Fighting rape culture at Yale makes women unworthy to be Navy SEALs, apparently

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Today someone brought Heather Mac Donald’s article Sisterhood and the SEALs: How can women join special forces when they can’t even handle frat-boy pranks? to my attention. Do forgive me if I’m misinterpreting something, but as far as I can tell, Mac Donald’s argument is that the feminist response to the sexist and rapey behavior of Yale frats (“No means yes, yes means anal,” etc.) deems women unfit to serve in the special forces. To boil that down further, Mac Donald seems to suggest that fighting rape culture at Yale proves that women are too, well, “hysterical,” to become Navy SEALs.

Mac Donald’s piece is a response to Anna Holmes’ column in the Washington Post arguing that the ban on women in the special forces be overturned. Anna Holmes’ discussed the realities of overturning such a ban. There are legitimate issues to consider, including both the stigma and taboo against the idea of women serving (and possibly coming home in body bags) and the fact that male and female bodies have differences that affect physical performance. She does not, however, mention the Yale controversy. In fact, it’s difficult, even after reading Mac Donald’s piece, to see the two issues as related.

Mac Donald clearly does not agree with or approve of the federal civil rights complaint filed this March by 16 Yale students and recent alumni arguing that the rape culture at Yale (as demonstrated by recent events) constitutes a violation of Title IX. But her attempt to use this example to demonstrate how women are not worthy of becoming Navy SEALs is just ridiculous. She reasons that members of the special forces must have mental stamina, aka the “fortitude to withstand threats, verbal and physical abuse.” Apparently, the feminist reaction to rape culture at Yale proves that women are unable to do so. Mac Donald writes: “Anna Holmes claims that women are fully capable of the self-abnegating warrior ethos, willing to bear up stoically under crushing physical and mental adversity. The Yale fiasco suggests otherwise.”

If I’m following Mac Donald’s logic to its end, it would seem to suggest that if women want to serve, they should shut up and suffer through direct woman-hating, rape-encouraging demonstrations in order to prove they have the “mental fortitude” to withstand the sort of verbal and physical abuse that occurs in the military? That’s just all kinds of wrong.

As Mac Donald divulges midway through the article, she is a graduate of Yale and clearly has personal issues with what’s going on there. Her love for her alma matter comes through, and though it is sortof sweet, it presents a clear bias through which she interprets this issue.

I graduated from the college in 1978. If ever there were a trace of sexism there, it should have been in that first decade of coeducation, before the rise of an increasingly feminist-dominated bureaucracy and professoriate. Not once, however, did I receive anything other than full encouragement from my teachers and the other adults in authority. Since then, the college has added a seemingly endless number of administrative offices, faculty and student organizations, working groups, and academic programs explicitly dedicated to the advancement of women and so-called women’s issues. The idea that Yale could have become less female-welcoming than in the 1970s is preposterous.

In more than one way, Mac Donald misses the point. The offenses of the Yale frats are offensive because they promote and support rape culture. Rape culture exists as strong today as it did in the 1970s, regardless of how far women have advanced professionally. The two are not one in the same.  And Mac Donald’s personal experience at Yale, however charming, is completely irrelevant to the matter at hand.

Mac Donald clearly sees the fight against rape culture at Yale as an overreaction, which is certainly a valid opinion. However, the snarky and patronizing way she describes this so-called overreaction is outright insulting to feminism, feminists, and anyone who has ever been personally hurt by rape or rape culture. Here is a sample of the language she uses (emphasis added):

Not only has the rise of women to positions of power and control in American society not dented feminist irrationality, it seems to have exacerbated that irrationality.

But according to the Yale 16 and their supporters, female students simply cannot take full advantage of the peerless collection of early twentieth-century German periodicals at Sterling Library, say, or the DNA sequencing labs on Science Hill, because a few frat boys acted tastelessly. Thus the need to go crying to the feds to protect you from the big, bad Yale patriarchy. Time to bring on the smelling salts and the society doctors peddling cures for vapors and neurasthenia.

But the basic principle of feminist domination is: “If we use crude, sexualized language, it’s ‘strong women celebrating their strong bodies.’ When a hapless man uses such language, it’s ‘crippling assault and harassment.’”

One might also legitimately object to the frat chants as unchivalrous and disrespectful of female modesty—in another universe. For feminists, however, the moribund concept of female modesty is just another sexist oppression designed to keep women down—except when we want to take offense and claim to be wounded by being treated as the sexual objects that we present ourselves as.

If Yale really were the “hostile learning environment” that the complainants allege, girls would be shunning the college for the numerous alternatives available to them. Instead, alumni mothers who have been through the alleged gauntlet of Yale sexism inexplicably pull every string they can to get their daughters into a place that, according to the complainants, will prevent them from getting a full education.

The Yale legal action is a stunning example of the fevered unreality of modern feminism, desperate to assert victimhood, thin-skinned to the point of hysteria.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but this type of language (“hysteria,” “irrationality,” “fevered unreality”) is northing more than the old-fashioned anti-feminism of someone who thinks that women should not only be banned from serving in the military, but should accept the “boys will be boys” answer to rape culture and sexual aggression.

Call me crazy, but I believe that fighting rape culture on college campuses is a good thing. I also believe it has absolutely no bearing on the discussion of whether women should serve in the special forces. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the high rates of sexual assault that occur in the military, not to mention how cases are handled and the healthcare (including abortions) withheld from servicewomen who are raped by fellow service members in active duty. But using the fight against rape culture on a college campus to demonstrate women’s lack of “mental fortitude” to serve in the military is illogical and highly offensive, especially to the dedicated and sacrificing servicewomen we honored yesterday on Memorial Day.


  1. I think you’re missing the point of MacDonald’s article. It is not to suggest that women are incapable of serving in the armed forces; it is to say that protecting women from upsetting words–on a college campus, no less–does them no favors. It is to point out that the Yale administration, in a perhaps well-intentioned effort, has actually served to undermine the notion of equality of the sexes by carving out an exception to their policy of free expression–the implication being that women are too weak to respond on their own to childish chants. This patronizing attitude couldn’t be further from the truth, and that’s why I think punishing DKE sends the wrong message. MacDonald makes this point more from a conservative perspective, but as a liberal who believes in true equality, I’ve come to the same conclusion.


    1. That’s definitely an interesting and valid take on the Yale situation, and I appreciate your sharing it here.

      However, I feel like the highly offensive tone of Mac Donald’s article really hijacked that point, if in fact, that was the point she was trying to make. I don’t think readers should have to “read between the lines” of writing that is offensive and patronizing in order to find the author’s “true point.” It should be obvious – that’s what good writing is about, and writing just to be inflammatory is not productive (as my response may demonstrate). It would be much more productive if she had laid out the issue the way you just did in your comment instead of “feminist-baiting” with the charged language I identified.

      In response to the argument you shared, I think you make some very valid points but I still don’t totally agree. While some see this as “protecting women from bad offensive language,” I don’t think that’s how everyone sees it. I see it as making college campuses a place where everyone feels safe and is able to feel that their autonomy and individual rights are respected. Allowing pro-rape speech to occur does not make campuses feel safe for women, or anyone who is affected by rape and sexual assault. The truth is that it’s much more common than most people realize, and when pro-rape language like that occurs, it is triggering for many. Simply put, it makes people feel unsafe, which can be interpreted as a violation of Title IX; feeling safe is an integral part of taking advantage of the educational opportunities offered by a college. For those who have been directly affected by rape, pro-rape demonstrations like that could have a very serious effect on one’s quality of life and academic performance at school.


  2. I think your criticism focuses too intently on the language of the original piece — which, for all its vitriol, is (regrettably) rather cliched — and not enough on the ludicrous connection between the two stories she discusses.

    It seems obvious, as you point out, that Mac Donald’s acerbic language betrays the reality that she has a bone to pick with certain elements of the feminist “movement.” I don’t actually think this is terribly noteworthy; allowing your passions to color your language — and erode your argument — is a relatively common mistake. It’s amateurish writing, but critizing the movement as thin-skinned is certainly allowable. I do not agree that this necessarily supports rape culture, nor that a one-size-fits-all “you’re either with us or against us” attitude is particularly helpful. You can be a feminist and argue that rape jokes are protected by the first amendment. I am certain of it. Those jokes might not make you sound very smart, but neither does arguing that they should be banned.

    (To that end, I agree with Kyle’s free speech argument on principle, but don’t really find that it has any practical role in campus administration. Yale really has no choice but to punish the “offenders,” and even if they did, punishing them would still probably be the correct thing to do.)

    The really unforgivable transgression in Mac Donald’s article is the wild connection she draws between the two stories. To actually deconstruct her argument would be to afford it more respect than it deserves; it’s no more sensible than connecting the so-called Yale 16 to the drop in housing prices, or to the tornadoes in Joplin. To argue that the existence of sensitive women should preclude all women from becoming SEALS is to argue that the existence of sensitive men should preclude all men from becoming SEALS. It’s absurd, and little more than an embarrassingly transparent straw man argument designed to dissuade women from supporting groups like the Yale 16. This is her true editorial crime: taking her right to make the argument she wants and mortally bungling it via immovable personal prejudice and completely nonsensical logic.


    1. “Yale really has no choice but to punish the “offenders,” and even if they did, punishing them would still probably be the correct thing to do.”

      I would argue the exact opposite position. Yale has no choice but to allow this type of expression. The reason is, they have made an unequivocal commitment to permit free expression on their campus. It is part of their Undergraduate Regulations, which courts have interpreted as an implied, legally-enforceable contract.

      Here’s an excerpt: “Above all, every member of the university has an obligation to permit free expression in the university. No member has a right to prevent such expression. Every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.”

      How, then, does Yale have no choice but to punish the offenders?


      1. That’s an admirable document, and I’m glad it was brought to our attention. It certainly reads in favor of your point. To be clear, I was not arguing that punishing the offenders was the only ethical or moral conclusion that Yale could reach, or even the only legal one.

        I think it’s the only practical one; we’re not really living in an age of unequivocal commitments, and the university’s apparent readiness to disregard said “obligations” is, to me, evidence that, while manifestos are all well and good, they must in most cases wilt under the overwhelming force of Western media scrutiny.

        It’d be wonderfully independent and rebellious of Yale to stand up in support of barefaced rape jokes, or race jokes, or what have you. It’d be a terrible business decision, though, one so entirely misguided that I cannot even seriously consider the notion that they might entertain the possibility. Universities are founded on different principles than they are run on. This may not be an enjoyable truth, but it is the truth nonetheless.


        1. Allow me to make an historical reference, one that I think shows the danger of when universities put “business” interests over independence and adherence to principles.

          College students who received federal loans under the National Defense Education Act of 1958 were required to sign a loyalty oath. This being the era of McCarthyism, the oath was essentially a pledge that students were not members of communist organizations. Recognizing the affront that this represented to freedom of conscience, a number of colleges and universities (Yale included) withdrew from the program. By 1962, Congress had amended the NDEA to remove the loyalty oath requirement.

          This is but one example of how universities asserted their independence from prevailing political winds, despite fierce public pressure to do otherwise. Would it have been a good business decision for universities to tell their students to just sign the oath? Probably. But looking back a half-century later, with the paranoia of anti-communism faded, who would argue that we’re not better off?

          Now, I’m not trying to equate McCarthyism and the current focus on campus sexual harassment and assault. What I’m saying is, it’s dangerous when business interests, for an institution of higher education, trump time-tested principles. What’s worse, to my mind, is when they’re applauded for doing so.


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