I appreciate Ms. Claire Boeke’s sincere concern over the issues expressed in her letter. However, she makes many serious claims about Richard Winter’s lecture on Thursday, Oct. 22, which are false and misrepresent the spirit of the presentation. Because her claims are so egregious, I will address many of them in some detail. But, before I do this, it is important for the readers of this paper to know that there were faculty members in the audience, both male and female, along with the dean of the college who did not hear all the things that Ms. Boeke alleges. Further, before Winter came to campus, he spoke with the head of counseling, at her request, just to make sure that his message was not in conflict with the value of respecting all persons regardless of sexual identity and orientation.
- Ms. Boeke claimed that the speaker was not knowledgeable. Richard Winter, M.D., has been a psychiatrist and psychotherapist for over 40 years and is currently the director of a counseling program in a graduate school. He has dedicated his life to helping people who have been hurt, including rape victims. If Ms. Boeke dismisses these qualifications, then isn’t she ignoring the evidence?
Winter spoke compassionately about rape, depression, bullying, attempted suicide and suicide, and quoted from several recent cases involving rape, rapes by fraternity members (who were not punished by their colleges except by “expulsion after graduation”), sexual assault and the rape culture that is so common in many colleges. He referred to the recent case of Yale fraternity pledges chanting, “No means yes; yes means anal,” and the case of the rape of a high school student where a date-rape drug rendered a female unconscious (after which she was lugged from party to party while “students watched and did nothing”). He spoke about the troubling instances of special exceptions for college athletes that are too common today, and mentioned one case where “thankfully there was a conviction.” He also spoke of the recent University of Virginia case where “students who admitted sexual assault were not expelled and nobody had been expelled for rape for years.”
Winter spoke about all that is at stake for everyone involved. He provided the distressing statistics that indicate how few rapes are reported and how few are prosecuted. However, he did not claim that everyone who is accused of rape is necessarily guilty. Some might have found his claim, “Two lives are at stake, the profoundly traumatized who has been sexually assaulted or raped, and it’s a traumatic thing on the other side to be falsely accused of rape,” troubling, but accusation is not identical with guilt. This results in the sometimes-difficult situation of determining precisely what happened. He indicated, however, that often we are not doing a very good job at making this determination.
Winter carefully defined rape culture as “a culture in which the victim tends to be blamed, where rape is trivialized by passing around videos and laughing about them, where police and college administration are often apathetic and involved in a cover up and where there is a lack of prosecution and a conviction of rape.”
- Ms. Boeke claimed that Winter did not present a clear thesis and that his conclusions were not supported by the evidence. I, along with many of the faculty members I have been able to talk with, did not find it difficult to ascertain Winter’s thesis. There is a deeply distressing rape culture around the world, where the sexual assault of women is often institutionalized in many religious, cultural and political realities. He did not rule out that these profoundly oppressive structures might also be related to colonial powers and systematic exploitation. In the United States, especially on college campuses, rape culture is often promoted, maintained and perpetuated through the prevailing trends of porn culture, unrestrained sexual freedom, raunch culture and a hookup culture. He never even suggested that there is a clear and quantifiable link between these realities or that these are the only factors in play. As Aristotle observed, not all questions can be answered by appeal to quantifiable factors.
“…it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject matter admits; it is evidentially foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs” (Nic. Ethics, I.3, 1094, 24-30).
Did Winter provide evidence for his thesis? The point of Aristotle’s claim is that establishing a direct causal chain, as is done in the sciences, does not exhaust all possible justificatory procedures. We rarely try to establish a direct causal chain in most of the judgments we make in ordinary life for which we think we have adequate evidence. You know that you exist and that you ought to treat every person fairly, but you do not know these things by means of quantifiable proofs.
My point here is merely to establish the rational plausibility of Winter’s categories of explanation for the rape culture on some college campuses. The categories Winter raised as possible influences promoting our rape culture (absolute sexual freedom, hookup culture, porn culture and raunch culture) are all categories in the current academic literature discussed by feminists and non-feminists alike. Some agree with such categories and some do not; Google “rape culture” and any of the above terms to see for yourself. Further, I strongly encourage anyone who really cares about how human lives can be destroyed in our rape culture (as opposed to mere ideological posturing) to read the account of a young woman living in the rape culture of one contemporary college. The anonymous author of “My Rape Convinced Me that College Hookup Culture is Really Messed Up” refers to most of the categories Winter suggested. It is not a pretty picture, and it contradicts much of what Ms. Boeke is promoting. (In this article, Ms. Boeke might find a plausible answer to her question, “How does sexual freedom promote rape culture?”)
Here are some of that author’s words:
“So what do I mean when I say the college sex scene was fertile ground for my rape to take place? I saw disturbing trends that I found to be conducive to unhealthy views of sexuality, especially for women.”
“Yes, I was raped that night. But when it comes to me owning my sexuality, that had been worn away slowly for years. I believe it made me all the more vulnerable to that rape. I am still dealing with the sense of violation I experienced that night. But also very powerful and damaging was the campus hookup culture that conditioned me to embrace unhealthy sexual views—that men deserve sex, no doesn’t always mean no and real life should resemble porn.”
Ms. Boeke might not agree with Winter’s analysis, but from this it does not logically follow that Winter is irrational or without plausible lines of justification. Again, some faculty members who were present found Winter’s argument insightful and even compelling. As written by one faculty member who wrote to me,
“I just wanted to reiterate how much I appreciated his talk, and I wanted to thank you for inviting an insightful scholar who presented fact-based evidence and got the attendees thinking about the larger issues. I believe what he had to say was helpful to the Luther community, and that Richard truly has the best interest of our society in mind. Thanks again, and I encourage you to continue inviting scholars who will challenge our community to think about the important ethical issues.”
- Ms. Boeke alleges that Winter promoted classic and dangerous stereotypes, including violent and misogynistic Muslims (the word “radical,” used by Winter in his lecture, was conveniently omitted), warring African countries and their casualties, and the restrictive dress code and importance of virginity in India. I am well aware that in this politically correct atmosphere, many are quick to minimize and even dismiss substantiated facts by simply appealing to the label of stereotyping. But is Ms. Boeke really claiming that widespread sexual abuse and rape of women is not an institutionalized and often accepted reality in these places? If so, I think the empirical evidence is clearly against her. However, I think Winter’s case could have been made stronger by also pointing out other religious (including some so-called Christian traditions) and secular traditions, institutions and cultural structures that have incorporated a systematic subjugation and abuse of women. How easy it is to have one’s heart broken by all the commonly accepted ways women have been exploited and abused.
- Ms. Boeke argued that Winter’spresentation was not inviting to all students. Do you really think that the dean of the college would quietly sit by in attendance and let some of our students be marginalized and ostracized? Winter did put up a chart that was titled “Sexual Freedom.” On it he listed every possible sexual variation that is presently being practiced and in various circles is completely acceptable. He was merely describing what we find. At no point did he ever make any kind of moral judgment or draw any moral equivalency about any of the sexual possibilities. Insofar as we are all sexual creatures, he was simply pointing out that we live in a culture in which almost everything sexually goes. It was up to each person in attendance to evaluate if this is true and what, if any, are the implications.
- Ms. Boeke said that speakers like Winterare dangerous to our community, and she admonishes the Center of Ethics and Public Life to realize that the speakers it brings have the potential to do harm to the community. The point is well-taken, but she should likewise realize that a glaring misrepresentation of speakers and views with which she disagrees also has the potential to harm our community. The Center of Ethics and Public Life at Luther has, since its inception, invited a wide range of speakers who represent intellectually respectable views from across the spectrum. It has never been the policy of the Center to eliminate free speech by acting as the thought police and imposing an ideological fitness test to see if the speaker is presenting views on which all agree. It is probably literally impossible to find a speaker with whom every single person in the college agrees. Incidentally, I have never rejected a request to bring a speaker to Luther because I held views different from those of the speaker. As director of the Center, my position requires trusting the wisdom and dedication of my fellow faculty members and believing that I still have much to learn from those who have different views. A popular view in universities is that the highest objective of a liberal arts education is not to be offended. In this view, college is about having all of one’s unchallenged views reinforced whenever possible; only take classes that reiterate what you already believe; dismiss teachers and books that contradict your opinions, etc. It is my view, and the view of most faculty and administrators at Luther College, that this is an incredibly impoverished “education.” It is closer to indoctrination. The other view is that a liberal arts education is about living the examined life. It is about being confronted and challenged with a wide variety of ideas so that students and faculty alike can engage in life-transforming dialogue in a respectful, nurturing and non-coercive manner, always trying as best we can to be open to the possibility that we could be wrong. Winter came to Luther doing just that. Have we?
Finally, in the spirit of this letter, I offer an invitation to any students, staff and faculty who would like to continue this discussion. Will we reach a consensus? Probably not. But what we will do is at the very heart of the legacy of this institution; we will grow in understanding the stories and reasons of our fellow colleagues. I can think of few issues that are as important and that so profoundly affect all our lives.