06/13/2014 05:52 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

On Not "Coveting" Victimhood But Committing to Change -- Rape on Campus

One of the subjects I teach at Stanford is Asian American Studies. For a good long period, Asian American male students would ask if they could do their class project on "The Emasculinization of the Asian American Male." Probably much more than the academic or intellectual value of researching that topic, it was clear they had a huge personal stake in the subject matter. While I was sympathetic, after watching the typical Powerpoint presentations over and over again with the same images and film clips of weak, "effeminate" Asian males (or non-Asians in yellowface portraying Asian males), I finally adopted this practice: when a student asked to do such a project I would say, "Sure--but first, tell me why should Asian American males be masculine? What does 'masculinity' mean to you? And what kinds of behavior or ways of thinking would be off the table if one were 'masculine?' What would you actually be giving up? Is it worth it, for what you think you would gain?" After I put that requirement in place, only one group ever took up that challenge. And, I am happy to report, they did a pretty decent job. They had completely rethought the idea of "masculinity" and moved beyond thinking that the values of strength, courage, endurance, toughness were the sole purview of "men," and that empathy, sensitivity, patience, were the sole purview of "women." They did not want to be either "masculine" or "feminine"--they wanted the latitude and freedom to act in multivalent and flexible ways.

This blog does not aspire to be an exposition of all that is problematic about "male culture" these days. But with the killing rampage of Elliot Rodger still pretty fresh in our minds, especially his misogyny-saturated "manifesto" rationalizing his murderous hatred of women, and the increased attention sexual assault on campus has received at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, just to mention the most prominent universities, the need for a wider, more intense, and more robust public discussion about sexual assault and violence is unmistakable.

It is becoming more and more clear that "sensitivity training" and the like are not without value, but they barely scratch the surface. To begin with, any mandated training on pretty much anything is automatically greeted with a resentful yawn--more time taken out of my day to attend something the administration must make me aware of because it doesn't want to face a lawsuit. For "training" to be effective, college administrators must make eradicating sexual violence (against both females and males) a central part of their mission, and call out misogyny and homophobia as unacceptable (yes, they must find a way to actually say those words loudly and clearly in public, numerous times). As I said in my comments to the Stanford Faculty Senate recently, this issue boils down to a matter of civil rights. All students have the right to a non-discriminatory and safe environment. Living in fear is not an acceptable part of college life. And not only fear from harassment and assault--they must also be free from the fear of reprisal for stepping forward. All this requires more than education, it demands robust, fair, and unambiguous institutional policies. It requires watching for and calling out "unconscious" biases that worm their way into our private discourse. Yes, the accused has a right to a fair hearing, but no more so than the victim. And fairness requires objectivity, not subjective judgments masked as objective viewpoints. Too often one person is given the benefit of the doubt for any number of class-based, gender-based, race-based reasons while the other is put under extra scrutiny for the same.

Two recent, highly-publicized opinion pieces from The Washington Post give a pretty clear indication of how we have a huge distance to go. Two men, with very dubious credentials to write authoritatively on these issues, within one day published articles claiming, respectively, that being a victim of sexual assault is now a "coveted status" on college campuses, and that if women do not wish to be assaulted they should marry and enjoy the benefits of male protection. But George Will would be hard pressed to come up with any actual evidence as to the mindset he attributes to those who wish to step into the media spotlight, blithely putting aside not only the physical and emotional trauma the actual attack produces but also the way victims of sexual assault are actually treated by society.

Simply because he, George Will, makes this claim seems to be proof enough. I am not sure which is more despicable--his ignorance, arrogance, or utter callousness. Astoundingly, he asserts this is all due to the fact that "progressivism" has taken over the college campus. Would that that be true. How asinine.

And Professor W. Bradford Wilcox's suggestion that women marry for safety (replete with social scientific charts whose dubious status has been more than decimated by a number of scholars, and whose bias is made clear by the institutes that fund his "research") only shows the complicity of academics. Apparently Wilcox dismisses domestic violence research which shows that women are most likely to be physically harmed by their husbands.

Simply put, the facts don't get in the way of people like Will and Wilcox. The over-riding "proof" they rely on is their gut instincts and prejudices. And that is why although I will argue for a breadth requirement on sexuality and gender, I know full well this is only the first step. The other things we must engage in are not only organizing and activism, but also small-scale activism which calls out misogyny and sexism whenever we hear and see it. Without being afraid of being accused we "covet" the status of agents of social change. Would that we did not have to engage in these struggles.