What is consent? It’s not a simple question, but in the wake of the #MeToo movement it dominates the public conversation about how men and women should treat each other. Into this conversation comes Donna Freitas, a writer whose previous books include young-adult fiction as well as nonfiction studies of the campus hookup culture. She calls “Consent” a “memoir of unwanted attention,” but it is more than that. Ms. Freitas admits that she is using her own experience “as a case study of sorts,” since “conversations about harassment, assault, and consent have become one of the central aspects of my professional identity.”
Indeed, they have. A self-described feminist, Ms. Freitas has criticized administrators for doing too little to prevent sexual assault on campus. She has condemned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for rescinding Obama-era guidelines for campus assault investigations, guidelines that had effectively denied the accused due process. By contrast, Ms. Freitas approves of former Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, the “Mattress Girl” who claimed she had been raped by a fellow student and lugged a mattress around campus as a form of protest art. (Columbia eventually cleared the male student of wrongdoing and settled a lawsuit he had filed.) Such is the context for the broader resonance Ms. Freitas hopes her story will have.
The story itself is fairly straightforward: While pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies, Ms. Freitas finds a wonderful mentor in one of her professors. He encourages her intellectual curiosity during the conversations she has with him in his office. Soon they are going out for meals together and sharing personal details. Then things take a turn. The professor begins calling her at home, stopping by unannounced and pressuring her to spend more time with him. He sends her dozens of letters and tries to insinuate himself into her parents’ lives. Ms. Freitas indulges his behavior because she understandably fears repercussions for her academic career if she balks, but she is bothered by the shift in their relations.
By Donna Freitas
(Little, Brown, 328 pages, $28)
“My life split in two,” she says. In one life, she felt “utter sexual empowerment” with the men she was dating; and she was “studying feminist theory, eating it up and loving every second of it.” Her other life, by contrast, was one of “fear, uncertainty, of self-condemnation,” prompted by her professor’s attentions. She came to wonder if his behavior was a kind of karmic retribution: “What is the punishment for a young woman with sexual and intellectual confidence? Doesn’t she know that the world sees this as hubris?” Later she concludes that the professor “was the man God sent, that the world sent, that the patriarchy sent to take the giddy light that burned inside of me and snuff it out.”
As it happens, the professor who stalked her was a Catholic priest. With one exception—when he awkwardly kissed Ms. Freitas goodbye on the cheek after she drove him home—his behavior was never overtly sexual, although it was certainly inappropriate. Raised a Catholic, she was hesitant to accuse a priest of bad conduct. “To question this professor’s intentions toward me was to question the priesthood itself.” Her unease was warranted, but she felt she could tell no one about it.
As an attempt to wrestle with such feelings, “Consent” is an affecting memoir. Ms. Freitas is a fluid writer, if prone to hyperbole. She calls the professor a pollutant, a monster, a “putrid, stinking chemical.” Upon receiving one of his letters, she writes, “my dread ballooned outward to encompass the entire apartment, oozing through the screens of my open windows and poisoning the humid summer air.” Excess aside, Ms. Freitas does convey the intensity of her ordeal.
But as a case study for broader claims, “Consent” is less persuasive. Ms. Freitas spends a lot of time indicting a system that she thinks failed her. But by her own account, as soon as she did tell others about what she was going through (a trusted male friend and a male professor), they offered their unconditional support and helped her report what had happened. The administrator in charge of her complaint is clearly more interested in protecting the institution than in defending Ms. Freitas’s rights, but Ms. Freitas acknowledges that she was a reluctant witness at best.
More troublingly, Ms. Freitas conflates her experience with the experience of victims of sexual assault. “The abuse I suffered was mental, it was emotional, it was not physical,” she says, only to claim in the next sentence that, even so, “to me it was also physical, the way he began to encroach on all the spaces surrounding my body.” She likens her decision to accept a small financial settlement from the university to physical mutilation: “I cut out my tongue in the university’s office of human resources and offered it to the woman whose job it was to take it.” She describes human-resources personnel as butchers who “disfigure” victims and fill “file cabinets full of the bloody tongues of women.” Given the real physical violence that so many women have suffered, such comparisons feel shockingly tone deaf.
Ms. Freitas also blames her stalker for her lack of professional success. All she wanted was “to be a college professor”; that she isn’t one, she says, is “on him.” Yet she landed a tenure-track job after completing her Ph.D. Her anxiety over her graduate-school experience, coupled with grief over her mother’s death, made it impossible for her to fulfill her new obligations, however. The “tenured men in my department,” she writes, “used my absence at graduation, among other events, as marks against me.” She is vague about the details, but clearly her performance was not considered adequate. She concludes that women in her situation “are unable to be a part of our chosen profession because of abusive men”—adding that, “once again, in the context of a university, I had no agency.”
Agency and responsibility are crucial aspects of any discussion of sexual relations. It’s a shame that Ms. Freitas didn’t explore them with the care and nuance they deserve. No one should have to go through what she did as a student, but the conclusions she draws from her experience do little to advance the conversation we should be having about consent.
Ms. Rosen is senior writer at Commentary magazine.
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