News & Politics

There Is No Internet 'Outrage Machine,' Just Outrageous Rape Apologists

Don't court controversy by whining about 'privileged' victims and then feign surprise at the backlash. Your time's up.

Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock

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."

There's no doubt that online arguments can be head-bangingly awful. (I'm on Twitter, I know!) But 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 falselyasserting 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.

In the midst of an incredibly important feminist moment in this country – with reproductive rights on the line, a likely female presidential candidatein 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.

And if, after hearing story after story of women abused by attackers and then the system meant to protect them, you spend your time opining that poor men have to go through the trouble of getting an explicit "yes" from their partners before engaging in sexual acts, maybe you need to spend less time writing and more time on a therapist's couch. After all, who besides a rapist thinks that getting an enthusiastic "yes" to sex is an unreasonable standard?

Telling feminists that that they're overreacting to rape is part of a long tradition of gaslighting women who have caught on to injustices. Somehow detractors think if they say it often enough and in powerful enough places, we'll start to doubt ourselves.

But people were outraged over George Will's statements – as they likely will be over Bernstein and countless others to follow – not because they're "crazy" or overreacting. They were outraged because what these men are saying is outrageous. The good news is that the more shameless their baiting becomes, the more we know that feminists are winning – and that every column huffing that anti-rape laws have gone too far, or that sexual assault statistics are wrong, or that saying no really isn't "no" when you're in his room or bed or you've had a drink, are cries for attention from desperate men. Men who know that it's easier to paint themselves as victims of hysterical outrage rather than face the truth—they're the real relics.

So until regressive men get used to the idea that women have rights and consent is mandatory for consensual sex, the rest of us will just have to deal with the occasional sexist hissy fit.

And truly, that's more sad than outrageous.

Jessica Valenti is a daily columnist for the Guardian US. She is the author of four books on feminism, politics and culture, and founder of Feministing.com

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