Photo by Charlotte Cooper

President Obama has become “acutely” conscious of the “limits of his power,” reports the New York Times, obviously sharing the president’s sense of pathos. Modern-day expectations for government have become so unmoored from common sense that a federal bureaucracy of nearly 3 million employees, erupting daily in mandates and directives, can be portrayed with a straight face as inadequate to the presidency. Leave aside Obamacare and the unilateral Dream Act. In the last few weeks alone, the White House has alerted the nation’s schools that disciplining black students at higher rates than whites will put them at risk of a federal lawsuit and has created a new federal task force to “protect [college] students from sexual assault.” Both initiatives are based on fictions—that black students are no more fractious in the classroom than whites and Asians (despite a homicide rate among black-male teens ten times that of other ethnic groups of the same age combined), and that female college students are experiencing a rape epidemic of unprecedented proportions. Delusional or not, these directives will increase litigation, bloat already gigantic public and private bureaucracies even more, wrench schools and colleges further from their educational mission, and harden the patently counterfactual ideology of victimization.

Typical of all such churnings of the advocacy-government complex, the school-discipline and sexual-assault initiatives are drearily familiar, representing longstanding bureaucratic obsessions. But Obama’s announcement of his overstuffed sexual-assault task force for once did contain something new and noteworthy: a brief invocation of the chivalric ideal. Before examining that break from tradition, it’s worth reviewing the boilerplate that preceded it.

The materials accompanying the new sexual-assault task force recycle the usual feminist claims about campus rape: an “estimated 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted at college,” proclaims a White House press release. Such an assault rate would represent a crime wave unprecedented in civilized history. By comparison, the 2012 rape rate in New Orleans and its immediately surrounding parishes was .0234 percent; the rate for all violent crimes in New Orleans in 2012 was .48 percent. According to the White House Council on Women and Girls, “survivors” of this alleged campus sexual-assault epidemic “often” experience a life of depression, chronic pain, diabetes, anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And yet, the crazed push on the part of mothers (and fathers) to get their daughters into this maelstrom of predation begins earlier and earlier each year. Parents in Manhattan pay tutors $200 an hour to prep their tots for the elite nursery school admissions tests, all with an eye to college. These are many of the same baby-boomer parents who refuse to vaccinate their children or feed them genetically modified foods based on wholly speculative risks. If the college experience were in fact the tsunami of violence that the feminists proclaim, leading to widespread emotional dysfunction—a dysfunction nowhere in evidence among increasingly dominant female college graduates—there would have been a stampede to create single-sex schools where girls could study in safety. Instead, college applications from girls rise each year, and the chance of admission at selective campuses drops further under the press of eager petitioners. At Yale alone, the target of an Obama administration Title IX probe into alleged indifference to rampant sexual assault, applications rose from 13,000 in 1996 to 27,000 in 2011. Somehow, word about Yale’s “unsafe” environment for girls is not getting out. Imagine, by contrast, that one in five college girls would merely have their iPhones stolen at knifepoint at some point during her college career. A wave of preventive strategies would have emerged, but nothing comparable has arisen in response to the alleged rape crisis.

And that’s because the one-in-five number is wholly deceptive, based on the strategic phrasing of questions and the exquisite parsing of definitions. In the 1986 Ms. survey that sparked the campus-rape industry, 73 percent of respondents whom the study characterized as rape victims said that they hadn’t been raped when asked the question directly. Forty-two percent of these supposed victims had intercourse again with their alleged assailants—an inconceivable behavior in the case of actual rape.

The reality on campuses is not a rape epidemic but a culture of drunken hook-ups with zero normative checks on promiscuous behavior. And that is why Obama’s call for chivalry is so interesting. “We’ve got to keep teaching young men in particular to show women the respect they deserve,” the president said during the task force unveiling. He called on men to “summon the bravery to stand up” against sexual violence. ‘‘I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women,’’ he added.

To which one can only respond: Hear, hear! A return to an ethic where manhood consisted of treating women with special courtesy would be a victory for civilization, not just for college co-eds. The chivalric ideal recognizes two ineluctable truths: men and women are different, and the sexual battlefield is tilted in favor of males. On average, males are less emotionally affected by casual sex; if given the opportunity for a series of one-off sexual encounters with no further consequences, they will tend to seize it and never look back. Females on average will never be able to match them at this game, despite the prominence of such sexual dumb shows as Miley Cyrus’s twerking display. The less that a culture signals that men have a special duty toward the fairer sex, the more likely it is that the allegedly no-strings-attached couplings that have replaced courtship will produce doubts, anguish, and recriminations on the part of the female partner and unrestrained boorishness on the part of the male.

Ironically, campus feminists have themselves revived selective portions of an older sexual code: they embrace the Victorian conceit of delicate female vulnerability while leaving out the sexual modesty that once accompanied it. A student magazine at Columbia recently published what it believed to be a searing exposé of Columbia’s inadequate response to campus rape. Instead, the story and attached comments revealed the surreal world of campus sex today—in which fainting feminists risk hyperventilation, nausea, and panic attacks by merely reading or hearing about alleged sexual misbehavior, and a massive legalistic bureaucracy for mediating sexual disputes has replaced prudence and discretion. That bureaucracy panders to student activists and yet can never satisfy them; the reporter and her “survivor” subjects saw only patriarchal oppression in Columbia’s minimal due-process protections and viewed any outcome other than a guilty verdict as a miscarriage of justice. One alleged victim griped that the Title IX investigator who wrote down her charges used abbreviations. The resulting account, she said, “didn’t come out coherently. It didn’t sound like a strong case.” A guess: it wasn’t. To the alleged victim and reporter, however, the abbreviated transcription “kept her from having ownership over the retelling of her history with emotional and sexual violence,” phraseology straight out of Women’s Studies 101.

Here’s a suggestion: Actually be “strong women together.” You don’t have to appeal to a phalanx of “Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct” coordinators to protect yourself; you can do that on your own. Is there a frat house whose members you think prey on women? Boycott it. You don’t have to attend their parties. Is a particular male a “serial rapist,” in your view? Out him on social media. Instead, several commenters to the Columbia magazine story refused to disclose to their friends that a member of their social circle had “raped” them because they feared their friends’ skepticism—a hint that the peer group may possess more common sense about allocating responsibility for sexual encounters gone awry than its individual members.

The most radical assertion of female empowerment would be to embrace the message: If you don’t want to be “raped,” don’t drink yourself blotto and get into bed with a guy. Keep your clothes on and go home to your own bed at night.

Obama’s fleeting wisdom about male chivalry will surely be a straw in the wind. His own bureaucracy and its campus counterparts across the country are indifferent to any behavioral change that would diminish their power and supposed relevance. Like Obama’s all-too-infrequent mentions of paternal responsibility, his invocation of a male ethic of protection conflicts with the notion that the federal government can and should regulate intimate behavior as a substitute for personal responsibility. And in a culture that relentlessly celebrates unconditional sexual availability, it’s going to take more than a presidential mention to persuade males not to take advantage of female sexual liberation.


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