NEW YORK ― In October 2010, the current brothers of George W. Bush’s former fraternity at Yale, Delta Kappa Epsilon, marched through the first-year quad chanting, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” They held up signs reading, “We love Yale Sluts.”
Sixteen graduate and undergraduate students, male and female, felt that the university’s administration then did little to push back against such encroachments on female students’ rights to a fair and non-threatening learning environment. In March, they filed a federal lawsuit against Yale, alleging that its “failure to address incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault has created a ‘hostile environment.’”
The lawsuit did not stop with the DKE incident. First-year women were ranked on their sex appeal, the complaint noted, and, most seriously, Yale failed to respond adequately to reports of sexual assault or attempted assault and stalking. According to Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale junior and one of the 16 complainants, the students are “really frustrated and disappointed that Yale again and again fails to respond to both public and private acts of sexual harassment and assaults, which…perpetuates an environment in which these … acts are okay.”
The students’ complaint coincides with a federal investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which announced that it would review Yale’s policies for dealing with sexual harassment and sexual assault. This is no small matter: Yale and other American universities receive millions of federal dollars annually ― money that would be jeopardized if the university was found to tolerate an unequal learning environment.
In 2004, I wrote an article for New York magazine about my own experience of having been sexually encroached upon as a third-year undergraduate at Yale by an esteemed professor (the crime of “sexual harassment” had not yet been codified). I wrote, too, about Yale’s cover-up of many situations like mine. So the students’ lawsuit was not surprising to me.
Indeed, in the course of trying to report to the university in 2004 what had happened to me in 1983, I found the same pattern of stonewalling victims and defending perpetrators. Worse still, I discovered that the university and its lawyers used the sexual harassment “grievance procedure” as a screen to protect the institution, its harassers, and even its rapists, rather than as a means to investigate incidents of abuse.
This situation had persisted for two decades. As I conducted my reporting, I heard woman after woman allege that the same professor or the same fraternity had engaged in multiple instances of assault or harassment. Victim after victim would plead, heartbreakingly, “Help me.” But I could do nothing, because the women chose to remain anonymous, and because the university treated each case as top secret. Alleged perpetrators were free to teach in a new university ― where more young women (and in some cases, young men) would become their prey.
Compounding the lack of transparency, Yale maintains its own campus police force, to which sex-crime victims are encouraged to report their complaints if they insist upon formal documentation. But victims often do not understand that this actually tends to contain potentially embarrassing scandals, by preventing real ― that is, accountable ― law enforcement from getting involved.
Indeed, there have been disclosed to me reports of at least three alleged sex assaults by faculty or academic staff in the past decade ― two alleged incidents reported by two different women involving the same man. I know that one undergraduate has more recently pursued legal action against a staff member, who, she said, drugged her with Rohypnol, the “date rape” drug, and assaulted her. I know these accounts, but I can’t report them, even at this critical moment in the long-overdue formal investigation, because of confidentiality protocols.
Each of these women feels alone. Like virtually every private university in the United States, Yale has relied on “privacy” to keep these incidents under wraps, so that incoming women (and men) have no idea who among the faculty or students is dangerous; which fraternity is a site of repeated harassment or worse; and when to keep the door open on a student-teacher meeting. Like the Catholic Church, private universities like Yale can use victims’ shame and isolation to disenfranchise them and to protect the perpetrators.
But I believe that the victims themselves have a responsibility. The convention of taking sex-crime testimony from alleged victims behind closed doors, under conditions of anonymity or confidentiality, only serves institutions like universities or the military that are intent on covering up criminal behavior.
Some feminists have attacked me for this position, but the numbers bear me out: thirty years ago, 30 percent of reported rapes in the U.S. and the United Kingdom resulted in prosecutions; today, after three decades of confidential sex-crime reporting, the number is 12 percent in the U.S. and 6 percent in the U.K.
This is largely because confidentiality in sex-crime reporting prevents the media from shining a light on the crime, inhibits institutional memory of repeated assailants, and prevents scrutiny of whether a court, college, or police precinct is doing better or worse at handling such cases. As a result, serious crimes can be swept under the rug ― at Yale and at every other private U.S. university I have ever visited (public universities are less free to conceal crime data) ― in the guise of “protecting the victims.”
Yale alumnae are reportedly now contacting these 16 students with their own stories of sexual assault and harassment, spanning two decades. But if they had come forward publicly years ago, it is likely that Yale could not have continued for so long to protect the sex criminals in its midst.
The students are right: a sexually abusive environment does make it harder for students to study and learn. But victims ― whether current students or alumnae ― would be well advised to take a deep breath, come forward, and tell their stories out loud. Only then would Yale and other institutions be forced to reckon publicly with a problem that has persisted for generations.
By Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is “Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.” ― Ed.