Sexual Assault and Rape Culture: Polarization Is the Enemy of Progress

Constructive liberal discourse has been a source of important gains on these issues. The alternatives are toxic.
The distortion of looking at the world through a polarized lens (StephenD9/Flickr)

The description of "rape culture" that sums up its insidiousness better than any I've ever seen was published several years ago at the Washington City Paper by Amanda Hess.

"Rape culture does not just encourage men to proceed after she says 'no,'" she wrote. "Rape culture does not simply teach men that a lack of physical resistance is an invitation. Rape culture does not only tell men to assert ownership over whichever female body they desire. Rape culture also tells women not to claim ownership over their own bodies. Rape culture also informs women that they should not desire sex. Rape culture also tells women that saying yes makes them bad women."

Hess added (my emphasis):

Both rape and rape accusations are products of the roles assigned by rape culture. In the traditional seduction scenario, a woman is expected to not desire to have sex, and to only submit after the man has successfully coerced her into submission. When the preferred model for consensual sex looks a hell of a lot like rape, an array of fucked-up scenarios are inevitable: the woman never wanted to fuck the guy, refuses to submit, and is raped; the woman submits to the man's coercion in order to avoid other negative consequences (like being raped); the woman had desired the sex all along, but must defend her femininity by saying that she had been coerced into sex. Thankfully, a good deal of modern men and women reject these antiquated ideas, but they're far from being banished from the sexual landscape.

She wrote out of frustration at the fact that so many high-profile rape cases spark a needlessly polarized debate. "On one side are people who are concerned about the problem of rape," she observed. "On the other, people who are concerned about the problem of false rape accusations." As she saw it, "It shouldn't have to be that way." Polarization is, indeed, an enemy of progress on this issue.

There is, of course, a great deal more to the subject than can be packed into any two paragraphs. But my views are very close to what I've just quoted. Over the years, I've read enough of Jessica Valenti, the pioneering feminist publisher, blogger, and author, to know that although our differences in ideology and public policy preferences are many, we share membership in the relatively small percentage of the population that would read Hess's description and nod along in agreement. Progressive feminists and classically liberal individualists agree on sex-positive feminism. 

For that reason, there is an absurdity to the fact that Valenti and I are at odds over my recent piece "Rage Against the Outrage Machine." On Twitter, where nuance goes to die, this article is being summarized as "a defense of George Will's rape column." An accurate description would reflect the fact that my core argument actually has two facets: that the Washington Post columnist's arguments were egregiously distorted by a subset of his critics who are more interested in maximizing outrage than rigor; and that Will's column was guilty of both being "dismissive of a widespread, serious problem" of sexual assault and what I harshly labeled "pundit malpractice" in the section where he pivoted from the sociology of campus victimhood generally to the particular subjects of rape and sexual assault. Noting that Will effectively marshals zero evidence for the notion that campus culture causes many women to falsely claim they were assaulted or raped, I explicitly wrote, "A more inapt example would be difficult to find." Yet you'd think, judging from critics of the article, that I wrote none of that.

Nevertheless, I argued, even a person who makes wrongheaded arguments should be criticized for their actual claims—exaggerations, distortions, and fabrications cause harm not only to the writer, but to the audience and discourse generally.

Is all that accurately reduced to "a defense of George Will's rape column"?

Put another way, the disagreement between critics of my piece and me is about public discourse, where our beliefs and the difference in our approaches are significant. There is, meanwhile, little if any difference in our disgust for rape, sexual assault, and the cultural assumptions and pathologies that increase its occurrence—a happy fact many critics of my article nevertheless don't acknowledge, even though it would come as welcome news or even relief to their readers.

I actually do not attribute their failure to acknowledge this to malicious bad faith. I do think the approach this subset of critics takes to public discourse–their notion that outrage at a shared enemy is their friend–creates a perverse incentive for them to reflexively polarize debates to which they're party, if only to keep their team fired up. They believe themselves to be advancing causes that are vital and noble. (The anti-rape cause certainly is.) But their approach is both unfair and ill serves their cause. No matter how emphatically I insist that I share the cause of reducing rape, this will be characterized as "concern trolling," the glib, lazy person's substitute for a substantive critique. Before accusing me of bad faith, I invite readers to reflect upon the fact that, since the beginning of my career, I've written often on the subjects of persuasion, public discourse as a crucible of ideas, and the unfortunate way that umbrage-taking leads to undue polarization. When these critiques were aimed at prominent figures in the conservative movement, progressives in particular found them incisive and worthwhile. I welcome disagreement with my thinking. I loathe lies about my earnestness.

The Problem With Maximizing Provocation

Valenti has helped to clarify my thinking on this. Though she is a prominent feminist, my critique of her column is not aimed at feminists (this disclaimer will soon make more sense), a diverse group of which I am a member by some definitions, and who are, as best I can tell from the feminists I'm surrounded by, as rigorous in their arguments as any other group. Insofar as it's possible, I argue with specific people, not caricatures of diverse movements. In my piece on Will, particular exaggerations, distortions, and fabrications were directly quoted with the names of the writers, two of whom were given email notice and a chance to respond. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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