A talk by author and former philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers, who discussed her views on feminism, sparked student protest and dialogue throughout campus.
Sommers spoke Thursday night, giving a talk titled “What’s Right (and Badly Wrong) with Feminism” at the invitation of the Georgetown University College Republicans. Members of campus groups such as H*yas for Choice and Sexual Assault Peer Educators protested before and during the event, citing her prior statements regarding sexual assault.
In May 2014, Sommers wrote an article in TIME in which she described rape culture as “a panic where paranoia, censorship and false accusations flourish.” Sommers also wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post in January 2012, which claimed that the Center for Disease Control’s 2010 study on sexual violence in America “overstates the problem.”
Student protesters posted trigger warnings around the Healy Hall classroom in which the speech took place, alerting students that Sommers’ speech would contain potentially anti-feminist dialogue that may be traumatizing to survivors of sexual assault. Protesters also stood at the back of the room, but they remained silent during the speech.
Additionally, student groups Take Back the Night and SAPE set up a “safe space” in Maguire Hall, with the goal of supporting survivors emotionally triggered by the event. SAPE members provided information about sexual assault resources in the room.
Sommers began her speech by defining her ideology of “freedom feminism,” which rejects the notion that females receive unequal treatment in society.
“I rejected the idea that American women are an oppressed class,” Sommers said. “I describe feminism as a great American success story that women are flourishing in so many ways, and it’s no longer possible to say who’s better off because it’s a complicated mix.”
According to Sommers, freedom feminism is influenced by traditional versions of feminism in that it also rejects conformity to gender roles.
“Freedom feminism draws aspects of both the egalitarian and maternal tradition of feminism. It shares with the egalitarians an aversion to rigid gender roles,” Sommers said. “If I had to reduce its message to a single sentence, it would be that in pursuit of happiness, men and women tend to choose somewhat different paths.”
In addition, Sommers said that since the main differences between the sexes are biological rather than societal, members of both sexes have free will in determining their futures.
“We should credit one another with free agency. … There is no need to socially engineer a society,” Sommers said.
Sommers also said that contemporary feminism propagates incorrect and misinformed statistics.
“There’s a lot of bad things that happen to men that aren’t talked about. It happens to be the case that in universities, there is a lot of exaggeration. In women’s studies textbooks, they tend to exaggerate women’s vulnerability and understate the problems of men,” Sommers said.
In reference to the trigger warnings posted in response to her speech, Sommers criticized the censorship against potentially controversial speakers on college campuses.
“On campus, you see cries for censorship for speakers. The most extreme thing I saw was a feminist leadership conference in London and they had a trigger warning that you should not clap because that was causing anxiety and that you should instead use jazz hands,” Sommers said.
H*yas for Choice member Michaela Lewis (COL ’18) stood outside the event while holding a sign that read “This event may be triggering.”
Lewis said that she was standing in solidarity with sexual assault survivors, whom she accused Sommers of trivializing.
“We’re here tonight to silently protest. [Sommers] has, in the past, made statements trivializing survivors of sexual assault and saying that survivors are not legitimate. We are here in solidarity with survivors,” Lewis said.
Students standing at the back of the room held signs that read “Feminists Against Rape Apology,” “We respect your opinion, but we wholeheartedly disagree with you” and “Survivors, I support you.”
Adrianna Zinn (NHS ’15), who volunteered in the safe space in Maguire Hall, said that it was important for the community to stand in solidarity with survivors.
“I decided to be in the safe space because I didn’t feel comfortable going to the event and not being triggered, which is why trigger warnings are important,” Zinn said. “We’ve had people coming in and out all night showing solidarity and processing things and it’s been really helpful for people.”
GU College Republicans President Amber Athey (COL ’16) said that she did not feel it was necessary to provide a trigger warning for the event, as it was not originally intended to cover the issue of sexual assault.
“I don’t believe GUCR had an obligation to provide a trigger warning for the event,” Athey said. “GUCR believes that survivors of sexual assault are responsible enough and more qualified than we are to decide whether or not they can attend an event. Furthermore, the talk was not supposed to cover sexual assault until the topic was raised by some students.”
Students who attended the event had mixed responses.
GU College Republicans board member Paul Spezia (SFS ’17) said that he enjoyed the dialogue that Sommers’ speech prompted.
“I’m glad everyone came out to have the discussion. I was a little worried that we weren’t going to have a diversity of opinions and it was nice to see that,” Spezia said. “I thought it was a different view and a discussion that I think needs to be had.”
College Republicans member Erica Tillotson (COL ’18) agreed with Spezia and said that she was pleased that the speech brought a different perspective to feminism.
“I thought it was a very thought-provoking dialogue and it’s very necessary for us to have it and for both parties to speak as well as listen to the other side to make progress on the issue,” Tillotsom said.
SAPE member Queen Adesuyi (COL ’16) criticized Sommers’ comments that males are repressed and not succeeding in school environments. According to Adesuyi, Sommers neglected the factor of race in her discussion.
“It was an extremely problematic talk. She was racist, ableist and her [statistics] on boys being suspended is extremely racialized,” Adesuyi said. “Her insensitivity to race was absolutely ridiculous.”
Students also took issue with Sommers’ use of language throughout the speech. Stephanie Estevez (COL ’16) said that Sommers’ usage of the term “Asperger-y” was ableist.
“She was making fun of people with Aspegers, she was making fun of flapping and when we came up to her to tell her she was being ableist, she basically said ‘Whatever, it doesn’t affect me so I don’t care,’” Estevez said.
Correction: An earlier version of the article said that Tillotson was pleased with Sommers’ different perspective of feminism and sexual assault. Tillotson’s quote is in reference to only Sommers’ views on feminism, not on sexual assault.