Feminism once included defense of free expression, but recent complaints at Yale confirm that today's version prefers censorship to standing up
Civil libertarian feminists have always been a political minority, but these days we seem on the verge of extinction. Reviewing the charges of sexual harassment underlying the Title IX complaint by a group of Yale students and alumnae, I can't find feminism -- at least not if feminism includes independence, liberty, and power for women. Instead I find femininity -- the assumption that women are incapable of fending for themselves in the marketplace of epithets or ideas, the belief that women are rendered helpless by misogynist speech and the sexist tantrums of their male peers.
The Yale group's confidential Title IX complaint to the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reportedly includes testimony about sexual assaults, but the hostile-environment charge against the university rests as well on a litany of complaints about offensive exercises of First Amendment freedoms. A December 2010 draft complaint letter, obtained by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), focuses on these "incidents": In 2006, a group of frat boys chant "No means yes, yes means anal" outside the Yale Women's Center. In 2010, a group of fraternity pledges repeat this obnoxious chant outside a first-year women's dorm. In 2008, pledges surround the Women's Center holding signs saying, "We love Yale sluts." In 2009, Yale students publish a report listing the names and addresses of first-year women and estimating the number of beers "it would take to have sex with them."
What accounts for such feminine timidity, this instinctive unwillingness or inability to talk or taunt back, without seeking the protection of bureaucrats?
The only incident of alleged harassment cited in the draft complaint that does not involve pure speech is an act of vandalism. In 2004 and 2005, fraternity brothers stole T-shirts featuring the stories of "rape survivors" from a Take Back the Night project and photographed pledges wearing the T-shirts. But, perversely, this theft to which free speech is irrelevant provokes the only expression of concern for it: "To steal these T-shirts is akin to stealing the voices of the victims," the draft complaint melodramatically asserts -- as if the victims were prevented from repeating and reclaiming their stories. If the T-shirt theft was intended to censor women, its success depended on their willingness to respond by censoring themselves.
What accounts for such feminine timidity, this instinctive unwillingness or inability to talk or taunt back, without seeking the protection of university or government bureaucrats? Talking is apparently beside the point. "I just want to be able to walk back to my dorm at night without hearing all this crazy stuff from these guys," one student complains. I sympathize (I was a young woman once, too), but "hearing crazy stuff" from people in public is part of life in a free society, a society in which you enjoy equal rights to say crazy stuff.
Putatively progressive feminists might agree, if only they regarded women as equal to the task of talking back, if only they distinguished between men who "say stuff" about women and men who "do stuff" to women. In the feminist view reflected in the Yale draft complaint, the misogynist rants of some undergraduate men (perhaps a relatively small percentage of them) is not speech. It's a series of "dangerous," "sex-discriminatory threats" that "intimidate" and "terrorize" women, constituting a hostile environment (or "rape culture") that causes sexual violence.
That simplistic, practically hysterical anti-libertarian approach to offensive speech appears to be shared by the Obama administration. OCR has initiated an investigation of alleged civil-rights violations at Yale, and, coincidentally, on April 4th, it issued a "Dear Colleague" letter to schools, colleges, and universities nationwide, clarifying their obligations to prevent and address sexual harassment. OCR's letter conflates harassment and rape. It defines sexual harassment as "including" sexual violence and ignores the conflicts between sexual harassment regulations and free speech, or, in public schools, the constitutional limits on regulating "offensive" speech. Given OCR's expansive and potentially repressive approach to punishing and preventing "bullying," it's not surprising but still distressing to find no concern for speech in its letter on harassment.