Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Diversity Delusion:
How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture

by heather mac donald
st. martin’s, 288 pages, $28.99

There’s much talk about listening to women’s voices in the present moment, but I wonder if there is much room for heterodox women’s voices. Heather Mac Donald is just such a heterodox woman—a truth-teller who says things that nobody else is brave enough to say. On questions of race and gender she is relentless in following evidence where it leads, calling out the Orwellian doublespeak that hides political agendas in universities and government agencies. She looks at data on policing and criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement. She looks at data on campus sexual assault and questions the narrative of #MeToo.

Her latest book, The Diversity Delusion, is divided into four parts. The first examines race on campus, beginning with affirmative action and moving to the currently fashionable topics of microaggression theory and unconscious bias. The second part takes up gender, rape on campus, and #MeToo. Part three is concerned with academic bureaucrats and the way diversity harms scientific endeavors. Part four offers a critique of the academic offerings of universities. All four sections of the book are interesting and provocative. But Mac Donald’s discussion of gender most remarkably displays her fiercely countercultural bona fides.

In a chapter called “The Campus Rape Myth,” Mac Donald argues that the campus rape “industry” depends for its survival on the idea of a widespread but underreported epidemic of sexual assault. The typical line on campus is that “one fifth to one quarter of all college girls will be raped or be the targets of attempted rape by the end of their college years.” This is the “one in five” statistic that one hears so often from activists.

The problem, as Mac Donald wryly points out, is that the students themselves do not believe it, nor do their accounts of their own sex lives accord with the claim. “To the despair of rape industrialists everywhere,” writes Mac Donald, “many students have held on to the view that women usually have considerable power to determine whether a campus social event ends with intercourse.” And a large portion of campus rape reports have to do with sex or other physical encounters that may have been ­woozily consensual but were definitely regretted afterward. Such incidents are far from the kind of attack that most people associate with the crime of rape. Yet they are often traumatic for the young women involved.

As Mac Donald knows well, simply stating these facts is tantamount to declaring war. For the story of the campus rape epidemic is not based on empirical evidence, but on a ­popularly accepted ideology about women’s victimization that has emerged from women’s studies programs and Ms. magazine. It is perpetuated by the thousands of young and not-so-young women who imbibed it in college as a first principle of female experience.

Where exactly does the one in five figure originate? Instead of asking women directly whether they had been raped, subjects in a 1980s Ms. magazine study were asked about whether they had experienced actions that were then classified as rape by the researchers. Self-reports would have yielded a far lower percentage of rape victims, but this ex post facto technique accounts for the extremely high “one in five” figure. Think for a moment about what this really means. If the one-in-five figure were correct, Mac Donald observes, “there would be between 300,000 and 400,000 sexual assaults on female undergraduates alone each year.” 

Mac Donald puts her finger on the central problem, which many observers sense but few give voice to: The so-called epidemic of rape on campus is a direct result of the sexual revolution. In the days before coed dorms and Our Bodies, Ourselves, most universities regulated interactions between men and women by housing them in different places and by enforcing curfews and standards of acceptable behavior. Of course some students flouted these rules, but to do so was difficult; and many people implicitly accepted them and saw such restraints as normal, even desirable. This regime also relied on the existence and reinforcement of traditional gender ­differences. Women were expected to display a certain level of modesty, and men were expected to behave like gentlemen. Dating did not imply sex.

We all know what came next, and most of us have lived through it. Though some colleges still maintain separate living spaces for men and women, most (particularly the elite ones) do not. Women are told to be “sex-positive,” and young men sense that unlimited sexual opportunities abound. Yet as Horace pointed out long ago, naturam expelles furca, ­tamen usque recurret: You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will always return. With some exceptions, women are generally the losers in this bargain. They still have ­weaker bodies and more regrets.

On campuses one now sees a “neo-Victorian” regime, under which, as Mac Donald puts it, feminists “are reimporting selective portions of a traditional sexual code that they have long scorned.” In this strange inversion of feminism, women are understood to be helpless victims while men, as the oppressors, are charged with full responsibility for all interactions of a romantic or sexual nature. This is the philosophy that underlies #ibelieveher and other movements that reverse the presumption of innocence for the accused. Women, we are told on campus, can never be responsible for an unwanted interaction. To charge them with any responsibility is “slut shaming” and “victim blaming,” attitudes that reveal retrograde views of women’s sexuality. Women should always be free to dress as they wish, to act as they wish, to drink whatever and as much as they wish, and to go where they wish. If anything should happen, they are free of responsibility.

This all fits perfectly well into the American academy’s overarching oppression framework. Victims, defined in broad terms, can never be wrong or mistaken. Only the oppressors are morally responsible. And this ideology has expanded far beyond campuses. In fact, Mac Donald asserts, the entire #MeToo movement has adopted this epistemology. Difficult sexual interactions are “recast . . . in terms of power and politics.”

The problems with this approach are twofold. First, there is the legitimate question of the degree of any given offense. Earlier this year Matt Damon took tremendous heat for wondering whether there was “a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation?” Feminists were ruthless in condemning him by insisting that any action on that entire spectrum qualifies as assault. All of it, they said, reflects structural patriarchy and misogyny.

But common sense tells most people that not all offenses are in fact equivalent. The categorization of any unwanted advance as sexual assault has had the unintended consequence of diminishing our sensitivity to real charges of rape and assault. Do we all believe that an unwanted kiss or touch is the exact same thing as rape? Of course not. But if we say this aloud, we are traitors toward the cause of women’s equality.

This points to the biggest problem embedded within our new orthodoxy of #MeToo, which is that dissenters from the movement generally do not speak out, do not proffer alternative understandings of masculinity and femininity, and do not equip younger generations with the basic information that will help them to navigate human relationships. This basic information is not hard to convey. It is the kind of thing that mothers and grandmothers have been offering young women for ­generations: “Have a sense of decorum; do not dress too suggestively, avoid drinking too much; avoid dangerous situations with men; and most of all, understand that men and women are different.” Though each and every one of these folksy maxims is poisonous in our current political climate it does not, however, mean that they are wrong.

If we insist that women are entirely without moral agency and can do absolutely nothing to avoid the epidemic of sexual assault, then we are turning them once again into just the kind of helpless victims that they (­supposedly) were prior to the advent of ­modern feminism. Writers who challenge this dominant cultural narrative, like Heather Mac Donald, will be ­demonized as haters and oppressors of women. They will be told that they are internalizing their ­oppression and taking their cues from their husbands and fathers instead of thinking for themselves. Could ­anything be more patronizing?

What Mac Donald does, quite bravely, is insist that women bear some responsibility for their relations with men. She does not deny the existence of assault, or its seriousness, or its terrible effect on those who ­experience it. She does, however, think that the story currently being told to young women harms them more than it helps them. 

Despite all the recent protests and anger, women enjoy unprecedented freedom—to work or not, to have children or not, to marry or not. Add to this the fact that women are now recipients of affirmative action in corporations, on boards (especially in California), and in universities. Countless institutional incentives work in our favor. Bearing this in mind, we—as mothers and grandmothers, teachers and ­mentors—cannot abdicate our responsibility in raising strong, capable, and sensible young women who are not blinded by ideology. We must, as Mac ­Donald does, talk to them honestly and frankly about life and love. 

Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the honors program at Baylor University.

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped.