Sulkowicz has admitted she used this protest as a project for her senior thesis, a fact that raises questions about her sincerity. However, what makes matters worse, or perhaps less comprehensible, is that the accused, Jean-Paul Nungesser, a German exchange student, was not allowed to present exculpatory evidence at a hearing conducted by the university’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. As Cathy Young observed in the Daily Beast, 

Nungesser has his own gripes about the hearing. Among other things, he says he was never allowed to present the Facebook exchanges, which he regards as strongly exculpatory, to the panel: The hearing, he claims, had to focus exclusively on the facts of the alleged attack in an attempt to decide whose version of this event was more credible.

Young has also said “such cases need to be handled by real cops and courts, not campus ‘gender equity’ bureaucrats and pseudo-judicial panels,” a sentiment with which many of us agree.

But it doesn’t seem as though these panels are going anywhere soon, and the problem is that they often come down on the side of accusers, so much so that counter-suits, like the one Nungesser has filed against Columbia (for gender-based harassment), may be the only way of challenging their power.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely, rolling stone, uva, rape
Sabrina Rubin Erdely of the UVA Rolling Stone debacle. Click the photo to read my article, Anatomy of a Lie.

This is where Senge’s organization as organism paradigm, perhaps pitched as a “community welfare,” might serve everyone better. The fact is that what my oversexed colleague and reference-letter student did amounted to disruptive behaviour. However, what Sulkowicz did was disruptive too. (Imagine a factory foreman, angry about shift work, lugging a mattress around in protest.) So taking the broader context into consideration means broader questions can be asked, questions like “How is everyone affected by this person’s actions?” That’s a question that may elicit support for women like Sulkowicz, but may also elicit responses like, “That mattress took up too much space in the classroom,” or “I’d like to hear his side of the story,” or “As a male student here, I felt intimidated.”

This approach might also allow for a fuller explanation of both sides of a conflict, might allow someone like Nungesser to put evidence of his innocence forth in a more timely manner. After all, if the goal is to maintain the wellbeing of the entire community–where everyone is truly equal–hearing both sides fully is only fair.

Laura Kipnis started her essay with anecdotes about campus dating in the “wild old days” of the 70s, when students and professors “partied together, drank and got high together, slept together.” She’s right to mourn that free-spirited time before the advent of AIDS. I understand because those were my heydays too.

But times have changed and we need a way of discerning sexual predation from the fumbling of fallible human beings. One way would be to say to ourselves, when faced with a man like my colleague, “Over the years, this man has appeared in front of many judicial panels, using our institution’s resources to do so. Does the ongoing assertion of his individual rights, in matters concerning intimacy, contribute to the wellbeing of our community?” I suspect this will leave the real lovers alone and allow professors or students, of either gender, to make a misstep or two without endangering their careers. The question is, can we calm everyone down first?


Postscript: I’ve been asked why I chose to believe the student. Her age, background and character spoke to her inexperience and I didn’t see an obvious agenda, apart from the fact that she seemed confused about what to do. Her lack of animosity toward my colleague and desire for discretion were also telling. As for myself, I had come to see aspects of this colleague’s behaviour that raised concerns: his interest in female students surpassed that of all the professors I knew. When I quietly shared my concerns with another (trusted) male colleague–he was the administrator I spoke to–his reaction confirmed he was of the same opinion. In the years following, I saw even more evidence of this second colleague’s concern. That latter evidence informed my decision to act years later. 

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