Walter Lewin investigated for sexual harassment via EdX

I’m sure a lot of you have heard about this by now, but just check out the comments on the Tech article. I don’t really know what to say other than that what I said last week about my disappointment in the MIT community holds true to these anonymous commenters, as well. Also: even among people I have talked to there seems to be some unease with the decision to remove all his videos – what do you all think?

Update: Check out (what appears to be) Lewin’s Twitter to see stuff like this:Lewin

Also some of my favorite comments about women and feminism on the Tech comments:

4: “He’s 78 years old. Ever heard of the grandpa who says some inappropriate words at the dinner table? For all we know, he called her “honey,” or did some other behavior that used to be OK but no longer isn’t.”

10:  “To some hypersensitive Millenials, him saying “honey,” “you’re beautiful” etc. would be offensive.”

13: “A barrier to the achievement of young women is the low mental level offered by american feminism. Very few women speak of the beauty of science and the pleasure of its pursuit. How can an adolescent girl blossom in that desert?” [Something about the words “adolescent girl blossom” feel creepily like the vocabulary used to describe menstruation and virginity and teen girl sexuality]

22: “It is also interesting that you seem intolerant of criticism of a modern political philosophy that’s developed in the last 20-30 years (american feminism) and that surveys show 80 of the country disagrees with [1]. That seems extraordinarily naive and a little bigoted and close-minded, almost fascist.” [Now supporting feminism is fascist –  News to me!]

32: “Unfortunate that the good professor offended online a few fainting flowers of femininity. No doubt my previous sentence, if I were affiliated with MIT (other than being an alum), would also violate MIT policy. … And Amy, please don’t go into STEM. You’ll hate it and you won’t be doing us any favors. Or if you do go into STEM, start an all-woman company. We’ll all be happier and more productive that way.” [This isn’t in any way related to why women don’t feel comfortable in STEM fields]

40: “#38 wrote: ” …as one of the students who helped to rewrite the sexual harassment policy in recent years …” Oh, so you’re to blame! :-)”

45: “Maybe it’s a good idea if … the “harrased” womango to go public and tell everyone why they now miss the lectures and material, because someone is sad about the professor’s so called behaviour.” [Ohh how I love putting quotes around “harassed.” It doesn’t sound like victim blaming at all.]

66: “I am so glad I graduated from MIT years before this ninny political correctness reigned its ugly head.”

I’ve resorted to snarkiness because I’m so unhappy with some of these responses that I don’t know what else to say.

The UVA Rolling Stone article disaster

If you have been on the internet in the last couple weeks, you’ve surely heard about this article in Rolling Stone magazine, and the apology letter that followed (and was edited). As numerous people have pointed out, this sort of situation is bad for everyone involved. It invalidates the victim, it lends credence to the “false accusations of rape are common” crowd, it casts a bad light on journalism, and it leaves the reader unsure of what happened. As there always is when this sort of things happens, there are currently two issues at hand – journalistic integrity and the accuracy of Jackie’s account – and they’re being conflated in pretty much every account. Why is this a problem? I would argue that the only reason that Rolling Stone‘s article is being called into question is because they wrote on a difficult and sensitive topic with sympathy for the victim.

There are articles in newspapers and magazines daily that report on crimes without ever making an attempt to contact the accused. As one article (whose link I can’t find anymore) pointed out, if the’s a robbery, no one assumes the robbery didn’t occur if a paper doesn’t contact the alleged robber. I think the issue here is that since rape is a crime committed by people known to the victim, people hold it to a higher level of scrutiny. The approach to rape cases is markedly different than to other crimes. With most crimes, there’s not doubt that a crime occurred, just a question of whether it was the accused who committed it. With rape cases, though, people take the fact that the accuser knows the perpetrator to mean that this is a he-said-she-said issue, that if the accused denies committing a crime, the crime never happened. It is not assumed that the crime was committed by another or that the crime was committed by the accused but s/he is (as most people would) denying it. How does this tie into Jackie’s case? That some facts are unclear does not necessarily mean that Jackie was not violently raped, but only that – as in any criminal case – there is conflicting testimony.

Lastly, looking back at the article I wrote last week, I would like to point out that the accusers in these articles never provide comment, maybe because they were never asked (I would expect that women who had reported their rapes would want to comment if asked by a journalist seeking to invalidate their rape claims. That may not be the case, but it is not clear in the article that they were asked at all.).

Email, isawyou, MIT Confessions, and the problem with anonymity

As a member of class council, I have received a variety of rude emails from members of our class: those signed with “dissapointedly yours,” thinly veiled statements about their discontent with this or that, accusations of favoritism, passive-aggressive posts to the class Facebook group. You can never please everyone, but sometimes people just want to complain, not actually change things. On top of these, I’ve received phone calls, text messages, emails, and face-to-face requests for special treatment – asking me to bring friends their tickets, save them a spot, let them order apparel after the deadline – as if I were not an MIT student as busy as themselves. If I were to fulfill these requests from every acquaintance who asked, it would be like having another 12 unit class!

Don’t get me wrong – I love being on class council – it’s extremely rewarding and fun. But being on council has given me a perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise seen here: MIT students don’t do well with anonymous communication. Yes, email is not strictly anonymous, but sending an email to a mailing list of people you don’t know can certainly feel anonymous. Maybe it’s unintentional; we’re busy and sometimes brief emails sound terse and rude. Yet I’m not sure that’s it. I’ve never seen these sorts of emails go out to my department or get sent to me personally. I think students have a general disregard for those they don’t directly know. (Note: I’m not claiming this is unique to MIT students, but I am surprised that some of the brightest, best educated people, who know that those they talk to are part of the MIT student body can be just as vitriolic as those on any online forum)

Don’t believe that? Check out recent isawyou posts, or MIT confessions posts. If you have a little time, read through the MITsexism tumblr. Read the sort of things that students say about each other – knowing that the other posters are members of their own community, even if they don’t know names – is rather disheartening. Since this class is focused on gender and media, looking at anonymity in the context of hateful speech (especially about women and minorities) proves really interesting. Never before online communication has there been such an easy way to remain anonymous to those around you and share your thoughts with thousands of people. And sometimes, I’m not sure that it’s for the best.

Campus sexual assault policies

Last week, I saw this article on Facebook, advocating that sexual assault policies do a disservice to those accused just as much as to the victims. The author says:

But the men suing their former schools say the rules regarding transcripts are murky and inconsistent, meaning they don’t know whether violations will be disclosed, or how, or for how long. They also say they never deserved such harsh punishments in the first place — and shouldn’t be prohibited from finding a job or going to graduate school as the result of what they see as a broken adjudication system.

While I think it’s important for schools to be clear about what punishments are, how the process works, and how it affects people permanently, I have a hard time reading this and other similar articles without cringing. Something about the way this genre of articles portrays survivors of sexual assault dismisses the very real trauma they feel regarding the incident. By sympathizing with the accused, these articles subtly place their feelings above those who have been assaulted, invalidating their portrayal of the crime. Sympathy for the accused further perpetuates rape culture and encourages light, if any, punishment for the accused.

That these articles get written, however, is a testament to the difficulty of understanding these cases for many people, as well as the challenges of implementing Title IX for universities. Our legal system treats people as innocent until proven guilty and places the burden of proof on the prosecution. But rape cases aren’t usually given any sort of justice, let alone through the US legal system. More often, they’re handled by universities, who don’t have to abide by the same standards and cannot inflict the same punishments. What these articles tend to get at is this: No one seems to understand how universities deal with sexual assault. And since this point is reasonable, it lends a sort of legitimacy to articles that tend to be written rather insensitively. Instead of focusing on the issue at the heart of the matter – the way universities handle sexual assault cases tends to be unclear to everyone involved and doesn’t give either party something that resembles justice – they write sob stories about how perpetrators’ lives were ruined by sexual assault cases with a subtext of the perceived innocence of the accused.

I guess in the end what I’m asking is this: Is it possible to write an article that discusses the problems (for both parties) in universities’ handling of sexual assault cases without dismissing the victim’s claim?

Feminist: Should the word be banned?

According to Time, a list of the most annoying words of 2014 wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of the word “feminist” – and the rest of the world (or at least the non-random poll participants) seem to agree. The magazine’s online poll asked visitors to rate the word of the year that should be banned (to accompany previous winners like “OMG” and “twerk”). Appearing alongside words like “basic” and “turnt,” “feminist” was described as follows:

feminist: You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.

Not only that, but currently feminist is winning with 45% of the votes, while the next leading answer, “bae,” only has 13%. All the other options have less than 4% each. Granted the sample is non-random, and the Internet is largely critical of feminists, but that number is large enough to give pause. I have my own thoughts about why this is the case, and I might write about them soon, but I’d first like to pose the question to the class: Why do you think people hate the word “feminist?”

Update: The answer seems to be 4Chan (Wow. What a surprise.). Even if the word wouldn’t be winning without 4Chan’s help, I think this question is still extremely relevant, as celebrities and college students alike claim they’re not feminists simply because they don’t know what it means.

The advent of the Facebook News Feed

In 2006, Facebook decided to add a News Feed to its service. Most MIT students can’t remember a time before the News Feed existed, but danah boyd (author of It’s Complicated, which we just read!) wrote an article at the time that was considered very on point. Check it out!*

Facebook says that the News Feed is here to say. This makes me sad. I understand why they want to provide it, i understand what users are tempted by it. But i also think that it is unhealthy, socially disruptive, and far worse for the users than the lurking employers ready to strike down upon thee with great vengeance for the mere presence of a red plastic cup.

I also think that it will be gamed. Given a new channel for identity performance, people will begin engaging in a new form of impression management. They already write wall posts to be seen – it will be taken to a new level. Their public displays of connection will take on new strength as they seek to make a performance out of the friending act. They will remove friendship statuses in the most dramatic fashion possible, announcing as far as possible about the evilness of the other person. Facebook News Feeds could make LJ drama look like child’s play.

It’s a pretty short – and very interesting – read that made me reflect a bit on what “normal” social media is today. It turns out that even 8 years ago, there was an rather different norm.

*Chris Peterson and Professor Schiappa who had us read this as part of CMS.400 last semester (along with a chapter of It’s Complicated), and talking about the book reminded me of this.

Halloween and cross-dressing

I meant to post this earlier (I guess it was two classes ago now that we talked about cross dressing a bit), but here is an interesting article about young boys cross-dressing on Halloween. There are lots of stories online about people’s terrible reactions to young boys wearing girls’ clothes – just check google – but I think this one particularly captures the fear that so many people seem to experience when boys dress “like girls.”

The author outlines the reasons people seem to think boys in dresses are terrifying, which are, predictably, that people assume that wearing girls’ clothes will make boys gay, are proof that they’re gay, or will get them bullied. In absence of any of these reasons, the only logical conclusion is that being a girl is simply worse than being a boy. Regardless of which terrible reason we consder, these sorts of conclusions are harmful to children, and help further reinforce the “girls like pink and dolls, boys like blue and trucks” stereotypes pushed in advertising, the media, and culture at large.

Practically speaking, there is no reason that children’s clothes need to be gendered at all. Although one could make a reasonable argument that women’s and men’s clothes requiring different darting and tailoring to fit, this argument breaks down when we consider children’s clothes. Ostensibly, all gendering children’s clothes does is further prove to them that boys and girls are different, and that occupying a space in between or otherwise outside these specific roles is bad.

Sexual Assault at MIT

President Reif released the results of the task force on sexual assault at MIT a few minutes ago. In case you don’t want to read the whole thing (or even the summary), here’s the important part of the survey findings:

We received survey replies from 3,844 – or 35% – of our students. Because the survey was not a random sample and was voluntary, and the topic of unwanted sexual behaviors is focused, we know the results reflect a degree of self-selection. Since it is impossible to tell how this may have altered the results, it would be a mistake to use these numbers to generalize about the prevalence of unwanted sexual behavior in the lives of all MIT students.

Nevertheless, the survey clearly tells us that, like many other colleges and universities, we face a serious problem:

  • The national conversation has focused on the widely cited statistic that 19% of undergraduate women, or one in five, experience rape or sexual assault under conditions of force, threat or incapacitation [1]. At MIT, for those female undergraduates who responded to the survey, the comparable figure is nearly 17%.
  • Our survey asked questions designed to capture not only sexual assault by force, threat of harm, or incapacitation due to alcohol or drugs, but also to uncover a broader picture of unwanted sexual behavior in our community. Of all the students who responded to the survey — graduate and undergraduate, of all genders — 539 indicated that, while at MIT, they had experienced some type of unwanted sexual behavior, ranging from unwelcome verbal sexual conduct to rape, usually committed by someone they knew. Of those 539 respondents, 284 were undergraduate women.
  • Based on the survey responses, unwanted sexual behavior often occurs when students are in vulnerable states. Of all the students who indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior while at MIT, close to half said that they had been taken advantage of when they were incapacitated.

“No FCKHing Way”

I think this article does a really good job articulating what I found wrong with FCKH8’s video about feminism, and I think the author’s updates really add to the original piece:

Sadly, despite what major corporations and indie brands alike would have us believe, empowerment can neither be bottled nor sold. Commodification of feminism is not empowerment, and FCKH8 is not empowering girls or women through this video. Instead, they’re using girls as a means to a commercial end: to raise awareness of sexism to sell their t-shirts.