Rape and Drinking, Part 1

There’s a lot of horrible to unpack in Emily Yoffe’s essay on rape drinking, so I’m going to do it in bits and pieces. The first thing I’d like to address is this bizarre notion that some sort of conspiracy of silence is is keeping the truth about alcohol from women, who wander through college campuses with all the alert savvy of bunny rabbits.

But that’s simply not the case. A simple Google search will unearth many of the PSAs, the pamphlets, the self-appointed custodians of female alcohol intake. Moreover, I can tell you that as a young, vulnerable, freshman in college, the only fact I knew about rape was that it happens to drunk girls.

I did not know that approximately thirty eight percent of rapes are committed by a friend or acquaintance, twenty eight by an intimate. I did not know what I was entitled to under federal law by way of school support, should I be raped. I did not know that rapists seek out those who are least likely to tell, or be believed. I did not know that evidence suggests most rapists are serial and calculating offenders. I did not know that a key part of their success depends on making victims feel that what happened wasn’t really rape, or that they are somehow responsible. I did not know that new freshman, unsure of their place in the community and desperate for acceptance, are targeted at higher rates.

I did know that there was no supportive community of older women, women with more social power, dedicated to both policing social spaces and supporting the victims of rape. I knew that I was pretty much on my own.

Rape was constructed for me as a sort of dance with mutual and equal obligations on both sides. Men have an obligation not to rape, and women have an obligation to not get raped. The best way I knew how to fulfill my obligation was by not being the kind of women who gets raped–not a drunk, not promiscuous, because rape happens to drunk girls.

Other women threw themselves into the rituals of drinking and flirting, gaining in social power what they lost in seclusion and rule-abiding. This was a rational choice; if rapists are targeting the powerless, making yourself highly visible on your school’s social horizon can be a very smart move. When the emphasis in rape prevention is on the individual’s responsibility or ability to prevent her own rape, women understand that it’s every broad for herself, and act accordingly.

I want to stress here that college women are not idiots unable to figure out how alcohol works, or too vapid to prioritize anything but a quick thrill; they are often making rational choices about negotiating an environment that is deeply hostile to them.

College women are good at picking the implications in our discourse, too. They internalize our framework of rape prevention and its obligation to not be victimized; when they are victimized, they understand themselves to have failed somehow. I know of at least one women who refused to report either of her two rapes. She had been stupid, she knew, and she would do better next time. Easier to work on her own behavior than to publicize her failure and shame.

Emily Yoffe’s blinkered rules for rape prevention (two drinks only, slowly, no punch) correspond to a moral understanding of rape as something for men to passively refrain from and women to actively avoid, where the primary problem is failure to abide by a few simple rules for appropriate feminine social behavior. This in itself is unfortunately not surprising; what is surprising is that her total oblivion regarding the actual dynamics of campus rape and female behavior should not have disqualified her from promulgating said concept in a public forum.

Terrible Ways We Talk About Rape

In no particular order, a few of the most wrong-headed and damaging tropes.

1) Rape is like theft

This is one of the most insulting and most insidious analogies; I’ve caught myself using it . “A man carrying cash in a bad neighborhood would only be prudent to lock it in his car.”

No analogy is perfectly symmetrical with its analogue, but rape-theft comparison fails so obscenely because women’s bodies are not merchandise. Her body is not detachable from her–it is her self, her person. Her body is not the good china, to be locked up safely and displayed at appropriate times. Rapists do not steal sex or take from women–they attack and violate the woman herself.

When we say, “Here are the proper times, places, and protocols for being openly female in public” when we treat these restrictions as a legitimate and obvious solution to the evil of rape, we are effectively saying “Women are not for public space and public space is not for women.”

Of course, the word rape comes from rapere, which often means to snatch or pillage. For much of human history, the crime of rape has been construed as a sub-species of theft: theft of virtue, theft of marriage prospects, theft of a daughter or wife from her rightful owner. The current rape as theft discourse might associate the ownership and right of disposal of female bodies with the women in question, but idea that woman is a tradeable and alienable asset remains.

A consent based model for rape rejects the female body as commodity. Under this model, promiscuous women can be raped, sleeping women can be raped, women who give and then withdraw consent after penetration can be raped, because the fundamental premise of this model is that women are sexual agents and full human subjects, whose agency and subjectivity must be acknowledged and respected not only by   individual men, but by the law and culture at large.

Comparing women’s bodies to diamonds, Rolexes, and other luxury goods objectifies women and obscures what rape is: a deliberate assault on the victim’s personhood. It actively perpetuates rape culture by encouraging us to think of woman’s bodies as possessions of which women are the putative caretakers, rather than embodied human subjects.

2) Rape is like swimming with sharks

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “If you get raped, it’s not your fault, and if you go swimming with sharks and get eaten, it’s not your fault. But you can make a choice to be there in the first place.”

But sharks are animals with sub-rational biological instincts, and rapists are people who consciously choose to violate other human beings. They are not another species that we can simply avoid, and their behavior is not fixed and pre-determined. Our social spaces are not oceans that must always contain some element of lurking Silurian terror; they are groups of rational humans in which predatory men can hide and flourish precisely due to the assumption that their behavior is inevitable, that the community cannot really be complicit in their lack of accountability, and that the only viable option left is to re-shape female behavior around a certain level of mandatory predation. The people who benefit most from rhetoric that casts rapists as sharks are…rapists.

3) Rape is like riding a motorcycle

“You can engage in risky behavior like promiscuous sex or binge drinking, as long as you’re aware of and comfortable with the risk of rape.”

Here are some obvious risks of binge drinking: a hangover, developing alcoholism, making  a complete ass of yourself via text, serious physical injury if you fall down stairs or off balconies. Here are some risks of promiscuous sex: venereal disease, unplanned pregnancy, wasted nights on terrible lovers. Getting raped is not a risk attendant on either of these activities per se. There is zero risk of rape attached to any of these pursuits until someone decides that he’s going to attack you.

Rapists, funnily enough, tend to disproportionately exploit social situations in the aftermath of which they will be handed maximum cover; not only “Well, she was drunk, are we sure she’s reliable?” or, “Well, she was making out with him and banging a different guy last night, are we sure she didn’t want it?” but “Rape! it’s so terrible! If only we could get women to drink less! Alas, and alack, when will women start being more careful!” Rapists are handed a discourse that immediately shifts the focus away from their actions, a narrative that casts rape as a terrible, unfortunate accident, an unsafe situation that got a little out of control, and for which there was probably some contributory negligence.

This rhetoric is used to prop up rape culture in deliberate and devastating ways. At my college, sexual assault has been an unchecked rampage for so long because smooth-tongued fraternity social chairs were adept at convincing administration and trustees that sexual assault numbers were misleading, that they were regrettable incidents that stemmed from freshman girls unable to hold their liquor at dorm parties. The school doesn’t have a rape problem, they told those in power, it has a drinking problem.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the terrible ways we talk about rape, just the ones most common among basically well intentioned people–that do terrible work and smuggle in terrible ideas without ever directly saying “you asked for it.”

Enough With the Happy Talk

In all the kerfuffle over Todd Akin and whether he should or should not drop out of the race, it’s easy to forget that his interesting theory on rape and the female reproductive system is hardly isolated nutbaggery.  We have Bill Napoli, rhapsodizing on the kind of virginal victim who would really find rape traumatizing

“A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.”

We have George Engelbach exploring that complex, subtle, oh so tricky distinction between rape (which, as you know, leaves marks), and the violation of a drugged or inebriated women (which, in contrast, is just non-consensual sex).

Akin, bless his heart, seemed to think at one point that the umbrage taken centered on the word “legitimate,”  and that he should have used “forcible.”

No. Almost every person who voiced outrage over his response knew that he meant forcible rape.  The problem was not in his choice of words, but in the framing of his answer. By casting it in terms of “forcible rape”, he reinforced the hierarchy of assault that sheds crocodile tears over the rare yet culturally ubiquitous stalker-in-the-alleyway scenario while marginalizing and casting aspersions on the women whose rapes were less titillatingly violent.

This framework keeps us comfortable and complacent by perpetuating the myth that rapists are scary, bestial men with fangs who hide in bushes and beat women up. They are certainly not our classmates, our fraternity brothers, the nice respectable businessmen we work with–and perhaps most importantly, we cannot be collectively complicit in any of their crimes.

And there’s something more pernicious, too–the tacit idea that a woman’s default  is sexual availability, that her body belongs to the men who want it and that the onus is on her to prove lack of consent– by bruises if at all possible. This idea  animates much of the slut rhetoric that surrounds women from birth, sharpening and focusing on them when they are raped. It both animates and depends on the hierarchy Todd Akin unwittingly revealed–a hierarchy much more immediate and ingrained, and therefore more dangerous, than his idiotic wishful thinking about the female body.

Wishful thinking pervades conversations on rape–about the kind of girls who get raped, the ability of a victim to ward off rape–and now pregnancy– and I can see why it’s tempting. It’s so much easier to be the right kind of girl, to taxonomize victims and built an assault Jenga block tower of blameworthiness and legitimacy; so much safer to remove rape far into the province of women and men totally unlike us; so reassuring to know that were this horrible crime ever inflicted on the people we love, it would be under the proper circumstances, and their reward would be ninja uteri or at the very least a universally acceptable abortion.

Nobody wants to believe that bad things can happen to them; even more insistently, no one wants to believe that bad things, irreparably bad things, can happen to the people we think are good. This is nothing new, particularly concerning rape. But these gaffes and their fusion of rape and abortion rhetoric highlight how much this Calvinist optimism dictates the discourse on both issues –how else could we get this?

I think that two wrongs don’t make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade.

We cannot accept that women are not somehow indirectly responsible for their own rapes, however those rape took place. We cannot accept that they get pregnant from rapes that are not their fault, that in a world without abortion they would have to bear that child, and it would not be their fault. We cannot accept that it could be horrible, traumatic beyond all imagining. Bad things do not happen to the innocent, and when we cannot square this circle we try to make them less innocent (I’m looking at you, Roman Polanski defenders, every single lousy one of you), or we pretend the thing is not so bad.

It’s a lemon situation. Make lemonade.

With abortion, we tell ourselves that it causes breast cancer, that it’s bad for women in every possible way– anything to protect ourselves from acknowledging that a lack of access to abortion might make some women’s lives materially worse. So eager are we for a happy ending, so eager to counter claims of misogyny, that we will propound any specious, paternalistic reason possible for limiting abortion and embrace any misogynistic myth imaginable about rape.

Rape exceptions are bad news. They police women’s sexual choices rather than upholding the humanity of the fetus, and enshrine in law the scrutiny and hierarchy that make rape an epidemic and reporting it a nightmare. They create a false, useless dichotomy between the women who have good reasons for abortion and the ones who don’t. They cocoon us from any real unease about the pro-life movement’s alliance with political factions that pay the scantest of lip service to protecting the poor and vulnerable, and whose contempt for women and the marginalized is often palpable.

Whether we pretend that rape exceptions are unneeded because the pregnancy is a blessing in disguise, or that they solve any of the real problems that plague the abortion debate, we are making happy talk.

So enough with the happy talk. Enough with articles like this, which, while very well-intentioned and very powerful as personal narratives, are simply insulting when used as some kind of meaningful contribution to the debate on access to abortion after an assault–as if every rape victim could or should feel the same way.

Enough with the insistence that there are no thorny dilemmas and competing claims here, that recognizing the rights of the fetus will simultaneously–in fact, automatically–create a paradise for women.

Enough with the pretense that positive thinking or personal responsibility or magical fallopian tubes, or whatever the catchphrases currently are, will mitigate or erase the traumas of rape and pregnancy.

Enough with the imperative to de-legitimaze or erase any experience that doesn’t fit into this compulsively upbeat narrative.

Rape exceptions are a useless distraction, and pro-lifers must resist the temptation to dodge real soul-searching in favor of meaningless compromises or patronizing bromides. The lies we tell ourselves about abortion and rape may provide temporary shelter, but if justice is our goal, we are building on sand.

Further reading: Darwin sums it up much better and more succinctly.

Legitimate Children of Rape

Respond by Numbers

1. This article infuriates me, because it moves from “My rape did not traumatize me, and I shouldn’t have to apologize for that,” (totally valid) to “We shouldn’t make rape such a big deal” ( totally invalid).

2. She also quotes Greer misleadingly here:

“It is not women who have decided that rape is so heinous, but men. The only weapon that counts in rape is the penis, which is conceptualized as devastating.”

In context, Greer is referring to outdated rape laws that defined rape solely in reference to the penis, rather than as non-consensual penetration. She was calling for the abolition of the legal crime of rape for the sake of broader and more comprehensive assault laws ( a broadening that is already starting to occur), rather than a cultural downplaying of the trauma of assault.

3. She also gets rape culture wrong–it does not refer as much to the collective experience of rape, as to the collective and communal enabling of its perpetration.

4. Rape is not equally traumatizing for everyone. Duh. No evil is equally traumatizing for everyone. But rape is not  rape because it’s traumatizing, it’s rape because it’s wrong, and a serious affront to justice.

5. The author may pay lip service towards the end of the article to the validity of all women’s stories, but her tone of impatience throughout the article towards the survivor mentality, therapy, “the depiction of rape as the ultimate horror,”  undermines any commitment she may profess to a serious treatment of other women’s experiences.

Many, if not most, rape victims suffer some kind of trauma. Many, if not most, do find it uniquely horrifying. This is because rape is a violent crime committed not against one’s possessions (it is telling that she compares it to armed robbery) but against one’s person, and the most intimate and life-giving area of one’s person.

8.  “According to the cultural script, women are simply not strong enough to bear such an experience easily.” She tries to blame the suffering of rape victims not herself on a cultural script, then argues that male rape should be taken more seriously. It should, but it won’t be if men are supposed to be “strong enough to bear such an experience easily.” Or is it only women who are supposed to have this superhuman strength?

I started out being infuriated, and ended by being confused. I’m not sure exactly what she’s saying, except that she recognizes the seriousness of rape, but only measures whether rape occurred by subjective trauma rather than the question of consent; respects the trauma of other women who are just so much weaker than her, poor things, but snips at and chides the (by no means mainstream)  culture that takes it seriously; sees the horror rape elicits as misogynistic in origin, but wishes men were shown more compassion.

There is an excellent point here, about recognizing the diversity of responses to rape, the various and strange permutations of trauma an assault can entail, and  the importance of privileging the actual experiences of women above political points and ideological integrity, but it gets lost in a pile of senseless self-congratulation.

The other interesting point, and I think one that will continue to gain credence, is that the seriousness of rape’s evil depends on a particular conception of sex–a conception that in its very definiteness many find inherently oppressive. To me, this is one of the single strongest arguments against both “sex positivity” and the commodification of the human body that both sex work and patriarchal marriage entail. They destroy the basis for any response to sexual assault at once basically feminist, decently compassionate, and rationally coherent, and it’s already starting to show.

And now, I am going to go call my little sister and say a rosary or five.

Update: I realize that I jumped from point 5 to point 8. I have no idea why I do that, but am leaving it up to shame myself into stopping.

Update 2: Had all the rape your stomach can handle for today? Too bad!

Update 3: Also, I think what really bugs me is that every time she says “Some feminists think,” or “Some feminists say,” a huge, wispy strawman follows.

Update 4: Because even I can only take so much awful, I’m going to let Feministing handle the Reddit rape thread.

Lal Bibi is a hero

“If the people in government fail to bring these people to justice I am going to burn myself,” she said. “I don’t want to live with this stigma on my forehead. People will mock me if these men go unpunished, so I want every single one of them to be punished.”

Read the rest here


The New Criterion vs. Sluts

Trigger warning for survivors of rape/sexual assault

Over at The New Criterion, James Bowman has written a piece on sluts, invective, and honor culture. The whole piece is worth reading, especially if, like me, you suffer from dangerously low blood pressure. I was particularly struck, however, by Brown’s peripheral comments at the begining. On the Slutwalkers:

“Their apparent purpose…was to stake a claim to the right of women everywhere to be indiscreet without consequences.”

First of all, sexual license brings plenty of consequences for both men and women. Disease, crisis pregnancies, social destabilization, moral and psychological damage all spring to mind. Rape, however, seems an odd thing to file under “consequences of sexual license,” given that the whole premise of rape is not consenting to sexual activity. Ah, but Brown isn’t talking about licentiousness, only the appearance of it. He is referring to the eminently sensible idea that

” If [young women] wished to avoid the occasion of sexual assault, it might be a good idea for them not to dress like sluts.”

Dressing like a slut, you see, leads to rape. To put such faith in this facile assertion–one that will surely influence how his male readers percieve women and the issue of sexual assault–he must know what he is talking about. He must have logged countless hours staffing hotlines, counselling victims, poring over police reports. He must have interviewed the women raped in knee-length skirts and hijabs, in sweatpants and scrubs, and considered their stories before making any kind of causal or correlative claims. He couldn’t simply be passing on a piece of unsubstantiated and possibly dangerous folk wisdom.

Except that’s exactly what he’s doing.

“What would once have seemed nothing more than common-sense advice, such as generations of mothers have given to their daughters, was now officially to be designated as an instance of ‘blaming the victim’ and was strictly verboten….”

The problem with this folk wisdom is that there seem to be three ways to unpack it. The first, and I think most prevalent, is that women who dress in a provocative manner can reasonably be assumed to desire sexual activity. Sexual assault falls somewhere between an understandable if self-interested mistake, and a frustrated attempt to accept the strongest of a woman’s two contradictory signals.

Of course, a woman may decide to dress “sluttishly” for any number of reasons: fashion, social acceptance, sexual attention, even–get this–sexual activity with someone who is not her rapist.

Clothing is not consent. Period. Your reading of a woman is not necessarily correct, and is not consent. Period. Men do not own women’s bodies. They do not have the right to decide what a woman’s presentation means, to presume that consent has been given, or is not needed, or that its refusal is invalid. Men, if you fail to internalize this, it is your fault, and our collective fault for not drilling it into your heads. This is such a simple point that I’m surprised I have to keep making it.

I can already hear the chorus of “Well, this is the way the world is, we just have to live with it.” Utter nonsense. Men* are rapists because they choose to be–either because they do not care about consent or because they rationalize their behavior with the poisonous bromides Bowman and his ilk spew under the guise of common sense–bromides suggesting that men’s perceptions of women are more valid than women’s actual choices. If this is the world we live in, it is because this is the world we choose.

And to all the “nice girls” out there–don’t think that if you watch your hemlines this doesn’t affect you. Men’s unspoken entitlement to construct a woman’s sexuality and choices based on externals extends to race, class, how large your breasts are, how loudly you laugh, the way you walk–a host of other traits and behaviors whose only common factor is their inequivalence to actual consent. There is nothing new about this (read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for an easy crash course)–only that women are now in a position to challenge this entitlement, to the disgust of self-appointed champions of female virtue. So unless you are the skinny, white, demure, middle-class virgin who seems to be the only truly blameless victim of sexual assault, I suggest you take notice.

The second possible rationale is even more disturbing. It lies in Bowman’s discussion of the Slutwalkers’ misguided “claim on behalf of women everywhere to be indiscreet without consequences.” Women who engage in illicit sex, or even appear sexually aggressive, are transgressing social and moral behavioral codes. Therefore, they are the acceptable receptacles of men’s most aggressive sexual urges. These women have forfeited the protections and privileges of the “nice girls” who respect their sexual boundaries: in polite society no one will go so far as to say that sluts should be raped, but to deny that they will be deprives both men of their legitimate prey and society of a necessary corrective. Rape, in this case, actually performs an important social function.

This is so wicked and sickening that I doubt it needs much comment–I sincerely hope and expect that Bowman would repudiate this explanation. There seems to be some truth to it, however, at least regarding how we think about rape on a collective level. Certainly this hierarchy of women is very real, and incorporates much more basic and pre-decided divions than the virtuous and the vicious. So pay attention, my fellow chasteniks, as there’s no particular reason you shouldn’t be It.

The third possible explanation is probably the least dangerous, because the most obviously idiotic, if its proponents would only articulate it more clearly. It’s the old equation you probably learned in Algebra II: (X) (exposed female flesh)=Y, where Y is both uncontrollable male lust and its natural consequence, rape. Women’s bodies, especially in public, are inherently dangerous, volatile, and violence inducing. For their own protection, quite apart from any other social and personal value to modesty, women must be kept covered and hidden. As long as one minimizes the value of X as much as possible, one is reasonably safe. This explains why women are never raped in Saudi Arabia, although not why male prisoners are one of the largest victim demographics in the U.S.

As proof of his regard for women, Bowman offers us this: “Equating a woman’s virtue with her honor was once a way of ensuring her privacy.” Yes, and locking her up in a bronze tower was one way of ensuring Danae’s. Bowman’s honor codes are part and parcel of what the Slutwalkers walked against: this idea that freedom from rape and assault is one end of a negotiable socio-sexual contract rather than one of the most basic requirements of a just society. Their aims were two-fold: to invade public space with their sexual bodies in defiance of those who insinuated that the existence of those bodies is an incitement to violence, and to upend hierachical distinctions among women that rationalize assault. As long as you say it’s sluts who get raped, they said, I’m with the sluts.

This kind of activism is nine tenths performance art, and the fact that so many mistook the Slutwalks as an endorsement of any particular sexual ethic (or lack thereof), tells me that the movement failed. I still think that marching up the streets in long Talbot’s dresses with the placard “I Am A Slut” hanging from their necks would have been more effective. However, Bowman would do well to take the Slutwalkers seriously if he is at all interested in discussions of sexual virtue moving beyond the conservative and religious enclaves they currently inhabit.  The sexual free-for-all in which most men and women currently participate has wreaked havoc on our society, especially its most vulnerable members. Unfortunately, women will continue to dismiss and resist any call for change as long as they sense, rightly, that the Limbaughs and Bowmans of the world are more interested in reinvigorating repressive and violent structures and codes than any genuine mutual flourishing.

Mirror of Justice, ora pro nobis.

Further reading.

*I understand that women can be rapists, but the dynamics are usually different and not relevant to this discussion

An Open Letter to Conservatives and Chastity Educators

[Warning: may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault/rape]

Dear Aforementioned,

This week is V-Week at Dartmouth. And no, the V in V-Week and V-Day does not refer to vagina. It refers to violence: violence against women and girls, structural and individual, domestic and sexual, and the horrendous repercussions it has on the entire community. And so, in honor of V-week, and like any good student of new media, I decided to post an article about the evils of victim-blaming on my facebook.

I found several articles–on Feministe.com, Salon.com, Jezebel.com, various blogs with various degree of  radical feminist leanings. Each time I tried to post, a helpful thumbnail declared the link courtesy of Planned Parenthood. Yippee.

Surely, I thought, I could find a more friendly source. Surely the Love and Fidelity Network, whose mission is proclaiming the sexual dignity of all, would have something helpful. This is what I found.


and this.


I found a piece about how rape statistics are the inventions of angry feminists coupled with the mistakes of libidinous coeds, and a tour de force of rape-excusing, victim-blaming pablum couched in terms of gentle admonishment to stricter sexual mores.

I wish I could say this abysmal dearth of any remotely helpful treatment of rape is the exception. Unfortunately, it is the rule. It is the rule to treat sexual assault as a soapbox to decry the sexual revolution, to casually appropriate the sufferings of sexual assault survivors as cannon-fodder in the culture war, with only minimal evidence of real concern or thoughtfulness. It is the rule to buffer assumptions and attitudes that normalize sexual assault with blithe unconcern for any damage done except to ideological lockstep within the conservative community.

I have had enough. If you are reading this, someone you know, very probably someone you care for deeply, has survived at least attempted sexual assault. One in four college women will experience attempted rape at some point in her life. And so might the men you love. One of my best friends  was drugged, raped, and murdered one month ago–and in case you were wondering, no, he wasn’t showing any cleavage. To Love and Fidelity Network and the entire movement you spearhead: until this changes, you get not one dime of my money, not one word of my support, not one minute of my time at your conferences and clubs.

Until you show that you have thought long and hard about sexual violence without subordinating it to your agenda, until you privilege women and men over ideology; until you cease to be a part of the problem of rape culture– I want nothing to do with you.