This op/ed is one of the most ridiculous I’ve read in a long, long time (and that’s pretty impressive). Heather MacDonald argues that high rates of sexual assault on campus don’t exist because women don’t always define their experiences as rape; she then goes on to say that women who say they were raped are lying sluts who exaggerate the truth and were probably asking for it. Compare:
A 2006 survey of sorority women at the University of Virginia, for example, found that only 23% of the subjects whom the survey characterized as rape victims felt that they had been raped — a result that the university’s director of sexual and domestic violence services calls “discouraging.” Equally damning was a 2000 campus rape study conducted under the aegis of the Department of Justice. Sixty-five percent of those whom the researchers called “completed rape” victims and three-quarters of “attempted rape” victims said that they did not think that their experiences were “serious enough to report.”
Believing in the campus rape epidemic, it turns out, requires ignoring women’s own interpretations of their experiences.
So what reality does lie behind the rape hype? I believe that it’s the booze-fueled hookup culture of one-night, or sometimes just partial-night, stands. Students in the ’60s demanded that college administrators stop setting rules for fraternization. The colleges meekly complied and opened a Pandora’s box of boorish, promiscuous behavior that gets cruder each year.
In all these drunken couplings, there may be some deplorable instances of forced and truly non-consensual sex. But most campus “rape” cases exist in the gray area of seeming cooperation and tacit consent, which is why they are almost never prosecuted criminally.
“Ninety-nine percent of all college rape cases would be thrown out of court in a twinkling,” observes University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Kors.
Many students hold on to the view that women usually have the power to determine whether a campus social event ends with intercourse. A female Rutgers student expressed a common sentiment in a university sexual-assault survey: “When we go out to parties and I see girls and the way they dress and the way they act … and just the way they are, under the influence and um, then they like accuse them of like, ‘Oh yeah, my boyfriend did this to me’ or whatever, I honestly always think it’s their fault.”
So as long as women aren’t defining their experiences as rape — a conclusion she draws based on the fact that many women decided not to report the incidents — it isn’t rape. Unless the woman says it is rape, and then it definitely wasn’t rape, it was her fault for how she dressed and acted.
At least MacDonald is consistent with her universal rule of “The slut asked for it, and she’s probably lying anyway.”
What she isn’t so good on is logical reasoning — although she’s excellent at twisting statistics to suit her purposes. She argues that the campus rape crisis is a myth because the “one in four” statistic put forth by activists must be overblown. Why? Well:
It is a central claim of these organizations that between a fifth and a quarter of all college women will be raped or will be the targets of attempted rape by the end of their college years. Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response uses the 20% to 25% statistic. Websites at New York University, Syracuse University, Penn State and the University of Virginia, among many other places, use the figures as well.
And who will be the assailants of these women? Not terrifying strangers who will grab them in dark alleys, but the guys sitting next to them in class or at the cafeteria.
If the one-in-four statistic is correct, campus rape represents a crime wave of unprecedented proportions. No felony, much less one as serious as rape, has a victimization rate remotely approaching 20% or 25%, even over many years. The 2006 violent crime rate in Detroit, one of the most violent cities in the U.S., was 2,400 murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults per 100,000 inhabitants — a rate of 2.4%.
Such a crime wave — in which millions of young women would graduate having suffered the most terrifying assault, short of murder, that a woman can experience — would require nothing less than a state of emergency. Admissions policies, which if the numbers are true are allowing in tens of thousands of vicious criminals, would require a complete revision, perhaps banning male students entirely. The nation’s nearly 10 million female undergraduates would need to take the most stringent safety precautions.
None of this crisis response occurs, of course — because the crisis doesn’t exist.
So MacDonald is basically saying that the argument “this particular community is victimized at an astounding rate” can’t possibly be true because, when you compare the victimization stats for the particular community with the stats for the general population, the community in question appears to be victimized at an astounding rate (and more on that disputed one-in-four statistic here). As another example, this would be like someone saying, “In the mid-nineties, one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 were in prison,” and my responding, “Well, that’s impossible, because only 1 in 37 adults are incarcerated, and if the incarceration rate for black men were that high, we’d have a national crisis on our hands.”
In other words, comparing the rates of victimization for a particular crime in a particular subset of the population to the victimization of the general population, and then using the huge disparity as evidence that specific victimization doesn’t exist, is ridiculous. The huge disparity is the whole point. Further, the one-in-four statistic is about sexual assault and attempted rape, reported and unreported. The crime stats that MacDonald examines are reported crimes; and it’s no big secret that a huge number of sexual assault survivors never report what happened to them. And why would they, when they know that a whole lot of people think like Heather MacDonald?
Then she goes into a bizarre attack on sex-positive sexual health education:
And even as the campus rape industry decries alleged male predation, a parallel campus sex bureaucracy sends the message that students should have recreational sex at every opportunity.
New York University offers workshops on orgasms and “Sex Toys for Safer Sex” (“an evening with rubber, silicone and vibrating toys”) in residence halls and various student clubs. Brown University’s Student Services helps students answer the compelling question: “How can I bring sex toys into my relationship?” Princeton University’s “Safer Sex Jeopardy” game for freshmen lists six types of vibrators and eight kinds of penile toys.
I will admit that I was one of those slutty, slutty co-eds who actually gave “Sex Toys for Safer Sex” workshops, and facilitated other sexual health events that would certainly send MacDonald into a tizzy. Yes, we brought a whole bag of sex toys into residence halls, and we talked about them. We talked about masturbation. We talked about sex. Mostly, we talked about safer sex practices, and how using sex toys could make sex fun and interesting, and could significantly decrease your risk of STI infection. That’s the whole “safer sex” part of the workshop name. The idea behind that workshop, and others, is that talking about sex demystifies it; if you have the sexual self-confidence to suggest using a vibrator with your partner (or, hell, to walk into a sex shop and just buy a vibrator for yourself), you’re going to feel more empowered to negotiate condom use, to go on birth control, to say no when you mean no, and to say yes when you mean yes. And if we can send the message that safer sex can be better sex; that it’s sexy to plan and take the necessary steps to keep yourself healthy; that safer sex isn’t a drag or an inconvenience, but something that can be worked in as pleasurable; and that the best sex is enjoyable and good for you, all the better.
But at heart, that’s the problem for MacDonald and other apologists for rape culture: If women have the ability to fully and freely say “yes,” and if we established a model of enthusiastic consent instead of just “no means no,” it would be a lot harder for men to get away with rape. It would be a lot harder to argue that there’s “gray area.” It would be a lot harder to push the idea that “date rape” is less serious than “real” rape, that women who are assaulted by acquaintances were probably teases, that what is now called “date rape” used to just be called “seduction.”
At first glance, it seems strange that MacDonald would simultaneously attack what she thinks is a hyped campus rape crisis and sex education on campuses. But it’s quite deliberate, and very telling. Anti-rape activism and sex-positive sexual health education are two sides to the same coin: They both challenge the dominant narrative that women’s bodies aren’t our own; they insist that sex is about consent and enjoyment, not violence and harm; and they attack a power structure that sees women as victims and men as predators. Anti-rape activists and sex-positive educators insist that men are not animals. Instead, men are rational human beings fully capable of listening to their partners and understanding that sex isn’t about pushing someone to do something they don’t want to; plenty of men are able to grasp the idea that sex should be entered into joyfully and enthusiastically by both partners, and that an absence of “no” isn’t enough — “yes” should be the baseline requirement. And women are not empty vessels to be fucked or not-fucked; we’re sexual actors who should absolutely have the ability to say “yes” when we want it, just like men, and should feel safe saying “no” — even if we’ve been drinking, even if we’ve slept with you before, even if we’re wearing tight jeans, even if we’re naked in bed with you. Finally, men need to feel empowered to say “no” also. As much as it’s assumed that women always have to be the brakes, it’s also assumed that men never refuse sex; and when women don’t know how to say “yes” and men don’t know how to say “no,” you’ve got an ugly scenario on your hands.
That’s what anti-rape activists, feminists, and sex-positive educators seek to fix. It’s conservatives like MacDonald who pine for a time when women kept their legs shut until men forced them open — and were then humiliated and scorned if they dared stand up for themselves.
The psychology of female rape apologists isn’t that hard to figure out. If you can tell yourself that rape survivors asked for it — that they dressed a certain way, flirted too much, drank too much, just changed their minds, or flat-out made it up — you feel safe. You don’t do those things, and so you aren’t at risk.
I’m sympathetic to the need for psychological self-protection. But not when it’s to the detriment of other women. MacDonald works for the conservative Manhattan Institute, and her view isn’t simply a personal one: It’s the standard right-wing misogynist line. And it’s part of a much broader assault on women’s rights and basic bodily autonomy.
- A bit more on that “one in four” statistic by Jill February 27, 2008
- Confessed Rapist Allowed to Stay at UMass Amherst by Jill March 8, 2010
- So Naomi Wolf is just trolling at this point, right? by Jill January 7, 2011
- President Obama Officially Recognizes Sexual Assault Awareness Month by Cara April 13, 2009
- Apparently, Texas Does NOT Charge Victims for Rape Kits by Cara May 16, 2009