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.
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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. 

They were my targets.

This brings me to an illustration of Valenti's very different approach to public discourse. Despite my favorable opinion of feminism, the fact that not all feminists hold the same opinion on this controversy, and the care I took to argue against specific statements, Valenti began her response to me in The Guardian as follows:

Feminists are used to being called hysterical over-reactors. So I wasn't surprised to read The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf argue on Monday that the controversy over George Will's recent Washington Post column on "privileged" rape victims was part of the Internet "outrage machine".

Implied here, though carefully not stated explicitly, is the notion that my article sprang from and trafficked in the belief that feminists are hysterical over-reactors.

I neither wrote nor believe anything like that.

Quite the contrary.*

Of course, most who read that Valenti piece will be unfamiliar with my work. Some will conclude, with frustration that would be justified if it were true, that The Atlantic employs yet another male journalist who maliciously calls feminists the h-word (chosen by Valenti because it would be most offensive to her readers). Valenti sacrificed fairness and rigor for a maximally provocative lede that frames all that follows in a way that upped the outrage and thus the solidarity of those readers. Perhaps this is her instinct for community organizing bleeding into journalism. I'm not sure what excuse can be offered for Judd Legum of ThinkProgress. Despite the fact that I emailed him about his perspective, quoted him at length, and critiqued him respectfully, he ran with Valenti's distortion on cue:

This despite knowing full well that I did not call him hysterical or a feminist. Here's how I actually characterized my disagreement with him: "To me, this is a clear, if earnest, misreading." Yet he misled his followers into thinking that I used stereotypes to insult him. Feminism has actual enemies. Fabricating more is perverse.

I plead guilty to writing that last paragraph and this one too in part out of defensiveness—a natural way to react when under public attack! For selfish reasons, I want to tell Valenti (and Legum) readers that they might be less ready to imagine me to be the sort who'd call feminists "hysterical over-reactors" if aware that my oeuvre includes, e.g., encouraging my audience to read and learn from #YesAllWomen, "When Misogynist Trolls Make Journalism Miserable for Women," "Pointless Shame: The English-Speaking World's Issue With Women's Breasts," and "Why Does Rush Limbaugh Get Away With Calling a Young Woman a 'Slut'?" I intend to write more pieces like that. Please engage me about important news.

But if I've been subject to an ultimately inconsequential unfairness in the rough world of opinion journalism (where, I might add, Valenti has had things far rougher), it's worth noting that the bigger unfairness is to the many Guardian readers misled into thinking anti-feminism was being spewed. The act of provoking those readers and me into the needless posture of polarized antagonists serves no interest beyond stolen debating points for Valenti. She wins. Everyone else, feminists very much included, lose. Her intentions do not change that.

I tried to make a similar point in my Will column. Insofar as people represented Will as saying things that he didn't, he was treated unfairly. But that's hardly the most worrisome consequence of the misrepresentations. "If I were a rape victim, and a writer I trusted informed me that a Washington Post columnist said people like me wanted to be raped, or that we deserved to be raped, or that being a rape victim makes one fortunate or privileged," I pointed out, "I'd be upset." Stoking such painful upset is only justified when it's rigorously grounded!  

Valenti proceeds from a very different set of assumptions. While I value the communities she has created and various things she has written, I find her approach to this particular aspect of public discourse to be chilling and destructive. She writes:

...what Friedersdorf's column ignores is that writers like Will—out-of-touch conservative white men fearful of the shifting culture—court and revel in such controversy, perhaps knowing it's likely their last gasp of relevance. Let's call it the "backlash machine": the old guard pumping out deliberately regressive ideas about women while they still can. Will, for example, doubled down on his original argument by falsely asserting on C-Span that sexual assault has become defined so broadly that even "remarks become sexual assault".

And on Monday, law professor David Bernstein** wrote at The Washington Post that the only women who give explicit consent for sex are prostitutes, and that the expectation of a verbal "yes" before sex will turn everyone – not just men—into rapists. Neither of these men could possibly have believed their comments would go uncontested. [CRF: Notice that I myself contested Will's arguments. I never argued and never would argue that any arguments deserve to be uncontested. I haven't seen anyone else argue that either. As best I can tell, Valenti invents that conceit from thin air. That is frustrating.] [UPDATE: The Guardian has now updated Valenti's post after Bernstein contacted their ombudsman and complained that she misrepresented him, so do not take the above paraphrase of Bernstein at face value either.]

In the midst of an incredibly important feminist moment in this country—with reproductive rights on the line, a likely female presidential candidate in the next election, the work-life balance on every magazine cover and survivors using #YesAllWomen to share their stories—to bemoan all the attention those darned rape victims keep getting is to engage in some bullshit with eyes very wide open. So, conservative columnists, spare me the suggestions that you all are the victims of mass outrage (the women! they're coming for us!) when it's clear you're hoping to generate exactly this attention for your dying ideology.  If, during a moment when rape victims are speaking out in force to detail the awful treatment they endure at the hands of school administrators, police and the criminal justice system, you're using your time, energy and published words to argue that America's rape problem is overblown ... perhaps a little Twitter heat should be the last thing you're worried about. Being on the wrong side of history should be the first.

What's being described is a system of public discourse where ostensibly enlightened, right-thinking public intellectuals like Valenti identify interlocutors who are, in their judgment a) old, white conservatives; b) fearful of cultural shifts; c) writing in bad faith; d) saying wrongheaded things; and/or e) on the wrong side of history. By virtue of those judgments, they aren't just subject to forceful rebuttals, as I would urge. They are deemed unworthy of being defended in any respect, regardless of whether or not those fighting "the good fight" against them wind up exaggerating or misstating some of their views in the process. They are told to shut the hell up because their days are numbered anyway. This is the logic right-wing talk radio hosts use to engage their adversaries.

Even setting aside the dangers of assuming that an interlocutor was operating in bad faith (a 72-year-old man couldn't possibly be just "regressive" as opposed to "deliberately regressive"?), and the weirdness of treating "old" and "white" as factors making someone unworthy of defense—I hate to break it to Valenti, but she and I will both end up old and white!—the presumption here seems to be that there is no inherent value in a public discourse that accurately characterizes prominent arguments. If several historians with national journalistic platforms were insisting, with outrage, that Adolf Hitler favored the genital mutilation of all German women, it would be worthwhile to point out that he favored no such thing, and to worry about history departments where such lack of rigor was being practiced. 

It seems astonishing to me that I've now been vilified for "defending" George Will far more than I ever have for numerous articles advocating on behalf of Taliban members held at Guantanamo Bay or convicted murderers being put to death using inhumane methods. It surprised me when Matt Yglesias, whose work I like, asked why I was spending time "defending" Will, given that Yglesias is the author of defenses of stimulus waste, poor safety standards in Bangladesh, working on holidays, and government officials cashing in on Wall Street. Among others. He evidently sees himself as a more enlightened arbiter of when it is okay to speak about unpopular people or subjects and make peripheral but important arguments.   

It surprised me even more when Julian Sanchez, whose work I love, asked why I was spending time defending Will, partly because I specifically argued in my article that the untruths told about Will hurt many people besides Will, but also because Sanchez understands far better than most why I spend time "defending" all sorts of unpopular people: In public discourse, as in the realm of civil liberties, one defends general standards one finds important, not people when they're sympathetic—not least because unsympathetic cases are where mischief starts. Our ensuing Twitter conversation unfolded as if my primary purpose was defending Will personally, rather than using the controversy to point out something problematic in public discourse generally. Sanchez may believe that this controversy sheds no useful light on public discourse generally. If so, that is our disagreement.  

The Perils of Making People Toxic

As best I can tell, Valenti sees problematic attitudes about rape and sexual assault, like the ones Hess wrote about under the banner "rape culture," as the natural consequence of a national media where "old, white conservatives" like Will spew retrograde views. According to this logic, if people like him could somehow be drummed out of the public discourse, an important victory against rape culture would be won. As she sees it, the "old guard" is "pumping out deliberately regressive ideas about women while they still can," but their days are numbered.

My take is different. Even assuming the least charitable reading of Will's column, I very much doubt that a prominent septuagenarian columnist (who I can't recall writing about rape before, to say nothing of "pumping out" articles on the subject, but why be rigorous in any description involving an old, white conservative?) is driving rape culture among—wait for it–18-to-22-year-olds at places like Swarthmore. Nor do I think he plays any real role in the sorry behavior of college administrators who justify systematic suppression of sexual-assault statistics and incident reports by telling themselves something about fiduciary duties. I do think some of Will's words reflect spending seven decades in a culture with many problematic attitudes about rape, where many myths still persist. The conceit that he is the problem and that the solution is shutting people like him the hell up trivializes the depth and insidiousness of the problem. 

What should the response to Will be? I'd recommend engaging him in constructive debate that forcefully articulates why he is wrong—and many people, progressive feminists very much among them, did just that. Do not imagine that Valenti's approach is a reflection on all feminists. Debate is useful because, regardless of whether Will himself can be persuaded—in fact, even if, as Valenti believes, he is just trolling—lots of people who read him, like him, and see him as an earnest columnist can be persuaded. I favor fairness for everyone. But this mostly isn't about Will. (I actually wish that instead of calls to be fired, he would have faced pressure to debate Hess or Emily Bazelon on national television, which would be less immediately satisfying for his critics and better for society. Forcing him to publicly defend his beliefs against people with solid contrary evidence would cause viewers to change their own opinions to better fit reality. And under the spotlight, he'd likely raise smarter caveats in the debate himself.)

Ann Althouse describes another way some people who find Will wrongheaded have responded. She did not write this about Valenti, but as a general critique of commentators who egregiously misrepresented what Will wrote. Althouse  distinguishes between making ideas toxic and making people toxic (emphasis in original):

It's not just an idea that is put off limits ... it's the person who dares to say it. You are to be regarded as toxic. It's this fear of being regarded as toxic that inhibits many people from speaking. The problem isn't merely that the debate is chilled—that people don't get to hear the arguments on different sides—but that people are also influenced to choose their side out of a psychological need to be accepted by others and not shunned. Even if, in a chilled-debate environment, you sought out information and arguments on your own and even if you saw the value in them, you might still choose your position out of a desire to be thought of as one of the good people. So the argument "George Will is toxic" works even on people who think George Will makes a persuasive argument

I'm using the word "toxic"—the poison metaphor—because I see it a lot, and because to me—someone who has lived and worked in a liberal environment for a long time—it expresses the threat of shunning so well: You are afraid that if you associate at all with the toxic person—if you offer one good word—you will have toxin on you, and others will have to avoid you lest they become toxic. I note that the focus on the person corresponds to Saul Alinsky's Rule #12 in"Rules for Radicals": "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.)"

This impulse is hardly unique to the left. Hawks tried to make opponents of the Iraq War toxic. Sarah Palin's fans tried to make Andrew Sullivan toxic. Fox News and talk radio tried to make Chris Hayes toxic. Much of the national-security establishment has tried to make Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald toxic. Right now, some are trying to make Will toxic. I've defended all those people. To hell with the anti-intellectual shortcut of trying to make one's adversaries toxic. And look how the toxicity effort extends to Will's "defender":

That's an egregious misrepresentation of my work as a journalist that gives all who saw it out of context the erroneous impression that some dude at The Atlantic with 20,000 Twitter followers is a defender of rape culture. Here's another way to look at it: @_Ridley_ decided that I'm a white male writing wrongheaded things about rape; for that reason, felt characterizing me in the least charitable, most stigmatizing way possible is good, because if only people like me were toxic America's rape culture would fade away. In this view, polarization leads to progress. 

But what would really happen, one wonders, if all the George Wills of the world were fired from their jobs in the name of ending rape culture? What if everyone who disagreed with what Valenti would characterize as right-thinking views on the subject started avoiding it entirely for fear of becoming toxic? Valenti seems to think that world would be better and safer for women. I think that she would like the outcome far less than she imagines. Progressive feminists would do most of the writing about rape*** ... along with reactionaries at outlets where being hated by progressive feminists is a badge of honor. Polarization would intensify, with views becoming more entrenched in both camps. All writing on rape and related issues would reach a relatively narrow audience of people who already agree with what they're hearing; as a direct result, journalism on the subject would have even less relevance to the way the subject is thought of and spoken about beyond media elites, who'd exert diminishing influence as their diversity narrowed. 

Very few people would think, "Oh, they actually had a point that I never thought of before. I should change my ideas, or my personal behavior, and raise my sons different." That sort of progress comes from people with different perspectives debating.

The alternative I'd prefer is a journalistic landscape where far more journalists, including but far from limited to old, conservative men, showed what are unfortunately still thought of as "women's issues" the thought and attention they deserve by regularly writing about them and engaging people with different perspectives in good faith, rather than trying to paint them as retrograde moral monsters. 

That maneuver is the end of all productive conversation.

Some deeply wrongheaded columns will result, and ought to be forcefully criticized (perhaps even with phrases as harsh as "pundit malpractice"!) But their authors should not be made toxic, or lose their jobs for a single column, or be deemed fair targets for misrepresentation; if such efforts succeeded, lots of writers less stubborn and gluttonous for abuse than me would avoid a vital subject. Their bad ideas would not get aired, and their good ideas would not be shared. Imagine if Bernstein's readers at The Volokh Conspiracy, most of whom have never and will never read old Amanda Hess posts at the Washington City Paper, wouldn't have been exposed to persuasive critiques of Will's argument that Bernstein offered in addition to words he wrote that ran afoul of Valenti's standards. If Valenti had her way and shut people like him up, her causes would be worse off. Public discourse would be a less effective crucible for ideas; people who ought to ally on some issues would be needlessly polarized; as a result of all these factors, vital efforts to combat rape and sexual assault would be set back, not advanced.

As well, the general practice of declaring people toxic would inevitably be turned on folks in many reams who lack power and influence, a truth Valenti might've been more attuned to in her early days at Feministing, but that is apparently more remote to her now that she personally has attained media power. If Will could be made toxic by Valenti, if that weapon is armed, there's no telling where it will be aimed next—and the most powerful in America are not going to be hit hardest.

My ideas about public discourse are not infallible. I invite emailed rebuttals, or constructive engagement on Twitter, because, contrary to what Valenti would have you believe, I am interested in feminist ideas and in efforts that combat rape and sexism. That's why I plan to continue writing on such subjects, as I've long done, regardless of whether people twist my words for rhetorical advantage. Important subjects demand attention from people with diverse perspectives and readers. I'm happy to publish dissents too, as I often do on many subjects. If you still insist that I think that feminists are hysterical, or that I'm a defender of rape culture, or that I'm obviously arguing in bad faith, I'll regard your approach as extremely destructive to public discourse. Even so, I won't misrepresent a word you say. For concurrences or rebuttals, my email is in my bio at the bottom of the article.

 


*Notice, in fact, that not only was my article not aimed at feminists, I also likened the people I was criticizing to soccer players who get bumped and feign extreme injury to get the referee to give their opponent a red card. Those soccer players are not, needless today, hysterical. They are engaged in strategic, calculated deceit. 

**Valenti neglects to mention that Bernstein is also the one who wrote the following:

Criticism of Will’s column, on the following debatable grounds, is certainly not unreasonable: (a) Will is downplaying what really is an epidemic of sexual assault on campus, an empirical claim susceptible to reasoned disagreement and possibly resolution; (b) the example Will gave is exactly the sort of thing universities should be punishing students for, and that Will is blind to the social norms and moral reasoning that render the male students’ actions an assault; (c) rather than encouraging faux victimhood, the attention that sexual assault on campus is getting with a federal push is encouraging real victims to come forward and universities to be more conscientious in their responses—occasional anecdotes about possibly overzealous campus investigations needs to be balanced against that greater good [and indeed, it seems true that in the past universities were often too quick to downplay allegations of sexual assault, especially when athletes were involved—but see the Duke case, where quite the opposite occurred]; and/or (d) the link between the general university victimhood culture and any specific woman claiming sexual assault, accurately or not, is speculative at best, and it was offensive/insulting/erroneous to draw that link to a specific case based on a one-paragraph summary of the claim.

I should also point out that to the extent a writer is misunderstood, it’s often the writer’s fault, and that may be true in this case.

***Though the particular progressive feminists would inevitably change as Valenti and friends became the old guard and were themselves vilified for being insufficiently committed to ending rape culture or defending a person who became toxic. Perhaps Valenti can't imagine this. Maybe you can't. I can. For example, Valenti once wrote:

Someone is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes. But the problem extends beyond the crimes themselves to the culture that allows rape to thrive. We live in a country where a Texas defense lawyer called an 11-year-old gang-rape victim a “spider” luring men into her web.

I agree with all of that, by the way. Even if the wildly implausible occurred and an 11-year-old tried to lure in a man like a spider, whatever that means, how is that even relevant? So, over at the Washington Post, Jonathan Adler recently argued, quite sensibly, that there's nothing wrong with Hillary Clinton having acted as a defense attorney to a rapist, and providing him with a zealous defense.  I agree. He goes on to say that there may be something problematic about one part of that defense:

...there is one small issue in the case that might—and I emphasize might—justify criticism of Clinton’s conduct. Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast obtained an interview with the rape victim. The interview is wrenching stuff.  The victim is understandably upset that her assailant got off easy. This is a sad result, but it’s not the defense attorney’s fault that the state could not make a stronger case. One can feel for the victim without being angry at her attacker’s attorney. Rogin discusses an affidavit Clinton submitted seeking a psychiatric evaluation of the victim (available here at page 34). In this affidavit, Clinton wrote “I have been informed that the complainant is emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men and engage in fantasizing”and that “she has in the past made false accusations about persons, claiming they had attacked her body. Also that she exhibits an unusual stubbornness and temper when she does not get her way.” The victim, who is now 52, says any such claims were untrue, that she never made accusations against anyone else, and that she believes Clinton was lying.

The victim was 12 years old.

Amanda Marcotte argues, quite persuasively, that this shouldn't stop feminists from supporting Clinton. "As long as juries keep acquitting based on this myth that women routinely make up rape accusations for the hell of it, defense attorneys will continue to use it," she writes. "The problem here is a larger culture that promotes rape myths, not defense attorneys who exploit these myths in last-ditch attempts to get acquittals for rapists who have overwhelming evidence against them."

Perhaps Valenti shares that view, though in the past she has certainly heaped scorn on individuals promoting cultural pathologies as much as the larger culture. (See George Will.) Anyway, it's very easy for me to imagine a future where the old guard is vilified for supporting a woman who treated a rape victim that way and later tried to characterize her husband's mistresses as lying loony tunes. If Valenti ever does become toxic in that scenario I'll diligently defend her. 

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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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