When it comes to women, men are going back to the ’50s

A few days ago, a colleague of mine tweeted that she couldn’t even use an ATM the other day without some guy stopping to critique her breasts.

At Old Dominion University this week the fellas in a frat house felt compelled to welcome incoming freshmen with these signs.

As the University of Minnesota moves to adopt its “yes means yes” policy at a glacial pace, the trial continues of a St. Paul School (New Hampshire) student, charged with rape, who described the “senior salute”, the practice of seniors “getting together” with younger students before graduation. Others use a different term — raping.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic felt no shame at all in writing that the reaction to the Old Dominion frat boys’ attitude was overblown.

“How did we reach a place where Local Frat Makes Crude Joke causes staffers at the BBC, CNN, The Washington Post and USA Today to spring into action?” he asks.

Maybe there are people there who tried to use their ATM.

“Debates like this are polarizing because a false choice is often presented: defend the transgression that is generating outrage or join in condemning the perpetrators. But there is a third way,” he writes. “It requires circumspection and a sense of proportion.”

Boys will be boys.

He quotes others to support his position. All are men. Men specialize in what it’s like to be women. Just ask them.

Adrienne LaFrance, a senior editor at The Atlantic, tries to shake some sense into her colleague.

That the dust-up at Old Dominion made international headlines may indicate the outrage cycle is ever-churning and the bawdy tastes of cable news are unflinching—but it also hints at something worthwhile: that how women feel might finally be worthy of attention, and even corrective action, on college campuses and in wider culture.

In the Boston Globe today, columnist Yvonne Abraham, watching the New Hampshire trial, concludes we’re going backward.

“Some of us hoped they would be growing up in a more enlightened world when it comes to sex — one where our daughters are more empowered, and our sons more respectful of their rights,” she writes, contending it’s still 1950.

If St. Paul’s School is any indication — and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, since the elite prep school’s graduates go on to run the world — our more open sexual culture has changed the basics very little. There, it appears, senior boys see far less powerful and more vulnerable freshman girls as marks, as sexual conquests to be tallied on an actual scoreboard. And girls can risk their social standing if they don’t play along.

It seems a very mixed up place, St. Paul’s. But let’s face it, it could be any place and any school. The business of coming of age sexually has never been more complicated than now.

If we assume the worst is true, and that Labrie’s accuser is telling the truth, her testimony has been a study in powerlessness. She was a 15-year-old freshman who didn’t want to go off with this popular senior, until one of his allies convinced her to change her mind (“You’re a [expletive] god,” a grateful Labrie told his pal, afterward). Alone with Labrie, then 18, she grew uncomfortable as the hook-up progressed. She said no more than once, but he continued, raping her, prosecutors say.

It’s not just here, of course. In the UK, a candidate for Labour leadership has proposed segregating buses by gender because of the rise in assaults.

The Telegraph’s Emma Barnett doesn’t like the idea, but not because she thinks it’s a great time to be a woman.

Women-only carriages on our transport networks would be an admission of defeat and a step backwards for the UK. Instead, we need politicians and educators to address the behaviours and attitudes that lead a minority of men to think this kind of treatment is ever permissible. Penalising women through seating segregation is the stuff of dystopian nightmare – not an egalitarian and thoughtful society, which the UK should always be.

The few voices from men in support of even a woman’s right to go to an ATM without being assaulted does not suggest we have that capability.