The women who cried 'wolf'

May 13, 1993

Women students at the University of Maryland who tacked up fliers around campus branding dozens of randomly selected male students as "potential rapists" may have gotten the attention they sought, but in the process their intended message has been seriously garbled.

Last week, the women tacked up hundreds of posters throughout the College Park campus as part of an anti-rape project. The posters bore the heading "Notice: These Men Are Potential Rapists." Underneath were names of dozens of men, in alphabetical order, drawn arbitrarily from a phone book. The women, who call themselves the Women's Coalition for Change, were students in a class called "Contemporary Issues in Feminist Art" and said the project was prompted by several sexual assaults on campus this semester.

That's not how the men whose names appeared on the posters interpreted the women's message, however. While the point of the exercise apparently was to emphasize that any woman could become a rape victim, many of the men named on the list were outraged to see themselves described as "potential rapists."

They have a point. It's one thing to suggest the male species in general is capable of brutish behavior, and quite another to make unsubstantiated allegations against specific individuals regarding such behavior. There was no evidence that any of the men named on the posters deserved such a description. Clearly, the women in this case crossed the line separating responsible protest from what smacks of an ideological witch-hunt.

The pity is that in the uproar that followed the legitimate issues raised by the women's group have been all but obscured. Sexual harassment of girls and women is in fact rampant in the nation's schools and colleges, ranging from lewd comments and written notes to attempted rape.

One recent survey found that 89 percent of girls 10 to 18 years of age had been the subject of sexual comments, gestures and looks. Eighty-three percent said they had been touched, pinched or grabbed. The reported harassment almost always involved fellow students, but 4 percent of the girls said they had been harassed by teachers, administrators or other school staff.

We empathize with the anger and frustration of college women who must contend with such harassment. But the College Park women confounded the real problems female students face with baseless charges of criminal intent. It's hard to take such demonstrators seriously after one discovers they have been crying wolf.

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