Dear President Johnson, Wellesley administration, staff, and faculty; Wellesley community, and friends:
On Nov. 14, the Freedom Project plans to host Emily Yoffe — a contributing editor of The Atlantic, contributing writer at Huffington Post and a member of the Wellesley Class of 1977 — to speak on “Title IX and the Disempowerment of Women.” Yoffe has written extensively on sexual assault on college campuses, particularly on how Title IX denies due-process to accused parties in sexual assault investigations.
Title IX is a US civil rights law that prevents sex-based discrimination in educational institutions, mandating legal standards that colleges and universities must comply with in order to continue receiving federal financial assistance. Many institutions, including Wellesley College, have Title IX departments that assure federal compliance by investigating allegations of sex discrimination, particularly sexual assault and rape.
For the upcoming lecture, The Freedom Project has presented Yoffe as a champion of women and minority rights — an accomplished journalist critiquing an essential system in good faith. However, Yoffe is no such person: Her journalist career is built on casting doubt upon Title IX, the #MeToo movement and the validity of sexual assault survivors’ experiences. From her victim-blaming ideology –– showcased in her Slate piece titled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” –– to her dismissal of affirmative consent and rape culture at large, Yoffe has purported a toxic ideology of rape and consent that emboldens sexual violence.
Yoffe’s problematic ideology is compounded by the Freedom Project’s decision to host Yoffe’s lecture a mere month after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. On Oct. 6, Kavanaugh was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as a young, high school student. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing was a toxic time-period for survivors of sexual assault, who on campus and across the country relieved their experiences through secondary trauma, a well-researched and academically-validated phenomenon. Despite Wellesley’s population encompassing those more statistically prone to sexual violence, Wellesley College and its administration were negligent in ensuring the well-being of its student survivors. Through its silence during the Kavanaugh hearings, and its sanction of Yoffe’s lecture on campus, Wellesley College is undeniably implicated in Yoffe’s narrative that contributes to –– not subverts –– the disempowerment of marginalized communities.
In one of her most polarizing pieces, “The College Rape Overcorrection,” Yoffe criticizes affirmative consent, a definition of consent championed by activists that calls for both parties of a sexual encounter to express positive, voluntary consent. Affirmative consent is a fundamental component of Wellesley College’s definition of consensual sexual activity. Wellesley states in its online Student Sexual Misconduct Policy that consent must be “affirmative, voluntary, knowing, and continuous agreement to engage in a specific form of sexual activity.” Moreover, Wellesley writes that “consent may not be inferred from silence or lack of resistance to sexual advances, or from prior consensual sexual contact.” Wellesley’s Title IX policy starkly contrasts with Yoffe’s stance on consent. In regards to the Title IX policy of Ohio State University, which similarly adopts affirmative consent, Yoffe writes in “The College Rape Overcorrection” that these expectations for consent are unreasonable, and that “two young people who want to engage in sexual congress might be well advised to first consult with the philosophy department and the law school.”
However, affirmative consent is not too high a standard to hold sexual parties to, and it does not require a philosophy department or law school to comprehend. In fact, affirmative consent is quite simple. It means asking a sexual partner before initiating sexual contact, not assuming consent from past experiences or from lack of protest. It means speaking to the person you want to have sex with, and respecting their boundaries when they decline –– even during the act.
In “The College Rape Overcorrection,” Yoffe interviewed social psychologist Carol Tavris, who claimed such definitions of consent contribute to the blurring of lines between rape, unwanted sex, and drunk, consensual sex –– that one party later “regrets.” Tarvis argued that calling all these experiences sexual assault or rape “doesn’t teach them to take responsibility for their decisions, for their reluctance to speak up.” Conceptualizing consent in this way reduces an attacker’s responsibility, placing the burden on the victim and their ability to react in an unwanted encounter. Consent should operate as a two-way street, without the responsibility shouldered by one person. Consent is a commitment between two or more people to speak to each other and ensure voluntary, active participation. Anything else is rape — there is no meaningful difference between rape and unwanted sex.
In “The Problem With Campus Sexual Assault Surveys,” Yoffe also criticizes the widely used statistic that “1 in 5 women are raped on college campuses” for its liberal understanding of sexual assault. Yoffe writes that this statistic stems from the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, where the “1 in 5” measure accounts for all nonconsensual sexual contact ranging “from penetration to kissing to being groped over one’s clothes.” Yoffe raises this point as an attempt to argue that college campuses are not as dangerous as activists portray them to be. However, Yoffe’s logic raises the question: even if a person experiences groping or another non-penetrative act, is this experience not worthy of censure as an act of rape? Yoffe seems to insinuate that sexual trauma can be parsed by severity, as if “lesser” traumas can undermine “serious” ones — that because some women may be groped and not raped, colleges are a safer place for women after all. The fact remains that any violence against women is cause for action, and there exists no baseline at which sexual victimization becomes permissible. Attempting to state otherwise, even inadvertently, furthers the sexist ideology that violence against women is merited in certain circumstances. Furthermore, a 2016 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics still found that 1 in 5 women on college campuses have experienced sexual assault, defined by the BJS as “sexual assault, rape, and/or sexual battery.”
In her writing, particularly in her criticism of the Hunting Ground — an explosive documentary about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses —Yoffe laments the consequences that being an accused rapist may have on a young person’s life chances while failing to acknowledge that being raped is far more detrimental to a person’s physically and emotional well-being. Again in “The Problem With Campus Sexual Assault Surveys,” Yoffe criticizes “the chasm” between the amount of sexual violence reported on campus rape surveys and the amount reported to authorities. In the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, over 50 percent of the respondents who experienced sexual assault but did not report indicated that they chose not to report because they believed it was not serious enough to report. Such behavior is consistent with both academic findings and the many stories told through the #MeToo movement: survivors often internalize shame and do not feel their stories are worthy of being shared. Yoffe ignores this well-established fact to further write off the “1 in 5” statistic, asking readers how one can understand “respondents who attest that they’ve experienced such a vile assault yet don’t find it serious enough to report?” Yoffe uses the “chasm” of non-reporters as a way to delegitimize the effects of sexual assault, ignoring how reporting one’s’ experience of sexual violence can be dehumanizing, degrading, and often lead to nowhere judicially, most aptly demonstrated by Dr. Ford’s recent experiences during the senate hearings on Brett Kavanaugh.
The Freedom Project attempts to frame Yoffe’s lecture as intersectional, promising to both address the disempowerment of women and the higher rates of rape accusations against men of color. However, Yoffe fails to recognize that instead of redressing these injustices, she further proports standards of rape that sanctify violence against women, especially women of color. Yoffe also fails to connect that gendered violence is closely related to white supremacy, a well-researched phenomenon aptly described in the Anti-Defamation League’s report: When Women are the Enemy: The Intersection of Misogyny and White Supremacy. Yoffe also ignores sexual assault and rape as an issue existing outside of a heteronormative, gender binary — an unsurprising fact given that Yoffe has a history of ignoring LGBTQIA+ issues and once went so far as to suggest to a bisexual reader that she would be better off staying in the closet. Yoffe has made a career of minimizing the autonomy of survivors and the severity of violence against women on college campuses, contributing to a narrative that disempowers women and other marginalized groups. In exercising her constitutional right to express her views, Yoffe has neglected any responsibility for the way her ideas reinforce pervasive systems of inequality, like rape culture and white male supremacy.
While several faculty members have expressed their concerns at Yoffe’s invitation to campus through a faculty-staff forum, no one has yet spoken publicly about how Yoffe’s invitation is a symptom of a larger problem: Wellesley College’s striking apathy towards sexual violence, especially in regards to the way it deeply affects hundreds of its students. I believe a larger dialogue must take place — one that addresses the insensitivity of Wellesley College to bring a sexual-violence skeptic to campus just weeks after the virulent Kavanaugh hearings. During the Kavanaugh hearings, Wellesley College hosted no vigil (besides an event led by survivors themselves), failed to increase their counseling or emergency support, and left survivors to feel isolated, given that no group-counseling exists for survivors. President Johnson never even publicly spoke on the issue, with just the Vice President issuing a lack-luster email about how survivors can help themselves if the news cycle has them feeling down.
On Nov. 14, Yoffe will invalidate sexual violence and its harrowing effects on survivors; Wellesley College, through approving this lecture, is inextricably implicated by their silence on the matter. For a college dedicated to fostering and empowering its students, Wellesley College has demonstratively failed its survivors and its larger student body. As a student who transferred to Wellesley College after being raped at her former college campus, Wellesley College’s inaction is a familiar, yet bitter disappointment.
Becca Pachl, Class of 2020