Civil Liberties

Liberal Feminists, Stop Smearing Critics As Rape Apologists



People who oppose the death penalty do not sympathize with murderers. Critics of U.S. drone warfare policy are not on the side of the terrorists. Most self-identifying liberals understand this. So why do feminist liberals smear every person who dissents from their extreme, unhelpful, and legally dubious positions on preventing rape as a rape apologist?

Feminist writer Jessica Valenti provides the most recent and infuriating example of this contemptible, authoritarian demonization campaign. Her response to Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld's thoughtful entry in the campus sexual assault debate was titled "If you can't talk about rape without blaming victims, don't talk about rape."

How about this, Valenti: If you can't talk about rape without attempting to shut down the discussion about how to actually prevent rape, maybe you are the one who shouldn't talk about it.

Nowhere in Rubenfeld's New York Times op-ed did he blame rape victims for being raped, but Valenti levels this totally unsubstantiated charge repeatedly. First, she writes that any amount of worrying about false charges and convictions is akin to rape apology:

The worst offense is Rubenfeld's apparent belief that there is a "debate" to be had – as if there are two equal sides, both with reasonable and legitimate points. There are not. On the one side, there are the 20% of college women who can expect to be victimized by rapists and would-be rapists; on the other side is a bunch of adult men (and a few women) worrying themselves to death that a few college-aged men might have to find a new college to attend.

Rubenfeld, for instance, writes that colleges "are simultaneously failing to punish rapists adequately and branding students sexual assailants when no sexual assault occurred", making it sound as if these two things occur at equal rates. This conflation – that false accusations are as serious a problem as rape itself – is, for some unfathomable reason, apparently a widely-held belief among seemingly-intelligent male pundits.

In this manner, Valenti established that critics of her liberal feminist view are not opponents in a public policy debate—they are the enemies of rape victims. This is totally unjustified demagoguery. She might as well be saying, "You're with me or you're with the terrorists." In fact, that's precisely what she is saying. Just substitute "terrorist" for "rapist."

Valenti charges that Rubenfeld is a rape apologist throughout her piece. His skepticism of affirmative consent laws is up next:

Rubenfeld writes, in reference to California's new "yes means yes" law for public universities and Yale University's sexual assault policy, that "a person who voluntarily gets undressed, gets into bed and has sex with someone, without clearly communicating either yes or no, can later say – correctly – that he or she was raped". But that's just false, no matter how many uninformed newly-minted rape pundits claim otherwise. Both California and Yale make clear that affirmative consent can be given through nonverbal cues – like getting undressed, getting into bed, and having sex with someone.

Again, why is Rubenfeld branded a rape apologist for disputing the coherence of affirmative consent? Does Valenti not comprehend the possibility that he is merely misinformed about affirmative consent as policy, rather than seeking to empower rapists? Really, what is more likely?

I happen to think Rubenfeld is exactly right about affirmative consent. California's "Yes Means Yes" law does indeed establish that consent can be given through nonverbal cues, but it also must be given continuously, at the onset of each new act during a sexual encounter. What if one party nonverbally consents to kissing and then nonverbally withdraws consent when it escalates to touching? And how are college adjudicators supposed to sort out blame after the fact in a situation like that? I see affirmative consent creating a fair amount of confusion while failing to prevent rape. The serial predator, after all, is hardly deterred by the new, vague requirement to receive incessant consent.

The "rape apologist" accusation doesn't end there. Valenti also accuses Rubenfeld of rape apology when he blames campus drinking culture:

Rubenfeld doesn't get any more creative with his rape apology as the op-ed goes on. He also writes that we need to stop being "foolish" about booze on campus and that "a vast majority of college women's rape claims involve alcohol".

The truth: A vast majority of rapists attack drunk women. Rapists – deliberately and with forethought – use alcohol as a weapon in their assaults. They do this because they know that women are less likely to be believed if they've been drinking, so they depend on our culture's continued insistence that alcohol-facilitated rape is a "misunderstanding". That's what helps them get away with their attacks. We help them get away with their attacks.

This is just quibbling over phrasing. Rubenfeld says rape involves alcohol, Valenti says society permits rapists to use alcohol to rape women. Okay… so rape involves alcohol, right?

Because I actually want less rape, I want to talk about alcohol policy. I assume Valenti also wants less rape, although she comes off as extremely dismissive regarding all practical suggestions to achieve precisely that. (I don't consider her own suggestion—teaching people to telepathically pick up on each other's nonverbal cues—very practical in the immediate future.)

Binge drinking, as I have noted many times, is the condition that leads to campus rape. If fewer men and women drank themselves to the point of incapacitation at wild college parties in strangers' basements, there would undoubtedly be less rape.

This does not mean women who drink too much and become victims of rape are themselves responsible for being raped. Their rapists are solely responsible and should be punished. If I leave my front door unlocked and someone robs me, I am not responsible—my robber is. Nevertheless, fewer unlocked doors would produce fewer robberies. Similarly, a more responsible drinking culture would produce a safer party scene for both men and women in college.

I contend the National Minimum Drinking Age Act encourages binge drinking by restricting teens from drinking in public, in bars, and in moderation. And I expect that repealing the law—something Congressional Republicans and President Obama could do right now if they were so motivated—would have a positive impact on campus drinking culture and rape.

It would be great to be able to discuss this important reform without being labelled a rape apologist, but people like Valenti make that impossible. They appear to care more about ensuring that no one accused of rape gets away with anything less than expulsion after a due-process-free hearing than they do about actually convicting rapists for their crimes and discouraging future rapes.

I would hate to live in a universe where everyone who disagreed with my approach to dealing with bad people was branded a proponent and ally of the bad people. But that's the world in which the liberal feminist lives. The debate over campus sexual assault suffers because of it.