What are we consenting to when we consent to sex?

Hi Joel:

I’m sharing this post, which I recently posted on my personal blog, here. It’s a tough one, fed by recent conversations with my own students (who have agreed to have their ideas shared here) in a Sociology of Sex class.

Readers should be warned that this addresses sexual violence and reproductive coercion.


By now you may have seen news coverage of stealthing, the practice of man removing  or damaging his condom without the consent of their partner during intercourse. Yale Law professor Alexandra Brodsky wrote about the phenomenon in the most recent Columbia Journal of Gender and Law (The full text is available for free here.), and CNN, CBS, and Huffington Post have been running stories on it.

Much of the conversation is about how to categorize this kind of activity so that we can better care for those who have been victims of it. One of Brodsky’s informants call is “rape-adjacent.” When the victim who believes that the condom is being used to prevent pregnancy, the act is one of reproductive abuse–sabotaging birth control.

Is it also rape?

(If you can’t wait to the end to find out my answer, it is: Yes.)

The FBI’s definition of rape, new since July 2103, is:

“Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

That’s much clearer than the old definition (“carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will”), because it recognizes that people of all genders can be victimized and names specific acts. But the idea of consent–central to sexual assault prevention trainings on college campuses right now–remains unclear.  It must be verbal and “enthusiastic,” which means that it’s got to be explicit: Yes, I want to have sex. But, though we now have a law in California mandating enthusiastic consent prior to sex and enthusiastic consent is the go-to concept in teaching rape prevention on campuses, many people still don’t really understand it, and we do a lousy job of teaching it. It’s easy to get dismiss the conversation about consent by saying “Just don’t rape!” and while most people have no obligation to explain how not to rape to a potential sexual assailant, some of us (parents of teens and young adults, social workers and educators who work with teens and young adults) probably do.


Above, a display of condoms.

Having taught, at this point, about 750 students in Sociology of Sex, I can say that many students are asking great questions about what consent means. Here are some of them:

Do you have to ask for and receive consent for every part of every sex act? (“May I nibble your left ear lobe? And the right?” If not for every act, which acts? And how do you ask without sounding “like a pervert or physician?”)

We have to have consent before contact between sex organs and any part of another person’s body, but what are “sex organs”? Penises and vaginas are obvious, and the law is explicit about anal contact. We’d probably easily put rear ends and probably but not as obviously women’s breasts in there, but what about men’s nipples? These narrow definitions seem to ignore the biggest sex organ of all (skin!). Sexual pleasure isn’t limited to sex organs (Yes, I’m linking to Cosmo, but readers can fill in the blanks however they like.), and we might be losing something when we keep the focus on penetration of/by “sex organs.”

How far from those consented-for acts can you stray without having to ask for consent anew? (“If she consents to a finger, can I use a thumb? Do I need to ask her again? Is a finger close enough to a thumb not to matter? But a toe–that would be too far off, even though it’s still technically a ‘digit’?” “If I ask if we can kiss, how specific do I need to be on details? And what if I don’t know what I want until we start?”)

Are other kinds of reproductive abuse also inherently acts of sexual violence? Lying about having an IUD or other form of long-acting birth control or deliberately misusing your or destroying your partner’s oral contraceptive are forms of reproductive abuse. Because they are non-consensual, are they also forms of sexual violence? (Answer: Yes.) If a cis man ejaculates into the vagina of a cis woman who claims to be using oral contraceptives but isn’t, he’s now having sex with a body (one without contraceptives in it) that he didn’t consent to have sex with, risking consequences he didn’t agree to risk. Is that sexual assault? If it’s not criminal, is there a civil case to be made?

What rights do we have to know accurate information about the bodies we have sex with?

We lie all the time in the pursuit of sex–about our height, our weight, our income, our sexual histories, our real hair color, the length and girth of our penises. Some of us lie about our HIV status, with legal punishments for lies or nondisclosure that vary widely and are often used to punish men of color in particular. If a woman consents to sex with a man who says he’s the real life inspiration for Christian Grey or the secret love child of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed or Idris Elba’s body double and it turns out he’s not, is that rape since the penis involved is not the one the person it is attached to said it was? After all, she consented to a far more prestigious penis than the one she got. If those examples seem far fetched, what about a man who claims to be single but is really married? If I wouldn’t consent to sex with a married man, but I might to a man who is single, if a married man lies to me about this marital status, is a penetrative act now rape because I didn’t consent to sex with a married man? Or what if I consented to sex with a with a man I understand to be white (as I am) but find that he’s biracial? If he lies about his ethnicity or religion?

What deceptions constitute “rape by deception”?

And finally, what are the implications for trans people here? If a trans man presents as traditionally masculine or a trans woman as traditionally feminine, do they have to out themselves as trans prior to a sex act? Here I’m thinking specifically of the ways that trans panic has been invoked as a defense of violence against trans people. (In the “classic” version, a cis man consents to sex with a person he believes is a cis woman. When, during intercourse, he finds that she has a penis, he responds to what he sees as a breach of trust with violence, including murder.) A common thread in this defense is that the cis man “felt like he was being raped”–not because he was having sex against his will but because he didn’t consent to sex with a trans person’s body. “Trans panic” defenses have been successfully used in many cases in which a trans person–particularly trans women–have been killed. They are based on the idea that someone was lying about their body–and that lie somehow produced enough fear to warrant homicide.

In short, if we argue that all penetrative acts must be “consensual,” what information do we have to disclose to be consented to? “My penis has a funky curve in it” doesn’t seem to be a big deal. “My penis isn’t going to wear a condom” is. But how do we figure this all out?

And how do we teach this so that people can enjoy honest, great sex?


So, is stealthing rape? Yes. Like other forms of rape, it is about power and control, rooted in misogyny (whether it is aimed at women or at men who have sex with men).

NC State Legislator/Pastor Urges Straight People to Ask, “WWJWB Do?”


I was fortunate to spend some time last week at the Lincoln Cottage, the summer home of President Lincoln during the Civil War. This “Home for Brave Ideas” sits on the grounds of the Washington D.C.’s Armed Forces Retirement Home (formerly known as the Old Soldiers Home), one of two federal retirement homes for those who put in twenty or more years of service to the US military as well as for veterans unable to work due to injuries incurred in the line of duty. I was fortunate to enjoy lunch in the Lincoln family’s dining room with Civil Rights activist Dorie Ladner and scholars and representatives from Georgetown University, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Cato Institute, who had gathered to think together about how Lincoln’s legacy is playing out at this moment, particularly in regards to an uptick in hateful political behavior.

Our discussion quickly turned to the comments that North Carolina Republican state representative Larry Pittman had made about Lincoln just the day before: that he was “the same sort [of] tyrant as Hitler.”

Why, nearly 150 years after his death, is some stupid Southern state legislator echoing the words of Lincoln’s assassin? This might seem like a silly thing. After all, the elections of 1860 and 1864 are quite far behind us, and there has been no new revelation that suggests that Lincoln’s victories in them are invalid. Pittman’s comments, just two days before the anniversary of Lincoln’s murder (and two days before the anniversary of the death of Pittman’s own son by suicide by gun), though, are part of a much longer (let’s just date it to 1828) history that continues to harm vulnerable people under the claim of “sic semper tyrannis.”

Pittman’s language is the language of the Redemption—the effort to undo Reconstruction and fortify white supremacy—and speaks to his voters (He won with 60% of the vote in 2014 and 58% of it in 2016.), who continue to read Reconstruction as tyranny. Sure, they grift the federal government, but they hate federal interference in what they see as the rightful hierarchy of people. This is why they hated the Voting Rights Act and opposed racial integration, no matter what the harm it did to whites; the spirit of their work is spiteful.  They can dress these arguments up in claims of liberty, but it’s the Klan, not the Founding Fathers, that’s their real model.


Above, Pittman’s official NC Legislature photo. Never one afraid to be stereotyped, he wears, in addition to his lapel pin from the State house, a pin that is small crown of thorns with fetal feet in the center of the crown (representing Christian opposition to abortion), a pin representing the tablets on which the 10 Commandments were inscribed (representing the political effort to mandate the presence of religion in public spaces), and a pin joining the US and Israeli flags, likely a gift from a Christian Zionist organization. His tie is festooned with images of the first flight, which occurred at Kitty Hawk, NC. 

Pittman’s comments were about his support of a state law that would ban same-sex marriage in the state, despite a Supreme Court decision that recognized the legality of marriages between same-sex couples nationwide. He’s also fought hard against both state and federal gun control laws, including those that would prevent guns from being carried in bars, and, in 2013, attempted, with the support of other NC lawmakers, to establish a state religion, again in defiance of the federal government (and the actual Constitution). All of these efforts are justified by Pittman’s reverence for state sovereignty (of course—this was the issue back in 1828 and 1864, too).

We could dismiss Pittman, a minister in a conservative Presbyterian church (Are you really surprised?), as a delusional loser, one of the Confederacy’s many Hiroo Onodas—except that he’s a winner, repeatedly, in local elections (if not in the promotion of legislation). Maybe North Carolinians will one day get tired of voting for a man who wastes so much of their time on bills that are DOA, or maybe they really do like his echoes of John Wilkes Booth’s murderous words against a president.  Given the neo-Confederate League of the South’s recent call for whites to arm themselves in a “Southern Defense Force” (content alert: this link takes you to a white supremacy website). I wouldn’t be surprised if such comments garnered him more votes.

Who is a Wall for?


You ask why Donald Trump should expect Mexico to pay for his stupid expensive, environmentally dangerous, economy-thrashing, community-disrupting, land-grabbing wall. Like, not just how would Mexico pay for it, but why in the world should Mexico pay for it.

The obvious answer has to do with Sigmund Freud and Donald Trump’s very fragile ego.

But I wonder if there isn’t something else too:

When a crime is committed, we expect the perpetrator to be punished and to make restitution. They owe us what they took from us: the cost of the broken window, the value of the shoplifted lip gloss. Sometimes–as with murder–we can’t be repaid, and so some argue for the death penalty: an exchange of life for life, though we know that this is a symptom of a sick society, not a remedy for it.

A US-Mexico wall isn’t about preventing Mexicans from entering the US illegally. (And, anyway, why should Mexico pay to prevent those from Honduras or El Salvador from entering the US? What does that have to do with them?) Undocumented border crossing has been falling for a long time, without a wall or the threat of it.

A US-Mexico wall is about punishing Mexico. For what? For the “influx” (also, “swarm,” “horde,” “flood,” “epidemic,” “rash”–these metaphors are not new) of Mexican immigrants who have “taken jobs” from Americans. Sure, it makes zero sense to blame Mexico for our love of cheap migrant labor or foreign made goods, our adoration of the super-wealthy who shape the economy so that profits go so disproportionately to people whose main objective is to make more for themselves and their stockholders by allowing workers to have less, and our acquiescence to the global chase for lower-wage workers. But if you are a temporarily embarrassed millionaire, you see yourself as closer to Donald Trump than to a migrant worker, and if you aren’t rich, it’s not because of the destruction of labor unions or the end of wealth-expanding domestic policies but because undocumented immigrants are robbing you at gunpoint, saying, “Ese gringo, gimmee your job.” Americans are accustomed to growth, growth, growth, and the stagnation and decline of the last thirty-five years causes us to lash out. Mexicans are easy targets.

A US-Mexico wall is also about establishing US dominance. In general, when citizens feel that their nation is in control of immigration, they are less likely to support harsh immigration policies. When they feel that the immigration situation is out of control, they push for harsh policies, even when they are self-destructive. This isn’t about fact but about feelings–which is good for Donald Trump, who lives in a fact-free universe but is very good at tapping into the fearful feelings of his supporters.

The fact that our policy makers rely on fear, not facts, is worrisome but, again, not particularly new.

Image result for berlin wall

Above, workers building the Berlin Wall, which separated Soviet-controlled East Berlin from the western part of the city, which was under the jurisdiction of the US, Britain, and France. US presidents have generally condemned the use of walls as a way to keep people inside their home nations because such physical barriers are odious to notions of freedom. 

You gave the example of a fence you might want to build around your home. You have no grounds to ask your neighbors to pay for it because it’s your fence. You want it, so you pay for it.

That argument makes sense if you are a person who takes responsibility for his life. That is not Donald Trump. Donald Trump is deeply irresponsible–which is why he is always trying to dodge creditors, short-change employees, and play golf when he should be working.

Donald Trump sees Mexico like a neighbor with a nuisance dog; he wants his yard to be free from the holes the dog digs and the messes it makes, but he thinks that the neighbor should do something about it. That’s pretty reasonable, I think–when we are talking about dogs.

But despite the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration, we are talking about people, and they, unlike dogs, are free to move about.

Here is the problem with the wall that should frighten Trump supporters: He thinks that a country should be able to build a wall to prevent its people from leaving. In fact, he thinks that country should be required to do so if the neighbors complain. (Or maybe just if the neighbors are the US or if the people being locked in are brown skinned.)

I have a US passport, which means that the US government isn’t stopping me from going almost anywhere in the world. We have historically derided those who refuse to allow their people free movement–from East Berlin to North Korea. Yet those who believe in FEMA-camp conspiracy theories are okay with the idea that a country should be able to literally lock its people in?

Locking people out is one thing–stupid, inefficient, economically short-sighted, fear-monger, wasteful… Locking them in is quite another. It’s the way of dictators. 

We’ve Been on the Verge of “the Trump Era” since 1848


“Be forewarned. This is a new era. This is the Trump era.”

Those were the words from Jeff Sessions’ recent speech to the border patrol–beyond the dehumanizing language, the fear-mongering, the disregard for facts, the insult to history–that scared me. They were meant to scare lots of us–everyone who doesn’t fit into Trump’s narrow definition of the people he is supposed to be serving (though it’s clear that he doesn’t understand that the president serves, not rules).

Like so many of the words uttered by this administration, Sessions’ warning was also a call to arms. Though his approval rating is at record-settingly low for a modern president, Trump has fans who have been yearning to hear these words.

For others of us, the shock of the election has worn off, but we’re still in some other stage of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression–and have to figure out what will have to accept. It’s not the legitimacy of a Trump Presidency. Whether concerns about Russian interference are merited, we know that voter suppression and an electoral system that weights rural whites disproportionately were the real winners. But we have to accept that more than sixty million of our fellow Americans–most white people, most men, most wealthier people–voted for a person that most voters voted against. Not all sixty million of them were enthusiastic about voting for Trump, but many of them were excited about his racism, xenophobia and nativism, and Islamaphobia. Consistent with findings from the primaries, those more enthusiastic about Trump are more racist by all kinds of measures.


Above, Jeff Sessions, the lawyer for the American people, except for the 69 percent of people in the US who aren’t white men. He’s been waiting since 1848 to kick all the Mexicans out of the country. 

Many conservatives missed this, in part because they wanted to. In his essay in the New York Times historian recently, Rick Perlstein offers some reflections on how he, among many scholars of conservatism, failed to predict Trump. In “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong,” he concludes:

Future historians won’t find all that much of a foundation for Trumpism in [the intellectual heroes of conservatism]. They’ll need instead to study conservative history’s political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage.

To which many of us (and I’m guessing about 100% of scholars of color) responded with a collective eye roll.

Because if you think you understood the American right as distinct from white supremacy and structural racism, no, you didn’t understand the American right, and I’m not really sure you were trying very hard.

For all the accusations liberals live in “bubbles,” your bubble must have been opaque and soundproof if you have been hanging around the rightwing of this country and were unaware of the racial resentment of so many white Americans.

Because Jeff Sessions’ racism—that’s not new. It’s how a man of so few good ideas got this far. If you did not hear it, that’s because you were not listening to Coretta Scott King. And if you were not listening to Coretta Scott King, you are probably not listening to a lot of black people and a lot of women, and so you are never going to hear the information that you need to hear to understand the racism and misogyny that drives the American right. (This does not mean that liberals or progressives are free from racism. Just that it’s not their entire reason for existence, which is the case with so many conservatives; the word itself indicates a desire for the way things “used to be,” which is to say: racist, sexist, homophobic.)

Which is how we get here—depositing adults brought to the US as children, before what a Baptist might call the “age of accountability,” over the border without a proper process for insuring that their rights are protected.

It’s easier to not hear people when you’ve moved them out of the country, but don’t let that make you feel secure if you’re not part of a “deportable” population. A system that won’t let a Dreamer retrieve his papers to prove that he belongs here isn’t going to let you—women, people of color, non-Christians, poor people—speak either.

War, but Why?


Remember how, in 9th grade, you learned about the causes of World War I, and none of them really made sense? Sure, someone shot Duke Ferdinand, but how that led to machine guns, trench foot, and an entire generation of dead French men really didn’t add up. We can, to a degree, understand the horror of it, better than we can understand the why.  Even without any living WWI veterans in the US–Frank Buckles, of Bethany, Missouri, was the last American veteran to die, back in 2011, at age 110–we can get a sense of the both the horror and the futility of 17 million deaths and the lives of PTSD and other suffering that lived on past the end of the war.

It’s a pointlessness that Hemingway captured in one of my favorite passages of literature, from the 1925 short story “Soldier’s Home.” We’ve heard of the horrors that young Harold Krebs has seen in war, but he’s not shared the details with his parents, with whom he lives in their little Oklahoma town upon his return. Still, his mother insists that she understands: “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are…. I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.” In response, Hemingway writes, “Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

That futility of war–It’s what I see in the Trump administration’s warmongering in Korea and China right now. I can imagine the horror–the suffering that would mostly fall to some of the people most suffering in the world already, North Koreans–but the why of it makes no sense. Three months ago, we were in a pretty stable place with Korea. Now, we’re mischaracterizing Sino-Korean history, miscommunicating our military intentions, and squandering our international credibility. And why? So Mike Pence can give a manly squint toward Kim Jong-un? This is a dictator who probably cruelly poisoned his half-brother and has executed more than 300 people since coming to power.  Mike Pence’s flinty glare isn’t going to intimidate him.

Donald Trump has no respect for human life,  has never been at the mercy of others’ decisions about his own life or death or even his mild discomfort, and takes no responsibility for other people (This is how you end up with 5 children from 3 wives.). Grand, inherited wealth provides that kind of protection. I think it’s quite possible that his brain genuinely does not comprehend danger–not out of bravery but out of a total disconnection from reality.  We know that teen drivers are dangerous, for example, because their brains really can’t understand the permanence of death. I wonder if Trump’s unearned wealth means he never had to develop the part of his brain that comprehends death or suffering, too.  He doesn’t read, of course, so he couldn’t have learned it from Stephen Ambrose or Ernest Hemingway or Wilfred Owens or Tim O’Brien or David Finkle or Rory McCarthy. He thinks war journalists are “the enemy of the people,” and God knows he’s not going to pick up a book by someone writing from an Iraqi and Afghan perspective.

So it’s not surprising that he didn’t attend the WWI Centennial in Kansas City, home to the federal memorial dedicated to veterans of the Great War, last month. In fact, it only makes sense that we would have nothing to do with the evidence of human suffering that it recognizes.

KS War War I Memorial

Above, the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.


If Loving Harry Styles is Wrong, I Don’t Want to be Right


You asked, kind of jokingly, if it’s okay for a grown-up man to like Harry Styles—hitting on the larger, perhaps more important question: if your love of Radiohead is about Radiohead or about gender.

I can say an enthusiastic “yes” to the first question. The second one is between you, Thom Yorke, and the sold out crowd at the Greek Theatre in Berkley last night.

You posed the question in a lighthearted way, but—I can’t seem to help myself!—it raises serious questions about gender, class, and misogyny. And you are not the only one asking this kind of question. Styles’ performance on Saturday Night Live may be a career-making one. (SNL gave Styles the same kind of love it often shows to that other former boyband star, Justin Timberlake.) His performance was excellent. The fact that we doubted that it would be is because we doubt girls—as young people but particularly as young women.

What constitutes “good taste”—which is definitely not boybands!—is defined by those with the most cultural capital, those who have not just the money but the education, leisure time, and access to difficult-to-access content. “Poor taste” isn’t just bad taste; it’s the taste of those with lower levels of cultural capital. This doesn’t align perfectly with economic class—Donald Trump eats his steaks well-done, with ketchup, proving that money can’t always buy good taste—but economic class opens up opportunities for cultural capital. Kids in poor schools don’t learn to order their food in French for a reason.

Above, $14 Tater Tots at Bar Boulud in NYC. You can order these without laughing if you’ve never had to rely on frozen potatoes as an actual source of nutrients. 

Taste protects the powerful and commits symbolic violence upon the poor. We laugh at the leisure activities of the poor—demolition derbies, MMA, tractor pulls. Sometimes the artifacts of the lower classes get “re-classified,” but it’s with a wink and the assurance that even if you drink PBR or eat tater tots, if you do it ironically, your cultural capital is preserved, like Marie Antoinette playing in the little Peasantville she had built in Versailles.

Above, the video for Randy Travis’ 1991 “Better Class of Losers.” He sings: “I’m going back to a better class of loser/ This up-town living’s really got me down/ I need friends who don’t pay their bills on home computers/ And who buy their coffee beans already ground/ You think it’s disgraceful that they drink three-dollar wine/ But a better class of loser suits me fine.” I haven’t done Bourdieu-style analysis, but I’d put Randy Travis below Dwight Yoakam, on par with Alan Jackson, and many, many degrees above Travis Tritt and Garth Brooks. 

This is the argument (minus the tater tots) of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. The French sociologist makes his argument using survey research to quantify how “taste”—both tastes for and aversions to—is taught across classes. It’s a kind of sophisticated version of a Buzzfeed quiz: Buy Some Random Shit From Etsy And We’ll Tell You Your Moral Alignment. Only instead of helping you figure out if you are  “lawful good” or “chaotic evil,” he can tell you your class.

Bourdieu focuses on class, but you raise the question of gender. Is pop music bad because it’s intrinsically bad? (I am generally on board with Bourdieu, but I think that a well-done steak with ketchup is an act of ingratitude toward God.)  Or is it bad because we associate it with girls? And what does that tell us about ourselves and how we value girls?

The short version of it is that we don’t value girls, not much at all. As a culture, we are awful to children. At best, we see them as a problem to be solved. At worst, we abuse them and deny them the legal right to be protected from that abuse.

The other part of this—the Radiohead question—is that the symbolic violence of taste doesn’t just tell us what should disgust us (things girls like) but also what we should like.

And this is where I feel rather bad for American men, who are told, depending on their class, that they should like classic rock, heavy metal, commercial country, or the obnoxiousness that is Radiohead. (Full disclosure: As an adolescent, I seemed to give off a pheromone that attracted boys into prog rock. Or maybe it wasn’t a pheromone but an intermingling of my class, gender, race, and…I don’t know. Don’t tell me as I’d prefer not to face this truth about myself. So many young hearts broken over my distaste for King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Rush!) And it tells you which automobiles are appropriate for you, which kind of beer you should drink, which kind of women you should feel attracted to, and a host of other details of life.

When Reddit (not my usual source of information) asked men what they would do if gender weren’t an issue, the answers are so sweet and sad: they would quilt and knit and sew. They would wear yoga pants and do home facials and “smell good.”  They wouldn’t have stopped teaching preschool or sitting with their legs crossed one over the other. They would be the “little spoon.” You can’t help but think: They are missing so much.

Don’t miss Harry Styles.

Hateful Campus Visitors and the Challenges of Empathy


For a good portion of most of my days, I listen to hate speech, transcribing and analyzing it. I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to this kind of work; there is a risk of harm involved, of losing faith in humanity, of becoming too familiar with the basest language, of numbing out and forgetting that these words kill people’s spirits and contribute to violence.

But there is value in listening, too. We need to know—not merely so we never forget history but also so that we don’t deny the present state of things, which, right now in particular, is pretty hateful.

So you are right—when Heather MacDonald is invited to campus, she should speak and those who can learn from her should listen. Not merely because of the First Amendment but because we can learn from even very poor thinkers—not to mimic their thinking but to understand it. And, perhaps we can sometimes even appreciate the good work that often-hateful people do, as Tablet does in its “My Favorite Anti-Semite” column. Their stories remind us that good people can do bad things—a larger reminder to be on guard against our sense of our own goodness.

As a college educator, I want to be sure that my students are critically-minded enough to listen to MacDonald, if they chose to. If I’ve done my job well, they will be skeptical of her process and reject her conclusions, not because, as Betsy DeVos says, I’ve” indoctrinated” them but because they can listen across lines of difference with compassion and still see the weaknesses in her argument. And I hope that, when they do that, they respond by, first caring for those who are being harmed by her arguments, then by building better ones.

But this issue is only peripherally about MacDonald.  It’s perhaps more about universities—students, faculty, and administrators—who bring such figures to campus. As an African American student, how do you go to class the next day and sit by peers who cheer on someone who makes racist arguments? How do you entrust your education to professors who cheer on that position? (It’s very much akin to how I feel about Donald Trump voters. He’s bad enough. The fact that 60 million + people voted for him, in large part because they are racist, is what is really upsetting. That would be disheartening if he’d won or lost. And remember, from paragraph 1, that I study hate all day long. So it’s not like I’m not prepared for people to be awful.)

How do we ask black students or international students to learn alongside those who invited Richard “peaceful ethnic cleansing” Spencer to Auburn University? (Spencer’s invitation was rescinded after the university decided it could not insure the safety of campus. A federal court has weighed in, saying that Spencer has the right to speak on campus. Spencer plans on speaking on campus tonight and has said that he is prepared for potential violence.)


A different story: Last week at Washington State University, students who were part of an anti-abortion group staked 300 pink crosses in the ground in a “Cemetery for the Unborn,” a display drawing attention to the 3000 abortion performed in the US each day, according to the WHO. Later in the day, a student passing by grew agitated by the display and began to dismantle it, and others joined in. Eventually, campus police were called to address the dispute. My gut response (as with the call to destroy Dana Schultz’s painting of Emmett Till) was a big “No, nope, nope.” The student who led the attempt to dismantle the display said his concern was for women who have had abortions who walked by it and were harmed by it. Another student who participated in vandalism of the display said, ““If I were a person that had an abortion and I saw this, I would be heartbroken.”

Their concern for their peers is real. Their empathy is admirable.

But empathy is at the heart of a lot of hateful activity, too. It’s why the content of speech would be a very bad way to decide if it deserves the protections of the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court, in Snyder v. Phelps and elsewhere, has noted. What one person hears as speakers advocating for inclusivity, respect, and kindness another will hear as an assault on religious freedom and the foundations of Western Civilization.To paraphrase the scholar Janice Radway, “listening is not eating“; we get to choose what we do with what we hear.