In the past week, the debate over Yale’s sexual culture has burst out of dorm rooms and into the public eye. An open, energetic discussion is long overdue, and both the Undergraduates for a Better Yale College (UBYC) and the Title IX complainants deserve credit for starting one.
Unfortunately, the recent fight over sex at Yale has often done more harm than good. Its rhetoric has sometimes been sensational, accusatory and alienating. Four Title IX complainants accused the UBYC, which seeks to end Sex Week, of “creat[ing] a culture of violence” and “threaten[ing] the safety of our campus” (“Exacerbating Yale’s rape culture,” Sept. 21). In turn, the UBYC chose to brand certain sexual choices as “right” or “wrong” (“Right and wrong sexual choices,” Sept. 26). An angry, unproductive debate over the semantics or existence of a “rape culture” followed.
With so many voices in the fray and two groups genuinely committed to improving Yale, there should be no need for inflammatory sniping. There are ideas here worth applauding. Although we enjoy and support Sex Week, the UBYC is right to question the health of our hook-up culture: one that does not help prevent sexual assault. We remain in full support of the Title IX complainants’ activism. We agree with the core tenet of their complaint: Yale has responded abysmally to sexual assault in the past, part of a national collegiate trend. By blowing the whistle, the complainants have pioneered a much-needed project of reform. We hope that a more public debate will accelerate that process.
But high tempers and point scoring have diverted attention from these issues — and from a real reckoning with Yale’s sexual climate. Labeling Yale misogynistic or rape-predisposed is unproductive. Instead, we should recognize that Yale encompasses multiple sexual cultures: both progressive and reactionary, respectful and coercive.
Most of us do not experience Yale through abuse, sexism, and rape. The term “rape culture” has not helped us identify the aspects of Yale that need to change. Rather, it has polarized the conversation and made it easy for people to attribute the Title IX complaint to sensationalism or ideology. At the same time, optimists must recognize that rape is real at Yale, even if we don’t see it. So too is the administrative and social oversight that allows it to happen. Rather than parsing hypothetical drunken-sex-scenarios, we should advocate the policies, mutual respect and concern that would preempt and prevent them in the first place.
The filing of the Title IX complaint last fall was a call to arms and the beginning of a conversation. More than an attack on the administration, its key purpose was to raise awareness and open a dialogue; after all, the University had already started planning its University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct. But since then, the conversation seems to have changed for the worse, while much more work remains to be done.
We can only hope that this first burst of anger and name-calling is a result of strong feelings kept bottled in for too long. But the kind of fear that silences, scapegoats or oversimplifies will not promote change. It will stifle it.