February 26, 2018

February 26, 2018

In Proximity of Sin versus #metoo. There is a sexual misconduct/rape case going forward at Yale, which sheds some light on several thorny issues. In this case, a woman wound up very drunk in a fellow student’s dorm room, reported waking up briefly to find him on top of her, tried to push him off to no avail, and in the morning woke up to find herself naked. She decided to go to the authorities with a formal rape complaint rather than just relying on Yale’s Title IX process.

Here’s the complication. The standard to convict is higher in a criminal case than in a university’s sexual misconduct process. Suppose a jury wonders what she was doing drunk in a man’s room, and refuses to convict?

Clearly, if the facts are as they appear, the male student is in line for very serious punishment by the university. A woman being imprudent enough to get very drunk and pass out in a male student’s room is not an invitation to be raped. Somehow, men need to get that message.

Yet, do potential victims bear any responsibility at all? My Catholic friends recall the nuns warning them not to put themselves “in proximity to sin.” In more modern feminist language, this is an era when women are supposed to be respected for their “agency”—they are responsible for their own conduct.

There is the further complication that we are not sure about how much paternalism we want on the part of universities. My generation spent great effort fighting what was then called the doctrine of in loco parentis—the university was supposedly in the role of parent—and it spent great effort at preventing even fully consensual sex. We don’t want to go back to that.

Yet it would not be bad if universities did crack down on underage drinking and binge drinking, especially of the fraternity sort, which often seems a ploy to get women very drunk. In an ideal world, consequences would be perfectly fine-tuned. A man who took sexual advantage of a very drunk, unconscious undergraduate in his room would be severely punished. But should there be some lesser consequence for high-risk female enabling behavior, too?

Alas, we are far from a world of finely calibrated consequences fitting gradations of misconduct. It’s all the more complicated, given that the essence of flirtation is mixed signals (often further mixed with genuine ambivalence), and further complicated by regret after the fact.

Somehow, we need to stumble through this legal and ethical thicket to a clearing, where people behave with more sexual respect.

Back to economics.