I’m no fan of Patrick Henry College. But I’m even less of a fan of the cultural politics of smearing. Smears are the biological weapons of cultural warfare; they poison the ground for generations.
Last week we read with interest an “expose” of the rape-friendly campus at the attention-grabbing conservative school. Rape is a terrible problem. And campus rape seems to have taken on a life of its own. But the author of this article seemed more intent on smearing Patrick Henry and conservative religious people in general than she did in exploring the real issues.
This sort of smear attack is doubly dangerous. First, smears like this convince the already convinced that their Christian enemies must be fought tooth and nail. After all, the article implies, conservative Christians support rape. What kind of monsters are they? Second, conservative Christians will easily be able to point out the unfair guilt-by-association tactics this writer resorts to. For Christians, this sort of smear simply provides more proof that Bible-loving Christians are a beleaguered minority, under unfair attack from an aggressive, hostile, secularizing liberal elite.
Let me be crystal clear: I am not defending Patrick Henry College. I am not saying that the administration and students did or did not react badly to allegations of sexual assault. I am not saying that assaults did or did not take place. I am certainly not saying that allegations of sexual assault need not be taken seriously, nor that female victims ought to blamed.
But the author of this article, Kiera Feldman, repeatedly resorts to insinuation and smear in an attempt to demonize this conservative Christian institution. The article tells the story of Claire Spear, a freshman, who was attacked by a fellow student. Feldman also describes the case of Sarah Patten, who was assaulted on campus. Feldman accuses the college administration of pooh-poohing the incidents. More powerfully, Feldman implies that the conservative Christian campus culture actually encourages male-on-female sexual assaults.
To build her case, Feldman relies on some tried-but-false McCarthyite tactics. Patrick Henry College, Feldman notes correctly, was opened in 2000, in large part to provide a congenial collegiate home for the burgeoning numbers of conservative Christian homeschooled kids. But Feldman asserts with wild inaccuracy, “Underlying homeschooling culture is the Christian patriarchy movement.” Of course, some Christian homeschoolers—even some members of the ILYBYGTH community—have had horrific experiences with this sort of quiverfull-esque homeschooling monstrosity. But to imply that homeschooling culture is dominated by this sort of attitude demonstrates woeful ignorance about the true contours of American homeschooling.
Similarly, in her attempt to tar Patrick Henry as a hotbed of rape culture, Feldman mentions Missouri Senator Todd Akin’s terrifying discussions of “legitimate rape.” As far as I can tell, Akin has absolutely no connection to Patrick Henry College, but Feldman mentions Akin’s accursed name, only to point out that Patrick Henry College “sponsored similar ideas.” This is the smear tactic at its worst. Did you know, for example, that the Communist Manifesto listed a graduated income tax as one of the ten top goals for communists? Therefore, President Wilson must clearly be a communist, since he sponsored such a tax a century ago.
Campus rape is a real problem. The most common statistic we hear is that one in five female students will experience some sort of sexual assault during their school experience. This is an issue that has justifiably attracted the attention of activists and politicians. For instance, state senators in California have introduced a bill that would mandate consent for every sexual act as the new legal standard.
But this problem is not somehow related to the Christian theology of school such as Patrick Henry. Indeed, even if we take Feldman’s numbers of assaults to be accurate—which the administration of the school vigorously denies—it seems Patrick Henry has been a remarkably safe school, compared to other colleges. Indeed, as the California legislators pointed out, complaints about assault and rape at schools such as UC-Berkeley and Occidental College far outstrip the complaints Feldman chronicles at Patrick Henry.
Indeed, it might seem more accurate to ask if Patrick Henry’s conservative culture PREVENTS sexual assault. After all, the drinking, partying lifestyle that seems to be such a big part of student life at many secular schools will find no home at Patrick Henry. As Caitlin Flanagan recently described in the pages of The Atlantic, fraternities and sororities at public and more secular schools have astonishing rates of sexual assault and injury.
Not that such things would excuse Patrick Henry’s administrators if they did downplay the seriousness of sexual assault charges. But it must give readers pause. If the Christian culture at Patrick Henry encourages sexual assault, as Feldman implies, surely we’d expect to see more cases pop up at Patrick Henry than at secular schools. That’s just not the case.