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The Meaning Of Swarthmore’s Rape Situation

Philadelphia magazine has a troubling story about Swarthmore College, the prestigious liberal Pennsylvania school, which allegedly has a culture of covering up sexual assaults. The story tells us something interesting about campus life there (and, no doubt, in more places). Excerpts:

For a dedicated band of student activists at the school, a broader politics of oppression linked frat culture and rape culture with concerns about everything from the Keystone XL pipeline to American imperialism. But where they saw “intersectionality,” others saw inchoate aggression. After the fraternity referendum failed, says David Hill, a 2013 graduate and DU brother well known on campus for his conservatism, there arose “a general culture of hatred towards the administration.” Gross, the retired dean, summed much of the activism up as “the way adolescents individuate themselves — by rebelling against the parents.”

The analogy may be flip, but it’s apt in at least one sense. Swarthmore represents a peculiar inversion of the “in loco parentis” once reliably promised by small liberal arts colleges: Students expect — and are granted — near-total autonomy. But that no-consequences freedom also sets up an expectation that students will be inoculated from any harm that befalls them on campus. I spoke at length with roughly a dozen victims of alleged sexual misconduct at Swarthmore and, through a Freedom of Information Act request, obtained the Title IX complaint that detailed the stories of a dozen more. (Swarthmore’s Phoenix and Daily Gazette published several such accounts, too.) One theme was constant: The women felt betrayed less by their perpetrators, from whom they never expected much, than by their college.

The story goes on to say that Swarthmore cannot figure out how to deal with all this, because its progressive, pacifistic Quaker culture by default wants to handle things gently, without hurting anybody’s feelings. The place defaults to liberal pieties:

This echo-chamber issue, of course, isn’t new. “What I didn’t like so much was this overwhelming sense of pious liberalism,” wrote novelist and alumnus Jonathan Franzen in his contribution to A Community of Purpose. “I’m a left-wing Democrat, but even for me it was a bit much. We should have been problematizing things, doing the kind of intellectual searching that was happening in the classroom, but instead there was this unexamined consensus.”

It turns out that if you’re going to act like progressive social values are true to human nature, you’re going to have a problem:

“Consciously or not,” says a former administrator, “they’re so invested in protecting this bucolic campus, this elite liberal arts college that is Quaker and consensus-driven and radical and progressive.” Anything that bursts that fantasy, the former administrator says, “they just can’t deal with.” That sentiment refers to deans and professors, but in truth, it applies to most everyone on campus. What makes Swarthmore unique isn’t that it had a sexual-assault problem. What makes it unique is that its administration was hard-wired to address that problem in a way the student body was hard-wired to reject. Sooner or later, in other words, the Swarthmore bubble was going to burst.

Here’s what stands out to me about all this, aside from the obvious about the inadequate, to put it mildly, response from the administration. As the article points out early (in the first excerpt I quoted), but unfortunately doesn’t explore more deeply, these students are the products of a world in which they want to do whatever they want to do, and want Authority to bail them out. The first account in the piece is from a young woman who had been having casual hook-up sex with some guy for months, then she decided they weren’t going to do that anymore, but she invites him over to snuggle with her anyway, tells him no when he asks for sex … but then he rapes her anyway.

If her account is true, then yes, it was rape. But come on: what do you expect from a culture that brings together college-age men and women, and puts almost all of them in co-ed dorms? What do you expect from a culture that values casual hook-up sex … until suddenly, it doesn’t? Believe me, I’m not excusing what this guy allegedly did. If that were my daughter, I would be raising hell with the school (and if that were my son, I would be raising hell with him). But it does seem clear to me that college kids want to live in an environment in which they are free to engage in consequences-free sex with no interference from Mommy and Daddy (= the college administration), except when something goes wrong, in which case they rage at Mommy and Daddy for not protecting them from themselves. And Mommy and Daddy, like nice liberals who desperately want to be liked, and to be progressive, dither and wring their hands and try to pretend that what’s happening isn’t happening, that the decadent way their sons and daughters live isn’t as bad as all that. (Come to think of it, Swarthmore alumnus Jonathan Franzen wrote a novel that’s sort of about this kind of thing.)

They want to liberate sexual instinct from the boundaries of custom and moral law, but don’t want to deal with the inevitable consequences of men and women obeying that instinct in a world in which there are no clear boundaries.

UPDATE: A reader sends in this column from the WSJ, written by a self-proclaimed feminist lawyer, in which she says her son was railroaded by a campus rape accusation that was adjudicated not in a court, under established processes, but by a campus tribunal. She writes:

Across the country and with increasing frequency, innocent victims of impossible-to-substantiate charges are afforded scant rights to fundamental fairness and find themselves entrapped in a widening web of this latest surge in political correctness. Few have a lawyer for a mother, and many may not know about the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which assisted me in my research.

There are very real and horrifying instances of sexual misconduct and abuse on college campuses and elsewhere. That these offenses should be investigated and prosecuted where appropriate is not open to question. What does remain a question is how we can make the process fair for everyone.

I fear that in the current climate the goal of “women’s rights,” with the compliance of politically motivated government policy and the tacit complicity of college administrators, runs the risk of grounding our most cherished institutions in a veritable snake pit of injustice—not unlike the very injustices the movement itself has for so long sought to correct. Unbridled feminist orthodoxy is no more the answer than are attitudes and policies that victimize the victim.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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