To address campus violence, Hoff Sommers could use some facts and humility

I don’t even know where to start with Christina Hoff Sommers’ article, published today on The Daily BeastThe conservative critic claims that gender-based violence on campus isn’t that big of a deal — it’s just media hysteria that’s invented the problem.

Firstly, Hoff Sommers’ history is just wrong. The piece begins with this line: “The frenzy over college sexual assault now sweeping the nation was triggered by a specific event.” The event was the 2010 release of a report from NPR and the Central for Public Integrity on the prevalence of campus rape and lack of concern from either schools or the Department of Education. Hoff Sommers claims the report was riddled with errors and so the half-decade of social and legal efforts since have all been built on a faulty foundation.

I’ve read the report, and I’ve read criticism of it, and both the methods and conclusions appear sound to me; the vigorous investigation by Kristen Lombari, one of the report’s authors, was used as a counterexample to Rolling Stone‘s sloppiness at UVA. But I also don’t feel the need to stake the legitimacy of a movement on one report, however helpful and galvanizing it was, because social movements don’t grow from a single seed.

We have a national movement against campus gender-based violence today not because of one report, or one person, or one school, but because dozens — hundreds — of survivor-activists and allies and policy makers and pro bono attorneys and journalists came together, in different ways and at different times, to push back against a long-ignored problem. It’s not even really one, monolithic movement: there are so many people, in so many different parts of the country, with diverse political commitments and understandings of what, exactly, allows rape and harassment to continue unchecked. We learn from each other, and we build on the work done before we arrived: the CPI report, decades of student organizing, the original Title IX lawyers. Many started well before the CPI report.

hoffsommersHoff Sommers has to turn a blind eye to the national student-driven movement, though. If she didn’t, she’d have to acknowledge we’re not engaged in mass hysteria based on one mistaken report — and she’d have to acknowledge the existence of more survivors than fit in the world she describes.

And, consistently, Hoff Sommers’ piece is not only cruel but uninformed in its cruelty. The author drags a real, live person into her cross hairs — her name is Laura, but she is also called “Exhibit A” — to bombard her with a series of simplistic and deeply wrong assumptions of how survivors act. Anyone with a basic background in violence could explain that victims often have consent to some physical intimacy with the people who go on to assault them. Trauma psychology teaches us that sometimes survivors change the ways they narrate their experiences over time. Yet Hoff Sommers insists these common markers of sexual violence undermine Laura’s stories and the CPI report.

The article’s total absence of humility is ironic given the authors’ criticism throughout the piece of investigative journalists and professors who have extensively researched the problem but do not meet her threshold for expertness. Dr. David Lisak, a retired professor well known for his surveys of college men about their histories of violence, is not worthy of Hoff Sommers’ respect, and NPR is dismissed for its political leanings.

Yet the author, with no background in the issue, is happy to make wild claims without any basis in fact — and, I’ll note, The Daily Beast was happy to publish these. What editor OKed Hoff Sommers’ proclamation that “[d]ozens of falsely accused young men were subjected to kangaroo court proceedings and expelled from college”? Who are these men? How does either the author or the publication know they were innocent? Nor did Hoff Sommers bother to ask Laura about her own story while she accuses CPI of failing to investigate throughly enough.

Hoff Sommers paints a picture of a lefty media so enamored with its own narrative of campus life that it will overlook hard facts and troubling uncertainties. But perhaps she should turn that critical eye around.


Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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