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McMaster University’s 2020 Sex-Ring Social Panic
The lengthy Quillette investigation that kept me off Substack for the last two months
Hi all. I’m back on Substack after a lengthy hiatus. The reason for my temporary departure: I’ve spent the last two months researching and writing a major Quillette investigative piece about a bizarre 2020 social panic at McMaster University in Canada. Two women claimed there was a sex ring operated by psychology professors. The university suspended five scholars (two of them female), authorized a witch hunt in the psychology department, sabotaged the reputations of numerous innocent people, ransacked offices, and found … nothing. The whole sex-ring narrative had been made up, in part by woman suffering through a mental-health crisis who’d been binge-watching a Jeffrey Epstein documentary on Netflix.
For those of you (the majority) who don’t have an hour to read what is basically a quarter of a book, I also wrote a shorter primer on the Quillette blog, which also contains my opinions about what policy lessons can be taken from this cautionary tale.
The following rundown of events at McMaster is excerpted from that latter piece:
In early 2020, “S.L.,” a female graduate student in McMaster’s department of psychology (known formally as Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, or PNB) claimed to have been repeatedly sexually assaulted in 2017 by a PNB professor named Scott Watter. Watter was suspended by the school and criminally charged.
Several months later, S.L. expanded her allegations on the basis of what she described as recovered memories. It wasn’t just S.L. who was involved, she said. Watter’s wife, whom S.L. alleged to be a groomer and voyeur, had also been in on it. S.L. also identified her own live-in girlfriend at the time, “Alice,” as being part of the plot, which supposedly involved a wide variety of cruel and sadistic sexual practices. Both Watter’s wife and Alice were also PNB scholars.
In spring 2020, another PNB grad student, “Becca,” came forward with even more horrifying sexual-abuse claims about this same supposed sex ring, while also including another PNB professor in her allegations. Becca said that the sex-ring leaders—whose identity shifted according to the vagaries of her recovered memories—used a complex regime of electronic tools to brainwash women and track their movements.
Amid the witch-hunt atmosphere that followed, seven PNB members were investigated. Five (including two women) were banned from having any contact with McMaster colleagues, students, or even alumni. Information was released that allowed the university community to know their identities. It would take almost a year for all of these people to be exonerated of sexual-violence claims. During this time, their reputations were trashed, and the PNB department was thrown into chaos.
Becca ended up recanting all of her accusations: By her own account, she’d become paranoid and untethered from reality in early 2020, due to an acute mental-health condition. (She was also in a suggestible state, having just finished binge-watching a Netflix documentary about the sex crimes of Jeffrey Epstein.) Once Becca was properly treated, her paranoid visions of a sex ring dissipated. S.L. never recanted. But her credibility was greatly diminished as a result of criminal-court proceedings in which she appeared as a witness. Watter was acquitted on all charges during these proceedings, and the judgment in his case detailed the many contradictory aspects of S.L.’s shifting claims over the previous two years. (Notwithstanding Watter’s acquittal, McMaster is still trying to terminate his employment, on the basis that he had a consensual sexual relationship with S.L. at a time when the emotionally troubled graduate student was, as Watter had reason to know, dependent on him for mental-health support.)
Despite clear signs that the sex-ring accusations were false, the McMaster administration—from the school’s newly minted Sexual Violence Prevention & Response Office (SVPRO) on up to the provost and president—did nothing to stop this inquisition from grinding ahead. In fact, the credulous, even ominous, tone of the school’s public communications did much to fuel it.
It was later learned by members of the PNB department that the head of the school’s Equity & Inclusion Office (whose jurisdiction included the SVPRO) was married to the woman managing the SVPRO in an acting capacity—a fact that McMaster’s senior administrators knew about, but had not publicly disclosed. In order to ensure that these staffing arrangements complied with conflict-of-interest rules, McMaster created a diagonal organizational-chart structure that had the SVPRO’s manager reporting to another department. The result was that the SVPRO was being run by an official who had no access to supervisory oversight within the Equity & Inclusion Office. McMaster’s whole sexual-violence complaint intake system essentially rested on one person, with few checks and balances.
The SVPRO, like the university itself, embraced a “trauma-informed” approach to processing sexual-violence complaints, by which administrators were evidently encouraged to treat contradictory and far-fetched-seeming elements of sex-assault narratives as being possible symptoms of the confusion induced by trauma.
When questioned about their role in encouraging, or at least abetting, the false accusations aimed at the PNB department, McMaster administrators explained that their sexual-violence reporting and prevention system was based entirely on a prima facie standard. This apparently meant that, insofar as any member of the McMaster community filed any complaint whose narrative elements technically matched the definition of a sexual-violence allegation, no credibility test was applied before the matter was handed over to an external investigator and an internal university Response Team.
Ultimately, McMaster’s sex-ring social panic came to an end when the assigned investigator carefully examined the sex-ring allegations and entirely rejected them.
In the aftermath, the university conducted an external review of its Equity & Inclusion Office. The report that followed is public—unlike the majority of documents on which my investigation relied—and contains a number of (politely veiled) critiques of the Equity & Inclusion Office and those who managed its operations during the period at issue. The university has also settled grievances with many of the exonerated PNB members who were caught up in the witch hunt. But in other respects, university administrators—including provost Susan Tighe and president David Farrar—remain staunchly unapologetic about their actions.
Addendum: On June 19, I did an interview about the article with John Oakley on AM640 in Toronto. Here is the recording:
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