Sex and Safety on Campus

For decades now, we’ve worried about an epidemic of sexual assault and un-safety at American colleges and universities.

But there’s a question of whether, amid the familiar panic and new paperwork, we’ve made real progress toward solving the problem.

Consider the numbers at Harvard as they appeared in a report last year:

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Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk begins the show with a provocative statement. In an article co-written with her colleague and husband Jacob Gersen, Suk faults universities for overcompensating, after years of neglect, on matters of sexual safety by built a paranoid atmosphere and a self-defensive “sex bureaucracy.”


On the phone, Alexandra Brodsky is one of the activists who saw to it that victims of sexual assault used the Title IX provision to involve the government in what used to be purely academic proceedings (which often produced no results).

This week she graduated from Yale Law School, but she’s still looking for ways to fine-tune the public resolution of sex claims on campus. Most recently, Brodsky proposed turning toward the “restorative justice” model put to work in South Africa, Germany, and Rwanda—an honest and possibly healing confrontation of victim and accused.

Photo by Lance Rosenfield

Beneath this and all sexual matters, of course there are hidden questions of selves, of gender, of privilege and bias—of what young people want and need. The writer-historian Moira Weigel discusses the socialization of women and the rise of dating (she just wrote a book about it), and the journalist Caitlin Flanagan, who nailed fraternities last year in The Atlantic, arrives to provide some wisdom.

And finally, it’s worth noting that the latest wave of the sexual-violence campaign arrives in a broader conversation about student safety, comfort and inclusion at schools. The New Yorker‘s Nathan Heller just captured the Oberlin version, but David Bromwich joins us to consider the ramifications of safety beyond the realm of sexuality.

What kind of safety are campus activists asking for? What kind can enormous, expensive universities provide? And what does the reworking of rules, patterns, and expectations on campus foretell for the world at large?

Brodsky photo by Lance Rosenfield/Prime.

Guest List
Jeannie Suk
professor at Harvard Law School and contributor at The New Yorker.
Alexandra Brodsky
co-founder of Know Your IX, editor at Feministing, and brand-new graduate of Yale Law School.
Caitlin Flanagan
journalist, social critic, and author of "The Dark Power of Fraternities" in The Atlantic.
Moira Weigel
PhD candidate at Yale University and author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating.
David Bromwich
Sterling professor of English at Yale and author of Moral Imagination: Essays.

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  • Just like last year, after a great start, the Red Sox have become unwatchable. So I have the time to jump into the unresolvable: institutionalizing sexual power dynamics between men and woman

    Chris’ intro made me laugh “good sex or bad sex”?

    “Whether…..we’ve made real progress toward solving the problem…..on matters of sexual safety by building(sic) a paranoid atmosphere and a self-defensive ‘sex bureaucracy.’”

    Suk went in a different direction than the show billing above. Chris asked her whether title IX was
    being used to defend the schools rather than the students. She answered that the schools were complying in their self-interest.

    Brodsky:“continue to learn in the wake of sexual violence.”
    Learning involves triangulation: student, teacher, subject. The teacher cannot block or interrupt that triangular relationship.

    Types of violence –

    Caitlin Flanagan: what women want – she avoided a direct answer. In fairness, asking many women would provide an intersubjective answer of some kind, so that was a pragmatic answer.
    (They want to be choosy?)
    Wanted-ness vs unwelcome-ness
    Sex …..the welcome unwanted-ness. Yeah, okay,…. unresolvable.

    David Bromwich – they chill.

    Moira Weigel – group up, pair up, hook up. (See choosy quip above.) She really gets
    into the underlying problem – freedom to be self-destructive.

    In a roundtable, an elderly woman sat quietly and listened to a group of young feminists try to define
    themselves. They were concerned about the role of narcissism in their definition.

    Eventually the elderly woman spoke:
    “It is a very pronounced way of stating a relationship with the world. Self-delight matters
    tremendously. Not only as an inner thing by which you live, but an outer thing by which you gain relationships with your own context that you can’t gain any other way. When you’ve been made so conscious of yourself that you easily, naturally, compulsively go out to whatever is going on around you. The essence of self delight as a possible thing in the modern world is the compulsion to
    make contact with the world as you are living in it.” Ways of Seeing – John Berger 1972
    Confucianism anyone?
    I think Olivia Laing, at the end of The Lonely City, comes to the same conclusion – love thy

    Tl;dr version: Annie Hall (1977)

  • JZ

    Who knew there could be so much sexual misconduct at one of the nation’s premiere and liberal universities. I liked what either professor Bromwich or Ms. Flanagan said about the uncertainties of dating and mating in college is now becoming an arena in which less uncertainty is tolerated.

  • Lupestro

    As usual, this podcast barely scratched at a whole fabric of related issues.

    Life-altering penalties for failure to interpret this whole unfamiliar and varying body language of near-strangers correctly, a feat we can’t even pull off when we’re years older? In the twilight world of utterances that bar words, the continual wordless subtext: “She pulled away from that. Was it no? Or was it finding a more comfortable pose for a more sustained yes? She’s pulling toward this, though. That’s good. Can it be this with that? No, she’s pushing again. Maybe we try this other – Oh, she likes that – we’ll do that a while. Now she’s pulling where she was pushing. Yes and more yes. Oops, but that one’s a no. Too bad, but we’re still good. Maybe next time.” Withdrawal and pursuit, the language of dance. Where does it become unambiguous enough to become misconduct? There’s a reason the law treads so carefully there.

    A campus with its own police force, it’s own tribunals, it’s own laws, even as it straddles public streets? Isn’t the root problem that the university keeps interposing itself between these free adults and the rules and freedoms of the society they’re a part of? Students with the rights of adults aren’t granted the privileges of adults. It seems like we’re retrenching into a longer childhood. I’m just waiting for the movement to push the voting age back to 21. (The military service age will, of course, not budge. 🙁 )

    Universities profess to protect students, while the whole shape of the protection shows they’re trying first and foremost to protect the reputation of the institution, to ensure they keep receiving students. Those who are deeply suspicious of all institutions are seeing with clear eyes, but then must either grapple with the paradox that, without institutions, nothing endures, prove the paradox wrong by finding another way, or demonstrate that endurance is overrated.

    • It really does not take a lot of effort to say “Does this feel good?” or “Do you like this?” or “Does this get you hot?”. In fact, my boyfriend says this to me regularly during lovemaking. And if my response were to be silence he would stop and wonder what was going on. It is not as mysterious as you would describe it. Even for the sexually inexperienced the four words “Does this feel good?” simply are NOT that difficult to utter at various times during the sex act. If the person to whom the words are uttered is completely silent, any reasonable person would take that as an indicator to stop and investigate more.

      “Hey, are you still awake?”
      “Uhm, if you don’t think this feels good tell me what you like.”
      “You are not making any noise. Is everything okay.”

      How hard are those words?