Emily Yoffe: A Further Catalog Of Ways She Is Wrong
I wrote earlier today about Emily Yoffe’s longish post about how there’s nothing we can do about rape except tell girls not to drink with boys. She may not say that’s what she says, but that is, in effect, what she says.
I’m not the only person who thinks what she wrote is deeply wrongheaded and offensive. In fact, virtually everyone whose opinion is worth a damn to me is hoping mad about this piece. And part of it is because this is a routine for her. Quoting Alexandra at Feministing from the last time she pulled this stuff:
Last January, you told another reader whose friend was considering pressing chargesagainst a man she believes raped her while she was drunk that “trying to ruin someone else’s life is a poor way to address one’s alcohol and self-control problems.”
Six months later, in the one column last year in which you accepted that intercourse with a drunk woman might be rape, you managed to spend a good chunk of your response talking about how women set themselves up for assault by drinking; in a follow-up, you defended your victim-blaming as pragmatism. (It’s unclear to me why this account avoids your usual critiques; it could be written by the voiceless friend from the most recent letter.)
Later in 2012, you answered a letter from a woman who had been raped by her husband years ago, and had spent much time rebuilding trust in him through an active focus onconsent and communication. She was shaken after waking up after a recent night of wine unable to remember consenting to sex, but you laugh her off as “prim, punctilious, punitive” because her story doesn’t sound like a Law & Order plot.
I have some thoughts on all the reasons Yoffe is wrong.
Yoffe is wrong, as her Slate colleague Amanda Hess, tells us, because you don’t solve a structural problem with a personal self-help solution. We didn’t deal with drunk driving in this country by telling people, “hey, you can’t control drunk drivers, so minimize driving when the bars are closing!” We dealt with it by a combination of a massive public awareness campaign, and imposing real accountability- not just jail sentences, but more prosaically, license suspensions. Drunk driving costs the drunk drivers something now, and it didn’t three decades ago. We didn’t end drunk driving deaths, but we knocked them down a lot.
Yoffe is wrong because rapists are not weather systems. I mentioned this earlier today, and I’ve written about it before. The implicit model of rapists in her piece is one of an unthinking phenomena, one that does not respond to stimulus, that therefore we can’t do anything about but get out of the way. There’s a pernicious undercurrent to this thinking in many areas, from forest fires to global climate change – but for a moment, let’s just accept that there are some things we can’t prevent or deter. All we can do it look out for them, avoid encountering them, and minimize the damage when they occur. Yoffe, and many others, treat rape like this. That’s wrong. Often, they start from the proposition that rapists are bad people who don’t misunderstand, but rather rape because they want to. That’s true. But they take the wrong lesson from the research that shows us that. They infer that the rapists are irrational and can’t be influenced, when the Predator Theory research indicates just the opposite: that they do, in fact, respond to stimulus, by choosing the tactics that are least likely to get them caught. I’ve seen it in small, tightly-knit communities, too. When they have enough victims report and can no longer convince people of narratives about crazy victims, misunderstandings or one-time poor judgment, they move on to new communities where they can get a fresh shot at bullshitting their way through their victims’ reports. Since we know that they use the tactics that work and respond rationally to stimulus, we know that they are not like weather systems and we should discard that model.
Yoffe is wrong because if men, women and alcohol are a bad combination, it is sexist and unjust for women to be the ones excluded. Jaclyn Friedman was eloquent on this subject five years ago, and Ann Friedman brilliantly flipped Yoffe’s construction on its head this morning, and Soraya Chemaly picks up the same theme. Yoffe manages to re-make a Victorian, angel-of-the-hearth argument about how women’s moral purity will protect them and into the bargain civilize the savage male: but then she has the gall to call it a feminist argument!
Yoffe is wrong, continuing the same thought, because she ignores the moral agency of men. There are a group of people who can consistently be counted on to argue that men’s sexuality is animalistic, feral, uncontrolled, dangerous; that men just can’t help themselves. These people are the rape apologists. If men can’t help themselves but to rape, why is it even wrong? This argument usually isn’t stated explicitly, because when stated explicitly it’s too over-the-top. But it is at the core of every comment that rape has to do with how the victim was dressed or whether she gave off the “wrong” signals. There is a group of people who can be counted on consistently to argue that men are people with both the ability and responsibility to be moral actors and control their impulses, sexual or otherwise. These people are antirape feminists.
Yoffe is wrong because what she proposes will not fix anything. It is, in fact, a vicious cycle. The rapists’ Social License to Operate allows them to get away with it if their offenses fit within certain paradigms where society will largely side with them, but not if they don’t. Rapists who jump out of dark alleys and rape strangers with weapons, if they are caught and their identity can be proven, are often actually convicted. There are a lot fewer excuses for them. Rapists who rape their acquaintances using alcohol and no overt force usually are not even reported, and if reported are rarely prosecuted. They are very likely to get away with it. The whole society will agree in the abstract that rape is wrong, but there are many kinds of rape that the culture will refuse to call what it is. Because rapists are rational bad actors, it is those kinds of circumstances where many of the rapes happen.
Here’s the part where Yoffe creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: woman drinking heavily with men is one of those areas where, if a rape happens, prosecution is very difficult. It’s difficult because the survivor’s memory is impaired, and that we can’t do anything about. But it is also impaired because the thing that never doesn’t get said by internet trolls, “she deserves it” or “what did she expect?” is in the back of a lot of people’s minds. Yoffe is repeating that. I expect she would deny she said they deserve it, and literally, she didn’t. But “what do they expect? In this situation it’s bound to happen” is an entirely fair characterization of what she did say.
[Content note for description of rape aftermath]
Let’s say you are Yoffe’s daughter – hey, she brought it up – and you get drunk with the cute guys down the dorm hall, black out, and wake up leaking semen and vomit on the sheets. What are you going to do? She can’t tell her mom. Would you? And get an earful of I Told You So? Worse, she already got an earful of I Told You So. I can’t think of a rape survivor who I’ve ever talked about it with who didn’t self-blame. The whole culture speaks with that voice. So Yoffe’s daughter can only have internalized a double dose of it. She wouldn’t report to anybody, and I’d be surprised if she ever manage to stop blaming herself. And … the rapist wins. Nobody knows what he did! No consequences, no attention from authorities, not even the social sanction of the ladies from the dorm floor avoiding him. And there will be a next victim. The more Yoffe’s idea prevails, the more free he is to do what’s already working for him. The stupider we all agree that her conduct was, the less chance she will ever get, or even seek, redress. Yoffe is making the tactic work.
Yoffe is wrong because if she thinks it’s too hard to change the rapists’ behavior, she has no basis to think that we can change drinking behavior. Her argument about rapists is hazy and poorly constructed, it amounts to an educational administrator saying that catching rapists isn’t their core mission. Well, neither is not discriminating based on race or sex, but we expect them to do that, and they can be sued if they fail, so they put systems in place to comply. We all have to do things that are not our core mission. That’s life. Yoffe seems to get that the rapists are a small subset of the population – but then throws up her hands. We can’t change them, weather theory, done. But her call to arms to control how the unladylike ladies drink to excess, that, that she treats as if, now that Emily Yoffe has spoken, we’ll get right on that. At a minimum, if someone who has more patience for her crap than I do (I admit to really disliking her for a long time now) will sit her down and pin her down on this, she’d probably concede that changing young adult drinking behavior is a decades-long mission. Well, if that’s a decades-long mission, and removing rapists’ Social License to Operate is also a decades-long mission, why is the first the better project? Implicitly, Yoffe writes the second off as impossible and elides the difficulty of the first, when at least parity-of-big-job seems the more reasonable analysis.
Yoffe is so full of fail, and on this issue consistently so, that there are other ways she is wrong that I have not thought of, or at least permutations I have not explored to the ones I’ve listed. But this is what I have for now.