We were out to dinner at a pedestrian steakhouse last evening with a couple we’ve known for a very long time. After running the course of the usual conversations, my pal Ralph mentioned that he was concerned for his niece who was a freshman at college because he hears there is a rape epidemic.
He explained to me that 1 in 5 college women were raped. I explained to him in return that the number was nonsense, a bit about the statistical failings until his eyes started to glaze over, and then about the Bureau of Justice Statistics number of .61%, not 20%. I had lost him.
For the handful of us who aren’t dedicated to perpetuating a lie that supports a political position, that the 1 in 5 is nonsense is old news. And yet, the media continues to perpetuate the myth, fact-checkers be damned. And it’s not yet done.
In the February 5th edition of the New York
Times Review of Books, Zoë Heller writes about rape on campus. And there it is, in her first line:
According to the most commonly cited estimate, 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted during their time at college and as few as 5 percent of these assaults are ever reported to the police.
The irony here is that Heller doesn’t write to demand castration of all incoming freshman males, but to move the discussion closer to center:
Few would disagree that the systems for preventing and prosecuting sexual assault on US campuses are in need of change. But the efficacy and fairness of recent reforms that focus on making college grievance procedures more favorable to complainants and on codifying strict new definitions of sexual consent remain highly questionable. Advocates of these reforms tend to dismiss their opponents as reactionaries and “rape apologists”—a characterization that is probably accurate in some cases—but feminists, too, have cause to view these measures and the protectionist principles on which they are based with alarm.
The gist of her argument is not that colleges aren’t rape incubators, where wild-eyed men are abusing women all day long, but that the evisceration of rights isn’t in feminists’ interests either.
For some, this is a salutary development, a necessary antidote to the unfair disadvantages that rape victims have traditionally suffered when seeking redress in college tribunals. According to Colby Bruno, senior counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, the preponderance of evidence standard “helps counterbalance so much of the bias and rape culture that permeates these cases.” But the proper remedy for bias is surely not more bias in the opposite direction. And while there is certainly a long history of rape victims being demeaned and automatically disbelieved, not all of the difficulties associated with prosecuting rape are attributable to sexist prejudice. Rape cases, which often boil down to the relative credibility of two conflicting narratives, are inherently difficult to prove. No fair adjudication process can get around this fact by assuming a posture of reflexive credulity toward a victim’s testimony.
The perils of this ends-justifies-the-means calculus (variants of which have been used in recent years to defend racial profiling, the mass government surveillance of US citizens, and the torture of terrorism suspects) ought to be self-evident. It is a moral and strategic error for feminism—or any movement that purports to care about social justice—to argue for undermining or suspending legitimate rights, even in the interests of combating egregious crimes. If the chance of an unfounded assault allegation is “only” eight in a hundred, that is reason enough to avoid basing standards of evidence on the assumed good faith of complainants.
But to exempt women from the responsibility of stating their own sexual wishes without prompting—to insist that it is the man’s job to “figure out” those wishes—comes dangerously close to infantilizing women.
Laws that offer special protections to women based on their difference from men have a habit of redounding to women’s disadvantage. In the case of affirmative consent, the payback is readily apparent: women are deemed to have limited agency in their sexual relations with men, so men are designated as their sexual guardians—tenderly coaxing from them what it is they want or don’t want and occasionally overruling their stated wishes when they’ve had too much to drink. What a pity it will be if a campaign against sexual violence ends by undermining the very idea of female sexual autonomy that it seeks to defend.
Heller says many of the right things, many of the obvious conclusions that advocates prefer to ignore by screaming louder than anyone else. But at the same time, she both perpetuates the myths and argues that the ultimate justification for not going down the path of infantilizing women by denying them responsibility for their choices is grounded in old-school feminism.
Or to put it differently, not because factual accuracy and due process for all is the right thing to do, but because it serves a more fundamental long-term feminist agenda.
But none of this matters to my pal Ralph. All he hears is the 1 in 5 number, that his niece stands a pretty good chance of getting raped. That his son, who will be going to college in a few years, stands a pretty good chance of being a rapist, because he’s a boy and that, according to the news, is what boys do these days.
Ralph asked me what I do with my son, how I dealt with keeping him from raping women and protecting him from being accused of rape. As much as some would tell me that I should support articles like Heller’s because they’re better than the insanity generated by advocates for tossing all males out of college as rapists, it still makes it impossible to have a rational conversation about any of these issues with regular folks who aren’t on top of the statistics, the reports, the details that enlighten us as to the facts versus the advocacy.
It’s not good enough that Heller comes out on the right side for the wrong reason. In her opening sentences, she perpetuates the myth. As long as that continues, there will be no conversation with nice, smart, but not atop of the details folks, like Ralph, and they will continue to believe that a rape epidemic is going on at colleges.
And if there is such an epidemic, something must be done about it. Because we cannot have a rape epidemic.