Feminism Can Handle the Truth
December 6, 2014
Dec 6, 2014
8 Min read time
What the Rolling Stone "hoax" reveals about feminism and political correctness.
Protester outside Phi Kappa Psi, the University of Virginia fraternity where, according to a retracted Rolling Stone story, a gang rape occurred. Photograph: Bob Mical
Richard Bradley sensed something was wrong with Rolling Stone’s story of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. On his blog, Bradley, editor-in-chief of Worth magazine, pointed out some potentially consequential omissions in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reporting. Why, for instance, was there no response—or even a “no comment”—from any of the alleged offenders? Bradley’s doubts were piqued, he said, precisely because he was inclined to believe the piece. He had given the benefit of the doubt to the infamous necromancer Stephen Glass at George magazine and learned his lesson.
Bradley’s questions unsettled Reason’s Robby Soave, who had until then taken Erdely’s narrative at face value. Soave followed up. His headline was hyperbolic: “Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?” But the piece was a straightforward skeptical inquiry, which, after all, is Reason’s raison d’être.
This did not go over well in certain feminist circles. It didn’t help that the two skeptics were men.
At Jezebel, Anna Merlan expressed her opinion with the eloquence characteristic of that publication: "'Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?' Asks Idiot." Not unexpectedly, readers chimed in with gender-baiting:
“But never mind Erdely's months of work. Two guys who have no idea what they're talking about don't believe it. Case closed.”
“Newsflash: Most libertarians are misogynist/racist white men.”
“What an asshole.”
Slate contributor Amanda Marcotte tweeted her suspicions:
I will say that even if Erdely had done a more thorough job, none of her doubters would believe her. They’d find some other reason to hate.— Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) December 3, 2014
I suspect if Erdely had contacted the alleged rapists, the argument would be how dare she pester these men without proof of guilt.— Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) December 3, 2014
With those who start with the conclusion that rape doesn’t happen, all facts will be bent to fit that claim. That’s how denialism works.— Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) December 3, 2014
“Rape denialism”: the charge is hurled at anyone who questions a story, statistic (one in five women students sexually assaulted), or policy (yes-means-yes). And if men are slapped down when they question these orthodoxies, special punishment attends female critics.
One alleged serial offender is Slate’s Emily Yoffe—a.k.a. Prudence of “Dear Prudence”—a consistently responsible, intelligent commentator on women’s issues. Last year, Yoffe wrote a well researched and empathetic piece about the link between binge drinking and campus rape. In it, she gave some common-sense advice: rapists target drunk women. To reduce the risk of assault, don’t get plastered to unconsciousness.
The response was fierce. Feministing pronounced the column a “rape denialist manifesto.” Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan accused Yoffe of “admonishing women for not doing enough to stop their own rapes.” Many more piled on.
Feministing had been indicting Yoffe for “denialism” for years. In 2007 a woman wrote to Prudence, fearing she’d have to divorce her “kind, supportive, funny, generous, smart, and loving” husband for the crime of twice initiating sex while both were intoxicated—sex, by the way, that the woman enjoyed. Yoffe called it as she saw it: ideology gone mad. The man was not a rapist, she averred. Indeed, “Your prim, punctilious, punitive style has me admiring your put-upon husband’s ability to even get it up,” Yoffe wrote. She encouraged the woman to enjoy the spontaneous lovemaking that alcohol sometimes sparks.
For the mitzvah of saving a marriage, Lindsay Beyerstein, in In These Times, administered Yoffe forty lashes. She had cruelly trivialized the trauma of a “survivor.”
Vanquished bodies litter the blogosphere. Canadian journalist Anna Duckworth knew CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi well; he’d been her generous mentor for years. So when accusations began to surface that he had sexually brutalized numerous women, she spoke up. She stressed that she didn’t think his accusers were lying. All she asked was that her friend be assumed innocent until proven guilty.
Duckworth’s attackers “made me feel great shame for coming to Jian's defense,” she wrote. “Some went as far as to call people like me misogynists, victim blamers and perpetrators of rape culture.” In a short piece, the word “shame” appeared six times.
Over the years, Cathy Young, a Newsday columnist and contributor to Reason, has written and spoken widely on false accusations of rape and the threats to justice in a kind of overzealous feminist jurisprudence. Young is a feminist who also cherishes individual liberty (you can’t blame her; she grew up in the Soviet Union). Her reporting is meticulous. She never claims that rape is not real, though she is interested in why someone might lie.
But Young’s work is repeatedly twisted, and she is tarred as, among other things, an “anti-feminist victim blamer.”
This strategy—deliberately misconstruing other people’s arguments and claiming the self-evidence of your own—is also employed by journalists who should know better, such as Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti.
When the adult Dylan Farrow revived charges that Woody Allen molested her when she was seven, documentary filmmaker Robert B. Weide wrote a long, cool-headed defense of Allen. Valenti boiled his argument down to the insinuation that Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow, “is just a slut.” This was such a bald misrepresentation of Weide that a reader would be smart to second-guess whatever Valenti had to say thereafter.
For instance: “We know one in five girl children are sexually assaulted,” Valenti said, arguing that all sexual abuse accusers be believed “en masse.” No, we do not know this. Estimates of child sexual abuse—along with its definition—vary wildly, from 1.2 per 1,000 children, based on studies of one-year periods, to as high as 280 per 1,000, as reported by adults recalling childhood experiences.
I’m distressed about what this girl-on-girl cannibalism augurs, and the good work it forecloses.
Ironically, Valenti ends her article declaring, “The more we hold on to the things that make us comfortable and unthinking, the more people will be hurt—and the more growing room we’ll create for monsters.” Monsters indeed. Shouldn’t Valenti know that “believe the children”—all the children, even those coached by adults to lie—was the motto of the panic over the spectral crimes of “satanic ritual abuse,” whose monsters were innocent people, some of whom died behind bars for crimes that never happened?
It will seem by now that my point is to decry political correctness. And I do, because I prefer the whole messy truth to tidied-up portions thereof, and also because such rigidity gives real anti-feminists (not Emily Yoffe) a cheap weapon to discredit feminism.
But I’m distressed about something else: what this girl-on-girl cannibalism augurs—and the good work it forecloses.
Political correctness is a defensive gesture, a sign of fear—fear of attacks from the outside that turn to fear of disintegration, then treason, within. The army must dress in uniform so we know who’s on our side. And soldiers must shut up: loose lips sink ships.
I sensed that fear in Rebecca Traister’s response, in The New Republic, to the growing chorus of doubt around the UVA gang-rape story. “The dismantling of Erdely’s story—both by anti-feminist agonistes and by those genuinely dismayed by possible journalistic error—would mean that Jackie’s story of being beaten and raped by seven fraternity brothers will be dismissed,” she wrote, “and that the reading public will be permitted to slip back into the comforting conviction that stories like Jackie’s aren’t real, that rapes like that don’t happen, that our system works, and that, of course, bitches lie.”
This is the same argument that Valenti was making about Dylan Farrow: if we don’t believe all sexual abuse accusers, we will believe none of them. It’s the gist of the attack on Cathy Young: if a proven-false rape allegation, such as that against the Duke University lacrosse players, is publicized, then all allegations will be taken as false.
Yesterday, in fact, the UVA fraternity in question released a statement denying that the rape occurred. Even some of Jackie’s friends “have come to doubt her account,” according to the Washington Post. And Rolling Stone published an apology-cum-correction, stating that “in the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
Still, what Traister fears is unlikely to happen. The president, vice-president, attorney general, and both parties in Congress are avid to crack down on campus rape. States are rushing to adopt affirmative consent policies. The University of Virginia is shutting fraternities. There is no dearth of seriousness about sexual violence in America: we have the harshest sex crime laws outside Iran.
If their goal is to lock up campus rapists, mainstream feminists are winning. But an identity founded in injury cannot admit success.
Given the horrific losses of these last months and weeks—the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and several other unarmed black men and children; the failure of the criminal justice system even to open the possibility of justice; the nauseating sense that communities of color cannot secure either safety or freedom—I have to say I am irritated by the defensive meanness expressed in those putatively feminist tweets and blog posts, supposedly in the name of safety and freedom.
American campus feminists and the majority of people who write for mainstream websites are among the most privileged, the most protected, the freest people on the planet. It is unbecoming, and unproductive, to continue to cling to a sense of invincible unfreedom.
Feminism is not fragile. To borrow from Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, memorably portrayed by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992), feminism can handle the truth, told straight. Sisterhood is powerful. Instead of devouring their own, feminists should use that power against the real enemies.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
December 06, 2014
8 Min read time