At the risk of being just another person who’s adding a few droplets to the so-called “tsunami of hate” directed at Richard Dawkins for his rape-tweet two days ago … I couldn’t resist. Dawkins is a respected scientist, and while he’s had his run-ins with feminists in the past, he’s basically a smart person, right? In this case, he was wrong, stubborn, needlessly defensive (although I understand how one might get that way when the ire of Twitter is focused on them) and surprisingly illogical.
Here’s what happened. On July 29, Dawkins tweeted the following:
Then, Twitter got really angry with him, and he wrote a response/explanation, which can be found here. I wasn’t so upset by his initial tweets as I was frustrated by the non-explanation that followed. And so, here I am, writing about it, much like I did about the Emily Yoffe incident of a few months ago.
Let’s start with the tweets. I get the point about logic that he was trying to make. Nobody actually misunderstands the “x is bad, y is worse, that is not an endorsement of x” concept. It is an obvious and easy logical concept to comprehend and we all get it.
What’s unfortunate is the example Dawkins chose. Not because rape is a taboo subject that should never be touched, but because the X and Y of his rape example are totally subjective statements. They’re not facts, or even the next best thing to facts – non-factual opinions that we can all agree on, like “Gigli is bad, but Showgirls is worse”. Just kidding, Showgirls is actually brilliant (even though it’s pretty rape-y). See how tough this is?!
My point is this: Dawkins chose a bad example to prove his point about logic, and then refused to back down.
If your goal is to enlighten the layman on Twitter about logic, use an example that is clear and will not be misunderstood or derail the conversation into something totally unrelated to your original point, such as the relative badness of rape. If the example you chose for your “x is bad, y is worse” statement could just as easily be flipped to “y is bad, x is worse”, then you’ve chosen poorly.
It’s not a poor example because it’s logically impossible for it to work both ways (which do you think is worse, really, being raped by a stranger or a trusted friend? Ok, but what if the stranger had a knife? Wait, what are we talking about? Oh yeah … logic). Nor is it poor because people are simply too dumb and emotional to understand the point. It’s poor because it took the conversation in a different direction than Dawkins intended, and he (for all his later insistence that he chose the example of rape intentionally), was not adequately prepared to respond.
Dawkins could have chosen a fact as his example. Instead, he chose a contentious opinion that was offensive to many. Everyone forgot it was supposed to be about logic. Then it turned out to maybe not be about logic after all. More on that in a moment.
People weren’t angry with Dawkins because he used rape as an example, but because by saying “one type of rape is worse than another” he was, intentionally or not, implying that the suffering of some victims is not as big a deal as the suffering of other victims. In his subsequent longer response article, Dawkins claims that he “didn’t care whether we chose to say date rape was worse than dark alley stranger rape, or vice versa” and that he “deliberately wanted to challenge the taboo against rational discussion of sensitive issues”.
Aha! Okay, so it was not just about logic. He chose a contentious opinion on purpose, in order to challenge taboos. I’m all for that! But if that’s the case, then what was his hoped-for outcome? Did he want to invite intelligent discussion on this subject – something about the way our society actually views rape, perhaps? Or was he just trying to say something taboo-bustingly controversial (which, frankly, is a bit like kids yelling swear-words because they know they’re not supposed to)?
If the whole point was to use rape as his example in order to make a larger point about a “sensitive issue”, then what was that larger point? That we should be allowed to say whatever we want without everyone getting sniffy about it on the internet? I was hoping for a smarter point from someone like Dawkins, but it does not come across clearly in his article.
My even bigger problem is with the leap Dawkins takes next:
“Rape is rape is rape.” You cannot discuss whether one kind of rape (say by a ‘friend’) is worse than another kind of rape (say by a stranger). Rape is rape and you are not allowed even to contemplate the question of whether some rape is bad but other rape is worse … There is no allowable distinction between one kind of rape and another. If that were really right, judges shouldn’t be allowed to impose harsher sentences for some rapes than for others.
For a man who started this whole storm because he was making a simple point about logic, this statement seems really illogical. Sure, you should be “allowed to contemplate” what kind of rape is worse. Personally, I think that kind of contemplation is a mug’s game, and serves no purpose – either in un-tabooing the topic or in somehow improving the discourse around it – but that’s beside the point. What I really don’t understand is why the subjective opinion that “all rapes are equally bad” should mean that courts can’t take individual circumstances into account while meting out totally different sentences for different rapists? For the record, courts don’t distinguish between assaults by a “friend” or “stranger” but since every assault is different, countless questions go into piecing together what happened and delivering a just punishment.
None of these questions affect my emotion-based opinion that all rapes are “equally bad”. “Equally bad” does not mean “equally punishable by the law” and I’m not sure how or why Dawkins justifies that leap – especially when he himself leaves the definition of “bad” vague (I assume, intentionally). There are lots of different kinds of “bad” – moral, emotional, and so on. They coexist without compromising our legal system’s ability to function.
Dawkins concludes his rebuttal to the “tsunami of hate” by saying this:
Nothing should be off limits to discussion. No, let me amend that. If you think some things should be off limits, let’s sit down together and discuss that proposition itself. Let’s not just insult each other and cut off all discussion because we rationalists have somehow wandered into a land where emotion is king.
I agree. But in this case, I don’t think the problem is actually that rape is too taboo a subject to discuss, or that we are too emotional to do so. The problem is that Dawkins chose a poor example for his logic statement, refused to back down when the Twittersphere responded emotionally, got defensive and said he did it on purpose, all without ever actually trying to start the kind of rational discussion he claims he wants. I’d love an intelligent, controversial article from Richard Dawkins on rape, and rape culture and why we should not be afraid to talk about it. But this sure wasn’t it.
This morning, I read and was infuriated by Emily Yoffe’s Slate article, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk”. Just once, I’d love it if anyone – especially (radically!) a woman – actually wrote an article that tells men not to be rapists, instead of suggesting that “putting all the responsibility of preventing sexual assault on the victims” is somehow a feminist point of view. So, for fun, I rewrote her article. I did not spend a lot of time on this, because I’m trying to make a really simple point. Most of the words below are her own. I changed only references to gender. Everywhere that Ms Yoffe said something about giving “warnings to women about their behavior”, I changed it to a warning for men.
NOTE: I bolded the changes I made, to make it easier for you to see them.
That’s all I did, the rest (including all links to other articles & studies) is still in her own words. Just imagine a world in which articles like this actually got written.
College Men: Stop Raping Women
It IS sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell men to stop doing it.
In one awful high-profile case after another—the U.S. Naval Academy; Steubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo.—we read about a young man, sometimes only a boy, who goes to a party and ends up raping a girl. As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young man incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. But a misplaced fear of blaming the perpetrators has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young men that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves at risk of becoming rapists.
A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, almost 20 percent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever report it to authorities. The same study states that more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behavior, as this survey of research on alcohol-related campus sexual assault by Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University, illustrates, while for many of the women, having been drunk becomes a source of guilt and shame. Sometimes the woman is the only one drunk and runs into a particular type of shrewd—and sober—sexual predator who lurks where women drink like a lion at a watering hole. For these kinds of men, the rise of female binge drinking has made campuses a prey-rich environment. I’ve spoken to three recent college graduates who were the victims of such assailants, and their stories are chilling.
Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let men know that when they drink to excess, they can end up becoming these very perpetrators. Young men are getting a distorted message that having sex with any woman they want – regardless of whether the woman consents – is their right. The real message should be that when you drink so much that you lose the ability to be responsible for actions, you drastically increase the chances that you will become a sexual predator and a threat to women around you. That’s not villainizing all men; that’s trying to prevent them from becoming rapists.
Experts I spoke to who wanted young men to get this information said they were aware of how loaded it has always been to give warnings to men about their behavior. “I’m always feeling defensive that my main advice is: ‘Don’t rape. Don’t make yourself vulnerable to the point of losing your cognitive faculties so that you think it’s ok to rape,’ ” says Anne Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, who has written on rape and teaches feminist jurisprudence. She adds that by not telling them the truth—that they are responsible for their own actions —she worries that we are “infantilizing men.”
The “Campus Sexual Assault Study” of 2007, undertaken for the Department of Justice, found that the popular belief that many young rape victims have been slipped “date rape” drugs is false. “Most sexual assaults occur after voluntary consumption of alcohol by the victim and assailant,” the report states. But the researchers noted that this crucial point is not being articulated to young and naïve men: “Despite the link between substance abuse and sexual assault it appears that few sexual assault and/or risk reduction programs address the relationship between substance use and sexual assault.” The report added, somewhat plaintively, “Students may also be unaware of the image of predatoriness projected by a visibly intoxicated individual.”
“I’m saying that men are responsible for sexually victimizing women,” says Christopher Krebs, one of the authors of that study and others on campus sexual assault. “When your judgment is compromised, your risk of becoming a rapist is elevated.”
The culture of binge drinking—whose pinnacle is the college campus—does not just harm men. Surveys find that more than 40 percent of college students binge drink, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as consuming five or more drinks for a man and four or more for a woman in about two hours. Of those drinkers, many end their sessions on gurneys: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that about 600,000 students a year are injured due to their drinking, and about 700,000 are assaulted by a classmate in a drunken encounter. Some end up on slabs: About 1,800 students a year die as a consequence of alcohol intake.
The site Compelled to Act, started by the grief-stricken father of a college-student daughter who died because of a drunken snowmobile accident, keeps a tally of alcohol-related death, including reports of students who perish due to alcohol overdoses, falls, and drownings. The typical opening weeks of school (except perhaps at Brigham Young University) result in stories like this one at the University of Maryland: In the first three weeks of the semester, 24 students were taken to the hospital for alcohol-related causes. Then police were called to an off-campus bar known for serving freshman to investigate a stabbing involving underage students.
I don’t believe any of these statistics will move in the right direction until binge drinking joins smoking, drunk driving, and domestic abuse as behaviors that were once typical and are now unacceptable. Reducing binge drinking is going to require education, enforcement, and a change in campus social culture. These days the weekend stretches over half the week and front-loading and boot and rally are major extracurricular activities. Puking in your hair, peeing in your pants, and engaging in dangerous behaviors have to stop being considered hilarious escapades or proud war stories and become a source of disgust and embarrassment.
As a parent with a son heading off to college next year, I’ve noted with dismay that in some college guidebooks almost as much space is devoted to alcohol as academics. School spirit is one thing, but according to The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, when the University of Florida plays Florida State University, “Die-hard gator fans start drinking at 8 am. No joke.” I guess I’m supposed to be reassured to read that at the University of Idaho, “Not everyone is an alcoholic.”
“High-risk alcohol use is the one thing connected to all, and I mean all, the negative impacts in higher education,” says Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law and author ofThe Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University. He cites the problems of early student attrition and perpetually disappointing graduation rates.
I’ve told my son that it’s his responsibility to take steps to ensure he does not become a sexual abuser. (“I hear you! Stop!”) The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster. I tell him I know alcohol will be widely available (even though it’s illegal for most college students) but that he’ll have a good chance of knowing what’s going on around him if he limits himself to no more than two drinks, sipped slowly—no shots!—and stays away from notorious punch bowls. If male college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their female counterparts—and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary human principle—I hope their restraint reduces the likelihood that they will victimize women.
If I had a daughter, I would tell her that it’s in her self-interest not to be the drunken sorority girl who finds herself accusing a classmate of raping her. Because this University of Richmond student is an example of what would probably happen. He was acquitted in one of the extremely rare cases in which a campus rape accusation led to a criminal trial.