Almost no one is satisfied with the way college administrations deal with campus rape. Accusers and activists see sickening failures of justice on all sides, as institutions set up to provide education are increasingly tasked with adjudicating potentially criminal claims. This week, the New York Times reported on an unusual group of women who are coming together to address these failures: the mothers of the accused.
The story centers on an advocacy group called Families Advocating for Campus Equality, which was founded in 2013 by several women whose sons had been accused of sexual assault as undergraduates. The group now includes hundreds of families. The women lobby Congress, follow lawsuits filed by men who say they have been falsely accused, and hold meetings twice a year. They believe that they can be effective defenders precisely because they are women. “We recognized that power,” one of the mothers tells the Times. On the surface, the story has it all: A hot-button issue, a scrappy band of activist moms, and the eternally fascinating phenomenon of women defending troubled men. Why, then, is this piece so unsatisfying to read?
The story opens with four mothers gathered at a restaurant in Minnesota to celebrate a recent success. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had met with some of them over the summer, and in September she announced she was rescinding the Obama administration’s strict guidance for how campuses should handle sexual assault cases. Although the decision prompted a predictable backlash, there is an increasing discomfort even on the left that actions intended to prevent and punish assault have deprived many accused students of due process along the way. (Though the Times piece doesn’t mention race, critics of the Obama guidelines also point out their disproportionate impact on black students.)
Unsurprisingly, the women have come under fire online since the story’s publication. A mother named Judith has attracted particular ire. Judith described herself as a feminist and a Democrat, and said her husband and two sons were “super respectful” of women. “We don’t really need to teach our sons not to rape,” she said. It’s not clear whether that “we” refers to society in general, or to Judith and her husband; it seems possible that she is saying that her sons know better already, because of the way they were raised. Critics were not interested in parsing pronouns:
In the piece, the way these mothers talk about sex and consent feels decidedly out of step with progressive culture online. Judith’s son was expelled after having sex with a woman who said later that she had been too intoxicated to consent. “In my generation, what these girls are going through was never considered assault,” she told the paper. “It was considered, ‘I was stupid and I got embarrassed.’ ” Is this an unwittingly devastating articulation of rape culture, or just a middle-aged woman who hasn’t memorized the third rails of online feminism? A little bit of both, presumably, but without knowing more about her son’s case, it’s difficult to know the ratio. Of course, there are surely legal reasons why the reporters couldn’t go deeper on the specifics of each case. And the women’s fears for their sons’ reputations is what animates their activism, so it’s understandable that the piece is light on those details for that reason, too.
But there are key points in which the reader is left adrift for no apparent reason. What did Judith actually mean when she said “We don’t really need to teach our sons not to rape”? The story could have included a longer excerpt of her quote, or a clarifying phrase or two. Another mother, Alison, talks about receiving the first call from her son about the accusation against him. “How many times have I told you, you need to keep it zippered,” she told him—another incendiary quote, which could easily read as the reaction of an indulgent enabler who is well-acquainted with her son’s bad behavior. Alison says her son was in fact propositioned by his eventual accuser and that they had consensual sex; his case was cleared, but in the meantime he became a campus pariah and dropped out of school. The outlines of his story certainly sound sympathetic, so what are we supposed to make of that icky first reaction?
The lightness of context around these quotes makes the story overall feel maddeningly slippery. The women make a distinction between being “falsely accused” and “wrongly accused,” but the reader is given almost no tools for adjudicating that. Are these moms blindly defending rapists or confronting serious miscarriages of justice? The answer is surely different for each woman. And it makes the story of their camaraderie even more complicated than their individual cases.