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Emily Yoffe’s Rape Apologism: Some Very Quick Thoughts

October 16, 2013

I have not been writing much due to other demands on my time.  However, sometimes things happen and I feel it’s just too important to sit out.  I don’t really have time to write, so I’ll do what I can now and then try to add more later.

I’m not linking to Yoffe’s piece.  You can find it.  It’s infuriating.  It’s long, thoughtful, and morally bankrupt.  Because this is a habit of mind with Yoffe, I’m really personally angry at her and I think she needs to lose her job, but I’ll take that up in another piece.  I don’t think Yoffe is just wrong about a thing that people reason together about.  I think Yoffe is doing harm,  that she’s throwing up her hands and declaring that the rapists won, and there’s nothing we can do about it except to try to avoid them.  Basically, it’s the “weather system” theory of rape.  That’s wrong.  Saying that will not protect anyone, will not help fix the problem, and actually makes it easier for people to stop attempts to hold rapists accountable. 

What she said, basically, is that if women don’t want to get raped, they shouldn’t drink with boys.  She tosses in the occasional aside that she blames the perpetrators.  I’ve addressed that sort of thing here already and I’ll quote only briefly:

The argument will proceed from the dreaded BUT to focus on what SHE did, and how wrong and stupid it was, and ultimately conclude that if women just curtailed their behavior in one or several additional ways, the problem would be solved.

The sort of disclaimer Yoffe deploys — the sort that says of course the perpetrators are solely responsible but … that sort of disclaimer is utterly without value, or as Tyrion Lannister of the G.R.R. Martin canon said, “nothing someone says before the word ‘but’ really counts.”

Here’s the real objection I have to Yoffe:  she belongs to the surrender caucus.  Not only implicit, but really explicit in her analysis is that we can’t or won’t do anything to hold the perpetrators accountable.  She cites Lisak, so she obviously knows and doesn’t contest that the rapists are doing it on purpose, that they use alcohol a tactic.  But she instead of looking for ways to treat the disease — the repeat rapists, and the social constructs that allow them to get away with it, rape culture and more particularly, the Social License to Operate — she argues at length for treating the symptom.    She gives up on catching and punishing them, in favor of telling women that they can’t do something men take for granted the right to do. 

That’s pragmatic, she argues.  But it’s not pragmatic.  It’s negotiating with terrorists.  That’s a loaded word.  But when a small portion of the male population keeps virtually all women in fear and causes them to curtail their freedoms to avoid violence, doesn’t it fit?  The argument Yoffe makes would follow if she bought the story that most rape is  miscommunication, a story that she seems to understand is discredited.  But it doesn’t fit with the story she seems to acknowledge, which is that the problem is the repeat rapists who know that what they do is wrong and do it anyway using the tactics least likely to get them caught.

If the presence of women, men and alcohol together is a catalyst for mostly men to commit criminal acts of rape, then why are the women the element to remove from the equation?  Ann Friedman picked that up right away.

Look, people whose response to terrorists is, “let’s give them what they want and maybe they’ll leave us alone” are both cowardly and immoral.  We heard a lot of patriotic chest-beating in the Bush years about how some people hate freedom.  But there’s a kernel of truth there, the old saw that is a very rough paraphrase from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, those who give up liberty for a little temporary security deserve neither.  The people who are full of “pragmatic” advice about how not to “get raped,” well, their advice always comes down to the same thing: curtail your liberty for security.  That’s un-American.  Those people really do hate us for our freedom. 

I won’t believe any of those people are serious about stopping rape until they actually do something to hold a rapist accountable. 

There’s a challenge, Emily.  Go find a rapist and make something happen: prosecution, expulsion, public shaming, removal from the party invite list — I am not being facetious.  Something, anything.  Go blame a rapist and try to make it stick.  Go.  Now. 



21 Comments leave one →
  1. Caterina permalink
    October 16, 2013 1:02 pm

    Wait, Dear Prudence Emily Yoffe? [headscratch] Going to Google, because I read her and I missed this.

  2. Janipurr permalink
    October 16, 2013 5:11 pm

    Thank you. You said what I was thinking so much better than I could have.

  3. Jay permalink
    October 17, 2013 6:07 am

    Yoffe’s piece is actually a little refreshing for me, because she’s finally described, in as many words, her opinions about rape. Anyone who has read Dear Prudence for years (as I did, before I stopped, because her opinions about rape are enraging) could see the foundation upon which she built her advice, but she was never so up-front about her position that the victim is responsible for the rape. A lot of people I talked to online had plausible deniability on it. Now they don’t. Now she’s come right out and said what she thinks and isn’t dancing around it, and it’s finally apparent how appalling it is, and how utterly unqualified she is to act as a life coach to the world.

  4. Alyssa permalink
    October 19, 2013 3:04 am

    I have a lot of problems with Yoffe’s article, some of which you mention. But I also have a problem with yours.

    “Curtail your liberty for security” you said–my liberty to get black out drunk in a room full of strangers? Yeah, that’s a fundamental liberty I’m giving up right there, on par with voting and freedom of speech and religion.

    Yoffe should have done a lot differently in her article, but don’t pretend that telling women that they are less likely to be raped if they don’t get drunk is on par with limiting our freedom. I don’t need to choose between fighting for society to prosecute rape/end rape cuture OR being proactive about my own personal safety. I can do both.

    I’ve learned a great deal from this blog, particularly in how I can do both of the above, so this article was frankly a disappointment.

    • October 19, 2013 8:17 am

      You can be proactive about your own safety without undermining antirape messaging. But you can’t tell other women not to do things that men take for granted as social freedoms without compromising – I mean this, significantly compromising – antirape messaging. You can not walk along in unlit places at night, you can not drink around men, you can decide you won’t dress in other ways. But as soon as you tell other women that doing those things will help them not get raped, you’re no longer looking out for your own safety.

      I understand the frustration with those of us who hop on any attempt to talk about how women should limit their behavior; what, one reasonably asks, can we do that isn’t a commitment of several decades? There are real, concrete things. I’m working on a post about that.

      • Alyssa permalink
        October 19, 2013 8:59 am

        I’m sorry, I don’t agree with this. I’m not talking about telling women, “Don’t worry about rape, just follow these simple rules and it will never happen to you!” I’m talking about giving people the knowledge they need to make decisions aware of all the risks. I don’t consider that to be compromising anti-rape messaging. I consider that to be treating women like adults capable of making their own decisions, and who should have the right to do so fully aware of all information.

        If you’re suggesting that we can’t give women information on how to lessen their chance of being raped because if we do the rape apologists will use it to victim-blame, then that is terrible reasoning as well as a far more serious curtailing of our freedoms.

        Also, I don’t consider women binge drinking to be a social freedom in need of great defense–if anything, it’s young women (and men) giving in to peer pressure to engage in behavoir that’s risky enough even without the threat of rape (alcohol poisoning, injuries, impaired judgement, future alcoholism). This isn’t like the slut-shaming cop. This is common sense advice that, with a college-wide campaign could help decrease binge drinking–and everything that goes along with it. I don’t understand why you and so many others seem to think that somehow we can only fight this war on one front.

        You compare this to drunk driving in your other article and talk about how we combated that with increased accountability for drunk drivers but also a “massive public awareness campaign.” Part of that campaign was attempts to change individual behavior like promoting designated drivers and telling people they didn’t have to get in a car with someone who is drunk. Why is rape the only topic where we can’t talk about women’s behavior?

      • October 19, 2013 2:27 pm

        The public awareness campaign was not about getting drivers in the other cars to avoid circumstances where they might encounter drunk drivers. It was about (1) convincing the drunk drivers that what they were doing was wrong and could hurt people; (2) convincing the drunk drivers that they would face consequences; and (3) convincing bystanders and passengers to stop the drunk drivers. Likewise, I want to focus all attention — all of it — around rape prevention on (1) convincing the rapists that they are wrong and hurt people; (2) convincing the rapists that they will face consequences;and (3) convincing bystanders to stop the rapists.

    • JamieB permalink
      October 23, 2013 4:23 pm

      I loved Thomas’s response to a comment in the article “Cockblocking Rapists Is A Moral Obligation; or, How To Stop Rape Right Now:”

      “The best advice you can tell her is to tell her how the rapists act and what their targeting routine looks like. You can tell her that defending her boundaries, even if it makes her a “bitch,” is an important component of her safety, that people who think violating them is funny are assholes and people violate them progressively to see what she’ll do are dangerous. That’s more important than anything you can say about alcohol, and it’s what I’ve told my own relatives in high school.”

      Telling a woman she can prevent rape is almost like telling a raped woman she deserved it for not preventing it. I found Yoffe’s article particularly offfensive because in the cases of my numerous sexual assaults and rapes, I was sober and the men (all but 1) were the ones imbibing. Believe me, I am a pretty “safe” and boring individual. All the “this is how you avoid rape” rhetoric did nothing for me. By the time I got to college I shaved my head and started dressing in baggy boy clothes, even this did nothing. Though I was able to “avoid” rape by that point, I was still assaulted sexually a few times in college. By sophmore year I acquired not one but 2 stalkers, one through work and one through school. I’m not saying to abandon common sense safety, especially since rape is not the only crime people would like to avoid. I’m saying none of that advice did anything for me but I sure wish someone said to me what I just quoted from Thomas above. It’s brilliant! I also like his list for a public awareness campaign in the comments here.

    • Miriam permalink
      October 23, 2013 10:03 pm

      This is old by Internet standards, but in case you have notifications on, I want to expand a bit on why telling women not get blackout drunk as a strategy to avoid rape is problematic. Thomas alluded, but I want to be explicit.

      The first problem is that it is telling women that they shouldn’t do something that men can freely do because of men. Why not direct the campaign at men? If men are the wrongdoers, shouldn’t women be the ones allowed to get blackout drunk while men are not? Canada has had success with its Don’t Be That Guy public awareness campaign, so this isn’t even an untested wild and crazy idea. This is something that Yoffe should have known about it she planned to write about college rape and binge drinking because she should have done her due diligence before writing the article.

      The second problem is that focusing on rape as a reason to avoid binge drinking genders an issue that is not gendered (and IMHO, in the least effective way if a person is serious about reducing the culture of binge drinking). Contrary to what Yoffe claims, women already are told over and over about the dangers of drinking and sexual assault. Men are not. A rape-focused public awareness campaign would only exacerbate that discrepancy and lead to the portrayal of binge drinking as a woman’s problem, but not a man’s. In addition to that, it will lead to men who are sexually assaulted while drunk to be less likely to identify what has happened to them as rape and to bystanders also being less likely to intervene. While this is less prevalent than the reverse, rape happens in all combinations of genders. (I suspect that female-on-male rape is underreported both officially and unofficially because there is no (or a small?) amount of scholarly research to try and find the numbers.) If the issue at hand is really wanting to reduce binge drinking, then focus on reducing binge drinking with campaigns targeted at all genders.

      The third problem is that there just isn’t a way to do it without adding to a victim blaming culture. The reality we’re in is one in which survivor’s cases are regularly dropped because alcohol was consumed regardless of the other supporting evidence. Too many people already believe that consuming alcohol makes a woman de facto consent to anything that happens to her.

      Fourth problem is that the data Yoffe quotes and the data I’ve seen is about any level of alcohol consumed–not blackout drunk specifically. It may be one thing to say, “don’t get blackout drunk” (good sensible advice for any person, regardless of the issue of rape), but in this culture, it is not feasible to say “don’t get tipsy” or “don’t drink at all.”

      Finally, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that except for alcoholics, most people do not intentionally get blackout drunk on a repeated basis because getting blackout drunk sucks. However, the line between social lubricant/pleasantly tipsy and blackout drunk for women is, on statistical average, a lot thinner than the parallel line for men. Sometimes an amount that would normally be fine just isn’t, particularly in college when many people are still learning their limits. In the most recent high profile case of Maryville, Daisy’s account is clear that she didn’t intend to become blackout drunk. She didn’t realize how much she was drinking or how it would affect her.

      People don’t get blackout drunk because they don’t know that it’s risky behavior. They get blackout drunk because they’re deliberately engaging in risky behavior (for whatever reason) or because it was an accident or because the social pressure was stronger than their fear of the risk.

    • Erica permalink
      October 28, 2013 9:56 pm

      I am a passionate advocate for better transit and walkable cities. I think auto-oriented sprawl development patterns have done terrible harm to our culture.

      But when I see that Saudi men can drive, and Saudi women cannot “for their own protection,” I don’t think the country is halfway to a transit-oriented paradise. I think: men get to do something that women don’t. And it doesn’t matter that the prohibition is “only” cultural and not legal, or that it’s on something I personally think has gotten out of hand.

      Another thing: I had a hell of a lot of fun in my 20s getting drunk and dancing at clubs. No, it didn’t improve my mind or strike a blow for human rights, but neither did it set me on a path to alcoholic ruination. It was simply pleasurable, and I had every bit as much right to it as the guys did. Not every equal right is noble and profound, and your willingness to give up “lesser” rights on my behalf is not appreciated.

      • November 9, 2013 9:58 pm

        Yes, Erica, her/their willingness to give up “lesser” rights on women’s behalf is not appreciated. Exactly.

  5. October 19, 2013 3:40 pm

    Thank you for this, Thomas. This is absolutely brilliant, especially the “negotiating with terrorists” analogy:

    “…people whose response to terrorists is, “let’s give them what they want and maybe they’ll leave us alone” are both cowardly and immoral.”

  6. October 29, 2013 8:30 pm

    On reading the article, she has also forgotten that a lot of people go out fully intending to only have one or two drinks, and then alcohol gets the better of them and they have four or five.
    So basically, because of this, I would guess us women should not be drinking at all?
    I think everyone who is out drinking should try and limit their consumption so they retain their cognitive function. This would mean less fighting, fewer hospital admissions, less rape and fewer hangovers. Well, we would hope so at least.
    Also, I agree with an earlier commenter – Yoffe is conflating “involved alcohol” with passed-out drunk. And also, the fact that there were no date-rape drugs? ALCOHOL is a date-rape drug. Its far harder to turn down a free drink from an aquaintance when you are already tipsy. One drink can push you over the edge from fine to sh*t-faced in a moment, especially if its a mixer, poured stronger than you want it or are used to.
    Crap, here was I, thinking I was glad to have never been through any of this, and BAM, flashback to uni and something I had forced myself to forget.

  7. November 1, 2013 11:42 pm

    This is totally off topic, but unlike other sites that I read, I like that even though there is a comment debate going on, no one is flying off the handle and freaking out. Everyone is still acting like adults. Major props people!

  8. Nycholaus Rien permalink
    November 17, 2013 11:51 pm

    Having read this post I find NOTHING to disagree with in any of your premises…and in just ONE of your conclusions.
    It is unfortunte that almost the only advocates of women exercising care as a means to lessen thir risks are members of the “natural disaster” camp or victimblaming faction. It is also even more unfortunate that anyone advocating ANY caution in the part of women is seen as capitulating in the struggle to end rape culture. It is however understandable since 99.9999 percent of those advocating caution ARE rape apologists.
    However, dealing with current reality does NOT mean one accepts or wont work to change it.
    Arguments on both sides often being conducted by analogy, the best analogy I can find to the current situation is 1960 Birmingham. As a black man at that time, I would hope to have had the courage to go where I wanted and when, even knowing the risk I might face and the injustice that I faced ANY risk. But I certainly would have informed my children and any visiting black friends of the very real danger they faced by going certain places at certain times. Of course the racists would concur with a version of this “I.e. stay where you belong n****r” but caring for my own safety and my family’s WHILE STILL WORKING TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM AND ELIMINATE THE PERPETRATORS FROM SOCIETY hardly would make me an apologist or collaborator. This course can seem imposssible since the capitulators have owned the discourse for so long. It leaves a bad taste to disagree so strongly with their premises and then agree if in only a single particular with their course of action. THEY..including Yoffe it seems.. want women to “accept reality” and exercise caution. I wish women could “deal with PRESENT reality” while realizing how much that sucks and vanguarding the move for a world where such caution is no longer necessary. It is a shame that in trying to do this one is sleeping with the enemy in a sense. It is also problematic whether one CAN convey a message of necessary caution in a society as victimblaming as ours without putting some responsibility for a rape on the victim..when of course it belongs TOTALLY to the perpetrator. It is seen as a sin of omission…if not even commision sometimes..if someone does something inherently risky and suffers from it. In the case of cliffdiving impersonal gravity plays no favorites. But rape is not an impersonal force of nature as some would have it. It is the immoral action of a free agent.
    If you choose or have to face arisk inherent to physical reality..immutable..then it is your responsibility. If the risk is cultural or rape..the answer is that society and the perpetrator are to blame. In this case it is a choice of how much risk do you need to face to be a selfactualized and true to yourself being. Any choice one makes should be respected…but one should notbe misled about the existence of the risk by others however wellmeaning. The problem with this is that while a woman is certainly capable of discerning the differing motives of advisers of caution. It is very easy for capitulators to use this as a “see I was right” moment and twist the desired message back to their ends. Perhaps Im way off here. I mean women certainly receive enough caveats from the apologist camp about what to do to avoid rape. Agreeing witht them may serve ONLY to make their ridiculousness sound reasonable. Also with rape culture staring women in the face every day despite attempts by said culture to pretend it doesnt exist..they are probably already MORE fearful and cautious than they could be. Wow. I guess in typing my view has moderated. Im now not advocating more warnings of caution so much as mad as hell that current conditions let apologists paint those struggling for change as “irresponsible” or “not facing reality” This society is just so messed up with so much cognitive dissonance embedded in our very psyche that it feels like any course of action is fraught with difficulty and contradiction. Rape is evil, evil people do it, an evil society enables it. At least these three things are beyond contradiction. Keep fighting!


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