Don’t Ban All The Fraternities, Lower The Drinking Age

Sexual assault on campus is an epidemic. Estimates suggest that one in five young women will experience sexual assault while in college (and the statistics are worse for women of the same age who don’t attend college). Most of these crimes will go unreported for a variety of reasons: the victim is not “perfect,” there can be devastating social consequences to reporting that someone raped you, and on and on.

In response, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has clarified that universities have a responsibility to address sexual harassment and sexual assault as part of their obligations under Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education. This development is strongly positive, although colleges and universities still tend to suck at implementing the requirements. (In the words of the youth-led activist group Know Your IX: “But aren’t colleges handling these reports terribly? Yup, they absolutely are. But so are the police.”)

Know Your IX is right; the best way forward is to require better enforcement so schools live up to their legal obligations. Public law enforcement involvement and response also carries wide room for improvement — although this is tricky, as bringing police in can make the situation worse for some victims, especially undocumented victims, victims of color, and those victims for whom their assailants bear continued control over their lives.

But legal strategy will only get us so far. We need cultural change as well. Some cultural change is directly traceable to activism: victims speaking out (brava!), students holding their institutions accountable (hooray!), and conversation-creators like the brave and creative Emma Sulkowicz, who commanded national attention for carrying a mattress throughout the Columbia University campus. Other cultural change will come with policy change.

One proposal increasingly floated to combat sexual assault on campus is to ban all the frats and shut them down. It makes perfect sense to close down fraternities that have been found to engage in overt racism or empower sexual assault. But shutting down every fraternity nationwide because we have proof that some are terrible is untenable. A better solution would be to defang fraternities as monarchies of rape culture. We need to take away the social gatekeeping power older men have over younger women on campus. We need to lower the drinking age.

College students are going to drink. We can get weird and moralistic about that, à la the disastrous reformers (including feminists) who brought us Prohibition, or we can accept that society as a whole benefits when unstoppable private behaviors and desires are permitted under the law.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 used the enticement of federal funding for state highway funds to drag states into raising the age for purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol to 21. Now many will recite for you the often-argued reasons why that’s offensive: 18 is the age of adulthood; you can vote at 18; you can enlist in the armed forces and fight and die for your country at 18, but you can’t have a drink at the bar at your homecoming party if you in fact survive. These reasons are right.

But less examined is the role that an arbitrary drinking age of 21 plays in creating destructive cultures on college campuses, particularly rape culture, and particularly for young women. Many college gatherings do involve alcohol. By granting less than half of a campus access to purchasing alcohol by virtue of their age, this situation empowers older men — including the small proportion of those older (and for that matter younger) men who are sexual predators — to control younger women’s access to social gatherings that include alcohol.

Fraternities have the power they do, by and large, because the many underage people, including underage women, who do drink must go to frat houses and other private settings to hang out. Now, one common objection raised by apologists for campus sexual assault (even if they see themselves in a very different light) is that young women should learn how to behave and be smarter about drinking. Until we are telling our young men with equal vigor that they must stop doing keg stands in order to be safe, I’m going to call that a sexist comment. Young women deserve to be human just as much as young men, without fear of getting raped. Even those young women who play drinking games before they turn 21.

If the drinking age were lowered to 18, all students would be able to go to the bar on a Friday night. This might take away some of the pressure some underage students feel to get really drunk (“pregame”) in their dorm rooms before going out for the evening. It would definitely take away this choice: Sit home and not go out and party, or go to a private house party controlled by older people you may not know who have bedrooms upstairs.

Rather than banning fraternities, this feminist argues that we should siphon away some of their power by lowering the drinking age.

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Keep Beloved: Banning Books About Rape And Slavery Won’t Help Affluent White Boys

Today’s Washington Post brought the headline “Fairfax County parent wants ‘Beloved’ banned from Fairfax County school system” above a photograph of a white woman with her arms crossed inside what appears to be a very tony home.

It seems last year Laura Murphy’s son had nightmares after reading Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, an important yet difficult story about race, rape and slavery. Now she wants the entire school system to ban the book. The article goes on to quote her son, Blake, presumably also white and affluent, on reading Beloved during his senior year at Lake Braddock High School in Virginia:

“It was disgusting and gross. It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”

Quoting straight from the article:

Currently, students can opt out of books assigned in class that they find uncomfortable to read. But the policy should be stricter for books with mature themes, Murphy argues.

Laura Murphy tried and failed to get the book dropped entirely from the AP English curriculum, after bringing the matter to the superintendent, the school board and the taxpayers who subsidize their time. Today she is working to have  the entire state of Virginia change reading policies to mirror “family life” (sex ed) policies in which parents are able to receive notice before certain topics come up, and remove their children — some of whom may be legal adults — from the class.

And with that, it’s all here in this real-life story: Race, class, privilege, elitism, sexism, sexuality taboos, rape culture, male dominance, control, the power of omission, science taboos, ignorance, euphemisms, ‘family values,’ religious right policy frameworks, censorship, fear of ‘the other,’ teaching slavery in a former slave state, public education in the suburbs versus public education everywhere else, the promise of an elite Advanced Placement program most frequently realized by those who don’t have the largest issues paying for four years of college.

It is a perverse twist on a scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird  that made me uncomfortable, and never left me, where the tattered books from the rich white children are sent off to the poor black children. In that I read a juxtaposition of good intentions and/or a ‘desecration is appropriate for certain people in certain contexts’ mentality on one side, and a longing for better conditions on the other. And no difference in essential humanity between the two, just unquestioned customs and the accident of what body you were born in.

What I’m saying is that as a child in an affluent, primarily white suburban public school system, I read To Kill A Mockingbird and began to think about race and racial privilege in a more critical way. It was life-changing. Continuing to push myself into more of that discomfort is a lifelong process. That lifelong process began by reading a difficult book about race in public school.

Rather than use the space of this post to ridicule Laura Murphy and Blake Murphy and those who believe censorship is a good idea, or that the real experiences of oppression should be sanitized, or that whitewashing history will help everyone to sleep better, I’m going to observe instead the power of the written word and specifically fiction to further realize the promise of a democratic society.

It is in reading the immersive stories of others that we learn empathy for those we are segregated from, those with less than us, those with different experiences than us, those with more resources than us. Emotions are important, yes, but this is what democracy and pluralism are all about. Rather than insist everyone be the same, we all need to know how to work together. Further, by learning about injustice, creating a language for injustice, having a framework to talk about injustice, we can help unravel the secrecy it requires to continue.

Toni Morrison is one of the best novelists alive today. For Beloved she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. This bizarre story in Virginia feels almost like something she would write into one of her novels, so that we might embrace a little more fear and learn a little more compassion.

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