Are American universities, which conservatives usually decry for their supposedly dangerous “hook-up culture,” in immediate danger of becoming sterile, sexless environments where even a loaded glance shared between lovers is forbidden? If you read the conservative and libertarian press, that’s the conclusion you might draw from the hysterical reaction to a letter sent by the Department of Justice and Department of Education to the University of Montana outlining its investigation of the university for its sexual-harassment and -assault policies and its recommendations on how to handle the situations in the future.
The letter specifically indicates that sexual harassment can be verbal in nature: “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature and can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature, such as sexual assault or acts of sexual violence.” Conservatives around the nation decided that this amounts to a ban on talking about sex, or even flirting, even though the letter very specifically addresses the problem of harassment and the handling of complaints about it. In reality, strong sexual-harassment policies do the opposite and make the sexual lives of campuses freer and easier for most everyone.
George Will claimed that the blueprint for handling harassment would have a silencing effect on all sorts of campus communications, from dirty jokes to flirting to assigning the book Lolita as reading material for a class. Wendy Kaminer, writing for The Atlantic, claims that the policy recommendations will result in widespread punishment of innocent men who merely were trying to get a date based on nothing but the word of the troves of hypersensitive prudes she imagines roam around campus. She is particularly incensed that the Obama administration recommends that the university should keep the accused away from the accuser while the school tries to figure out what happened. Of course, common sense should tell us that if the accused won’t leave the accuser alone after she has indicated strongly she wants nothing to do with him, that’s rock-solid proof that he is, indeed, a sexual harasser.
Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute kicked the hysteria to a new level, claiming this letter “effectively defined dating and sex education as sexual harassment,” even though the letter very specifically, as he acknowledges, defines harassment as “unwelcome.” If your idea of dating is forcing the unwilling to go out with you, that’s really more kidnapping than dating. Bader then went on to write for The Chronicle of Higher Education that cracking down on harassment effectively bans dating. “Since no one is a mind reader,” he writes, “the only way to avoid ever making an ‘unwelcome advance’ is to never ask anyone out on a date.” One does wonder how he goes about asking women on dates if those he asks out routinely seek legal interventions instead of declining politely.
Ken Masugi of the Liberty Law Blog argued that this letter could ban everything from “telling a dirty joke to reading Anna Karenina" and suggested that it would “de-eroticize” the university, while in the very same post he whined that universities have “encouraged an atmosphere of promiscuity,” just in case you were worried that this sudden rush of conservative concern for sexual expression on campus meant they were going to give up freaking out about students actually having sex.
All this conservative panic rests on a misinterpretation of the letter so egregious that it has to be deliberate. Yes, the Obama administration did criticize the University of Montana for having a sexual-harassment policy that “improperly suggests that the conduct does not constitute sexual harassment unless it is objectively offensive,” which conservatives have been construing to mean that any random woman, no matter how “hypersensitive” (and in the misogynist imaginations of the right, women who sue you if you look at them funny are as common as pennies), can get a young man severely punished simply by huffing indignantly that he asked her out on a date.
There is no reason to believe that’s the case. Earlier, the letter clearly states that for an incident to constitute sexual harassment, “the harassing conduct is sufficiently serious to deny or limit the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the program.” Only the extremely paranoid could possibly convince themselves that this means being asked out once and politely declining. As Kumar Ramanathan at ThinkProgress explained, the passage that has conservatives so wound up isn’t about determining guilt at all, but is merely “citing examples of what sort of conduct should be reported rather than punished." The administration has since sent out a letter the distinction, saying that the school still needs to prove that “the harassment is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent” before meting out consequences, but that students shouldn’t feel the need to hire a lawyer and present an airtight case before merely reporting harassment.
Typically, feminists and their allies in the administration get accused of being shameless hedonists who are turning college-age women into a bunch of dirty, birth-control-pill-addicted sluts, so it’s a welcome change of pace to have the ancient claim that feminists are a bunch of man-hating prudes dusted off and trotted out. But while it’s fun to try to figure out how feminists can both be dirty sluts and pearl-clutching prudes, the real issue here runs much deeper. By throwing this fit, conservatives were trying to create the illusion that a crackdown on sexual harassment is the same thing as a crackdown on sex itself. That insinuation couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, sexual harassment is the enemy of the erotic, and those who actually want campus life to be fun and sexy for all students will support efforts to end sexual harassment and abuse.
After all, for many young women, being safe is a baseline requirement to even start to think about feeling sexy. You’re not going to want to flirt with someone if there’s a strong chance he’s going to turn it into an occasion to harass you, and you’re not going to want to go home with someone if you’re afraid he’s going to turn a consensual sexual encounter into a violent rape. If female students know their school takes sexual harassment seriously, she’s much less likely to have her guard up if a man approaches her to ask her out, making her more likely to hear him out and maybe even eventually—gasp!—have sex with him.
Bars and nightclubs figured this out a long time ago. If you want more customers, you have to cultivate a sexy atmosphere that has lots of flirting and potential for getting laid. In order to do that, you have to make the women feel safe from harassment or violence. That’s why clubs hire bouncers, who often do throw men out for harassment without going through a laborious process of gathering evidence and adjudicating the case first. They know that if their club gets a reputation as being unsafe for women, women will stop going and all the sexy fun will end, taking their profits with it. Other establishments, like universities, would do well to learn from what bar owners have always known.
Turns out there’s no conflict between feminist support for sexual-health rights and feminist opposition to sexual harassment and assault. Both things lead to creating atmospheres with more flirting and the possibility of sex in the air, and more fun for everyone. Except, of course, for sexual harassers, but for the sake of everyone else, we should want to bring an end to their particular sadistic pastime.