Updated Monday, Nov. 17 at 1:44 p.m. to reflect an event’s location change.
A Janus Forum debate titled “How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” that will take place in Salomon 101 Tuesday has incited controversy among some students, prompting a community-wide email from President Christina Paxson this weekend and the creation of alternative events.
Some students have voiced opposition to the nature of the debate between visiting speakers Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy, whom Janus Forum fellows director Dana Schwartz ’15 said were chosen as representatives of conflicting viewpoints on campus sexual assault and rape culture.
Their opposition sparked the staging of two additional events — at the same time as the debate, a faculty member will present research on rape culture in the Building for Environmental Research and Teaching, and BWell Health Promotion will host a “safe space” for emotional support in Salomon.
Valenti founded Feministing.com in 2004 and has written five books, including “The Purity Myth” and “Full Frontal Feminism.” McElroy is a controversial author of several books, an editor of ifeminists.com — an abbreviated moniker for “individualist feminist” — and the author of “The Big Lie of a ‘Rape Culture,’” an article for the Future of Freedom Foundation. McElroy’s viewpoints in particular have attracted condemnation from some students.
The controversy surrounding the event rose to a heightened level of publicity in a community-wide email sent by Paxson Friday night. Paxson wrote that she disagrees with arguments made by people like McElroy that “sexual assault is the work of small numbers of predatory individuals whose behaviors are impervious to the culture and values of their communities.”
Instead, “extensive research shows that culture and values do matter,” Paxson wrote.
Schwartz, a Herald cartoonist, said she and other Janus Forum members expected some opposition. “Obviously we knew that any topic about sexual assault would be challenging to address, but we aim to be a non-partisan, non-biased organization,” she said. “We brought two speakers, who have completely different viewpoints, one of which probably has a completely different viewpoint than most of campus, but we do that with the intent to spark debate and discussion.”
Schwartz said the Janus Forum has wanted to host an event focused on women’s issues and sexual assault since students raised concerns about the University’s sexual assault policies and disciplinary procedures last spring.
Janus Forum events “always try to reflect the climate of the campus,” Schwartz said. “We don’t shape it, we just respond to it.”
In response to students’ opposition to McElroy, Schwartz said hearing and dissecting opposing opinions is essential to strengthening one’s own viewpoint. “We have to be aware that people outside of Brown have opinions that we might find highly unpalatable, and I think instead of silencing opinions, by listening and understanding how to deconstruct and debate them effectively, that’s the best thing a Brown student can do.”
Leah Pierson ’16, who served as the Janus Forum’s fellows director before going abroad this semester, suggested a similar approach. “Indisputably, many Brown students and administrators harbor some of McElroy’s problematic views, whether consciously or not,” Pierson wrote in an email to The Herald.
“In order to change the way sexual assault is handled on college campuses — and ultimately, that is Janus’ objective — we need to both understand and challenge the ideology upon which policies (are) founded,” she added. “Ignoring McElroy’s stance on sexual assault is not the way to accomplish that goal.”
But multiple students have said they feel the event devalues the experiences of sexual assault survivors on campus and goes against the University’s mission to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors.
“I know that there is often a lot of pressure when there’s something going on about sexual assault on campus. … You feel like ‘I should go to this thing because it’s something that’s relevant to my experience even though it might be triggering or there might be views presented that are really hurtful to me,’” said Katherine Byron ’15, a member of the Task Force on Sexual Assault and one of the students, along with Erin Wu MD ’17 and Brooke Lamperd GS, who discussed the alternate forum in a meeting with Frances Mantak, director of health promotion, Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president of planning and policy, Liza Cariaga-Lo, associate provost for academic development and diversity, Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services, and Undergraduate Council of Students leaders.
“For a lot of people who want to engage in this conversation but maybe aren’t comfortable with the Janus Forum framing, or people who wanted to get a different approach, this isn’t the only narrative around this topic. This isn’t the only way to engage,” Byron said. “We provided a direct alternative to the forum, which was really important to us in thinking about how we could empower people to make the decisions that are going to feel right for them.”
Other students who mobilized opposition to the Janus event and helped plan the alternatives could not be reached or declined to comment Sunday.
UCS President Maahika Srinivasan ’15, also expressed concern about the timing of the forum. “It just seems like unfortunate timing in the way that we’ve been framing discussions of sexual assault for the past couple of months,” she said. “Having this event now might seem like backtracking from the forward direction that we’ve been moving in.”
Students who may feel attacked by the viewpoints expressed at the forum or feel the speakers will dismiss their experiences can find a safe space and separate discussion held at the same time in Salomon 203. This “BWell Safe Space” will have sexual assault peer educators, women peer counselors and staff from BWell on hand to provide support.
A separate event titled “Research on Rape Culture” with Lindsay Orchowski, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, will also take place in BERT 130 during the Janus debate. The Facebook event for these alternative options was created Thursday.
Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations, wrote in an email to The Herald that both the Janus debate and Orchowski’s lecture will be taped and available for students to view later.
Schwartz and Janus Forum Director Alex Friedland ’15 expressed their disappointment in the events being held at the same time, as they both said students invested in the issues who may want to attend both events now must choose between them.
“I think it could have been really great if (Orchowski’s) event happened right before,” Friedland said. “People would have been able to hear the research and then come to our event fully informed.”
Friedland said he met with administrators about a week ago to discuss security if protests were to occur at the event but that neither concerned students nor administrators met with Janus members to coordinate the creation of the alternatives. “My sense was that ever since Ray Kelly, they’ve been nervous, and I think they’re just being cautious about anything that could devolve into a protest,” Friedland said of the administration.
“I think it’s diminishing students’ ability to hear a wide scope of information in relation to students and sexual assault,” Schwartz said.
“My personal problem with Paxson’s email is she framed our event as part of the problem, it seems, and not a step toward positive discussion,” she added.
For others, Paxson’s email used “a tone that we hadn’t really seen from her in a lot of her campus emails,” Byron said. “I think one of the things that (members of the task force) were looking for was for her to make a statement of her individual support for survivors on campus, that she is in fact trying to do what she can to show support and solidarity.”
“I think she’s in a really difficult position of trying to balance being the speaker of the University and the fact that she has her own personal beliefs around this issue as many people do,” Byron added.
The Janus Forum event will be held in Salomon 101 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the BWell Safe Space will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. in Salomon 203. Orchowski’s lecture will be held from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in BERT 130.