A Response to the Janus Forum’s Most Recent Opinions Column

The Janus Forum recently published an opinions column in the Brown Daily Herald in response to an email sent by President Christina Paxson to the student body. In the email, she supported a program, titled “The Research on Rape Culture” as an alternative to the Janus Forum’s event, a debate entitled “How should colleges handle sexual assault.” In their column, the Janus Forum denounces Paxson’s email and its ostensible affront to their mission of “leaving no belief unchallenged, no matter how dearly held, with the hope of promoting self-reflection.” Their column uses this reaffirmation of their mission to foreground a defense of their selected speaker, Wendy McElroy, who, along with Jessica Valenti, will be responding to the question, “How should colleges handle sexual assault?” The Janus Forum argues that their “two sides” debate framework allows “the students to judge for themselves the validity of the viewpoints presented.”

I affirm everyone’s right to speak on whatever they feel like speaking on; however, freedom of expression is not what this post, nor the Janus Forum’s op-ed is about. To focus on this disregards how university settings intentionally select which opinions they amplify. Through a variety of mechanisms (tenure, student admissions, the offering of honorariums, the process of peer review, etc.), members of university communities regularly and actively control which voices should be amplified. This structuring of the university’s discursive space highlights the absurdity implicit in the claim that freedom of speech is at risk of being violated here because of open and honest critique leveled against the event.

The argument the Janus Forum puts forward in their op-ed is then, not in defense of free expression, but rather operates to defend their metrics of inclusion and the way that they have chosen to structure this conversation. Their column frames the “two-sides” structure as neutral, thus ignoring the multifaceted nature of most sociopolitical issues. While the “two-sides” framework is certainly helpful at times, failing to recognize its shortcomings and claiming that it is neutral is misguided. By naturalizing this framework as the only valid one, the Janus Forum’s article attempts to remove their process of selection from the realm of critique.

To be clear, I certainly believe that the Janus Forum’s mission of challenging strongly held ideas is important to furthering growth and creating more nuanced viewpoints and opinions. However, I also believe that event organizers should make a concerted effort to ensure that all challenges are grounded in truth and well-researched knowledge, particularly at an institution that holds such values central to its mission. This should not be a controversial  issue. In “The New Mythology of Rape,” McElroy clearly lays out her conceptualization of sexual assault as the result of the individual pathologies of discrete, unrelated rapists; she denies the claim that rape can be understood as a societal problem. She also characterizes  radical feminists as people who seek to vilify all men by portraying them all as rapists. These central beliefs inform her argument about best practices to combat rape. McElroy is not alone in her understanding of problems as the result of individual pathologies—this argument is typically called a behavioralist argument. However, the vast majority of people who have researched sexual assault actively dismiss behavioralist arguments as limited in scope and lacking in rigor.

McElroy’s framework is clearly limited, perhaps most significantly in its inability to address why women are disproportionately the target of sexual violence and why men are disproportionately the perpetrators. In “Making Men Rapists,” instead of trying to explain this disproportionate victimization, McElroy simply contends that the statistic stating “1 in 5” women experience sexual assault in college is false. She goes on to cite select studies and statistics, which allegedly corroborate this denunciation of prevalent, gendered rape. However, when one looks more closely at the studies’ methodologies and additional findings, as well as their generalizability to college campuses, it is clear that there is little substance backing her claim and certainly no grounds for dismissing the “1 in 5” statistic. Importantly, she never discusses the multiple studies that provide the grounding for this statistic. The Janus Forum should have considered the weak foundations of McElroy’s claims before selecting her to speak on college sexual assault policy.

Refutation of behavioralist frames by researchers and academics is not unique to the field of sexual assault research. For the vast majority who critically study culture and society (sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, to name a few), behavioralist framings are understood as clearly ignoring easily observable trends that call for explanation beyond individual pathology. Most academics have instead located widespread problems in societal structures (i.e. they make a structural argument), implicating larger societal value systems instead of limiting their scope to the individual.

If the goal of the Janus Forum’s event was to give students the chance to witness a debate about structuralism and behavioralism, this choice of speakers is appropriate. However, by using sexual assault policy as a vehicle for this larger debate, the Janus Forum dangerously misleads students. People attending this event will think that university sexual assault policy conversations are focused on parsing out behavioralism and structuralism, when most of the actual conversations about university policy rely on a developed, structuralist understanding of sexual assault based in both qualitative and quantitative peer-reviewed research. Some of this substantive and compelling research will be presented at Dr. Orchowski’s talk that President Paxson endorsed in her email.

The structure of this Janus Forum event falls short not because they have failed to find a critical and controversial topic for debate, but because they have taken a very specific policy conversation out of its context. By presenting Wendy McElroy as a valid and well-informed source, the Janus Forum has forced the conversation in a regressive direction. By making a behavioralist argument the equal counterpoint to Jessica Valenti through the provision of equal airtime, the Janus forum presents the speakers’ ideas as equal. However, if one uses a metric of research and peer-reviewed knowledge, it is clear that they are not. This is not without consequences. It draws attention away from the large body of literature about sexual assault that substantiates rape culture and thus keeps campuses stagnant. The refusal to move beyond the “do structures exist?” question actively prevents campuses from developing research-based policy to combat rape and support survivors. Ideally, the Janus Forum organizers would be in the front row of Dr. Lindsay Orchowski’s talk today, sitting alongside other students, listening to the substantial research from many academic fields pertinent to sexual assault policy before sensationalizing and framing a conversation that has very real consequences for many students on Brown’s campus.

Editor’s note: In addition to Dr. Orchowski’s talk, “The Research on Rape Culture,” the Sexual Assault Peer Educators, Women’s Peer Counselors, and staff from Bwell Health Promotion will be available in Salomon 203 from 4-6PM to provide a space to talk or just be during the Janus Forum event. More information about both alternative events can be found here.

  1. First off, (and I’ve emailed the author with more extensive praise), let me say that this is an incredibly well thought out and nuanced piece– really a model of what we ought to strive for in terms of discourse. The author’s analysis of the role of the university and shaping discourse is a novel alternative to the more common argument of “it’s offensive so we shouldn’t listen.”

    In reflecting on this piece though, I think that the author makes the same mistake that the Ray Kelly protesters made: attempting to predict what a speaker is going to say based on the must publicized facets of his/her rhetoric, and then deciding whether or not hosting the speaker is appropriate. In Ray Kelly’s case, a large portion of the talk (as shown by the manuscript) was devoted to discussing the impact of urban crime on its victims: racial and ethnic minorities. This is markedly different from the “here’s why stopping and frisking blacks is so great” message that students expected him to deliver.

    But back to the sexual assault debate. As a sociology major (and we think cultural factors are the answers to everything), I was expecting to be baffled by the absurdity of the claim that rape culture doesn’t exist, but what I found was a very interesting and unexpected take on rape culture: it appeared to me (and confirmed after speaking with her more after the event) that McElroy’s objection to “rape culture” was less about doubting the role of cultural factors in social outcomes, but more about the phrase “rape culture” being hyperbolic, unfairly discrediting to the progress that has been made, and insulting to those who live in *actual* rape culture (she cited parts of Afghanistan as an example). As a student from Indonesia, where rape is SO widespread, SO engrained in the cultural fabric, and SO normalized, I can see her point: using the same language to describe what happens in the US to what happens in countries like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, or India implies sameness that is unjustified and offensive.

    Whether someone agrees with this point or not, there is no denying that this argument is not the same as the “culture doesn’t matter” argument that most (including me) were expecting. To be fair, McElroy didn’t convey this very clearly (and student biases in receiving her points didn’t help either). She also failed to discuss (as she did with me afterwards) how she found support for her argument in a historical analysis of the literal and political redefinition of rape since the 1960s.

    Regardless of how people feel about these arguments, I think it speaks to the value of the Janus Forum’s approach of “leaving no belief unchallenged, no matter how dearly held, with the hope of promoting self-reflection.” In my opinion, the strongest arguments for limiting discourse on campus are those that argue that speakers who present unsophisticated or regurgitated rhetoric shouldn’t be prioritized over the emotional safety of marginalized/oppressed individuals. But given that our characterization of such beliefs are heavily influenced by our personal biases and inaccurate portrayal by the media, it seems dangerous to then go ahead and rule out certain arguments based on arrogant (and often inaccurate) presumptions. It is in our interest to understand the nuances of the arguments that question our core ideals because that enables us to become not only more resolute in our beliefs, but also knowledgable enough to provide strong arguments that can win over even the most ardent and righteous opponents.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment.

      I don’t think you have a clear understanding of what is meant by many feminists when they talk about rape culture. To many feminists there are not degrees of rape culture, but rather different manifestations that are equally pernicious and interrelated. To be clear, her relegation of rape culture to what many might term the industrializing/unindustrialized world, does the work of framing the United States as less bound by cultural values and societal norms. Research shows that this is not true in a variety of contexts. I would argue that her framework about the degrees of rape culture is simply a softening in the rhetoric of a purely behavioralist argument, which at its core still advances behavioralist understandings of people, at least in the United States. The disagreement had on stage may have touched on policy, but was explicitly and more fundamentally about the existence of structures in the United States. This debate can and should be had, but it must be named and it must be based in research, not general feelings/vague postulations about the cultures of other places (industrializing/unindustrialized countries) and the culture of the United States.

      I believe that framing is fundamentally important and do not believe that large scale conversations/debates like the ones held by the Janus Forum happen without a cost. I think that this conversation happened at the expense of what could have been a fruitful, research based conversation about sexual assault policy (do we need a private investigator model? what are the merits of peer testimony in investigations? how should reporting systems be structured? should students sit on student code of conduct panels? etc.) instead of a debate about a related and important, but still decidedly different topic.

      Furthermore, your point about my making assumptions about what a speaker will say before attending an event ignores the ways that event organizers must do this too. To reiterate, this post was about implicating the Janus Forum in their selection process. By ignoring the ways they must develop opinions about a speaker via their previous published works, you have redirected the conversation toward those developing critique instead of those involved in the process of selection. A primary point in my original post was to implicate them and the ways their selection process was uninformed by McElroy’s poorly researched published pieces.

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