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August 19 2019

A Memoir about Consent on Campus

by Charlotte Hays

Just want to call your attention to Christine Rosen’s review of Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, by Donna Freitas, in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Freitas, a self-described feminist who has been critical of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ rescinding the guidelines on handling sexual accusations put out by the Obama administration, chronicles a relationship with a professor that went wrong.

He was her mentor, encouraging her as she pursued a doctorate in religious studies; and then they found themselves sharing meals. He pressures her to spend more time with him. An added fillip: the professor is a priest.

The physical aspect never progressed beyond a kiss on the cheek, but it was, as Rosen notes, “inappropriate” and certainly justified fear of academic retribution if Freitas rejected him.

Christine, an IWF alum, author and Commentary writer, is one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable experts on feminism we have, and so I could do no better than quote a few snippets from the review:

My life split in two,” she says. In one life, she felt “utter sexual empowerment” with the men she was dating; and she was “studying feminist theory, eating it up and loving every second of it.” Her other life, by contrast, was one of “fear, uncertainty, of self-condemnation,” prompted by her professor’s attentions.

 She came to wonder if his behavior was a kind of karmic retribution: “What is the punishment for a young woman with sexual and intellectual confidence? Doesn’t she know that the world sees this as hubris?” Later she concludes that the professor “was the man God sent, that the world sent, that the patriarchy sent to take the giddy light that burned inside of me and snuff it out.”

. . .

[A]s a case study for broader claims, “Consent” is less persuasive. Ms. Freitas spends a lot of time indicting a system that she thinks failed her. But by her own account, as soon as she did tell others about what she was going through (a trusted male friend and a male professor), they offered their unconditional support and helped her report what had happened. The administrator in charge of her complaint is clearly more interested in protecting the institution than in defending Ms. Freitas’s rights, but Ms. Freitas acknowledges that she was a reluctant witness at best.

More troublingly, Ms. Freitas conflates her experience with the experience of victims of sexual assault. “The abuse I suffered was mental, it was emotional, it was not physical,” she says, only to claim in the next sentence that, even so, “to me it was also physical, the way he began to encroach on all the spaces surrounding my body.” She likens her decision to accept a small financial settlement from the university to physical mutilation: “I cut out my tongue in the university’s office of human resources and offered it to the woman whose job it was to take it.” She describes human-resources personnel as butchers who “disfigure” victims and fill “file cabinets full of the bloody tongues of women.” Given the real physical violence that so many women have suffered, such comparisons feel shockingly tone deaf.

Ms. Freitas also blames her stalker for her lack of professional success. All she wanted was “to be a college professor”; that she isn’t one, she says, is “on him.” Yet she landed a tenure-track job after completing her Ph.D. Her anxiety over her graduate-school experience, coupled with grief over her mother’s death, made it impossible for her to fulfill her new obligations, however. The “tenured men in my department,” she writes, “used my absence at graduation, among other events, as marks against me.” She is vague about the details, but clearly her performance was not considered adequate. She concludes that women in her situation “are unable to be a part of our chosen profession because of abusive men”—adding that, “once again, in the context of a university, I had no agency.”

Agency and responsibility are crucial aspects of any discussion of sexual relations. It’s a shame that Ms. Freitas didn’t explore them with the care and nuance they deserve. No one should have to go through what she did as a student, but the conclusions she draws from her experience do little to advance the conversation we should be having about consent.

Read the entire review.

 





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