“Sexual Assault at God’s Harvard,” in this week’s New Republic, is a story I’ve long been expecting. God’s Harvard refers to Patrick Henry College, an evangelical school in Virginia filled mostly with home-schooled kids. I wrote a book about it in 2007. I remember during freshman orientation watching a sexual harassment video filled with cartoon-ish scenarios—in one, a boss corners his secretary in the library and says he won't promote her unless she goes out with him. After watching it, one of the freshman raised her hand and offered: “Women have a part in helping a man to lust. I think of Jesus’ words, not to stumble. Our part is to watch what we look like and act like, if we are too flirtatious.” Uh oh, I thought at the time. One day this attitude is going to come back to haunt them.
But the New Republic story only partly convinces me I was right. The central case involves Claire Spear, who was found by security guards late at night lying on a field and crying. She told the guards she’d been “violated.” The reporter then pieces together the details of what happened, largely from Claire. She and her friend John had been drinking with some friends at a nearby lake. He offered to give her a ride home, and before they got to campus, he stopped the car, climbed over the console, and started dry-humping her. “He didn’t remove her clothes, but Claire felt terrified and trapped with John weighing her down. Things didn’t compute. John was her friend; he was engaged; he was a Christian, just like her. In her confusion, she managed to tell him to stop.” John and Claire tell different stories about exactly where he then dropped her off, but Claire ended up back on campus, where the security guards found her.
“Claire,” the author concludes, “was not the first female student to leave PHC disillusioned with the administration she had trusted to protect her.” Trusted to protect her? Putting it that way requires you to essentially adopt the same view as the Patrick Henry administration, that young women (who are technically adults) are released from their fathers' hands to Patrick Henry as a waystation, before they can be handed over to their husbands. In fact, the story recounts, a few months earlier, John had done the exact same thing to Claire: jumped the console of his car to dry-hump her. So he was already not the good Christian of her imagination. And in the second incident, the one at the center of the New Republic story, no one disputes that when Claire said “stop,” John drove her back to campus. To understand that as her having been “violated,” as she said, requires once again accepting the Patrick Henry view, that if a woman has sexual contact with a man she’s not married to, she is somehow violated.
A second incident described by the reporter is much more damning. Sarah and Ryan were studying together, and he invited her to sit on his bed. She did, and a few hours later woke up disoriented with her jeans unzipped and her shirt up. And then she remembered him on top of her, groping her and pushing her hands in her pants. Sarah told the dean of students who, according to Sarah, viewed her with suspicion. “I don’t think you’re wholly innocent in this situation,” Sarah says she told her and later concluded that “Sarah had made an ‘error in judgment’ by being alone in a boy’s room in violation of PHC rules. ‘You are in part responsible for what happened, because you put yourself in a compromising situation,’ ” the dean said, according to Sarah. “Actions have consequences.”
A Patrick Henry statement says the expected things: that they don’t “elevate one gender above the other” and that they don’t view women who experience sexual abuse as “deserving of their fate.” But the problem is baked into their philosophy. An “innocent” woman in their context is one who never ever breaks the rules, which would mean never getting in a car or sitting on a bed with a boy. That’s where Patrick Henry shares borders with Andrea Dworkin: all sex is at some level a violation of women. But that line, whether it comes from an evangelical or a feminist, is unlikely to foster a situation where college kids or their administration can make reasonable decisions about what constitutes sexual assault.