Thank you, Margaret Wente, for exposing rape culture

If anyone’s in need of a retrograde lecture, it’s the Dalhousie dentistry students, writes Anne Kingston
The Dalhousie University dentistry building is seen in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 12, 2015. Dentistry students returned to class but the 13 students who allegedly posted sexually explicit messages on a Facebook page will be taught separately from the rest of the class. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

This past week, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente performed a valiant public service by exposing the mechanics of rape culture—the term for systemic attitudes that diminish, dismiss, deflect and normalize sexual violence. Her column, “Advice to younger women: Practise manning up,” offered a masterclass. It conflated two current stories involving men—the trivial media-stoked scourge of “manspreading” on public transit, and the far more serious controversy arising from 13 male fourth-year dentistry students at Dalhousie University posting vile, misogynistic comments on a now-defunct “Class of DDS 2015 Gentleman” Facebook page. These exchanges included expressions of desire to “hate f–k” female classmates and to sexually assault women until they’re unconscious. The grown men celebrated the penis as “the tool used to wean and convert lesbians and virgins into useful, productive members of society,” a role they defined as “chefs, housekeepers, babysitters, etc.” Peppered throughout were references to rendering women unconscious with chloroform, and comparing it to nitrous oxide, a substance this next generation of dentists will administer professionally upon graduation in months’ time.

Wente dismisses the backlash at Dalhousie—petitions for the students’ expulsion, faculty members’ calls for an inquiry, criticism levelled against the administration for failing to take decisive action—as “dental hysteria.” Hysteria, of course, is the fossilized 19th-century term for irrational female behaviour, a label that fails to acknowledge the many men who also have called for disciplining the students.  Wente acknowledges the students’ comments were “serious” and “cannot be condoned,” then waves them off as “asinine locker room jokes,” a “boys will be boys” comparison destined to raise the spectre of such star athlete locker-room devotees as Ray Rice and Jameis Winston.

Facebook posts “are not rape,” Wente writes, which is true. Nor are they “in the same universe as rape,” she writes, which is false. Rape culture isn’t rape itself, but rather, the ecosystem that allows it to be normalized. Rendering a woman unconscious to have sex with her is a textbook definition of rape, and a sizeable group of men joking about it together suggests a thriving rape culture. Never mind that what happens on Facebook does count—which is why recent cyberbullying legislation challenges abusive behaviour online. The Facebook posts also exist on a continuum with other acts of disrespect toward female dentistry students at the university. One female Dalhousie dentistry student told the CBC that one professor showed a video featuring Sports Illustrated swimsuit models in class to “wake up” male students. The professor, whose identity has been protected, apologized.  The fallout has also put the spotlight on dentistry remaining a “boy’s club,” despite the much-touted stat that women comprise 50 per cent of students: The deans of all 10 faculties of dentistry in Canada are men; of the 18 directors of the Canadian Dental Association, one is a woman.

Yet as Wente sees it, the systemic problem to be addressed isn’t entrenched male sexism. It’s entrenched female sexism, specifically, overly sensitive young women “monsterizing” men: “We’ve turned our brave and fearless daughters into neurotic, quivering piles of jelly,” she writes, the upshot being “an entire class of highly privileged, mostly affluent young women who feel unsafe on campus, micro-aggressed at every turn, utterly unable to cope with the garden-variety misdemeanours of boys and men, who have been behaving badly since time began, despite our many efforts (most quite successful) to civilize them.” Let’s leave aside the fact that branding a generation as “neurotic, quivering piles of jelly” suggests a lack of familiarity with today’s teenage and young adult women. Or that ridiculing women for feeling unsafe on campus ignores the actual risks that exist. The fact is that this generation is not “utterly unable” to put up with vile, women-hating crap: It’s that they are utterly unwilling to do so. [tweet this]

More by Anne Kingston:
Busted: The toxic CBC environment that abetted Jian Ghomeshi
Amy Poehler’s radical message: ‘Be nice. Work hard.’
Freeze your eggs, ladies—it’s on us!

The last thing they need is to grow a pair, as Wente advises: “Practise manning up,” she writes, as if male behaviour offers up a role model in the Dalhousie mess. “Like it or not, the world beyond the cloistered halls of academia is teeming with guys who take up too much space and occasionally act like total jerks. Sooner or later, you will have to learn to deal with them. Fear not. You can.” The advice is redundant, of course: Women have put up with total jerks for centuries. The question is: Why should they have to, particularly in educational or professional settings, where zero tolerance should exist for behaviour that degrades or promotes violence against any group?


On this count, Irwin Fefergrad, CEO of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, has emerged as a rare voice of sanity, calling for the adult Dalhousie students involved to be named and made accountable.  He knows sexual assault by dentists happens. The last thing licensing boards need is future dentists who treat it like a “joke” online, the modern equivalent of the public square. But Fefergrad is an exception. If anyone is being coddled as fragile hothouse flowers, it’s the former Facebook “Gentlemen,” who were suspended from clinical practice, pending review by the faculty of dentistry’s academic standards committee a month after the posts came to light in December. When classes began this week, they were segregated. Dalhousie administration has also expressed concern that the scandal would cause them to “self-harm,” though no similar concern was raised for the targeted female students.  

Protecting those accused of abusive behaviour is a hallmark of rape culture. So is dismissal of those subject to abuse. We saw it in the hand-wringing after the 2013 conviction of two teenagers for brutally raping a young girl in Steubenville, Ohio. CNN, for one, fretted how the young men “had such promising futures, star football players, very good students,” not for a moment considering how the assaults might affect the victim’s future. In a similar vein, Wente praised the dentistry students who joked about drugging and sexually assaulting women as “decent people.” If she had a daughter in the class, she writes, the first thing she’d ask her would be: “What are these guys like in person? Are they disrespectful pigs or are they decent people? (The answer, evidently, is that they are decent people.)” What evidence she marshalled to conclude that the members of the group are anything but “disrespectful pigs” is unclear. The fact that they’re enrolled in a professional school? The fact that they knew their posts were offensive, then scrambled to cover up when they were about to be exposed? Equally unclear is why their actions in private shouldn’t be a more significant marker of character than their public personae—a lesson learned in the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. If these students were decent people, they would come forward with an abject apology. They haven’t. Which means that, if anyone needs a retrograde lecture on how to “man up,” it is they.