So, I was doing some work-related research yesterday afternoon, and came across this in an I-couldn’t-really-avoid-it kind of way. I’m only linking out of courtesy, because I think this is the worst kind of reporting: the kind that encourages people to think of this as a legitimate thing to argue about. It was published on the Detroit Free Press’s local news, under Oakland County news. Now, there have been articles posted since that I haven’t read, and don’t intend to. This is written in reaction to a single article, mostly to process what it was about the article that made me so incredibly angry.
The gist of the story is that an older student at Oakland University, in a “critical writing” class, used an open ended diary style prompt to write about his sexual fantasies about the professor teaching the class. The school suspended him, for two semesters, citing sexual harassment. Now this individual wants to sue the school, on the grounds that the professor didn’t specify such a limitation, and he was within his rights as a student to write about this, and turn it in to the teacher.
I’ve italicized the last bit, because that’s what makes all the difference. Given an open-ended assignment, I can write about whatever I want. I can write all the sexually explicit material I want to. But what I need to keep in mind is that at some point, in a writing class, someone else is going to be reading it. That makes some topics dicier. If I want to write about extreme violence in a general, non-specific way, fine. If I write about performing or enjoying extreme violence as perpetrated on a specific person, it becomes problematic, particularly in a class setting. Taking it one step further, writing about performing gross acts of violence against the specific person currently reading the piece is, by most rational and reasonable people, considered inappropriate. You would at least change the names and identifying factors, no?
But of course, this guy wasn’t threatening violence, he was just talking about sex, right? Even if the scenarios he proposed were not quite equal or of dubious consent, it’s just sex. Surely sex and violence are different things? Well… No. Merriam-Webster defines violence thusly: 1: a: exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare effecting illegal entry into a house) b: an instance of violent treatment or procedure. 2: injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation. Ignoring for a moment the problems inherent in dictionary definitions*, sex without consent can fall quite easily under definitions 1B and 2.
Let me say that again: sex without consent is violence.
And let’s not be unclear here, this student did not have consent. His entire case is likely hinged on the fact that he believes he did. He asked if there was any topical restriction, and the professor said no. The news story does not specify whether he asked if sexual themes were off limits, but I’m going to assume the answer is no, because that is an awfully relevant fact to leave out. This, however, is not consent. Explicit acts require, by their very nature, explicit consent.
Let me enlarge the picture a little to explain that statement. Let’s say I am a middle manager in a reasonably large sized company. One of my employees comes to me and asks what plans I have for the weekend. It’s a harmless, small talk sort of question, and I answer truthfully: nothing much, I’m open to suggestions. Would it then be considered reasonable for that employee to show up on my doorstep, naked? Backing off a tad, would it then be appropriate for that employee to suggest, in graphic detail, what he would like for me to be doing that weekend? It doesn’t even have to be sexual fantasy for the answer to that question to be no. Not appropriate.
So it’s just as inappropriate for a student to submit to a teacher graphic descriptions of acts that they have fantasized performing on that teacher, or having the teacher perform on them. In essence, this student was submitting graphic descriptions of the ways he wanted to do violence to the professor, in specific. He didn’t bother to change details about the object of his attention, or frame it in a non-confrontational way. He wrote explicit fantasies, and turned them in unedited for her to read. If he’d saved it for his friends, it’s still inappropriate, but the dynamic changes, it becomes less threatening. If he described the same acts, and suggested performing them with someone else, still not entirely appropriate, but forgivable, particularly within the confines of creative writing, though not necessarily Critical Writing, what the class dealt with**. But confronting the specific person with what you want to do to them is not only not the least little bit appropriate, it’s downright aggressive and threatening.
This brings us to the problem of power dynamics, particularly in the case of making threats. When an individual or group that is not considered powerful makes a threat against a more powerful entity, it is rarely taken as presenting a serious danger. For instance, a small child threatening to hit a parent – the threat is serious, and needs to be dealt with, but actual bodily harm is unlikely, even if the child follows through. However, threats from individuals or groups that are powerful enough to do real damage – say, a teenage child to the parent – are a different matter. Even if they are not, in and of themselves, more powerful than those they threaten, the threat is perceived as real, and often frightening.
But he’s the student, right? He’s the one in the subordinate position, she in the dominant one. Which is true, at least partially. She is in a position of power, in a limited sense, i.e., within the classroom, or during the semester. However, gender dynamics being what they are, he is in a position of power in an unlimited sense. That is, men***-as-exemplars-of-their-group are considered to be in a position of greater power than women-as-etc. at all times and in all places. (If you disagree, then may I respectfully suggest that you reference any one of the numerous stories about the panel testifying about birth-control being made up entirely of men. That is a precise example of what I am talking about.)
Bringing this into context, a female student writing such things to a male professor would probably not be considered threatening – women are not seen as inherently threatening when it comes to sex, and are in a position of unlimited inferiority. This is not to say that some women aren’t sexually threatening, no doubt every person I know can come up with someone they know who is, but the power dynamic here is, simplistically, from a position of limited power to one of greater power. If the male professor was offended, and the female student suspended, the chances of it making news are slim, except perhaps as a mode of questioning the professor’s masculinity. In this case, however, the power roles were reversed. A man sexually harassed**** a woman, steps were taken that were within the rights of the institution, and now he would like to claim, in essence, that his right to sexually harass a woman, based on non-explicit consent, is being infringed unfairly.
He would like to claim that he has a right to do violence to a woman, full stop. Even if it is reframed in terms of defamation of character – i.e., that his character is impugned by the whole thing – the essential argument remains the same. His character can only be defamed if he was accused of something he was within his rights to do. He would like to claim that he had a right to free speech within the classroom. Which he may well have, though the more private the property, the less the right applies, but Oakland University need simply cite codes of conduct. If he violated school rules, the school can kick him out. End of story.
Now, I am, more or less, desensitized to this kind of behavior – even with a fantastic husband and wonderful friends, there are no end of strnagers who would like to remind me of what choose not to live with. What gets to me is not that this person thinks he has a right to do violence to any woman. It’s not event hat he can find a lawyer to defend his right to do violence to a woman. It’s that a journalist wrote about it, without a single quote from the woman in question or attempt to frame the situation from her perspective or the college’s, in terms that imply that the man has legal standing to sue. Not only that, a newspaper published it, featuring it on the local news web page in such a way as to imply that it was newsworthy.
Say what you will about the trustworthiness of journalists and newspapers, but there is an implicit stamp of approval placed on a story when it is published. Above and beyond factuality or whether views expressed are those of the newspaper, the newspaper is saying that the story is worthy of its readers attention.
It’s not. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. The fact that the paper thinks it is just becomes a sad little commentary on how far we have to go before we’ll actually live in the post-patriarchy.
* Primarily problems of circularity or questionable sourcing, but that is, in itself, and entirely different argument.
** I cannot find a description of the actual class, but Critical Writing is usually writing that deals with the reading, interpretation, and critique of some kind of literature.
*** In general, not in specific. Not all men are in this position, but most are. An argument of exceptions to the rule holds no water, you must unilaterally disprove the rule.
**** Sexual harassment, as legally defined (v. weakly, for the record) in the U.S. is any discrimination in workplace practices that singles a group or individual out based primarily on their gender. Some workplaces have chosen to expand the definition to include harassing behaviors of a sexual nature, or harassing behaviors that exclude one gender in its entirety for some reason or another. My guess is that this case was handled under the latter type of regulations, as it was the school that handled it. For the purposes of this already overlong essay, we are going to accept the qualification of this behavior as sexual harassment, and move on.