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A Culture of Rape

A recent <i>Wall Street Journal</i> editorial used tired old 'blame the victim' reasoning to explain away two high-profile rape cases.
 
 
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Fresh from the media's trusty "Feminism is responsible for every evil thing that can happen to a woman or a man" files, is a new one: Feminists cause rape. That's the premise of an April 14 Wall Street Journal opinion piece headlined, "Ladies, You Should Know Better: How Feminism Wages War on Common Sense."

In a rehash of some of the oldest blame-the-victim nonsense, Naomi Schaefer Riley declared that, although sexual assault is bad ('natch), many women are bringing it on themselves by "engaging in behavior that is 'moronic'."

Upon learning that DNA evidence links Darryl Littlejohn -- the bouncer charged in the gruesome, high-profile rape and murder of graduate student Imette St. Guillen in New York -- to a prior sexual assault, Schaefer Riley's ultimate conclusion is not that American culture and law needs to find real solutions for punishing serial rapists or, more importantly, preventing men from perpetrating such criminal behavior in the first place. Rather, she declares that this brutal attack should serve as a cautionary tale for women, who should "use a little more common sense" lest they go out and get themselves raped.

"Ms. St. Guillen was last seen in a bar alone and drinking at 3 a.m. on the Lower East Side of Manhattan," Shaefer Riley wrote, and "more than a few of us have been thinking that a 24-year-old woman should know better."

If you're wondering who are these "more than a few of us" who'd look at a brutal assault such as the one against St. Guillen and think, "Wow, what a stupid dead girl," it's worth noting the company this Wall Street Journal opinion writer keeps. Her prior work on religion was financially subsidized by the John M. Olin Foundation, a right-wing foundation which -- before it closed shop -- placed hundreds of thousands of dollars into media programs designed to convince the public that feminists whine too much about rape, that date rape is a "myth" and that the Violence Against Women Act is unnecessary. (For example, Olin was a major funder of Christina Hoff Sommers' error-filled screed "Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women," a highly inaccurate, widely debunked polemic that nevertheless garnered a heap of press coverage about feminism's supposed failures.)

Now that we've played "follow the money" for a bit of instructive backstory, it's time to get back to the WSJ commentary, which wasn't content to blame just one victim for her own demise. After dismissively referring to the heated public debate surrounding the alleged gang rape of a 27-year-old North Carolina Central University student and exotic dancer as "much hand-wringing about the alleged rape of a stripper," Schaefer Riley writes that, since the woman didn't anticipate the possibility of being attacked and [didn't] refuse to work the Duke University lacrosse team's party, "A stripper with street smarts is apparently a Hollywood myth."

The trouble with this sort of drivel is not simply that it's insensitive and insulting to the victim and, indeed to all women -- it is -- the problem is that under the guise of advising women about ways they can keep themselves safe, Schaefer Riley promotes dangerous misperceptions about the nature of rape in American culture. While there's certainly something to be said for women (and men) to thoughtfully evaluate the social choices we make with an eye to personal and public safety, staying sober and staying home will never inoculate women against sexual violence.

But keeping women safe wasn't Schafer Riley's real goal -- nor were St. Guillen and the woman at the center of the Duke U. firestorm her ultimate targets. In a typical rhetorical argument often offered by conservatives who lobby against feminist anti-violence efforts, the WSJ's opinion writer claimed that feminists have created a culture of female irresponsibility by telling female college students that:

"… if a woman is forced against her will to have sex, it is 'not her fault,' and that women always have the right to 'control their own bodies.' Nothing could be truer. But the administrators who utter these sentiments and the feminists who inspire them rarely note which situations are conducive to keeping that control and which threaten it. They rarely discuss what to do to reduce the likelihood of a rape. Short of reeducating men, that is."

If the author really believed that it is "not her fault" if a woman is sexually assaulted, it's likely she would have devoted more column inches to discussing men's responsibility to educate other men about not abusing women -- as Jackson Katz does in the newly released book " The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help" -- and fewer to bashing rape and murder victims as too stupid to prevent the attacks against them. But ideological arguments aside, it is simply not true that campus feminist education and advocacy programs fail to include discussions about safety issues.

Contrary to decades of concerted conservative attacks on campus feminism, anti-rape education and organizing is very rarely limited to what Schaefer Riley describes as "radical feminist warn[ings] that men are evil and dangerous." In fact, self-defense classes have become very popular on college campuses, and most schools offer awareness-raising programs on the role alcohol plays in a large percentage of sexual assaults. A great number of women's centers and women's studies programs conduct ongoing discussions about the need to hold men accountable for the crimes they commit against women while at the same time educating women about ways they can minimize some risk, such as avoiding binge drinking, not accepting anything to drink that you didn't pour yourself (a caution against roofies and other date rape drugs), and going to parties with one or more friends rather than solo for a built-in safety net.

On campuses and in communities across the country, anti-rape education programs tend to discuss those tips within the context of the importance of women being aware of their surroundings and attempting to steer clear of potentially high-risk situations. Most effective and ethical programs, certainly those that are feminist-led, note that while minimizing risk is a worthy goal, it is impossible for women to prevent sexual assault, as the majority of rape cases involve victims' boyfriends, husbands, relatives, friends or acquaintances … not bouncers who accost strangers in dark alleys or drunken lacrosse players who brag via email about how they're going to kill and skin strippers.

Since feminist efforts to educate and empower young women through self-defense training and safety education pokes a hole in Schaefer Riley's premise, she prefers to ignore those efforts. It's the complimentary feminist work of holding men accountable for their behavior and demanding that they refrain from violent criminal assault that really gets her goat. "Reeducating men," the author implies, is useless as a strategy for reducing the likelihood of rape. It "doesn't matter" why the Duke rape happened (if it happened), Shaefer Riley insists, because "whatever the problem is, it won't be fixed this year or possibly ever, even with best sorts of attitude adjustment. Perhaps the law of averages says that, with 14 million men in U.S. colleges today, a few of them will be rapists. What to do? For starters: Be wary of drunken house parties."

So far, here's what we've learned: Women who go out drinking in the city ask for rape. Strippers who work bachelor parties ask for rape. College students who get plastered ask for rape … and in the latter case, "feminism may be partly to blame" for, Schaefer Riley claims, making hard drinking appear to be a gender equality issue.

Having visited several dozen colleges throughout the country since 2001 as part of an ongoing lecture series on women, media, politics and pop culture, I've spoken extensively with young women and men on campuses in New York, New Orleans, South Dakota, California and many in between. In the last five years, I have yet to meet even one student who identifies drinking and partying as yardsticks of gender equity. Advertisers have certainly tried to make that case to young women -- as pioneering ad critic Jean Kilbourne illustrates in her documentary "Spin the Bottle: Sex Lies and Alcohol" -- but blaming feminists for antifeminist images in corporate marketing campaigns is sloppy logic at best. Arguing that men are essentially violent, and women just have to learn to avoid rapists is the most useless strategy for sexual assault prevention bandied about since January 2000, when Randy Thornhill, the quack pseudo-science writer who co-authored the non-peer-reviewed "A Natural History of Rape," went on NBC's Today Show to warn that to reduce their chances of being raped, women must understand "that there are costs associated with dressing provocatively and going out alone at night and so forth."

Despite the fact that the book based its research not on humans but on the apparently coercive sexual practices of scorpion flies, the New York Times and numerous major media outlets repeated -- often uncritically -- Thornhill and co-author Craig Palmer's theory that feminists should stop teaching that rape is a crime of power rather than sex, and instead should adopt the more "evolutionarily informed" alternative of making teenage boys sit through a lecture on how "Darwinian selection" is the reason why a man "may be tempted to demand sex even if he knows that his date truly doesn't want it," and why he "may mistake a woman's friendly comment or tight blouse as an invitation to sex."

The "common sense" that Schaefer Riley says feminists have trained out of women is sorely missing from this commentary, as it is from most attempts to shift responsibility away from perpetrators and onto victims. Research has shown that sexual assault victims are far less likely to come forward when newsrooms turn allegations of rape into sensationalized spectator sports a la the Duke case, or when media brand women who file charges as promiscuous liars "crying rape" (as we often heard in coverage of the Kobe Bryant trial). Add to that a Wall Street Journal editorial labeling rape victims "morons" for getting themselves attacked, and what you've got is a recipe for fear and disempowerment.

A version of this piece originally appeared on WIMN's Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND …, which features more than 50 writers analyzing media coverage of women and a wide range of social, cultural, political and international issues.

Jennifer L. Pozner is a journalist, lecturer, and founder and executive director of Women In Media & News (WIMN), a national women’s media analysis, education and advocacy group. She can be reached at info@wimnonline.org.