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Feminism Friday: two posts from Jill at Feministe on rape myths vs statistics

Both of these were written in response to an op-ed in the LA Times by Heather MacDonald.

Post 1: It’s Only A Myth If You Believe That Those Sluts Were Asking For It

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.

Jill’s evisceration of this op-ed is a joy to read, and then she gets on to the larger feminist points:

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.

Obviously, moving from the traditional “consent” standard of non-dissent to a new standard of affirmative assent still won’t end rape altogether: there will always be the vicious predatory rapists (of the type that Heather MacDonald alleges all rapists to be, thus her arguments against the reported rates) for whom their victim’s actively expressed dissent and terror is basically the whole point. But, as Jill argues, by changing the culture to one where it is generally agreed that sexual contact without affirmative assent is ipso facto assault, the claimed “grey area” of acquaintance/date-rape will shrink away to almost nothing:

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.”

Post 2: A Bit More on That One In Four Statistic

The second thread gets derailed by one bunny214 doing a very good impression of a concern troll1 right out of the gate:

k and dont hate me for saying that last thing. its just..why do girls go to frat parties? yes, they want to have fun and everyone else is going. but if everyone else is jumping into a pool of sharks for fun, and you decide you have the right to do it too, why would you get mad if you got bitten? it just doesnt make sense. its like these girls are going “well, tonight i might get raped,but it’s TOTALLY worth risking for a few shitty beers and drunken, immature frat boys howling at me! teehee!” i dont see the appeal of college parties with certain males.

i mean, college parties dont have to be on campus or at sor./frats…

i think these poor college girls need to see there are other SAFER ways to party…and its not worth getting raped to hang out with a buncha assholes. why not hang out w/ NICE guys? perhaps NOT rapists?

i kno not all rapes are at parties, but im sure MOST are. everyone’s drunk and horny… ok im done. dont hate me. im not saying they ‘asked’ for it, but they just made a dumb choice to GO TO A HOUSE FULL O’ RAPISTS!! X(

This garnered predictable hostility, then when it appears that this commentor is not actually a troll the later responses to hir arguments end up making for an excellent Feminism 101 thread on victim-blaming and the feedback circle from it which drives what we call rape culture.

Jill’s comment in response debunks some of the myths that Bunny is repeating:

Statistically, a woman is most likely to be sexually assaulted in her own home. Women are victimized in private far more often; it’s men who are more likely to be victimized in public. People here are taking issue with your statements because there’s a broad rape narrative which tells women that leaving the house to socialize, to go to parties, to date men, whatever, opens them up to violence. That constant threat of rape is used as a tool of social control against all women.

In reality, men are 150 percent more likely to be victims of violent crimes than women. Men are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of crimes. Men are more likely to be assaulted, injured or killed when alcohol is involved. Men are more likely to be victimized by a stranger (63 percent of violent victimizations), whereas women are more likely to be victimized by someone they know (62 percent of violent victimizations). Women are more likely to be victimized in their home or in the home of someone they know, whereas men are more likely to be victimized in public.

So the constant narrative of “why do women go here when they know they might be raped?” isn’t innocent, even if you mean it that way. It adopts a greater framework that has always been used to keep women docile and domiciled. It’s men who are more likely to experience violence at places like frat parties, but no one suggests that they simply stay home or don’t socialize in a particular way, because everyone assumes that men are entitled to live in the public space as they see fit. Women don’t have that kind of entitlement. That’s why feminists get pissed off when people suggest that women shouldn’t go certain places or do certain things because they might get themselves raped; it’s both inaccurate and part of a larger misogynist message.

Bunny’s arguments end up being a very good illustration of a phenomenon Jill described in Post 1 above, in reference to Heather MacDonald:

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.

Arguing that women who have been sexually attacked must have done something “unwise” to provoke the attack may make other women feel safer about their own vulnerability, but it’s a delusion of safety (anything women do can be spun as “provocative”), and it directly harms other women. Don’t fall for it.

ADDIT: Change Happens: the SAFER blog (from Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) has a
roundup of posts responding to the Heather MacDonald op-ed.


1. Concern trolling: a particularly annoying form of trolling in which someone falsely pretends to be offering advice to favor a position they do not endorse; e.g. a creationist who masquerades as someone concerned about the arguments for evolution as an excuse to make criticisms. [back]

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23 comments on “Feminism Friday: two posts from Jill at Feministe on rape myths vs statistics

  1. I think that bunny214 is also really buying into the “men are animals” stereotype as well. I know quite a few men who respect women who also happened to be members of a fraternity during their college days.

  2. That’s definitely true, shelly.
    It’s so harmful. The animal myth – that men are slaves to their sex drives or simply unable to tell the difference between consent and non-consent – does double evil by dehumanizing men and letting them off the hook for sexual responsibility.

  3. Exactly, tanglethis.

    I also liked this comment on the Feministe thread for Post #2:

    February 27th, 2008 at 5:19 pm
    Holly says:

    If every girl in college avoided going to the stereotypical (and statistically false) “frat parties where rape is likely to happen,” then guess what would happen? More rapes somewhere else. It’s not the parties that are causing rape to happen.

  4. Other Feminism Friday posts
    (even if they haven’t used the tag)

    Melissa at Shakesville: Feminism 101: “Calling Out Fellow Progressives for Sexism Prevents Unity on the Left”

  5. I’ve added this to the post as well: Change Happens: the SAFER blog (from Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) has a roundup of posts responding to the Heather MacDonald op-ed.

  6. [...] recent l.a. times op-ed called “what campus rape crisis?” finally, a feminism 101 blog highlights those posts and also links to a round-up of blogger reactions put together by SAFER (a great response in the [...]

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    [disemvoweled by moderator as blatant trolling]

  8. A great comment at Feministing about the Heather MacDonald op-ed:

    She means that it can’t be a crisis if the world at large/authorities doesn’t consider it so. While refuting a general agreement by authorities that there is a crisis.

    It’s a separate supporting point than the victims not identifying it as rape.

    Her points: 1. 25% can’t be right, because if it was right everyone would be calling it a national emergency.

    2. 25% can’t be right because the questions in the studies were misleading.

    3. 25% can’t be right because not that many women say what happened to them was rape.

    1 is directly contradicted by the premise of her editorial, which is to refute the widely-held attitude that rape on campus is, in fact a crisis.

    It comes down to the fact that his is what she’s arguing:

    The general consensus that there is a rape crisis is wrong. If it were true that there was a rape crisis, there would be a general consensus that there is a crisis. But because the consensus is wrong (as supported by points 2 and 3), there is no consensus. Therefore there is no crisis.

    Posted by: Geek | February 25, 2008 02:16 PM

  9. Another great comment from the same Feministing thread:

    [snip]your comment ending in “which would include persuading young men to pay more attention to stop signs” I think is made in good faith, but only serves to reinforce the prevailing cultural attitude (pointed out by about 100 people upthread) that sexual access to a woman is the default, until or unless she takes up her somehow-god-given, heavy, and lifelong burden of sufficiently, at at times necessarily persistently and forcibly, persuading the man she does not, in fact, want to have sex. These boys and men should be looking for “Go signs” before they do one goddamn thing, not doing whatever they feel until they get a “stop sign,” if they choose to see or acknowledge it, let alone honor it. Aaaannndd, we’re back to affirmative / enthusiastic consent. Funny how that works.

    Posted by: Charity | February 26, 2008 07:35 PM

  10. “These boys and men should be looking for “Go signs” before they do one goddamn thing, not doing whatever they feel until they get a “stop sign,” if they choose to see or acknowledge it, let alone honor it. Aaaannndd, we’re back to affirmative / enthusiastic consent.”

    I’m all for affirmative / enthusiastic consent. I like it when a woman shows interest. The previous sentence is a little too black and white for me, though. Because there isn’t a standard cultural agreement on what constitutes a “Go” sign.

  11. Because there isn’t a standard cultural agreement on what constitutes a “Go” sign.

    That’s fair… case in point, the gentleman from Thinking Girl’s How To Avoid Becoming a Rapist post, who seemed to feel that the women in his office wearing office clothes were just displaying more Go signs than he could bear.

    But that’s splitting hairs on one word in an otherwise reasonable expectation: “sign” may be debatable, but the concept of affirmative consent seems pretty straightforward – no matter how you cut it, it indicates that both partners are actively communicating “yes” rather than suggesting or implying or whatever verbs are attached to misconstrued Go signs like clothing.

  12. there isn’t a standard cultural agreement on what constitutes a “Go” sign

    It doesn’t appear that there’s a standard cultural agreement on what constitutes a “Stop” sign either, given the pervasive “no doesn’t really mean no” assertions made about women and sexual consent.

    That’s why there needs to be a lot more discussion about the nature of consent, the social expectation that women are perceived to be sexually available unless they say “No” to some nebulous “convincing” standard, and what would constitute a generally accepted “Go” sign for both sexes instead.

  13. And combatting the belief that what women want or don’t want really doesn’t matter. No amount of signal-unmixing will help women raped because the rapist sees them as non-person.

    We need to fight the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies, are entitled to exert their power in the form of rape – be it at work at war, etc. And that ALL women are entitled to choose “yes” or “no”, whether they’re madonnas or whores in the eyes of men.

  14. tigtog

    You are completely wrong in the facts

    1. Wrong, everyone wouldnt, just the professional people actually important for the subject. Feminists off course will call rape crisis regardless of any conditon since most of them believe in postmodernism making facts completely unimportant. Lots of people will off course listen to feminists cause they think feminists care about facts. Macdonalds point is that people of any importance not acting tells us they do NOT believe the feminists. cause people with agenda does not limit themselves to the facts

    2. The questions were misleading, several of the women at the time lived with their boyfriend and the only persons actually claiming they had been raped was strangely enough the feminist researchers themselves.

    3. Yes that is absolutely true, a high number of the women specifically told the feminist researchers that they was NOT raped. The researchers used marxist agenda (false reality theory) to be able to ignore that and USE the not-raped women to get a higher number of victims than otherwise possible.

    “The general consensus that there is a rape crisis is wrong. If it were true that there was a rape crisis, there would be a general consensus that there is a crisis.”

    Actually NO, the general consensus that there is a rape crisis is wrong cause the people of importance doesnt ACT on it cause the general consensus that there is a rape crisis is a fabrication by feminists actually and intentionally CAUSING that general consensus. All it does is proving that general consensus is not fact and thus something being POPULAR to think does not make it any more true. Specifically not when the popularity itself was caused by the same people trying to gain from it.

  15. ” And that ALL women are entitled to choose “yes” or “no”, whether they’re madonnas or whores in the eyes of men”

    The problem is that not even the women themselves think SAYING no means no. In a study by Charlene Muehlenhard around 50% of the women said in regards to sex they used to say no even when they meant yes (as a test of his devotion of her and as a way of appearing less “slutty”). What we say is less than 10% of our communication, the rest is tonality and body language. So nobody, not even the women themselves think saying no means no when in bed. The only people obsessed with what the women say is feminists trying to gain from campaining the lie that the women themselves care as much as the feminists want us to think.

  16. Hm. I’d step in to address some of VEB’s concerns, but his/her grammar is so bad that I can barely understand what his/her complaint is.

    VEB, I’m game to discuss some of your points (and maybe correct your bizarre understanding of postmodernism) if you proofread and try again, but somehow I doubt that’s what interests you, given that you started your comment with an accusation (wrong/false/etc.).

  17. I couldn’t quite follow it either, tanglethis. I’ll make the point again that so many critics of this study seem to miss: that the women themselves often did not identify what happened to them as actual or attempted rape/sexual assault is the point of the study, not a valid criticism of it.

    * There are certain behaviours which the law describes as actual or attempted rape and/or sexual assault.
    * The researchers asked the women whether they had ever been involved in incidents involving such behaviours described in the law, with the behaviours described in neutral, non-legal language.
    * THEN they asked the women whether they considered their experiences to have been actual or attempted rape and/or sexual assault.
    * There was a strong mismatch between women who agreed that they had experienced certain behaviours on the list, and whether those women personally identified those experiences to have been actual or attempted rape and/or sexual assault.

    If a kid steals money from their parents, that is legally defined theft even if the parents don’t call it that for whatever reason. If one person coerces sexual relations from another person then that is legally defined rape or sexual assault even if the coerced person doesn’t call it that for whatever reason.

    The interesting point about the study is why so many women who have experienced what the law defines as rape/sexual assault refuse to call it that themselves.

  18. that’s splitting hairs on one word in an otherwise reasonable expectation

    I disagree that it’s splitting hairs (or else I’m misreading the comment). Saying “don’t look for the absence of Stop signals, look for Go signals, or something you can rationalize as a Go signal” changes nothing. If anything it makes things worse.

  19. If anything it makes things worse

    Worse for whom?

    • Worse for potential victims. “She was wearing a skirt,and had had a drink, and was at a party, and had had sex before” falls into the category of “can be rationalized as a Go signal.”

  20. I’ve always been confused by this statistic, because it seems counter-intuitively high. Where can I find out more about the methodology that produced it? Or else, please can someone explain it to me? (The link to the SAFER blog round-up seems to have expired)

    Most of the discussions about this seem to be about the concept of “rape culture”, which I understand – and am completely convinced by. I’m not questioning the 1-in-4 statistic because I’m questioning the existence of a rape culture. I’m not saying that the 1-in-4 statistic *must* be impossible. I just want to know what questions, definitions etc. were used to get that statistic.

    For example, according to the MacDonald article, one of the questions was, “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?”. To me, that seems ambiguous, because it’s not clear when the act of ‘not wanting to’ took place. What if a sober woman had no intention of having sex, got drunk, actively consented to sex whilst drunk, and regretted it afterwards? Would this be defined as rape by that question? Should it be? I would agree that a woman who only consented to sex because she was drunk had been exploited, but I’m reluctant to say she’d been raped. Am I being offensive? (I honestly don’t mean to be!)

  21. is it wrong to defend yourself from rape? a guy once tried it on me and i stabbed him pretty hard with a pencil, if he did it again should i finish it or would that put me into more trouble?

    • @puzzled,

      Everybody has the legal right to self-defence against violence from others, including rape: it is an “affirmative defence” against charges of assault against an attacker, up to and including charges of the homicide of that attacker. However, the jury doesn’t have to accept it as a valid defence. Any self-defence beyond what is needed to make the attacker stop for long enough that you can escape is most ill-advised.

      A jury will be instructed to weigh whether the self-defence was excessive if the attacker ends up badly injured or dead, which could indeed end up with the victim who fights back hard in a whole lot of trouble. It will come down to how credible the jury find the defendant victim as a witness, and that largely depends on how sympathetic they find the defendant victim and how willing they are to believe that a rape attack occurred. If the jury doesn’t believe that the attacker was attempting rape, they may find the defendant guilty of aggravated assault/homicide.

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