Professor Thomas K. Hubbard, a leading expert on sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome, is a busy man. I caught up with him early last month at Edinburgh University, where I heard him presenting a paper at the annual conference of the Classical Association. More about that later, but first we must whisk him off back to his own seat of learning, the University of Texas, Austin, where, later in the month, he was giving a speech to welcome participants at another conference, this time one he had organised himself, on a theme very much about our own time and culture.
Titled “Theorizing Consent: Educational and Legal Perspectives on Campus Rape”, this two-day event brought together a range of professionals to discuss sexual consent and so-called “campus rape culture”, a term signifying the dubious but very high-profile belief that sexual harassment and rape are rife at colleges and universities. Along with sensationalist media pressure and an unhelpful legislative background, it is a doctrine that has thrust upon university administrators responsibility for policing student sexual conduct to an unprecedented degree and led to disciplinary action for alleged misbehaviour in a number of cases where the accusations turned out to be false.
It is a poisonous atmosphere, which is why Hubbard felt it a matter of urgency to focus serious debate upon it. As well as wreaking unjustified disgrace on those wrongly accused, potentially blighting their entire future, the very purpose of academic life is threatened. Tasked with a responsibility to promote a rape-free environment on campus, administrators are under pressure to police how rape is discussed: but without freedom of expression and thought how can classroom educators teach and discuss the ethics of sexual consent as encountered in history, literature, the arts, and social research? How can free and objective discussion be promoted in an environment of mandatory “trigger warnings” about material that some students might deem sensitive or objectionable?
Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, in London, recently drew attention to an American series of short videos, featuring a collection of mainly young female school-leavers nervously about to open envelopes and emails: would they or wouldn’t they get a university offer? They go on to read aloud fictitious college admissions letters. The letters tell the school leavers they have been accepted, which ought to be great news. In line with this, the letters offer congratulations and talk about the “exciting” experiences that can be expected in their new life on campus.
But then comes the hit. Each of the Unacceptable Acceptance Letters films has a different monstrous scenario, read out matter-of-factly, as though it were the norm: “You’ll be raped in your first semester and as a result will attempt to take your own life in the next.”
The facts do not support this scary propaganda, but that does not mean it is ineffective. The paranoia, and overwhelmingly anti-male sexism, are now deeply entrenched on both sides of the Atlantic. Also, as Fox points out, even young children are now being eyed suspiciously in British schools as would-be perpetrators of abuse. She writes that “in 2016, some primary schools discourage kiss-and-chase games, prohibit hugging, view the innocent interactions between children playing doctors and nurses through the distorted lens of abuse.”
Now, concern over the protection of little children is one thing. Whatever one’s misgivings about the present state of the laws that supposedly protect them, it is overwhelmingly obvious that kids are vulnerable to abuse. The infantilisation of university students, whose tender ears must be guarded against even hearing rape discussed in class, is quite another.
How we have arrived as this sorry state of affairs inevitably fell within the purview of Hubbard’s conference. He told me all the sessions would be video recorded and released for public viewing, so in due course we will have access to the participants’ experiences and insights on this. In the meantime, I can report that an excellent article by Elizabeth Nolan Brown very clearly delineates some key features which have led to “rape culture” and “trigger warnings” figuring so strongly in the lexicon of campus life.
Brown describes the entrenched bureaucratization of sex in America, a phenomenon all the more remarkable for taking root in a country that prides itself as “the land of the free”. In a classic case of mission creep, it has come about through state intervention initially aimed at stopping sex discrimination. Basing her article on an academic paper by Harvard Law School professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk for a forthcoming issue of the California Law Review, Brown’s story begins way back in 1972, when the Educational Amendments of that year introduced the now notorious Title IX. In what was a perfectly reasonable measure at a time when women faced serious discrimination in study opportunities, and academic employment, it decreed that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”.
The grievance procedures set in place to ensure compliance “have today become a lever by which the federal bureaucracy monitors schools’ policies and procedures regulating sexual behavior”, wrote Gersen and Suk.
This is where it gets really weird. What started with the benign intention of according women equal academic opportunities now begins to morph into a ball-crushing instrument of torture aimed in effect at reducing the sexual opportunities of men, putting in peril not just would-be rapists (who are quite rightly imperilled in any case by the criminal law) but even ordinary flirting, or respectful moves to invite someone out on a date.
This came about in the 1990s through pushing the argument that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination because it creates a “hostile environment” for women, making it less safe for them to get an education and thus potentially deterring their free participation in it. If Title IX had only ever been applied to genuine cases of harassment, the argument would be a good one. But by this time the tide of victim feminism was running so strong that at least in retrospect it seems bureaucrats would have been bound to push the machinery of Title IX much further.
In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the arm of the US Department of Education tasked with Title IX upkeep, started including “sexual violence” as a form of sexual discrimination. This so-called “violence” is a term that has been used to include not just clearly violent assault but also the use of “violent” language, a concept which has been stretched to include “unwelcome comments about appearance”. OCR has offered guidance suggesting that academic institutions address “risk factors” for sexual violence including exposure to pornography, and having a “preference for impersonal sex”, thus taking newly restrictive government-generated norms about sexual behaviour into the lives not of children but of young adult students, as well as their teachers, and also mature students.
The serious implications of all this for free speech were brought out dramatically in the case of Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University. An article she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing Title IX was itself reported as a possible violation of Title IX! A complaint filed with Northwestern’s Title IX office against Kipnis, argued that her essay had had a “chilling effect” on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct, thus indirectly contributing to a “hostile environment”.
It comes to something when the language of safety and protection are used to suppress discussion, in a university, of all places, of important issues. The complaint was eventually dismissed after a 72-day investigation, but not before the “chilling effect” on free speech had sent a shudder down the spine of the academic world and those concerned with the health and vigour of public discourse more widely.
Kipnis was the keynote speaker at Hubbard’s conference, which also focused on the contentious doctrine of “affirmative consent”. This holds that for sexual consent to be valid it must be explicit. Instead of spontaneous love-making, a prior contract of agreement, so to speak, has to be made and unambiguously declared. This is not the time to go into that debate. I will just nod respectfully towards a couple of commentators here who have voiced their support in the past for affirmative consent, particularly in the case of children’s relationships with adults. I blogged on this theme last July, in Negotiating a little girl’s knickers down; and consent in the context of children was ably explored here in a guest blog, The staircase has not one step but many, by “Lensman” in the following month.
Maybe one day Prof. Hubbard will find time in his busy schedule for a conference on the age dimension of consent, especially as regards the suppressed narratives of consenting juveniles. The theme is likely to become increasingly urgent in the academic world, not least because the current “protective” coddling of young people, corralling them into “safe spaces” rather than a “hostile” environment of uninhibited debate, could well lead to demands for an increase in the age of consent in the UK to 18 and in the US to perhaps 21, thus putting even greater pressure on campus administrators to police students’ sex lives.
With this dread possibility hovering at the back of my mind, it seemed like a good idea to get myself up to Edinburgh to meet Tom Hubbard, whose earlier conference a couple of years ago titled “Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law?” was featured in my blog Deep in the weird heart of Texas. I wanted to meet him anyway, not least as we have a mutual friend in retired history professor William A. Percy, for whom I have undertaken quite a bit of work as a freelance research assistant in recent years – work that has involved me in getting to grips with Tom’s own field, especially as regards the distinct turn towards “family values” in the Athens of Socrates’ last years – a time when old customs came under critical scrutiny with such astonishing rapidity as to bear some comparison with the strictures of our own times.
Fortunately, we had plenty of time to talk about Ancient Greece over dinner and drinks on the day before the conference got under way, although in conversation with an expert of his stature I was largely in a questioning and listening mode. Like the peripatetic philosophers of old, too, we talked while we walked, so far as catching our breath would allow, over the summit of the city’s rugged little local “mountain”, Arthur’s Seat. Attendance at Tom’s lecture on “Timarchus’ Body as Rhetorical Evidence” was also enlightening, showing how a legal orator in Ancient Athens could get away with character assassination of an accused person, using their bodily appearance as “proof” of their debauchery in ways that even today’s shameless false accusers might envy!