The cover story for this week’s New York magazine is a lengthy profile of Emma Sulkowicz and the burgeoning college anti-rape movement, written by Vanessa Grigoriadis. It’s notable for the number of interviews and amount research involved — and, sadly, also for a couple of highly questionable paragraphs that skirt perilously close to victim-blaming. I’m not setting out to tear down the piece here — as a whole, it’s a fascinating and in-depth piece, and you should read it. I do, however, think the views Grigoriadis expresses, even in passing, are worth examining and challenging.
First, then, the relevant passage:
Does the promiscuity that third-wave feminists heralded as empowerment look a little less attractive when practiced by teenagers with little experience and less maturity? You bet. And frustration with hook-up culture is undeniably a part of the anti-rape movement. In some activists’ ideal world, there might be no trial, on campus or elsewhere, but instead a simple presumption of guilt. In all of the allegations, I’m sure there are a few women who are crying wolf, who are vengeful and looking to punish ex-boyfriends—just a few. A percentage may be misunderstandings—confusing signals, something she wanted and then didn’t. Drunkenness doesn’t clarify these things, even when they should be clear. The way that college girls, for instance, taught from early life to be polite and well behaved, might say “No” during sex with someone they know isn’t the same as with a stranger. It’s “No, it’s not a good idea,” “No, please get off me,” and then, often, a numb acceptance.
These two paragraphs make for a curious sort of interlude in Grigoriadis’ piece, one that almost reads as a throwaway disclaimer that, hey, yes, she’s a woman, but she’s impartial, not like those crazy feminist types. But they also provide a convenient summary of a lot of the arguments you hear against anti-rape activism, and as such, they provide a good opportunity to review the problems with those arguments.
The stuff about “promiscuity” is weirdly conservative, and a rather egregious misreading of third-wave feminism. Sex-positivity doesn’t mean promiscuity, which in any case is a word laden with pejorative connotations. It means that people of any gender should be free to enjoy sex without risk or judgment. If a girl — or a boy, or whoever else — enjoys sex, they should be free to have as much sex as they want, without being labeled “promiscuous,” which really is just a polite way of slut-shaming. They should also be as free to have as much sex as they want without the risk of being raped.
Ah, but Grigoriadis argues, we’re talking about drunk teenagers here! The lines are blurred! Arguments about this stuff on campus always seem to come back to teenagers and booze, which as much as anything only goes to show how futile and counterproductive America’s weird drive-and-shoot-at-16-but-no-booze-till-21 laws are. For a start, lowering the legal drinking age — or abolishing it completely — would mean that kids are more likely to get drunk in bars where there’s at least some sort of semblance of responsible service, rather than at frat-house keg parties where anything goes. The culture of American campuses is hugely dependent on illicit boozing, which is one of those peculiarly American things that make zero sense to the rest of the world.
But even that’s a red herring, because ultimately this comes back to matters of consent. Placing the blame at the feet of alcohol or third-wave feminism or whatever else is disingenuous, because the people responsible for rapes are rapists, and for Christ’s sake — and I say this as a white male, which usually is the last thing you want to hear from an opinion writer, but still — it’s not difficult not to rape someone. At all. You just don’t have sex with someone unless they consent to it. If they say, “No, it’s not a good idea,” you stop. If they say, “No, please get off me,” you get off them. I mean, shit, I managed to drink my way through college without raping anyone, y’know?
Having said that, I did have one experience that I think is relevant here. It went like this: I knew a girl who we’ll call Jane. I was in a couple of classes with her. She was pretty and I was 17 and hopelessly shy, and I gawked at her for a bit, until we were introduced by a mutual friend. The next class I sat next to her, and we talked briefly about how the class in question was pretty shitty — I’d been thinking this already, and with the two-week deadline for changing subjects looming, I decided to change out of it to a different class. As luck would have it, so did she, and into the same class as me — something I didn’t realize until I turned up to the new class and saw her there. I was happy to see her; she was somewhat less delighted to see me. I didn’t understand why until I had a drink with our mutual friend later in the week, when he said, “Dude, what did you do to that girl Jane? She’s telling everyone you’re stalking her.”
It’s this sort of thing that MRA types are thinking of, I assume, when they talk about false accusations — the idea that someone can, for reasons malicious or misguided, accuse you of something that you can’t disprove. (What the MRAs don’t like to acknowledge is that the generally harrowing history of men’s behavior towards women explains quite a bit about why a girl might mistake a coincidence for stalking.) This does rather pale into comparison with the vast majority of rape cases, where people are genuinely victims of a crime that they can’t prove — but no, it’s not immaterial. In my case, my friend explained to Jane what had happened, and that I wasn’t stalking her, and that I was aghast at the idea she’d thought I was. Apparently she stopped telling people I was some sort of dangerous lunatic, although I never really spoke to her again — which, clearly, was probably best for both of us. Once thrown, this sort of shit tends to stick.
But then, it’s worth considering why that is. I’d argue it’s precisely because of the failings of our justice system that the rare false allegation can be so damaging. If rape were a crime that was taken seriously by both campus authorities and police, and investigated properly, and prosecuted properly, the air of doubt and ambiguity around it would be dispelled, or at least ameliorated. In a functional justice system, one that people trust, a verdict is something to be trusted. If someone is proven guilty, they’re guilty. If they’re proven innocent, they’re innocent.
When it comes to rape, that’s never really the case, is it? Short of catching someone red-handed in the act of committing a sexual assault, there are always people whispering doubts about the verdict, whichever way it goes. If the accused rapist is found guilty, his supporters will whisper against the accuser, calling her a slut and questioning her motives. If he’s acquitted, he carries the stigma of “accused rapist,” which itself carries an air of perpetual doubt. No one really trusts the results. There’s too much potential for doubt.
Rape is a difficult proposition for our justice system, because unless the victim reports the assault straight away, there’s not going to be empirical proof of what happened (and even then, there might just as easily not be, depending on the circumstances). The result is that you often end up with a he-said/she-said type of situation, and in a system where accusees are presumed innocent and accusers are dragged over the coals in court — if the allegation even reaches trial — the result is… well, it’s pretty much what we have today, which is a disaster for rape victims. Rape is wildly under-reported and, as per RAINN, a staggering 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail.
This is why the reforms for which women’s groups have been calling — for literally, decades, by the way — need to be implemented. The way rapes are handled by police needs to improve drastically. The way rapes are handled by courts needs to improve. The way our society thinks about rape as a crime needs to change. These are not controversial ideas. They do not amount to hanging accused rapists from the rafters, or putting them in the stocks, or whatever else.
As I’ve written here before, no one’s arguing for some sort of special collegiate Napoleonic law where accused rapists are instantly guilty until proven innocent, which makes Grigoriadis’ suggestion that, “In some activists’ ideal world, there might be no trial, on campus or elsewhere, but instead a simple presumption of guilt” a strawman. No one is asking for a presumption of guilt (or if they are, they can be safely ignored).
No, anti-rape activists asking for complaints to be investigated properly, not swept under the carpet. They’re asking for accusers’ complaints to be taken seriously unless there’s a compelling reason they not be. It’s possible to take a complaint seriously at face value — to consider it true until proven false — and still assume the suspect’s innocence until proof is provided of their guilt. And shit, really, this should be the absolute minimum we demand from police and authority figures, because it’s what the tenets of our entire justice system require. It’s their job. And it’s about time they started doing it properly.