Reenacting Rape Is Fine, Just Don't Call Haiti a Hellhole

A writer's description of Haiti, not her account of violent sex, has angered feminists

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While Mac McClelland was reporting in Haiti, she took a woman who'd been gang-raped at gunpoint to the hospital. That experience, combined with others, gave her PTSD, and the best way she found to get over it was to have violent sex at gunpoint. She detailed that experience at Good this week, in an essay that was bound to provoke a reaction. Jezebel dutifully offered one Friday, posting an open letter to Good's editors from 36 journalists who've worked in Haiti. Their problem with McClelland's story? She maligned Haiti.

"I'm Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD" is an essay--not reporting meant for the front page of The New York Times, but a personal reflection on what happened to her and the emotions that went along with it. So, it's not as dry as your typical A1 report. For the most part, McClelland's story is about her sexual healing, with passages like this:

"Okay," he said. "I love you, okay?" I said, I know, okay. And with that he was on me, forcing my arms to my sides, then pinning them over my head, sliding a hand up under my shirt when I couldn't stop him. The control I'd lost made my torso scream with anxiety; I cried out desperately as I kicked myself free. But it didn't matter how many times I managed to knock him over to the other side of the bed. He's got 60 pounds on me, plus the luxuries of patience and fearlessness. When I got out from under him and started to scramble away, he simply caught me by a leg or an upper arm or my hair and dragged me back. By the time he pinned me by my neck with one forearm so I was forced to use both hands to free up space between his elbow and my windpipe, I'd largely exhausted myself.

But the sex part is not what angered the Jezebel crew. If there's one thing one dare not be on the Internet, it's a prude--look at the snickering at the National Review's pro-abstinence Kathryn Jean Lopez. No, the 36 open-letter-writers are incensed by the scene-setting. McClelland writes:

There are a lot of guns in Haiti. Guns on security guards in front of banks and gas stations. Guns on kidnappers who make a living snatching rich people, guns on rich people who are afraid of kidnappers. Guns on the gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments of the earthquake homeless. ...

Last September, the first time I went to Haiti, I spent my first day out accompanying a rape victim we'll call Sybille to the hospital. The way her five attackers had maimed her in addition to sexually violating her was unspeakable. The way the surgeon who was going to try to reconstruct the damage yelled at her, telling her she'd got what was coming to her because she was a slut, was unconscionable. And the way Sybille went into a full paroxysm when we were on the way back to the post-quake tarp city she lived in was the worst thing I ever saw in my life.

You could argue that McClelland's language veers toward the sensationalistic, though it would be odd to refer to "gang-raping sweethearts." Likewise, a home made from a tarp would probably not be the best place to, say, ride out a hurricane. But it is these characterizations of living conditions there--and not McClelland's description of windpipe-crushing ex sex--that makes her detractors so mad.

They write:

In writing about a country filled with guns, "ugly chaos" and "gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments," she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic's DNA...

This needs some decoding. Here, as throughout much of the letter, are embedded the kind of insults that only sting when hurled from one lefty to another. McClelland is no right-winger--she writes for Mother Jones, she tweets about Barnes & Noble's lack of recognition of non-white and female writers in its exterior decor. And that's why the insult the letter-writers deploy here is so grave: they're saying she's basically some old white guy racist imperialist. "[T]he danger encoded in a black republic's DNA" is a reference to the old superstition that Haiti sold its soul to the devil to free itself from colonialist France, a story conservative villain Pat Robertson referenced to explain why the island nation had suffered so many disasters. The letter writers say they're "disturbed" to find such stereotypes "considering [McClelland's] reputation for socially conscious reporting."

Of course, it should be noted that McClelland did not write anything untrue. Here's a tent city, photographed by the Associated Press Thursday:

And, via AFP/Getty Images, here are some guns during election protests in Port-au-Prince a couple months after McClelland was there:

The letter continues:

Ms. McClelland's Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there. This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization.

Translation: McClelland thinks she's special because she's white. Not only is she white, but she has a big blue American passport, like a pampered American. She can leave at any time, and thus cannot fully understand rape, poverty, or real suffering, because she can always go back to the suburbs. Also: rapes happen in America, too, okay?

At Slate's women's blog, XX Factor, Marjorie Valbrun echoes that sentiment, but in less prim language:

I'm annoyed that people are often more interested in a story about poor black people/poor black country/genocide in the Sudan/etc. when the central character in that story is a white person. I mean all of Port-au-Prince is suffering from PTSD and I’m supposed to care about some woman who parachutes in for a couple of weeks and has the luxury to leave whenever she wants because she's been inconveniently traumatized?

These superficial pieces written by journalists devastated by what they experienced in troubled countries have become tiresome. ... If being in Haiti, or Bosnia, or Egypt, or Syria, or Libya is so damaging to these reporters' psyches, perhaps they should stop reporting from these places. Writing these woe-is-me pieces just doesn't cut it anymore.

Zing! In reality, McClelland has done non-woe-is-me reporting from Haiti. Not that anyone bothered to get off her high horse to do some Googling. Is there much of a difference between the reaction of these "lady bloggers" to McClellan's story and Nir Rosen's when Lara Logan was raped by a mob in Cairo? When news broke of Logan's assault, Rosen tweeted, "Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger... Look, she was probably groped like thousands of other women." Rosen was widely condemned for those tweets, and lost his job over them. But the incident shows that for some, sympathy for a sexual assault victim is proportional to the correctness of her politics.

And in that way, the debate over this article is useful in that it clarifies the hierarchy of self-righteousness standard on today's feminist blogs, which can be tough to figure out given all that coverage of Megan Fox's false consciousness. When it comes to Witnesses to Human Suffering Whose Testimony Must Not be Questioned, the ranking goes something like this:

1. From a developing nation
2. Victim of sexual violence
3. Sexually liberated
4. Fat
5. On a personal journey of self-healing

McClelland qualifies as #2, #3, and #5, which means that if she went toe-to-toe against a plus-sized model, she would win, but, as we can see, against #1, she loses.

With the release of Jarhead, Lawrence Weschler wondered in Harper's whether it was possible to make a truly anti-war movie--even seemingly anti-war films like Apocalypse Now manage to glamorize it with all their sweating and grunting and cathartic release. Likewise, even as McClelland writes of horrific violence and crushing poverty, she seems cool. (She even sexes a French U.N. peacekeeper.) It's hard not to wonder if McClelland's essay would have been so controversial if she'd used the same language but had taken up something less sexy, like kick-boxing or gardening, instead of rape fantasies to deal with her PTSD. Her story makes the reader uncomfortable because she seems glamorous even as she's describing the realities of life in the poorest country on this side of the Earth.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.