Dear Prudence: How should I respond to your rape denialism?

*Trigger warning*

Dear Prudence,

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.

Prudence, dear

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.

Sincerely,

Conflicted in Cyberspace

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10 Comments

  1. Posted January 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    This line, from her response to the wife concerned about marital rape, really made me squirm:

    “However, if two adults are in love and have frequently made love then each can assume implicit consent to throw such legalistic caution—as well as panties—to the wind.”

    Her follow up line indicating that an individual’s “No” should be respected certainly doesn’t make me feel any better.

  2. Posted January 7, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. Her column is one of the reasons I no longer read Slate.

  3. Posted January 8, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    It’s truly sad hearing how even the survivors of sexual abuse do not seem to blame their attackers; instead they blame themselves and bring all the other victims down with them, as this women seems to be doing. Clearly, she’s the one who’s in deep need of therapy and needs to stay away from providing advice for anyone. Hopefully you really did send her this, if not then I think you really should.

  4. Posted January 8, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Very well put. I couldn’t stand her column prior to this, and certainly won’t be able to now. Her responses aren’t insightful advice, but ugly, irresponsible reflections of pigheaded societal attitudes. I don’t know what she thinks she’s offering people with this, or how she could possibly feel that this was “advice” of any kind.

  5. Posted January 8, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    It seems irresponsible to me that anyone should be allowing ‘Prudence’ to respond and give advise to anyone. Clearly she keeps missing the boat. I don’t understand why she remains? Is it to fuel controversy or continue to victimize survivors? She should be told to hit the highway already! I say again – Irresponsible!

  6. Posted January 9, 2013 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    1. To me, feminism means equality. But here’s the thing, in the response initially referred to, prudie was being fair. Neither party remembered what occurred so why is one a rapist and the other a victim? In the letter about marital rape, the woman admits that she was a willing (and drunk) participant (removing her own clothes) until she wasn’t and at which point she stopped and her husband stopped. SO HE WASN’T A RAPISE. As soon as she said no, he stopped. If having sex with an actively consenting drunk woman is rape, then about 99% of men who graduate college are rapists. But do you think the women who had sex with them while drunk classify them as such? Absolutely not.
    2. Prudie advises women to “not get so drunk that they don’t know what is happening.” What is wrong with this? Is it essentially fair for women to not be able to cut lose like the boys? No. BUT IT IS REALITY. Women NEED to specifically communicate their wishes for a fun night before it starts, and they need to be with at least a few ppl they trust. Again, not fair. But arguing for principles won’t help you much in the real world, and getting smashed and hooking up with someone who doesn’t know that sober you wouldn’t consent isn’t a way to make those principles a reality. Listen to Prudie even if you can’t appreciate her honesty, ppl should respect it.

  7. Posted January 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Alright, I made an account to respond to this post, so I hope I can articulate this well. I am a woman, consider myself a feminist, and am (obviously?) vehemently against rape. I also agree with Prudie. This girl was blackout drunk and — most likely — engaged in consensual, in-the-moment sex because of the amount of alcohol she drank. What else would Prudie have said? Take the guy to court because he made the exact same decision the girl did? (speculating) I think the best advice Prudie can give in the span of a few paragraphs is to avoid drinking so much and therefore stop making regrettable decisions. This isn’t the same as “don’t dress like that or you’re asking for it,” this is commentary on a dangerous drug — alcohol — which caused the whole situation in the first place.

    • Posted January 13, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Dear Megan,

      ” This isn’t the same as “don’t dress like that or you’re asking for it,” this is commentary on a dangerous drug — alcohol — which caused the whole situation in the first place.”

      No. No, no, no. This is exactly the same as “don’t dress like that”. This is “don’t get drunk, because you might get raped.”
      As mentioned in the original article, we don’t know enough about the incident in question to decide whether or not it was rape. You don’t know that she “most likely” engaged in consensual sex.
      However, when a woman is raped, it’s not because she drank too much, or wore the wrong clothes, or went to the wrong place. It’s because a rapist decided to rape her. Emily Yoffe, as a rape survivor, should know better than to perpetuate dangerous myths about rape. It’s worrying that you seem to think this woman’s state of intoxication indicates anything about whether she consented or not. It is not relevant.

      If she was indeed raped, that situation was caused by a rapist, not by alcohol. If a sex worker is raped, that situation is caused by a rapist, not by the sex worker’s career. If a child is raped, that situation is caused by a rapist, not by the child’s being a child. If a person is raped, the responsibility lies ENTIRELY with the rapist, not with the victim.

      Prudie has no business judging this woman for how much she drinks. As pointed out in the article, the “friend” who wrote to Prudie asked “I think that she should go to therapy, to try and work through what happened to her. But I’m not sure how to say that, or if it’s even appropriate. Please help!” Prudie’s advice should have centred on the actual question asked. How to bring up the subject of seeking help from a mental health professional, for the purposes of dealing with a traumatic event, in a caring and non-judgemental way. How to find an appropriate and competent professional. How best to support a friend in this situation. I mean the situation of having been raped, not the situation of how much she drinks.

      It would also have been appropriate for Prudie to reiterate that non-consensual sex is rape, since the “friend” admits in her letter that “I believe they were both too intoxicated to consent, but I also don’t think that he took advantage of her.” Um? If she was too intoxicated to consent, she was raped. It doesn’t matter that this man is friends with the letter-writer, or that all three of them move in similar social circles. It doesn’t matter that the man was drunk. Because sex without consent is always, always, rape. We don’t know what happened in this particular case, but the letter-writer is exhibiting a confused attitude towards the difference between rape and consensual sex, and it would be appropriate for Prudie to address that misconception. As Prudie ought to know, part of what makes some rape survivors hesitate to report their experience is the widespread belief that alcohol or drugs muddy the waters of consent. In fact predators have been proven to use this belief to their advantage; they will routinely choose victims who are intoxicated because they will encounter little to no resistance and because afterwards, it will be difficult to prove rape because of the victim’s drunkenness. This would have been an ideal opportunity for Prudie to contest the common practice of victim-blaming instead of reinforcing the idea that if you get drunk, you are in any way responsible for what someone else does to you.

      The letter-writer also says “I don’t blame her for being upset, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame him.” She is trying not to take sides, for her own reasons, but it would have been appropriate for Prudie to point out that her so-called friend is upset and traumatized and needs support, and if she were really a friend, she would support her by listening non-judgementally to her, not by socialising with her rapist and telling her that “You’re going to run into him in future, so you need to just get over it.”

      “I think the best advice Prudie can give in the span of a few paragraphs is to avoid drinking so much and therefore stop making regrettable decisions.”
      No. The best advice for Prudie to give in the space of a few paragraphs would run along the lines of the things I’ve just said. The best advice for Prudie to give would answer the question she was actually asked, instead of going off on a diatribe against alcohol. The best advice for Prudie to give would have been to tell this letter-writer how to support her friend, not to help her to judge her friend for drinking and not to imply that someone who drinks should blame themselves for being raped, or to imply that the friend’s situation is the same as the situation in “Knocked Up” where two people who are drunk have sex but, crucially, both consent to it.

      These are just a few suggestions to answer your question “What else would Prudie have said?”.

      Unfortunately, I have to remind you that all of the things we do to try to lessen our chances of being raped – avoiding intoxication, avoiding dark streets, not wearing revealing clothing, etc etc are ultimately useless. It is a psychological mechanism we employ to reduce the amount of fear we feel – by assuming that someone who has been raped did something to increase her chances of being raped, we can calm ourselves by thinking “Well, I won’t be getting drunk, so I don’t need to worry about that.” I’m sorry to break your false sense of security, but the truth is, if a rapist is intent on raping you, it’s going to happen, one way or the other. And if someone can point to something you did and say “Well, what did she expect?” it will be that much harder for you to be taken seriously or find anything approaching justice.

      You say that you are a feminist. Good. You say that you are vehemently anti-rape. Well, that’s good too, but it’s pretty much a minimum expectation of any decent human being that they abhor rape. If you really want to see rape become less common, however, you need to seriously engage with the myths that encourage and protect rapists, and assuming that if someone is drunk they “most likely” consented to sex is up there in the top 5. Assuming that the rapist couldn’t have committed rape because he was also drunk is another one. These are the kind of misconceptions that let rapists off the hook, and allow everyone to avoid seriously considering the issue of consent when intoxication is involved.

      • Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        I have to be honest, I scrolled through your super long comment. I still stick to my original opinion. If non-consensual sex is ALWAYS rape, why aren’t we up in arms about the girl in question possibly raping the guy? Since we have absolutely no idea what happened that night and this is all pure speculation, there’s no way of knowing whether or not she said “yes.” There’s also NO way of knowing whether or not the guy did. I’m not apologizing on behalf of rapists and I am offended at the implication. My point is pure and simple — both parties got drunk, neither remembers what happened, both probably wishes it wouldn’t have. If she remembered saying no or even implying she didn’t want to, this would be a completely different story.

        Also, whether or not you want to admit it, alcohol caused this whole mess. I still think it’s a valid point that to *further* protect our safety, we should plan to surround ourselves with friends and/or not get black out drunk. Avoiding getting drunk isn’t a “right” to give up, and it’s also definitely not a guarantee that horrible things won’t happen to you- it’s simply an extra guard.

      • Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        You say, “since the “friend” admits in her letter that “I believe they were both too intoxicated to consent, but I also don’t think that he took advantage of her.” Um? If she was too intoxicated to consent, she was raped.” But, um? If he was too intoxicated to consent, then he was raped. Why are you not upset about this?

        You say that predators “will routinely choose victims who are intoxicated”. And then you say that “all of the things we do to try to lessen our chances of being raped – avoiding intoxication”…”are ultimately useless”. This is a blatant contradiction

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