Thoughts On Two Institutions And Sexual Assault

27 Jan

Here’s what you need to take away from this New York Times article: the sexual-assault allegation against Patrick Witt was serious enough for the Rhodes Committee to suspend his candidacy over it, but not serious enough to merit a “formal complaint” within Yale’s internal discipline system.

I don’t need to point out that this bodes really badly for Yale in the Title IX lawsuit. I don’t mean this in the sense of “Yale clearly does have a problem with sexual assault if its star quarterback is going around raping women!”; I mean that the case shows that Yale’s internal complaint process is badly broken. If Witt’s accuser thought what had happened to her was serious enough that Witt should be punished for it, she felt dissuaded (for whatever reason) from going through the only process that might have had disciplinary consequences. Maybe she felt too much social pressure, maybe she saw too much red tape — it doesn’t really matter. No system in which someone feels she’s the victim of a consequential act, but ends up going through an inconsequential process, is a working system.

Since many people are starting from the assumption that Witt’s accuser must have been “out to get him,” I feel obligated to point out that this should worry them too. If the formal complaint system is so impossible that even someone whose sole goal is punitive ends up going through a process with no disciplinary conserquences — and which, as a matter of Yale policy, wasn’t supposed to get reported to the Rhodes committee — why should we think a student whose motives aren’t vindictive is any more likely to use it?

But let’s say Witt’s accuser chose the informal process for a reason — she didn’t think anything was serious enough that Witt should actually be disciplined for it, and just wanted to have official acknowledgement and closure of something she was still trying to define for herself. If that’s the case, Yale comes out looking even worse. Because that means someone with knowledge of the complaint told the Rhodes Committee about it without the consent of either Yale or the person who made the complaint to begin with. That’s a huge failure of information security. In this case, it happened to make trouble for Witt, the defendant. But most of the time, the person being accused of sexual assault isn’t a Rhodes candidate, and when people start talking about the allegations it’s the accuser who gets put under the microscope. If those who knew about the complaint couldn’t be trusted enough to keep it under wraps — if they ensured that the defendant would get punished when the accuser didn’t want him to be – why on earth would any future victim of sexual assault trust the system? Why would she tell anyone more than a few close friends she’d know would trust her — or anyone at all?

I want to point out, by the way, that the Rhodes Committee’s actions were seriously praiseworthy. They didn’t do what people or institutions overwhelmingly tend to do in this case — and what I’m sure the Times-reading public is about to do in the wake of this story: they didn’t immediately respond to news of the allegation by litigating the credibility of the accuser, or by dismissing the allegation out of hand just because they couldn’t know for sure. Instead, they suspended the application and gave Yale a week to decide whether or not to override that decision. (Witt and Yale sidestepped the question when Witt decided to play in the Harvard-Yale football game rather than attend Rhodes finalist interviews.) They acted provisionally, based on the evidence they had: there was some reason to believe that Witt might not have the strength of character they had thought, and this might be reason enough to give the scholarship to one of the other finalists they were considering. But they let Yale, the organization that actually had the information, make the final assessment as to whether Witt should be disqualified because of this, or whether it wasn’t important enough to torpedo his application. It’s sad that I have to celebrate this — hey, guys, look! Someone heard about a sexual-assault case and thought, Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t make a judgment here, and maybe I should listen to the people who know more about what happened instead! – but there you have it.

I Am a Webcomics Psychic

18 Oct

Remember how yesterday  I wrote an alternative, less Nice-Guy-enabling script for yesterday’s Girls with Slingshots? Well, today’s strip is pleasantly familiar:

Tucker (Creepy Nice Guy): “I wish women would just say what they mean.”

Clarice (tutor): “Wait–WAIT. I flat out told you ‘no’ the first time you asked me out.”

Tucker: “You did?”

Clarice: “YES. I did. And what did you do? You ‘tried harder.’”

Tucker: “Bu–um, I thought–”

Clarice: “You thought I didn’t mean it. You thought if you were persistent enough, I’d change my mind about you.”

Tucker: “But that’s how it works in romantic comedie–”

Clarice: “AAUGH”

See for yourself, especially because a script layout doesn’t do justice to the Peanuts-style “AAUGH” in the last panel.

Obviously this is a welcome reversal from where it looked like the strip was going yesterday. But here’s the thing: as much of a knockout punch as that script is, author Danielle Corsetto still thinks her Creepy Nice Guy had a point. On her Twitter feed yesterday, she ended up explaining why she’d appeared to side with Tucker when she posted yesterday’s script: “see, I meant that Ticker (sic) is right that he shouldn’t be expected to read subtle facial expressions.” In another exchange, she wrote, “I personally feel that not everyone communicates the same way…it’s generally women–>subtle clues; dudes–>direct communication. It’s a generalization, but one that we need to recognize.”

I won’t get into the validity of that generalization, because I don’t need to. Even if men and women do tend to express themselves differently, the onus for bridging that “communication gap” should lie on the person initiating the interaction – in this case, the man. If he is interested in interacting with ladies, maybe he should learn how to understand them in the ways they tend to communicate!

Saying that a guy “isn’t expected” to pick up on the “subtle clues” women “tend to” send, when he’s the one trying to solicit communication to begin with, leaves women with this message:  ”You didn’t ask for this interaction, but in order to successfully avoid it you’re going to have to shut him down in the way he feels more comfortable being shut down, even though it makes you less comfortable. The more oblivious he is, the more unambiguously cold you are going to have to be — even if this comes dangerously close to being aggressive toward a stranger whose behavior you can’t predict. And if the stranger does turn out to be the type who flips out at you and calls you a bitch when you get forceful in shutting him down? Well, them’s the breaks — it’s better he yells at you than chats you up, at least, right?”

I’m not trying to split hairs here. But there’s a place for battle-of-the-sexes “communications gap” narratives that say both parties get a share of the blame. Situations in which one person is perfectly happy not interacting with the other at all, but gets forced into it, are not that place.

Girls with Slingshots and Double-Edged Swords

17 Oct

Girls With Slingshots is one of my daily webcomic reads, and it is generally kind of effortlessly feminist and sex-positive in the way that many things written for like-minded people on the Internet are. Which is why I was super, SUPER disappointed in today’s comic. This is supposed to be part of an arc about Teaching A Creepy “Nice Guy” to Be Less Creepy, but today’s strip ends up validating a really important Creepy “Nice Guy” belief. Here’s the relevant part of the transcript:

Clarice (the tutor): “God, how hard is it to read someone’s body language?”

Tucker (the CNG): “How hard is it to just say ‘fuck off’ instead of assuming I can read a vague facial expression?”

Clarice: “That–that would just be–”

Tucker: “Easier?”

Clarice: “Boring!”

You can read the comic here. In case it was unclear where author Danielle Corsetto falls on this, be sure to note the mouseover text: “I think you lost this one, Clarice!” or her tweet linking to the comic with the comment “And I thought I’d never make Tucker right about anything.”

But if he’s right about this, he’s right about everything else. The reason Creepy “Nice Guys” like Tucker exist is that there are dudes out there who are convinced that women reject them because All Women Are Playing Games. If women just made things “easier” instead of “interesting,” everything would be great and they would be getting laid all the time. But because women can’t be trusted to be honest about their feelings, dudes need to Try Harder and turn the stoplight green.

Here’s how this conversation should ACTUALLY have gone:

Clarice: “God, how hard is it to read someone’s body language?”

Tucker: “How hard is it to just say ‘fuck off’ instead of assuming I can read a vague facial expression?”

Clarice: “Dude, seriously? I know this might seem more sensible to you now, because you’re thinking about everything from the perspective of How Can People Act So That My Dating Life Is Easier. But turn your fucking brain on here.

“If you tried to introduce yourself to a woman and all she said to you was ‘Fuck off,’ you would not actually be cool with that! You would probably think she was a psycho bitch, and would probably tell her accordingly. And believe me, even if you wouldn’t, most guys would.

“Because it’s funny–the guys who tend to be most aggressive in approaching girls to flirt with them, or calling them out sexually, all seem to have real problems with short-term memory! If a girl receives them well, then awesome, can I have your number, let’s go out, but if she tells them to fuck off–all of a sudden they were just trying to be friendly and make conversation, and look what you did, are you on your period or something?

“Do not try to put the burden on women for not being ‘straightforward.’ It is not our job to tailor our behavior to you when you are hitting on us, because we did not volunteer to get hit on! It is your job to make sure that you are actually succeeding at hitting on women, and step 1 of that is actually paying enough attention to a woman to know when she wants to talk to you, and when she does not. If you can’t bother to be interested enough in a woman to pay attention to her facial expressions and body language, you aren’t interested enough in her to date her anyway.”

But it didn’t go that way. So I’ll be interested to see how Danielle Corsetto manages to write the rest of this arc convincingly. Now that Tucker’s even more convinced that everything Clarice is trying to teach him is just complicated game-playing, is he really going to be persuaded that it’s worthwhile to play by the rules?

A Better Guide to Better Nerding

3 Aug

I am pretty sure that if GQ’s Julieanne Smolinski and I were hanging out at a party together, and evaluating all of the nerds there, we would agree (allowing some variation for taste) on exactly which ones were attractive and which ones were not. That’s the impression that I get from parts of her column on “Nerds and the Enthusiasm Problem.” But — as a nerd– if I were single and reading the column for insight, I’d end up feeling like my nerddom was inherently and irredeemably “unsexy.”

The subhed says the column provides “tips for how not to creep out the opposite sex,” but the column spends most of its time separating nerds into “sexy” and “unsexy” categories — not because of how they come off, but because of the kind of nerds they are. This is a super-dangerous exercise. I think that anyone who writes about dating should be really, really wary of advice that could be seen as “Your True Self does not meet people’s preconceptions of what an attractive man/woman should be. You need to play the role of Attractive Man/Woman in a way that conforms to their preconceptions, and only reveal your unattractive True Self once they are too smitten with you to turn back.” It echoes all the advice books that have ever told women to play dumb to get men. Furthermore, it’s just untrue. Nerding out is only unsexy when it’s done in a way that doesn’t allow the other person to relate or share the enthusiasm.

The solution to that shouldn’t be to hide the enthusiasm completely, but to pay more attention to how it’s expressed. So, taking a cue from Smolinski’s three questions to distinguish sexy from hopeless nerds, I’ve put together some questions of my own to help all nerds out.

  1. What’s Your Obsession Geekdom? There are geekdoms that give you a lot of leeway in terms of how long you can go on about them before it starts looking weird and unseemly, and there are geekdoms that don’t give you much at all.  If you’re nerdy about something that might strike someone as weird or unusual at first, you should pay extra attention to how your date is responding. You’re essentially selling your geekdom here — you’re convincing the object of your affection that thing X  is actually cool, or at least that your liking it is cool.
  2. How into it are you? How are you into it? There is no such thing as being too into something. There is such a thing as being into it in a way that feels selfish and uninclusive. Always be focused as much on your date as on your interest. Always make an effort to give him/her a chance to participate in the conversation. Always allow him/her to ask questions — and ask questions of your own. As Smolinski says, “Be an enthusiast, not an obsessive.” Enthusiasts share their excitement. Obsessives hoard it.
  3. What do you do for a living? Are you satisfied with your geek-life balance right now? Are you working to change it? How your geekdom fits into your everyday life is totally your decision. Some people need to do something they love for a living to feel satisfied; others need to have disposable income, or to support a family, to be happy. Some people need to live and breathe their passions; others are perfectly happy spending only a few hours a week in direct contact. What’s important is that you’re actually living a life you find satisfying. If you’re clearly frustrated with your life and keep talking about vague preferences for doing something else but never act on those preferences, that’s a problem. But that’s not a failure of geekery, that’s a failure of motivation.

Don’t nerd less. Nerd better.

Three Or More Useless Men Become an Outfield

19 Jul

This isn’t an official guestblogging gig or anything, but my roommate Noah and I wrote up a review of last week’s Congressional Baseball Game for NotGraphs. It’s a trifle, but I figured as long as I’m archiving my stuff here I might as well point out for posterity that I have written something for a Real Baseball Blog.

Summer Stock: Friday, June 3rd

3 Jun

I’m guestblogging for Adam Serwer this week.

Friday (Anthro) Nerdblogging: Whose Folklife? My concerns aside, I am totally going to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this year. You’re welcome to join! Blog readers should know how to get in touch with me.

Summer Stock: Thursday, June 2nd

2 Jun

I’m guestblogging for Adam Serwer this week.

Cuomo’s Prison Break. All congratulations are due to Gov. Cuomo and the New York advocates who pushed him to pull his state out of Secure Communities, and I should have emphasized that more in the post. But it still needs to be pointed out that whether this means anything has nothing to do with Cuomo and everything to do with DHS.

Normalizing Mass Detention. I really never thought I’d see the day that “We need to fix the immigration system” would be a controversial statement. But the 112th Congress’ embrace of detention means that day could be close at hand.

Summer Stock: Wednesday, June 1st

1 Jun

I’m guestblogging for Adam Serwer this week.

Forcing “Forcible” out of Federal Rape Policy. “Forcible rape” is a lousy term in itself, but it also helps create a system in which even “forcible” rapes go unreported.

Summer Stock: Tuesday, May 31st

31 May

I’m guestblogging for Adam Serwer this week.

Raids on the Fourth Amendment. In 1984, the Supreme Court said workplace immigration raids were constitutional because no one had to stay and get raided. In the 21st century, those “consensual encounters” are backed up by snipers and helicopters.

The Real Problem With the Dudeitors

18 May

This John Koblin article on hot young magazine editors with bro-ish demeanors is getting a lot of flak on Twitter, but this is the rare case in which I think the content of the trend piece is a lot more problematic than the trend piece itself. For one thing, it seems pretty clear to me that Koblin’s poking fun at his subjects’ self-conscious masculinity (for pete’s sake, the article ran in Women’s Wear Daily). For another, though, there’s clearly a serious structural problem with the magazine industry here, and while Koblin doesn’t address it explicitly, he presents enough material that readers should be able to spot it. See here:

In one respect, Lindgren, Rapoport and Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Josh Tyrangiel — all hired to their posts in the last 18 months — are the latest crop of hot, young-ish editors, all of them in their late 30s and early 40s. They’ve been brought in to reinvent their magazines at a time when magazines need reinvention.

“They’re the next generation,” said Rick Stengel, the managing editor of Time. “I think they’re great editors. They’re not the future — they’re the present. In terms of us figuring everything out, they will be the guys who will figure everything out. Or not.”


“Well, what convinced S.I. Newhouse and [Condé Nast editorial director] Tom Wallace to hire a straight guy from GQ to edit a national mass food magazine that has a large women’s readership?” said Rapoport.

And here:

So what is it about 2011 that’s appealing about a laid-back editor? “There’s an appeal to editors who have their feet on the ground and who have confidence but not an outlandish sort of confidence,” said Glamour editor Cindi Leive. “Swagger — low maintenance swagger — is having a moment.”

“It has to do with a certain metabolism that’s high-rev all the time,” said Jay Lauf, the publisher of The Atlantic. “It makes them that testosterone guy a little bit. You’re a speed junkie.” Lauf pointed to the Atlantic’s senior editor Alexis Madrigal as a guy the business folks are obsessed with. They love his “metabolism.” They love how laid-back he is. They love how tech-savvy he can be.

“He’s that dude,” said Lauf.

And here:

“In Josh’s case, he’s able to say to people older than he is, ‘Look, relax, I know how to do this. I know how to marry the Web with the magazine,’” said Kelly. “Twenty years ago? If you’re in your 30s you’re not going to tell someone in their 50s, ‘Don’t worry, I know how to do it.’ Now that’s changed.

So here’s what we know: the magazine Old Guard is terrified by the Web, and more than happy to hand over the reins to people several decades their juniors in order to save what they’re convinced is a dying industry. They think they’re doing something radical by smashing the gerontocracy. But they don’t just want young people, generally — they have a very specific type in mind: someone who is “high-metabolism,” “laid-back,” “speed junkie” — indeed, “that testosterone guy.”

That last phrase gives away the game. This savior that magazines have imagined is explicitly masculine. There’s no rule saying that only dudes are tech-savvy enough or visionary enough to bring a magazine into the Web era — indeed, as Ann Friedman points out, there are magazines who are managing to entrust their brands to lady editors without anything disastrous happening. But this New York old guard didn’t hire Ann, or Clara Jeffery or Monika Bauerlein of MoJo — they hired dudes. Because when they picture a visionary, they picture a dude.

Obviously, this is not a step forward for women in magazine journalism. These dudes don’t seem to have a moment’s hesitation that they are perfectly equipped to run a magazine, that they are the best people for the job. This means they are (to all appearances) totally unconcerned with the byline gap or mentoring women  — dealing with a long-term and intractable problem. Nor does it seem to occur to them that their cliquey, bro-ish demeanors, in the office as well as at home, may be seen by their female colleagues as a signal that they are not welcome in the boys’ club at the top of the pack, so they’d better not try to network or ingratiate themselves to get ahead.

But it seems, to me, that the problem is even a little bit worse. The article poses the question “Why are dudes leading magazines, when women are most of the readers?” The article (or rather, its sources) answers, “Because dudes have the right demeanor for the 21st century.” But who’s defining what that demeanor is? Check that second excerpt again: “the business folks.” Which is to say, not the readership, but the people on the business end of the magazine — who are probably more tech-saturated than many of their readers, and who are, also, mostly dudes. It’s not about staying relevant by figuring out what the audience wants; it’s about staying relevant by feeling like they’re moving forward, which means having the right dude at the helm. If that’s true, the industry is becoming even more in thrall to individual male egos.