Politics & Policy

Crying Wolf

Feminist sexual-harassment hysteria.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) issued two reports in the early Nineties that were harmfully wrong. AAUW researchers claimed to show how “our gender biased” classrooms were damaging the self-esteem of the nation’s girls and holding them back academically. That was simply not true. At the time AAUW released those studies, girls were rapidly moving ahead of boys academically. The defective but influential research of the AAUW promoted a specious “shortchanged girl” crisis that diverted the attention of educators away from the genuine needs of male students. As dozens of recent news stories report, it is boys, not girls, who are on the wrong side of the educational gender gap. Today, our colleges are nearly 57-percent female. And that gap keeps growing.

Now, instead of acknowledging they were mistaken about girls being shortchanged and celebrating the remarkable success of today’s university women, the AAUW has just released another flawed and misleading study claiming to show a “chilly climate” for women on campus.

In this new study, “Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment On Campus,” the AAUW finds that nearly two thirds of American college students are victims of sexual harassment. It used Harris Interactive, a well-regarded polling company, to conduct an online survey of 2036 randomly selected college students. But then the AAUW staff took over the task of interpreting and dramatizing the responses. For starters, they defined “sexual harassment” in a way that differs markedly from the commonly accepted legal definition. The Department of Education, for example, defines sexual harassment as conduct “so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it affects a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program or activity, or creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment.” The AAUW staff used what they characterized as their own “intentionally broad” definition. By their standard, any student surveyed who felt deeply offended by a peer’s “comments, jokes, gestures, and looks” counted as a victim. When they discovered that by their novel criteria a large majority of students qualified as harassment casualties, they might have realized that something was amiss. Instead, they described the survey as “ground-breaking,” and launched a national campus “action project.”

One finding of the study is extremely awkward for the hard-line feminists at the AAUW: Equal numbers of males and females reported having been “harassed” in the past year. Moreover, in what appear to be genuine cases of harassment, more men than women were victims. To the question: “Were you asked to do something sexual in exchange for a better grade, class notes, etc.?” eight percent of males and five percent of females said “yes.”

It could not have been easy to construe such findings as evidence of a “chilly climate” for women students, but the AAUW was equal to the challenge. Its staff explains that while harassment afflicts both sexes, women are more likely to become upset. According to the AAUW press release, “Because our research shows that sexual harassment takes an especially high toll on women, we are concerned that sexual harassment may make it harder for them to get the education they need to take care of themselves and their families in the future.” Actually, the responses revealed that most women in the survey did not feel that harassment was exacting any kind of toll on their education. Though some were angered or embarrassed by a particular incident, only two percent said that they often worried about harassment.

The AAUW study did not in fact uncover an epidemic of harassment. But it did inadvertently highlight a very unpleasant and troubling feature of contemporary campus life. There is a lot of raunchiness and in-your-face sexuality everywhere a student turns. Unfortunately for the AAUW’s case, it is not possible to fix the blame for the excessive sexual exhibitionism on men alone. Many women are conspicuous contributors, particularly on “V-Day.” February 14th is now celebrated on most American campuses, not as Valentine’s Day, but as V-day (short for “Vagina Day” or for “Violence Against Women Day”). V-Day–usually organized by a small minority of ideologically driven women faculty and impressionable and confused female students–has become an annual occasion to deplore all the horrible things men do to women while at the same time celebrating the wonders of female sexual anatomy. For a two- or three-week period, campuses are festooned with close-up images of a specific female body part. Frequently there are sexually suggestive T-shirts, anatomically correct lollipops, obscene chants and sex toy workshops.

If the AAUW were serious about improving the climate on campus, it could start by looking for ways to reason with the V-Day enthusiasts to discourage their antics. But that is not about to happen any time soon.

Campuses need effective policies against genuine harassment. They do not need the divisive gender politics of the AAUW spin sisters. The AAUW’s statistically challenged, chronically mistaken, and relentlessly male-averse “studies” should not be taken seriously.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of The War Against Boys and Who Stole Feminism?.


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