I have this problem I’m hoping you can help me with. I’m a 22-year-old feminist blogger and sometimes I read this Slate advice column by Emily Yoffe—you, actually—who just wrote yet another column dismissing a woman’s alleged rape because of her drinking. What should I do?
Last week, you published a letter from a young woman whose roommate was “very upset” upon waking up, after a night out drinking, with one of the writer’s coworkers and no memory of the encounter. The friend seeking your advice seems skeptical and unsupportive; given her relationship with both parties, she would find herself in a much more comfortable position if the whole event were forgotten. Yet her ultimate question is still one of concern for her roommate: how can she suggest that her friend see a therapist?
For some reason, however, you decided that your role was not to suggest ways to talk about mental health support as requested but to judge, unsollicited, whether or not the young woman was raped. Unsurprisingly, given your record, you don’t think she was.
I’m not going to argue with you about whether this person—who neither of us know, who hasn’t presented her story, and who hasn’t claimed to have be raped—is in fact a victim of sexual violence. Do I think that, by her friend’s account, this woman does not seem to have been able to consent? Does traumatic “blackout sex” sound like rape to me? Sure. But the only thing that you or I or the rest of the blogosphere peanut gallery can know from the scant, second-hand details of the letter is that we don’t know what happened, and that it’s not our place to make that judgment (particularly when no one is asking us to do so).
Your approach to alcohol and rape, however, has never been too concerned with details or variability between situations. Instead, you’ve been content to apply a blanket policy of rape apologia regardless of circumstance. This is the fourth letter in 12 months you’ve answered about a woman deeply affected by unremembered intercourse, and the third time you’ve insisted that such acts constitute an irresponsible drinker’s comeuppance or a fun, harmless night (a la Knocked Up, which you imply in your most recent rep column is representative of drunk sex generally)—but almost never rape.
- Last January, you told another reader whose friend was considering pressing charges against a man she believes raped her while she was drunk that “trying to ruin someone else’s life is a poor way to address one’s alcohol and self-control problems.”
- Six months later, in the one column last year in which you accepted that intercourse with a drunk woman might be rape, you managed to spend a good chunk of your response talking about how women set themselves up for assault by drinking; in a follow-up, you defended your victim-blaming as pragmatism. (It’s unclear to me why this account avoids your usual critiques; it could be written by the voiceless friend from the most recent letter.)
- Later in 2012, you answered a letter from a woman who had been raped by her husband years ago, and had spent much time rebuilding trust in him through an active focus on consent and communication. She was shaken after waking up after a recent night of wine unable to remember consenting to sex, but you laugh her off as “prim, punctilious, punitive” because her story doesn’t sound like a Law & Order plot.
Doubting a given account doesn’t automatically make one a rape denialist, but a consistent track record of dismissing alleged assaults because the victims were drunk does. It’s not just these three women who are harmed by your facile dismissal of their experiences and subsequent masquerade of misogynistic popular myths about rape as expert wisdom. You betray all survivors who are stung by your harsh skepticism and all participants in our shared sexual culture whose partners’ expectations are, directly or indirectly, shaped by your downplaying of the importance of consent.
To be honest, though, rape denialism and victim-blaming in the mainstream media aren’t that surprising. What actually shocked me the most about your letters, Prudence, was your lack of empathy.
Let’s forget for a minute about debating labels and doling out responsibility. Returning to your column from last week, isn’t it clear that the writer’s friend was deeply frightened to wake up in a bed with a man and not remember “how they ended up there”? Even you recognize that the friend was “traumatized,” yet you jest that:
I can now appreciate that excessive alcohol intake is just a delightful social (and sexual) lubricant. Getting so hammered that you don’t know what you’re doing enables you wake up in mysterious locales and have intimate adventures with people whose names you haven’t quite committed to memory!
Can’t you see how awful it is to facetiously play this frightening event off as some desirably “mysterious” adventure? Can’t you understand why dismissing the concerned wife from last year’s July letter with a joke about her husband’s impressive ability to “get it up” is “unforgivably cruel,” regardless of your legal or ethical take on the situation? Despite your characterization of her letter as “a parody of women’s studies catalog,” this woman’s pain—like the others’—clearly is not academic, but rather deeply and truly felt.
Why, then, do you respond with such suspicious callousness? Quick to defend the alleged perpetrators, you seem convinced that these women are manipulative liars out to gain from rape accusations, but we both know there is no joy in victimhood.
The reason I’m asking for your advice is that, however easy it would be, I don’t want to snarkily dismiss you as another anti-feminist Internet personality and call it a day because we could really use you as an ally. Clearly, given the number of letters you publish on this issue, questions of alcohol and consent affect the lives of your readership too often-–and it is clear they trust you enough to turn to you for help. Maybe that’s because your advice on other matters is better, or because you’ve bravely come out as a survivor of sexual abuse yourself.
No matter the reason, you’re clearly in the position to do a lot to combat rape culture; that makes it doubly disappointing to see you reinforcing it instead. How then, Prudence, can I best convince you to join the feminist effort against violence? Any advice would be appreciated.
Conflicted in Cyberspace