Will’s and DensityDuck’scomments in this thread gave me the idea to write this post. This is just an anecdotal musing, not a data-supported argument for anything. But it seems to me that campus feminism has gone through an enormous shift in the past 20 years. If right-wingers, some remembering their own college experience, are afraid that college campuses are a brain-washing center where people are cleansed of their belief in innate sex differences, that is simply not the case.
Way, way, back, all the way in the nineties (I know, right? I’m that old!), I started college. Upon arriving on campus, within the first day or two, I was given a rape whistle. That is, a whistle I could blow in case I was getting raped. Rape was considered endemic on campuses. The statistics cited at the time were that 1 in 4 women were raped. Which seems…awfully high? The feminist groups on campus were extremely active, and their biggest issues were 1) rape (especially date rape), and 2) the objectification of women in mass media and pornography. Not equal pay for equal work. I remember the virulent reaction to Katie Roiphe’s piece criticizing the rape obsession of feminists at the time.
Bear in mind that I think some good came of this. Alerting people to the fact there is such a thing as date rape, and a man is not owed sex for dinner, is a positive step.. But there’s no question that the danger was blown out of proportion, men were smeared (I remember this poor guy holding up a sign in some protest saying, “I am a potential rapist”), facts were elided.
I learned as undisputed fact that any sex differences other than body shape were all culturally determined. If children were raised differently — ideally — there would be no gender differences. Pornography was an attack on all women (I was assigned to read both Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin).
Toward the end of my time as an undergrad, some of this had started to change. There was a move toward sex-positive feminism, in which plans were hatched to make a new, empowering porn by women for women (can’t see that that has dented the porn market all that much). Old movies were scoured for evidence of female empowerment among the objectification.
When I returned to campus to start grad school and teaching in 2004, an enormous shift had occurred. Feminist groups on this campus (a ginormous flagship state university) were basically unheard from. Environmental groups, Iraq war protests, and general Bush-protesting was where most lefties found themselves. But rape, pornography, and objectification were by no means a major topic of conversation. Outside of a few people in a few departments, people were not generally willing to assert that there were, in fact, no non-culturally determined gender differences. Most people I know in academia who don’t specialize in the area either think there are biologically determined sex differences, or that there’s no way of knowing.
[An exception to this is the claim that is widely held that sex differences in the sciences and in my own field (philosophy, which is about 80% male) must be due to how children are raised or sexism practiced by the field. See: Larry Summers scandal.]
I sometimes teach the hot-button moral issues freshman course. Pornography is one of those issues that I teach, and I assign pieces pro and con. In 2004, the general view of my students was that pornography objectifies women (but they didn’t think it was all that big a deal). Male students were generally silent during these discussions, or agreed that objectification takes place.
Now when I teach this, it’s a complete sea change in 8 years. Female students are largely silent while male students vociferously defend pornography. I don’t think the female students are scared into silence (although perhaps a few are), I think they simply don’t care. They seem a bit bemused about what objectification means. 8 years ago, no male student would have dreamt of referring to his own porn habits and preferences during that discussion. Now many do. Some of them simply can’t see how this is even a moral issue at all – the idea of being opposed to pornography on moral grounds simply makes no sense (they sometimes make an exception for hardcore, very violent porn).
(FWIW, I don’t think porn is necessarily immoral – I keep my own views under wraps as best I can when I teach. I’m more interested in the drastic shift in their views, and the feeling on college campuses.)
This semester I asked my students, as I do when I teach a small-enrollment class, to send me an email introducing themselves. One guy listed one of his hobbies as masturbation. This guy is not a strange duck, just sort of a frat boy type. Seriously, I wonder if that would have gotten him kicked out of college when I was undergrad. But it showed me that he was so unthinking about the possible implications of what he was saying, that he used it by way of introduction to a female instructor who would be grading him.
Of course, feminism survives and has shifted. But it is a vastly diminished part of campus life. I don’t think the night is getting taken back all that much anymore.