The Yale Alumni Magazine, to its credit, has as this month’s cover story a long look at the TItle IX lawsuit against the university alleging that there is a hostile environment for women at Yale.
I’m delighted that the magazine did this, as I’ve been interested in reading something substantive about the lawsuit ever since it was originally filed; the subsequent reporting about it, mostly on television, was pretty awful. Lots of “she saids,” not so many “he saids,” and, understandably, nothing from official Yale because it had become the object of a government investigation.
What has frustrated me about this episode has been the lack of solid information. Has Yale really changed since I went there and become a more sexually threatening place for women? (This was not, I believe, a widespread opinion at the time I graduated.) I hope not. But since no one has really dug into the accusations, it’s impossible to tell.
Unfortunately, the YAM piece only adds to my confusion—and, I suppose, my skepticism.
It is built around two accounts by women who accuse men of sexual harassment. Forgive me, author Nicole Allan ’09 (whom I know very slightly, we both wrote for the same college magazine), for quoting you at length.
The first comes from a woman called “Allison” (not her real name, she won’t let it be used) who tells this story:
Two years ago, when Alison was a sophomore, she danced and made out with an acquaintance at a fraternity party. Though she told him that she didn’t want to go home with him, she let him walk her back to her dorm. “I’m not sure why I let him upstairs,” she remembers, “but I think I didn’t want to be rude.” They talked for a bit, but when she tried to open the door for him to go, he grabbed her and started kissing her. Alison remembers pushing him off and saying “No,” but he grabbed her again. She ducked under his arm and ran to the bathroom, where she waited for him to leave. “Nothing besides making out happened,” Alison says. “I just remember being terrified by the violence that he was willing to use.”
The next day, going over alcohol-muddled memories of what had happened, she worried that she hadn’t resisted enough.
Allison never called any of Yale’s various help lines, never told any authority figure about the incident, and Allan writes (emphasis added),
Since Alison—like most victims on college campuses—didn’t report her assault, Yale never found out about it.
Allan provides one other example of alleged sexual harassment:
When Catherine [Blogger: Again, the woman did not want her name used] began her freshman year at Yale, she wasn’t surprised by the school’s rampant hook-up culture. She knew how to navigate it and when and how to say no. So when she learned that an athlete she knew was telling his teammates awful stories about her—that he’d seen her having sex on the floor of his common room, and that her “vagina was a petri dish that was growing STDs from all the people I’d hooked up with,” Catherine says—she approached his residential college dean to lodge a complaint. The dean told her to work it out with the student. (“Catherine” is a pseudonym.)
Catherine was shocked, but she approached the student, who she says told her, “What’s the harm with a little exaggeration?” Catherine managed to mentally brush off her interaction with her harasser, she says, because “when people say things that are that ridiculous, it’s OK.” But the dean’s reaction was different. “It made me feel like I didn’t belong here, and I wanted to leave.”
If Allan had provided these stories as examples of how difficult it can be to define sexual harassment and assault, then I would have found them useful. But she doesn’t; she clearly considers them sexual harrassment and assault. (This may have something to do with the fact that Allan, now an associate editor at the Atlantic, has elsewhere expressed her opinion that Yale has “less-than enlightened gender relations“—she’s not exactly a neutral observer.) Are they?
It’s very hard to tell. One thing that might have helped is if Allan had talked to the men involved. There are two sides to every story; we don’t get to hear theirs. (They do have a voice, right?) Did the man in the first incident really try to force sex on the woman with whom he’d been drunkenly making out—or did he just make a clumsy pass at a woman who invited him back to her room? One could understand why he might have thought this was going somewhere. Did he cross a line, or just walk through an open door?
Certainly Allan could have talked to the dean involved in the second incident; it’s difficult to believe that, in this day and age, a college dean would treat a “hostile environment” allegation with the casualness Allan suggests. We have only the word of an anonymous source that this man was saying terrible things about her. Why should we believe it? And even if he was saying those things—which are, indeed, vile—does that constitute sexual harassment? College men, especially athletes, say things like this about other men all the time; is it harassment to say them about a woman but not when you say them about a man (and does that imply that women are weaker than men, and need extra protection from verbal violence?). Or do such remarks constitute sexual harassment in both cases—or neither?
And so it goes: Most of the other incidents recently alleged to have happened at Yale are described similarly. A woman who won’t give her name recounts an episode that seems far from clear-cut, and it is presented as ipso facto proof that there is something wrong in New Haven. (And yes, I do find the anonymity frustrating; these women in Allan’s article weren’t raped, so the typical reason for anonymity in this context isn’t an issue. If these allegations are important to you, back them up with your name.) Even the infamous and appalling “no means yes, yes means anal” chant doesn’t prove a lot, except that fraternity members are prone to acting like idiots, especially when you pour alcohol into the mix.
I wish I had the time to do a real piece of reporting on this story, but I don’t. I hope that someone does at some point.
Of course, there’s another possibility: That there are no “facts” which will shed light on the situation, that most or all of these allegations have an inherent she said/he said quality to them, and that what’s really going on is an evolving (and broadening) definition of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
In a companion piece, Yale professor Gaddis Smith looks at the tension between free expression and community at Yale.
Funnily enough, Smith recounts an incident in which I was marginally involved.
In April 1986, an unsigned table tent parodying Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days (GLAD) appeared on dining hall tables around the campus. It announced “Bestiality Awareness Days” with a lecture by “Professor Baaswell”—an obvious reference to Yale professor John Boswell, historian of early Christian toleration of homosexuality. The flyer was crude and offensive to gay and lesbian people and other members of the Yale community. A formal complaint was submitted to the Yale College Executive Committee by the head of the Afro-American Cultural Center and one of the organizers of GLAD. An investigation of local copy shops revealed that the author and distributor was Wayne Dick ’88, a sophomore. Dick was called before the committee and charged with violating an undergraduate regulation barring “harassment, intimidation, coercion, or assault . . . against any member of the community, including sexual, racial, or ethnic harassment.”
Dick said if he had offended “any member of the university community,” he apologized. But was he not exercising freedom of expression?
One of the people mocked (or satirized, depending on your point of view) in the flyer was a fellow senior named Patrick Santana, probably the most high profile gay activist on campus—Dick dubbed him, if memory serves, Pat “Satana.”
Patrick was (is) a truly impressive guy—his organizing, his advocacy, and his example effected amazing, watershed cahnge for gay people at Yale. He was also one of my closest friends on campus, and he certainly advanced my very limited awareness of gay rights issues. He was deeply offended by this flier, which (I think) was also deposited in the mailboxes of all the freshmen on Old Campus; not only did it upset him personally, but he also worried that it might have a chilling effect upon other gay people. Patrick was one of the people who brought the complaint against Wayne Dick.
He and I talked about the issue, and I remember saying to him that, much as I understood his feelings, I couldn’t support his complaint; Patrick was a public figure in terms of the Yale campus, and I thought this parody, as boorish as it was, constituted protected speech. (One of the reasons I knew Patrick was because we both worked on the same magazine that Nicole Allan did; I was the executive editor, Patrick was the designer.)
Twenty-five years later, Yale is still dealing with these issues (as it will be 25 years from now, and 25 years from then). It doesn’t sound like the debate has changed much—and maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe these are issues—free speech, sexual boundaries—that every generation has to figure out on its own.