If a satirist had set out to write a scathing parody of the campus crusade against rape, he could not have come up with anything more bizarre, or more ridiculous, than the real-life comedy-drama that unfolded last month at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
The scandal started, like many scandals do these days, in the social media. On Saturday, October 12, amidst the school’s Homecoming Weekend festivities, photos and a video of two young people engaged in a public sex act near the campus—the man on his knees performing oral sex on the woman while she leaned against a plate-glass window, half-sitting on its ledge—showed up online and promptly spread on Twitter.
On Sunday night, the woman in the photos, a 20-year-old Ohio University student, contacted Athens police to say that she had been sexually assaulted. The news media picked up the story; an October 16 report on the local television channel, WBNS-10TV, opened with the alarming announcement, “An Ohio university student says she was the victim of a rape. Making it even worse, someone photographed the alleged assault and shared it on social media.” Within the OU community, there was widespread outrage, particularly at reports that at least a dozen people had witnessed the act. OU senior Allie Erwin lamented to 10-TV, “Our first instinct as a community was not to intervene and help this woman, but to post it on social media, and make a mockery of probably the most traumatic experience of her life.”
While Athens police chief Tom Pyle warned against a rush to judgment, noting that the witnesses “may not have realized” they were seeing an assault and, in fact, that no assault may have taken place, the outraged student were not mollified. Said Erwin, “She obviously wasn’t okay with what happened. It was rape. She reported it to the police as rape.”
Meanwhile, the photos and videos—initially taken down after the rape complaint—resurfaced. They appeared to show a fully consensual encounter; the woman was seen smiling, flipping back her hair, at one point putting her hand on the back of the man’s head, and even posing for the camera with a grin on her face. Witnesses confirmed that, while both participants were clearly drunk, the “victim” was not incapacitated and “seemed like she was enjoying it”; she also left with the man afterwards, walking unassisted. (While none of the onlookers thought the sex was non-consensual, at least one or two of them berated the man as a “slut” and physically assaulted him after he stood up, bloodying his face—an ironic detail considering feminist complaints that women are stigmatized for sexually “loose” behavior while men are not.)
Despite the fact that this information was widely available in the social media and appeared in the campus newspaper, The Post, as early as October 17, the university community continued to treat the sexual assault as a fact, with commentary often omitting even the word “alleged.” On October 22, students began to leave Post-It notes on the Chase Bank window where the “rape” occurred, with inscriptions that decried “victim-blaming” and offered supportive messages such as “You are not alone,” “This is not your fault,” “We let you down, I am so sorry,” and “You are strong and brave.” (An Athens policeman took the notes down and stopped the students from posting more, resulting in an informal complaint against him.) On October 24, the university hosted a student/faculty event titled “Campus Conversation: Sexual Assault, Consent, and Bystander Intervention.” The topic, according to the official announcement, included “healthy sexualities, policy (sexual assault/misconduct definitions and existing policy), victim blaming, sexual assault, masculinity/power, consent, bystander intervention and outreach to the community.” On the same day, The Post published a letter from more than thirty faculty members, including the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, expressing deep concern about “recent events involving alleged sexual assault, alcohol and social media on our campus and in our community.”
A few days later, on October 28, Athens County prosecutor Keller Blackburn announced the results of the grand jury investigation: no charges were to be filed, since "a reasonable person would think that [the woman] was not intoxicated beyond the ability to consent." Blackburn also gave a detailed account of the night’s events, pieced together from the video, security camera footage, and eyewitness testimony. (The woman and the man, also a 20-year-old OU student, both claimed to have no memory of what happened.) After leaving a nearby bar where they had been drinking, the pair began kissing in the street and then proceeded to further intimacies. At one point, when the man realized they had an audience, he asked the woman if they should stop; she encouraged him to proceed.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this story is the virtually unanimous support for the “survivor” from anti-rape activists and their supporters. Letters published in The Post—one from a “concerned alumnus” from the class of 2013, another from a male OU senior—deplored the “disheartening” skepticism about the woman’s claims and decried the pernicious sway of “the rape culture.” Alumnus Jared Henderson chided “misguided skeptics” for failing to realize that “it takes incredible courage for a woman to come forward and report a rape,” since she subjects herself to “massive public scrutiny.” The fact that the woman was already unwillingly exposed (as it were) to public scrutiny had apparently escaped his notice: the facts, Henderson confidently asserted, gave “no reason to believe that this is an embarrassed woman crying wolf about rape to save her reputation.”
Feminists outside the OU campus took the same stance. A column on ThinkProgress.org, the website of the Center for the American Progress, suggested that eyewitness accounts confirming that both participants in the act were “very, very drunk” proved that, no matter how consensual it looked, it fit Ohio University’s criteria for sexual assault. (Actually, the university policy quoted in the column states that a person is unable to consent if “incapacitated” due to alcohol or other factors.) The writer, Tara Culp-Resser, did not seem to realize that by her definition, the man can be considered a victim of sexual assault as much as the woman—leading to the absurd conclusion that they were raping each other.
Culp-Resser laments, “When women allege that they have been sexually assaulted, everyone from police departments to university officials to their neighbors often tells them they’re mistaken, and assumes they’re simply ‘crying rape’ after waking up the next morning and regretting a sexual encounter.” Yet she does not seem to notice that in the Ohio University incident, such an assumption would most likely be correct. Doing stupid things when one’s judgment is impaired by alcohol is not the same thing as being coerced while unable to resist or consent.
In a way, the advocates’ fanatical insistence that the woman must be considered a victim because she says so is a perverse mirror image of the most misogynist traditional attitudes toward rape—such as the requirement in Sharia law that a rape victim must have at least two male eyewitnesses to prove her claim. In this case, there is not only eyewitness testimony but a visual record to show a consensual encounter; yet the activists’ response seems to be, “Whom are you going to believe, the woman or your lying eyes?”
The university is still considering whether to take disciplinary action against one or both of the students. (One may safely assume that charges against the woman for filing a false police report is not one of the options on the table.) Meanwhile, a follow-up “campus conversation” on sexism, sexual assault, and alcohol is scheduled for November 18. Since the proposed topics include “double standards,” it would be interesting to invite the discussants to consider the following scenario:
An intoxicated woman performs oral sex on an equally intoxicated man in public view. Some female passers-by outraged by the woman’s loose conduct berate her as a slut and beat her up before she leaves the scene in the man’s company. Which of the two would be seen as the victim deserving of public support?
Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday, is a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics and Reason.