NY Times’ Ross Douhat: What’s So Wrong With Chastity Belts Anyway?

He begins by assuming the problem, which is always a cool trick when you have no empirical basis of a problem in need of a solution, but have a solution you really, really, feel needs airing. Ross Douhat’s column opens:

IN the debate over sexual violence on college campuses, two things are reasonably clear. First, campus rape is a grave, persistent problem, shadowing rowdy state schools and cozy liberal-arts campuses alike.

Second, nobody — neither anti-rape activists, nor their critics, nor the administrators caught in between — seems to have a clear and compelling idea of what to do about it.

Whether, and how severe, a problem campus rape is remains a question in need of an answer.  Even the White House’s task force report, which similarly announces the problem, simultaneously concedes they don’t actually have evidence of a problem and require study,  Maybe Douhat only skimmed the report. He’s a busy guy, I’m sure.

As to his second “reasonably clear” thing, he’s being a bit disingenuous.  There are no “pro-rape” activities, though the anti-rape activists play fast and loose with name-calling. There are, however, some who are deeply concerned with the word rape becoming untethered from any definition, with the coerced evisceration of due process on college campuses in the zeal to end this assumed epidemic, and with harm done the innocent in this moral panic.

Then again, when the query begins with a begged problem, to move on to solutions presents a sequences problem. How can there be agreement on how to solve a problem that may not exist, or can’t be pinned down because of the signal to noise ratio?  Douhat decides that his New York Times soapbox is best used by adding to the noise.

Notwithstanding the absence of evidence of what’s gone so terribly wrong, Douhat has channeled Robert Preston from the Music Man, We got trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with B, and that stands for booze.

The deeper problem, which applies for courts of law as well, is that even with a near-perfect justice system, sexual assault on campus often happens in a context that by its nature defies easy adjudication. Most campus assaults involve incapacitation, usually involving alcohol, rather than brute force; most involve friends and acquaintances and partners and exes; and most women assaulted while under the influence do not themselves use the word “rape” to describe what happened.

Not only do we have the problem in the absence of evidence, but we have the “deeper problem” because of Douhat’s magical ability to divine such things from the air?  Even the women who are Douhat’s purported victims don’t know they have a problem. Thankfully, there are people around to tell women who “do not themselves use the word “rape” to describe what happened” that they’ve been raped.  Now that rape is something a woman can ponder the next day, it’s also available for discussion amongst friends and Douhat, lest any victim not be aware of her status.

So the argument does that by eliminating the root of the vulnerability, drunkard women, the epidemic can be cured.  Douhat offers three solutions to the drunken women problem:

First, our lawmakers could reduce the legal drinking age to 18 from 21. The key problem in college sexual culture right now isn’t drinking per se; it’s blackout drinking, which follows from binge drinking, which is more likely to happen when a drinking culture is driven underground.

Oh my. Is he gonna catch it from the Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  When one moral scold challenges another, war is unavoidable.  But is the “key problem” really “blackout drinking”?  If so, then there really isn’t a big definitional issue.  Few reasonable people would argue that engaging in sex with a person who is unconscious, and thus clearly incapable of consent, isn’t rape. Done deal, Ross.   But I suspect you’re going to find out that this isn’t the key problem. In fact, this is an outlier. Blackouts are rare; basic drunkenness of both sexes is not.

While I have no issue with returning the drinking age to 18, noting with some irony the proposal to cure one moral panic by ending the prohibition used to solve another, the change doesn’t really address the problem.  It appears that Douhat’s solution involves bringing the “underground drinking culture” of 18 to 21-year-olds into the light, so that they can drink openly and won’t binge drink anymore.

My suspicions are that the introduction to any taboo substance tends to give rise to excesses merely because they’re taboo. Normalize it and young people learn to handle it better, more responsibly.  Will a “counterintuitive” remedy like reduction of the drinking age to 18 end binge drinking, blackouts and rape?  Beats me, but it can’t hurt. Of course, there was binge drinking a generation ago, two generations ago, and likely before my time, but then, rape had a definition back then, so we had no epidemic.

Douhat’s second solution is to end the “symbiotic relationship with the on-campus party scene,” which he blames on college athletics and raucous fraternity boys.  Damn those Sigma Chis at Harvard.  Douhat clearly doesn’t spend enough time on college campuses.

Finally, Douhat comes up with a fascinating third solution.

Finally, colleges could embrace a more limited version of the old “parietal” system, in which they separated the sexes and supervised social life. This could involve, for instance, establishing more single-sex dorms and writing late-night rules that apply identically to men and women. Bringing a visitor to your room after 10 p.m. or midnight might require signing in with an adult adviser, who would have the right to intervene when inebriation seemed to call consent and safety into question.

Welcome back, 1950s. Missed you.  If there is an epidemic of rape on college campuses, and we can all agree that rape is a horrible crime, then let’s make sure that one foot remains on the floor and no young woman of virtue is ever allowed out unchaperoned.  We can stop this, even if the young woman of virtue happens to be a binge drinker inclined to imbibe demon liquor to the point of unconsciousness.

Yet, Douhat missed the obvious.  As long as we’re traveling back in time to find a really effective, outside the box, solution to this epidemic of campus rape, why not go to a place where we can guarantee, with absolute certainty, that no nonconsensual insertion can possibly occur.  That’s right, welcome to the middle ages and its greatest invention, the Chastity Belt.  It worked for the Crusaders then. It will work for the crusaders now.  Problem solved.

14 thoughts on “NY Times’ Ross Douhat: What’s So Wrong With Chastity Belts Anyway?

  1. Max Kennerly

    “Whether, and how severe, a problem campus rape is remains a question in need of an answer.”

    Thankfully, you put that early in the piece, to warn readers that what follows is of no use whatsoever.

    1. SHG Post author

      I always thought you prayed to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Who knew you converted from Pastafarian to neo-feminist?

  2. simple-touriste

    In France, teenagers often drink a bit of wine with their parents. Few (if any) French minors are obsessed with wine or alcohol.

    There is a “binge” drinking issue with students in France, but less than in England; it is a relatively minor issue AFAIK. Free alcohol has been forbidden in student parties by some schools (“grandes écoles”), then by law.

    Excess drinking is an issue in France, but less than 50 years ago.

    Nothing is perfect.

    1. SHG Post author

      In some homes in America, teenagers drink a bit of wine with their parents as well. But we have to be careful about it, lest the SWAT team break down the door to prevent endangering the moral welfare of minors by killing all within. My preference is a premier grand cru classé of an excellent vintage, so they’re spoiled young and refuse to drink the swill served at college parties.

  3. Simple Machine

    This is inevitable as long as we allow the pernicious influence of Jazz music to lead the daughters of our fair republic astray.

  4. Mark Draughn

    “But is the ‘key problem’ really ‘blackout drinking’? If so, then there really isn’t a big definitional issue. Few reasonable people would argue that engaging in sex with a person who is unconscious, and thus clearly incapable of consent, isn’t rape.”

    Blackout drunks don’t lose consciousness. In a drunken blackout, alcohol impairs the ability of the brain to form long-term memories. Short term memory remains functional, so blackout drunks can carry on conversations and seem reasonably normal to those around them, but once they stop actively thinking about something, it goes away and is never remembered again. (This phenomenon is responsible for some of the more horrifying things that drunk drivers do, e.g. killing a pedestrian and then being found by police drinking in a bar nearby. It’s not that they’re callous and don’t care, they’ve simply forgotten the accident once it was no longer in front of their face.) As far as the drunk person is concerned, they might as well have been unconscious, but to the people around them at the time, they just seem a bit forgetful — i.e. drunk.

    In the context of sex and rape, blackout drunkenness is a recipe for disaster. A blackout drunk’s recollections would be very different from their partner’s — they might remember the sex act but not the events leading up to it. Even if they gave their drunken consent, they might have no memory of it and conclude they had been forcibly raped.

    Blackout drunkenness is common with severe alcoholics, but it also appears to be linked to binge drinking. So…maybe that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.

    1. SHG Post author

      Point taken. That raises a different problem then. If someone is unconscious, there’s little question. If by blackout drinking (and I defer to your obviously greater blackout drinking expertise), it’s a matter of not being able to remember the next day, then who distinguishes a “blackout” from buyer’s remorse? How is one to know that the other person is having a blackout as oppose to just drunk? There are a whole bunch of questions that present no viable answers.

      What makes it rape isn’t that the person who decides they’ve been raped thinks so, but that the other person knew that they were engaging in nonconsensual sex. Without notice, a person can’t commit a wrong. They need to know they are doing something wrong. So while there may be a blackout problem, that doesn’t make it a rape problem. It doesn’t make it rape at all.

      I still know of no empirical basis to say it’s the “key problem,” or even a significant problem.

  5. bill

    There’s so much stupidity in his piece it’s hard to really identify what stands out the most. But the ‘on campus’ portion is just so clueless- yah, it’s not like dorms are crowded and finding privacy to simply have sex is a major chore for a lot of people. If we stopped defining rape as ‘regret after beer goggling’ or ‘having to do the walk of shame’ the epidemic would be solved tomorrow.

  6. John Neff

    I think the problem is that people have been told that it is a “serious persistent problem” and have not been told that between 1994 and 2010 the rate of reported rapes of females 12 and older decreased from 5 per 1,000 to 2 per 1,000. It seems to me that one should be asking why the rate decreased and what can be done to reduce it further.

    The only change that I am aware of is that I get emails from the campus police telling me that there has been an alleged sexual incident. As far as I can tell the number of such incidents has not changed the only difference is that they are promptly reported to everyone on the email list.

    The information in the emails suggests that there will be no criminal charges filed in the majority of the incidents. I guess that means it was a tort not a crime.

    1. SHG Post author

      If every proponent begins the discussion with the “serious persistent problem” as an acknowledged fact despite the absence of any evidence to support it, pretty soon it becomes one. That how myths are spread.

  7. EH

    The terminology is a bit odd (the other folks have managed to capture the “anti-rape” moniker, and we are supposedly “opposed,” though I am certain that everyone here is anti-rape.) But anyway:

    What our side needs is a solid position in writing with clear public appeal. We can rightfully point out the errors in some of their claims, but that isn’t as good as pushing a universal model procedure which could be adopted by colleges.

    Fight them at their own game.

    Not that this is in any way complete or polished, but:

    Any student who believe s/he has been victimized by anyone (student or otherwise) may contact the college victim advocates, free of charge. Advocates are not college employees. Advocates are specially trained individuals employed by ____ (a third party,) who provide confidential assistance to victims. The student may specify whether they wish to obtain the services of a male or female advocate. Advocates are generally on campus from ____ and are on call 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. When an advocate is not available on campus, their goal is to be available in person within ______ minutes of a call.

    Advocates have a fiduciary duty of confidentiality to the victim. They are empowered to help the student through the complaint process. The advocate will explain the limits of their representation directly to the student.

    Support Services: The advocates are able to inform students about, and facilitate access to, a variety of formal and informal support services, programs, and professionals. These may be on-campus of off-campus; they may be provided by the school, state, or privately. Some (though not all) are free of charge.

    Advocates have been trained in explaining the process by which a student may request a temporary restraining order through the court system. In addition to providing support throughout the process, advocates will offer to provide transportation to and from the court system for the purposes of requesting such an order. All students who receive financial aid (of any type) will have their filing fees for requesting a restraining order paid by the college.

    In the event that a student requests action before access can be had to the court system, the college has established an emergency process. This emergency process has been established solely to provide both the accuser and accused with mutual safe harbor(s) to avoid contact pending the court opening. If the victim does not wish to have a formal hearing, the victim may elect to be provided with temporary assistance to avoid the accused, including provision of temporary alternate housing for the victim and the provision of note-takers for shared classes. Alternatively, the victim may request a hearing on the issue, as set forth below (need hearing language…)

    Incidents which are potentially criminal: If the reported matter is potentially criminal in nature, the advocates will offer to assist the student in filing a complaint with the local police. The advocates will offer assistance in evidence preservation, will offer to attend interviews as emotional support for the student, will provide transport to and from the local police station as needed, will explain the process, and will—if requested—continue their support through the court process. As a matter of community support, the college has agreed to fund the purchase and processing of “rape kits.”

    Other incidents: If the reported matter potentially constitutes a violation of the school’s social codes (such as conduct unbecoming a student, plagiarism, violations of the honor code, etc.,) the advocates will offer to assist the student in filing a formal complaint with the college.

    The college will attempt to limit its involvement to
    1) Matters where there is no viable criminal or civil alternative available through the court system;
    2) Matters where there is a viable criminal or civil case, and where the victim’s testimony has been given under oath;
    3) Matters where a judge or other body has made a formal finding of fact.
    For example, the college will not continue temporary restraint past the first available court date, when the described conduct would qualify the complainant for a restraining order issued by the court system: a judge (not an administrator) is best suited to evaluate the evidence. Similarly, the college will not take disciplinary action on a student’s allegation of criminal conduct, unless the student has reported the matter to the police.


    1. SHG Post author

      I allowed this to post as you’ve clearly put a lot of effort into it, but it’s really not appropriate and I won’t allow any commentary about it. This would have been a perfectly appropriate blog post for you at your blog if you wanted to propose your alternative means of addressing the situation, but nothing after your one-sentence third paragraph is on topic. Sorry.

  8. Levi

    Clearly, the revenge porn folks need to act fast to deal with the forthcoming wave of “exculpatory porn” as people begin recording and publishing 100% of their dates up through and including sex so as to rebut rape accusations.

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