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Reducing Rape to Performance Art

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If Aesop were here he might rewrite his famous fable, replacing the boy who cried "wolf!" with the girl who cried "rape!" The cry of "rape" is used so carelessly that it's often impossible to get to the truth of an accusation. When rape was a capital offense, it was a rare and vicious crime which required a court of law to apply justice. It was under-reported, since the rapist usually took advantage of those who felt too vulnerable even to say anything about it.


Contemporary accusations of rape are frequent, often made by women at prestigious colleges whose accusations are often perceived as ambiguous. The suspects are tried and convicted in the social media where reputations are ruined on the hearsay of "he said, she said." Such accusations, on campus as elsewhere, are often factually challenged, and convictions in the court of public opinion can be based on emotions, sometimes articulated long after the event.

Emma Sulkowicz is known as the "mattress girl" at Columbia University, enjoying her 15 minutes of fame as the poster girl of the campus "rape culture," celebrated in a story in New York magazine, where she is shown carrying what she calls "the scene of the crime" on her back.

Her accusation is simple and graphic. She accuses the man with whom she was having a session of consensual sex of taking anal liberties without permission. She says she said "No" and tried to fight him off with leg action. He persisted. He argues that Emma is a fencer whose legs were strong enough to obstruct him if she wanted. He's a lightweight rower. Macho man, this "rapist" is not.

The university adjudicators who heard the case exonerated him. Enraged by the verdict, Emma took up her mattress for what she calls her "performance art," carrying it everywhere. This turns sexual relations into Theater of the Absurd, in a new version of the old Broadway musical, "Once Upon a Mattress." Rape, and even the accusation of it, should not be so trivialized.

Hillary Clinton, who knows up close and personal how sexual accusations can hurt a man, and who further recognizes a good feminist issue when she sees one, says the girl and the mattress create an image that "should haunt all of us."


But "haunt" isn't what that image does. Unless you were a fly on the wall when this sexual episode occurred, you have no way to know what really happened. For feminists who have moved beyond victim to activist and insist on trying men with public humiliation, this is rape as farce.

Most of the rape charges on campus are accusations by women who concede they had had too much to drink and didn't show good judgment in choosing men to "hook up" with. They're at best extremely careless in conducting themselves or protecting their bodies.

This doesn't excuse men from bad behavior. Many of them are missing sexual signals. If a man actually acts like a brute -- and the woman can prove it -- he should be tried like a brute. But campus hearings can't impose justice for serious crimes, which rape certainly is, and justice must be sought in the world beyond the ivy towers of academic speculation.

Suzanne Goldberg, the new head liaison on sexual assault at Columbia, is a law professor who was co-counsel in the lawsuit on which the Supreme Court threw out the law criminalizing sodomy in Texas. She's not naive about human behavior. She cites a poster depicting a traffic light hanging in an undergraduate dorm. Red means stop, whether drunk, passed out or simply disinclined. Yellow offers a pause to think. Green, if sex is mutual, means "go for it."

Alas, human emotions can't be regulated like traffic. Young men and women, pushed by a hurricane of hormones, living away from comfortable, protective homes for the first time, haven't learned how to curb their enthusiasms. They're driving a powerful machine with a learner's license. They need adult guidance starting in their homes and continuing on campus.


Sexual relationships got off track when "gender" replaced "sex," and biological differences were dismissed as considerations to guide behavior. If sexual difference is attributed more to culture than biology, sexual communication loses significant behavioral clues for what to expect.

Colleges further make problems when they establish arbitrary academic juries untrained in the law and rules of evidence to listen to aggrieved students and mediate their sexual behavior with one another. Performance art may act as a form of punishment that embarrasses and humiliates, but it doesn't teach responsibility or obtain justice when someone cries rape.

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