The Title IX inquiry at Yale has been touted, by some , as a long overdue victory for women. But I’m increasingly convinced that the complaint that’s been filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will work against the very women it is trying to protect. Title IX is meant to address hostile environments, but in this case, its invocation is likely to make the environment at Yale even more hostile.
This is not to dispute the substance or intent of the complaint, which alleges that Yale’s failure to respond to instances of sexual misconduct has contributed to a "hostile sexual environment," thereby denying women equal educational access. But high-profile complaints like this tend to polarize a campus. The protestors become alienated from their peers as their arguments get boiled down to finger-pointing and bullet points. Meanwhile, the rest of the student body, sensing a witch hunt, rallies around the accused, who tend to grow emboldened by the attacks. We’ve seen this drama enacted time and again on Ivy League campuses, such as when people have called for the end of Harvard’s final clubs , or the Yale Women’s Center has threatened to sue a frat over an offensive sign, or lawsuits have been filed against Princeton’s eating clubs. This atmosphere of accusation and ridicule is hardly the climate in which to work toward the goal of equality.
There’s already a backlash brewing at Yale: This week, 10 of 16 students interviewed by the Yale Daily News said that they didn't think the complaint was warranted. One of those 10, a female undergraduate, said, "I hope Yale is not allowing the actions of a few disgusting individuals to dictate how the campus feels [about the sexual climate]." It seems that many women on campus feel their situation has been over-exaggerated (a friend of mine used the word "hijacked") by a small group of litigious feminists. *
I recently had the chance to speak with women undergraduates and alumnae for articles on female social life and leadership at the Ivy League. One of the recurring themes I encountered was that, despite almost yearly incidents of careless misogyny at these schools-Harvard’s snow penis , frat boys chanting "No means Yes, Yes means Anal! ", racy emails that get made public -women felt that to complain would mark them as annoying, humorless, or worse, irrelevant. This is the real problem for college students, at the Ivies and elsewhere-this feeling that protest is futile, and perhaps social suicide-and it’s one that Title IX probably cannot address. Though well intended, the Yale complainants’ approach is likely to distract from this essential problem of entrenched culture. Ultimately, using Title IX as a weapon in this case will make college kids think that ensuring female equality comes down to legal enforcement, rather than the much messier business of changing a community’s most stubbornly ingrained habits.
This all gestures toward a sensitive question, one that splits women into a thousand camps: When does it make sense to address questions of culture and attitude in the legal arena? In a societal sense, Yale’s responsibility goes further than Title IX suggests, and will demand more than new policies. It is the job of educators to reinforce basic standards of courtesy and civility, so that students don’t have to turn to the legal system for recourse. Civil society is not predicated on an endlessly specific list of dos and don’ts, but rather, on reinforced understanding and empathy.
I was an undergraduate not too long ago, and I wish I could say that I had pushed back against the subtle, toxic undercurrent of misogyny I encountered at Harvard (which, in hindsight, had more to do with final clubs than with Larry Summers ). So I get it: Trying to change a culture feels like boxing with a ghost, and it seems easier when our diffuse cultural problems can be manifested as a discrete battle. But it’s important that we not kid ourselves and pretend that a Title IX complaint and a handful of deans will change undergraduate culture. That’s the students’ job, and it’s not an easy one.
* Update April 9, 2011: This paragraph has been updated to better reflect the statements made in the Yale Daily News .
Photograph of Yale by Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images.