Abuse is a social, not just a legal problem

Carolyn Moynihan
9 September 2014
Reproduced with Permission

If there is one thing that the sexual abuse scandals of recent years have taught us it is that no sector of society is immune to these crimes. Catholic clergy, teachers, sports coaches, celebrities, judges, politicians, policemen, soldiers and social workers have all been unmasked in a continuing parade of hypocrisy and official complicity.

Columnists have barely finished berating the authorities of Rotherham in England -- who, for more than a decade, did nothing to stop Asian gangs raping and trafficking young white girls -- when they face a new expose. It is nowhere near the gravity of Rotherham but it adds to the evidence that the problem of sexual abuse runs right through Western society and present a cultural, not merely legal and bureaucratic problem.

The new evidence is a study published in the online academic journal PLOS ONE attempting to measure the sexual harassment and assault that goes on when trainee biologists, anthropologists and archaeologists are out in the field digging up fossils or gathering data.

Through an online survey attracting 666 respondents, American researchers discovered that 71 percent of the women and 41 percent of the men who responded had experienced sexual harassment ("sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes"), while 26 percent of women and 6 percent of men reported experiencing sexual assault ("physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which you felt you could not or did not give consent or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give your consent").

Among men in the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE), the unwanted attention came mostly from peers, whereas among women victims the majority of incidents were perpetrated by superiors. It is easy to see how a female graduate student hoping to land a job in her university might feel that she had to put up with suggestive remarks or even sexual contact from a supervisor for the sake of her career. This type of working environment may help account for the small number of women science professors relative to the much larger numbers studying science subjects, the SAFE authors contend.

Should academics be better?

We might expect academics to behave better than their students, but the proportion of life science trainees who had contended with sexual assault (21 percent) is the same as the "one in five" of President Obama's campaign against student campus rape. And although the SAFE respondents were not a random sample but recruited through targeted online approaches and "snowballing", the authors cite a 1993 study that found similar levels of sexual harassment experienced by medical trainees: 22 percent of males and 73 percent of females.

But why should they be better? Aren't they fallible human beings just like the rest of us, living in the same social environment, subject to the same temptations but with greater opportunities and incentives to indulge them?

In 2010 Dr Marc Hauser, then a popular professor of psychology at Harvard University, was found guilty of falsifying data in experiments with monkeys - research funded with federal grants in several instances. Deeply ironic is the fact that his monkey research was designed to prove that each culture evolves its own moral code and that there is no need for transcendent values. Hauser did not sexually molest his students, as far as we know, but he gave them a terrible example of academic integrity.

An end to taboos

Whether it shows itself in phony research or in sexual exploitation, abuse of power will always occur as long as there are human beings walking the earth. But it need not always continue for years and decades because we did not expect it from a particular kind of person, or because criticism of a particular group is taboo.

In a New York Times piece comparing Rotherham to the Catholic sex abuse scandal, Ross Douthat warns against conventional wisdom about where predators are likely to come from. He points out that both "traditionalism" (reverence for the clergy) and "progressivism" (reverence for cultural diversity) have proved vulnerable to these crimes.

So instead of looking for ideological vindication in these stories, it's better to draw a general lesson. Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I'll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.

The Catholic clergy, a beloved football coach, charismatic teachers, Hollywood icons, media celebrities and ethnic groups have all been "put on a pedestal" -- and shocked their following.

The point is that as a society changes, as what's held sacred and who's empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don't expect tomorrow's predators to look like yesterday's. Don't expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.

Social control, not legalism is the answer

If the first rule for combating sexual abuse is defensive -- "be prepared", the second must be proactive - change the culture that produces this behaviour. Unfortunately that is a much more difficult task.

Having disallowed the Ten Commandments as a guide to public morality and embraced the sexual revolution, Western society has to settle for workplace policies and guidelines which at some point are arbitrary and rely on enforcement procedures. These, as the authors of the SAFE study point out, put the onus on the target of abuse to prove that the behaviour is unwelcome and affects work.

In a move to change that bias, and in response to the President's anti-rape campaign, the California legislature has passed a law that requires verbal consent (an explicit "yes") for all sexual activity on college campuses. This appears to mean "at every stage of a sexual encounter". Mark Regnerus, commenting on the policy at The Public Discourse, suggests that "couples ought to write down or videotape their trysts - how could that go wrong?"

Satire aside, Professor Regnerus contends that "a law requiring a conversation that no one else hears or documents" can only "multiply accusations, legal proceedings and judicial headaches" while doing nothing to change the social environment that has made sexual assault in college communities so common.

And the social environment can be changed. There is nothing to stop college administrators - nothing except the scorn of sexual liberals - from returning to single-sex residence halls and controlling party rules and alcohol on campus. At least one university -- Catholic University of America -- has changed the dorm system. But, says Regnerus, who teaches at the University of Austin, Texas,

The problem is that Americans want all the benefits of the modern mating market - things like more time for schooling and trying on relationships, delayed parenting, and more nights out with the guys or girls - but are reluctant to admit there are unintended consequences that will accrue, including women's extended vulnerability to men's heightened sexual expectations.

We can continue buying time with laws and policies, but if we really want to stop the abuse we will have to confront the cultural changes that have made it so easy and decide whether they mean more to us than giving children a clean and safe moral environment in which to grow to maturity.