Blurred Lines in the Culture War

Not long ago, American conservatives seemed to be crushing liberals in the culture war.

As George Packer wrote in his 2001 book, Blood of the Liberals, American liberals were seen during the 1988 presidential election as “a minority creed of rapist-coddlers and flag burners and pornography peddlers and other elitists.” Liberals’ commitment to broad legal protections for criminal defendants allowed conservatives to charge, often successfully, that the left was soft on crime. Meanwhile, liberals’ embrace of broad First Amendment protections, even for sexually explicit material, gave many voters the impression that they were morally permissive and hostile towards family values.

In the last generation, needless to say, the tides have turned. On issues from same-sex marriage to legal marijuana to women’s rights, the secular left has made huge advances, and it is traditionalists who are in retreat.

It might therefore be tempting to add campus sexual assault reforms to the pantheon of liberal culture war victories of recent years. Since the 1990’s, feminists and progressive activists have been calling attention to certain colleges’ mishandling of sexual misconduct cases and their failure to provide justice for victims. They have achieved dramatic victories at colleges across the country, including the adoption of speech codes creating broad definitions for punishable sexual harassment and the introduction of reduced due process protections for students accused of sexual misconduct.

While sexual assault reformers are usually described as “liberal,” and opponents of reform are usually described as “conservative,” this debate does not align with traditional culture war fault lines.

It is true that the sexual assault reformers and feminist activists have taken the “liberal” position in the sense that they seek to expand justice for women and dismantle male privilege. But in their approach to due process and free speech, they are unconcerned with liberal principles.

Since the Warren Court’s “due process revolution,” protecting the rights of the accused has been central to the liberal mission. But sexual assault activists have successfully lobbied to lower the burden of proof required to convict students at university hearings and have reduced their access to counsel, among other reforms designed to increase the probability of a guilty verdict.

Many feel that they have not gone far enough: Earlier this month, Dartmouth’s sexual assault coordinator said, “Why could we not expel a student based on an accusation?…It seems to me that we value fair and equitable processes more than we value the safety of our students.”

At the same time, sexual assault reformers have lobbied for speech codes that display what might be described as a socially conservative—or even Victorian—sensibility when it comes to sex talk. Examples include an Oakland University regulation providing that “no person shall use…immoral or insulting language over any telephone,” a West Virginia University policy prohibiting students from “staring at a woman’s breasts or a man’s derriere” and international efforts to ban Robin Thicke’s provocative single, “Blurred Lines.”

What about those who are resisting reforms to the campus judicial process? It is true that many of them have taken the “conservative” position, in the sense that they are often resistant to change and skeptical of feminism and political correctness. But some of the resistance to the reforms—especially within fraternities—seem to be motivated by a blind faith in sexual freedom, an opposition to any regulation that could interfere with students’ personal lives, and a wholesale rejection of socially conservative ideas about chastity and restraint.

In the Bush-Dukakis election of 1988, it was liberals who were seen as “rapist-coddlers” and “pornography peddlers.” Today, these same charges are being hurled by nominally liberal sexual assault reformers against their nominally conservative opponents. In the sexual assault debate, the left-right divide of yore has been turned on its head.

Perhaps this is a cause for optimism. There is a pressing need to find the right balance between civil liberties on the one hand and safety from sexual violence on the other, and a debate that cuts across traditional ideological lines is more likely to yield reasoned and pragmatic solutions than a perpetual culture war back-and-forth. Then again, as evidenced by the Dartmouth administrator’s inane suggestion that students be expelled “based on an accusation” alone, pragmatism has seldom been a feature of the sexual assault debate.

Contact Jason Willick at willick@stanford.edu.

About Jason Willick