Monday, August 27, 2012

The unfortunate politicization of the University of Montana's mandatory sexual assault training

All students attending the University of Montana will be required to watch a video tutorial, consisting of seven short videos, and pass a quiz based on them with a score of 100 percent before they can register for second semester classes.

The script for the videos was written by two professors from the school's Women and Gender Studies program. “We know this video can evoke strong feelings on the part of men and women,” one of them said. “This training is designed to create the opportunity for dialogue and discussion and to make sure we’re not silent about these issues.” You can watch the videos here:

The videos focus, among other things, on "America’s 'rape-prone culture.'” One of the videos says: “Many scholars warn of a rape-prone culture, where prevalent attitudes, norms and behaviors excuse, minimize and even encourage sexual violence. This environment creates stereotypes and beliefs about women, men, sexuality and power.”

One of the videos also debunks what it calls lingering "myths" surrounding rape, including this one: “People  lie about sexual assault.” The tutorial purports to clarify this epiphany by noting that "the vast majority of sexual assault reports are true. Not believing a survivor can be emotionally damaging and may prevent others from coming forward."

The videos contain much useful information, but they also suggest a troubling politicization of an important issue that should have no place in higher education. The assertions that ours is a "rape-prone culture" where "prevalent attitudes" and "norms . . . excuse, minimize and even encourage sexual violence" is coded language that those schooled in the issues will recognize. It is a manifestation of an unfortunate strain of extremist gender political advocacy that tends to reduce young men to caricature. With a sweeping broad-brush, it demonizes an entire gender as potential rapists. Jessica Valenti, a once-prominent gender political activist and blogger and one of the purveyors of the maleness-is-broken crowd, has written: "Rape is part of our culture. It's normalized to the point where men who are otherwise decent guys will rape and not even think that it's wrong. And that's what terrifies me." This attitude, which the University of Montanta videos tap into, is absurd on its face because "otherwise decent guys" don't so easily forget their decency and do such a vile thing.*

Beyond that, the videos trivialize the significant problem of wrongful rape claims. To say it is a "myth" that people lie about sexual assault echoes the old disingenuous meme that "women don't lie about rape." Some people do lie about rape, and the resulting injustice to the victims can be devastating, even fatal. It is troubling that to some advocates, wrongful rape claims are deemed unworthy of consideration because, the advocates suggest, they do not pose a problem as serious as rape. We've recently addressed that argument here: It is unconscionable to trivialize the victimization caused by one social evil in advocating for the victims of another, yet it is routinely done when it comes to wrongful rape claims.  Among many, many issues that the videos could have dealt with are rape claims lodged when the woman wasn't lying but she was simply mistaken about the legal effect of the facts she's relates. (E.g., she didn't want to have sex, but her outward manifestations of assent could have reasonably led her partner to think she consented. Amanda Hess and Amanda Marcotte have discussed the internal conflicts some young women experience when they feel pressured to "defend their femininity.")

In addition, that "myth" is coupled with the statement that "not believing a survivor can be emotionally damaging and may prevent others from coming forward."  This clearly implies that every accuser is a "survivor," and it blinks at even the possibility that an accuser might be lying or mistaken. Students, thus, are being told they should automatically believe the accuser before the accused has been afforded the right to defend himself in a disciplinary hearing or a court of law. This, of course, is wrong on a host of levels. Students should be taught to treat all claims of rape respectfully while they are being investigated.  Students should not be taught to rush to judgment and assume that a male is a rapist on the basis of nothing more than an accusation.  The news stories we've covered on this site and on our predecessor site are replete with examples where that occurred, with all manner of resulting injustice.

It is especially troubling that students are forced not only to watch these videos, but to parrot back the information in quizzes if they want to remain enrolled at the university. It is unfortunate that more students, and more parents who are paying for their children to attend the university, are not better schooled in these issues. They would see for themselves how far from the mainstream certain aspects of these videos really are.

*NOTE: In contrast to the "even-decent-guys-rape" meme, feminist Amanda Marcotte recently wrote about the Lisak/Miller study that chronicled narcissistic men who enjoy forcing themselves on women. The picture that study paints is about men who are anything but "decent guys"; they are outliers, and there is nothing "mormalized" about them. Ms. Marcotte writes: "Far from being ordinary men who get out of control from lust, the roughly five percent of men interviewed who are rapists are men who seek out opportunities to rape women. . . . they pride themselves on their methods of identifying victims and separating them from potential help. They also eagerly explained how they avoided facing consequences, mainly by attacking drunk women. Rapists, it turns out, are acutely aware that if the victim was drinking, she’s much more unlikely to report it, and even if she does, the police are unlikely to do anything about it. As added protection against getting caught, most rapists attacked acquaintances, probably because they know that they can claim innocence, saying they thought she had consented."