In July, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos met with a handful of groups that believe rape is often a lie to hear their opinions about collegiate sexual assault. Liberals tarred these groups “men’s rights activists.” But one of them didn’t quite fit that profile. This one, FACE — Families Advocating for Campus Equality — largely comprises moms whose sons have been accused of sexual assault in college.
In our Trumpian age of political hand-to-hand combat (metaphorical and literal), moms don’t take their accused sons back home and lick their wounds. They organize. They fight publicly. “This is a witch hunt, no different than the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism,”a FACE organizer says in a raspy voice when she calls me from a state far away. “A fear has been sold to the country, that every man is a potential rapist. This is now an American truth, just the way the Communists infiltrating and taking over our country was a truth of McCarthyism. For our American boys today, it’s guilty before innocent.”
I interviewed FACE’s moms for my book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus. I found that they’re anything but what you’d expect. These women are good storytellers, and they’re self-confident. They’re mostly 50 to 60, suburban, well-off. This fight has deep personal meaning, coming as it does at an uncertain time in their own lives. Not only are they processing their sons’ sexual humiliation and, in some cases, long-term depression, but many of them are also caring for sick, aging parents and having daily fights to secure good home aides or elder-care facilities.
These troubles surprise them after lives of relative mastery, including formative years during the era when the sexually empowered college woman suddenly became the new normal. “We went to college in the 1970s during ‘Make love, not war,’ and ‘I should be able to have sex and not be thought of as a slut,’” one mom tells me. “We come from a time, our generation, where we just wanted a seat at the table and an opportunity to soar.”
Now they think of themselves as the unlucky ones in their communities. In 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, students at nonprofit four-year universities across the country reported a total of 6,314 forcible sex offenses to school authorities — that’s out of under 6 million male students. This is triple the number of sex offenses reported in the early 2000s, but it’s still vanishingly small.
Assuming a one-to-one ratio of reported offenses to male students, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and came up with 1 in 871 men reported for assault on campus. Since we know some guys will be reported for more than one offense, it’s fair to spitball something like one in a thousand will be accused. That’s the same probability of a man getting breast cancer.
When I met the FACE moms, we talked for five hours straight about men and rape, about their sons. Most of them don’t want to reveal their real names, and definitely not their son’s names. In an evocative piece of language, they call the practice of anonymity “shielding their sons.” When we spoke, the sadness, frustration, and anger at being unheard for so long was palpable. Like true victims, which they may or may not be, they became breathless while relating their side of these stories and often began to cry. “Everybody in my family is male — brothers, sons, a great husband,” one told me. “They handle this differently than I do.”
When an assault is reported to a university, there’s often an explosion of violence, anger, and lawyers in a short period, and then the losing parties put Kenmore fridges and mountain bikes up for sale and move on to the next phase of their lives. But not everyone can let emotions go after a decision about culpability is made. Many of the FACE moms’ sons are deeply traumatized by the experience of being thrown out of school: victimized girls call themselves “survivors” these days, and these boys call themselves “survivors of false accusation." “Being accused is very debasing — if someone [says] you’re a sexual predator, it doesn’t get much worse than that,” says a recent graduate, a lonely, fiercely intelligent fellow with black eyebrows. “I almost would rather someone said I embezzled money or I was a drunk driver who killed someone. As a man, I have a deeply ingrained instinct that I want to protect women, not hurt them. This strikes right at the heart of my identity.”
I thought that these moms would want to talk about what they’d done wrong as parents to have raised sons who might be villains, or at least knaves. But is there a mother alive who would not take her son’s side? Instead, they want to talk about what is wrong with girls. Some said that women were outright lying, that ex-girlfriends, mentally disturbed young women, gold diggers were wielding these charges as weapons.
The feminine psyche is complex and, according to the FACE counter narrative, women often emotionally manipulate men to get what they want: The girls are in control, even when they’re out of control. One of the moms talks about how women know how to get guys at a bar to buy them drinks if they’re low on cash. She talks about the way adolescent girls can reel in boys in middle school with flirty talk before most boys are ready for anything sexual.
Pop culture, too, is arrayed against their sons in particular and young men in general, they say. They see Taylor Swift shifting from a romantic teenager pining for her Romeo to a knife-wielding girl-squad chieftain and Katy Perry no longer shooting whipped cream from her breasts like a fun California girl but singing about f—k-boys who pretend to be Tarzan when she’s the real Jane — all the stuff that orthodox feminists look down on and smear as “pop feminism” but that has clearly created significant changes in the outlook of college girls — and they are anything but amused. These pop idols appear to them as Kali-like destroyers of the male ego, and the men around them are cast as simpering fools. Look at the popular sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond or Modern Family or The Simpsons, where the husbands are always bumbling stupid idiots and the wives are sharp, witty women, explain these moms. We’re dumbing down the image of man. We’re telling society that men are secondary and irrelevant. It’s a whole mental shift, and college girls don’t even necessarily realize it. It's brainwashing.
I enjoyed meeting these moms, even though I definitely picked up some talk of the type I don’t hear in my left-leaning urban circles. I bit my tongue through discussion about the evil of giving health care to illegal immigrants and the condemnation of the Southern Poverty Law Center — “They’re not Southern, and they’re not poor.” They wanted equality in college, had perhaps successful careers, produced families; they are smart, savvy women who don’t suffer fools.
I can’t say that my friends shared my perception. “This ‘Hell, I’ve been triggered too,’ and bootstrap sh-t about girls getting privileges instead of boys is deeply conservative,” a friend of mine who is a radical feminist told me, when I explained FACE’s point of view. “These moms will never say, ‘My boys should learn to become sensitive to girls’ needs,’ because that’s simply not in their worldview. They make fun of liberal snowflakes and yet their whole worldview is ‘my poor precious snowflake son.’ ” I tried to explain that their hurt struck me as genuine. “You’re holding up their trauma because you see their ruin as a tragedy, whereas the violation of woman isn’t a tragedy, because bodies don’t belong to women, since sex is what we’re made for,” she spat back. There may then have been a mention of my “internalized misogyny.”
So perhaps they’re not feminists. “I experimented, sure,” a mom from the West Coast tells me later. “I even woke up in college one morning next to two guys!” Her face darkens. “And now I’m bringing up my son in the most repressive atmosphere imaginable.”
This is an excerpt from Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Content on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis. Copyright (c) 2017 by Nessie Corp. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.