Five problems with Dr. Phil’s tweet

Trigger warning: discussion of sexual violence and rape apologism.

Dr. Phil's tweet

Last night, Dr. Phil sent out a quickly deleted — but more quickly screen-grabbed — tweet about sexual violence and alcohol. “If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her? Reply yes or no to @drphil #teensaccused.” Rightfully so, the feminist internet erupted in outrage, forcing a representative to justify Dr. Phil’s tweet as promotion for an upcoming show, as though somehow everything is excusable so long as you’re trying to get people to stare at your face on a screen.

Unsurprisingly, the rep’s non-apology — “[the tweet] was not intended to be taken lightly” –missed the source of the protest. We weren’t angry that the tweet was too flip. We were angry because it promotes sexual violence. Here are my five biggest objections to Dr. Phil’s question; tell me what yours are in the comments.

1. The tweet perpetuates the idea that rape is blurry.

Let’s start with a story. During my collegiate freshman orientation five years ago, my classmates and I were hoarded into an auditorium to learn about consent. On the stage two actors pantomimed a date rape (why anyone thought any of this was a good idea, I have no idea): girl comes to boy’s room to study, they make out, girl takes off her shirt, boy ignores her refusal to have sex and rapes her. Each student was given a little stop sign, which we were supposed to raise when we thought the boy had crossed the line: essentially, when the violence had begun. Afterward, we broke into little discussion groups to talk about our personal opinions on whether what had happened was rape and why. I said it was. The guy who lived downstairs in my dorm said it wasn’t. The facilitator gave our opinions equal weight.

There are obviously a whole ton of reasons this orientation activity was terrible, but the thing that particularly worried me was the program’s messaging that there wasn’t a right answer. If everyone’s definition of rape is equally valid, rape doesn’t really exist: how can we name violence if anyone’s “but I don’t think it is” works as an accepted counterargument? When every student’s decision as to when to raise the little red stop sign, if at all, is correct, the category of rape dissolves quite literally into a series of blurred lines, about which some of us will have Happy Feelings and some of us will have Sad Feelings, and isn’t that interesting.

Dr. Phil’s tweet reminded me a lot of my freshman consent education. The phrasing of the question, and invitation for all of us to respond with our one-word judgments, presented consent as an ultimately unresolvable dilemma. Some will say yes, some will say no. Who can ever really tell? What an ageless question.

The stakes are high. The more we talk as though rape is blurry, the more likely it is to occur. Implicit in Dr. Phil’s tweet was the suggestion that, you know, maybe it is fine to sleep with an incapacitated person. Maybe this is all just up for debate.

2. The question is too simple for the problem.

As Angus Johnston pointed out on Twitter last night, there are actually a number of important questions to ask about sex, sexual violence, consent, and alcohol. After all, it isn’t always rape to sleep with someone who has been drinking; the line for judging whether someone can give consent is incapacitation, not the existence of any alcohol in our blood. “Drunk” isn’t a precise term, so if we use it to mean a wider range of mental states than just incapacitation, there’s a real discussion to be had here. How drunk is too drunk for consent to be meaningful? How can we best respond to our partners’ desires when they’ve been drinking?

These are helpful questions — vital questions –  that we need to talk about with nuance and care. “If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her? Reply yes or no” doesn’t ask us to grapple with the serious issue at hand but instead to pass a thoughtless one-word judgement.

3. The question assumes all victims are women.

Dr. Phil didn’t ask about whether it’s “OK” to have sex with a drunk person: he could only imagine a “drunk girl” as a potential maybe-victim. The assumption that survivors are women and perpetrators are men helps no one. It ignores the experiences and particular needs of male and gender non-conforming survivors and glosses over same-sex violence. The idea also hurts women, too: the more we conflate femininity and vulnerability, the more vulnerable we become. When we’ve internalized that to be a woman is to be a victim, it’s much harder to stand up for ourselves and articulate our desires.

4. The tweet focused on offenders rather than survivors.

Dr. Phil was very clearly tweeting at an audience of potential rapists, rather than survivors present or future. That “you” (“can you have sex with her”) is telling: the agent and intended responder is the maybe-offender, not the drunk girl. And Dr. Phil’s concern for the assailant over concern for the harm done or well-being of the survivor is underscored by the #teensaccused hashtag. As my friend Wagatwe Wanjuki said, “what about #teensraping or #teensraped?”

It’s a mark of remarkable privilege to assume that you’re talking to a world of people more likely to commit violence than sustain it. Of course these categories aren’t mutually exclusive – victims can be perpetrators – but only those shielded from harm, who can identify more with offenders than their targets, can possibly forget the survivors in the audience.

That fact of forgetting is disturbing in itself, but it’s also profoundly unproductive. Want to have a conversation about rape? Maybe you should talk to survivors! We’ll learn a lot more about defining violence from those who have experienced it than from potential offenders trying to figure out if their own actions were criminal or not.

5. Dr. Phil is concerned with “can” rather than “should.”

From Dr. Phil’s tweet, you’d think that rape is just a kind of sex that we’re not allowed to have. Dr. Phil’s question looks to define what we can get away with in our pursuit of pleasure rather than how we should interact with our partners to make sure we’re all happy and safe. The focus on what we “can” do again centers us on the potential offender’s well-being rather than the potential survivor’s and makes room for more violence.

I saw this idea best articulated on the blog A Radical TransFeminist last year (hat tip Kate Sim) when the writer dissected the question “Is it rape if somebody has sex while drunk?” I’ll never articulate it as well, so I’d rather just quote at length. Lisa writes:

Asking, “Is this legally rape?” carries an undertone of, “If you say it’s not, I’ll go ahead and do it”, and is a question which should be turned around and asked back as: Why are you so relaxed – and even enthusiastic – about maybe raping someone?

You don’t get this in other contexts. You don’t get folks saying, “Well, I’m going to do this thing which may or may not kill somebody. It’s probably fine as long as it’s legal.” … We can solve this apparent contradiction by clarifying what our questioner is actually worried about. They aren’t worried about raping. They are worried about social consequences of rape. They are worried about being named a rapist. They are okay with “maybe” being a rapist as long as it won’t come back to bite them…

If you care about not raping, because you care about not raping, then the only way to be sure you’re not raping is to be sure you’re not raping. This means not having sex when you’re not sure whether it’s rape or not. This means that if you’re asking the question, “Is it rape if I…?” then you may not know the answer, but you know what you should do.

What did you think about Dr. Phil’s tweet? What problems did you see? (Don’t reply yes or no)

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21 Comments

  1. Posted August 21, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    you’re wrong on all 5 points.
    1. The tweet perpetuates the idea that rape is blurry. No, it doesn’t. It simply creates a starting point for discussion.
    2. The question is too simple for the problem. No, it is not. Point blank-I should teach my son that it is never ok to take advantage of anyone at any time under any circumstances, and not to fall for group-think and “boys will be boys” attitudes.
    3. The question assumes all victims are women. Twitter allows only 140 characters. Keep the thought generator simple for Twitterworld.
    4. The tweet focused on offenders rather than survivors. No. it doesn’t. It focuses on those people/young people who we STILL HAVE YET to influence in a way so that they can make better choices, do the right thing, when they are in a situation where there is a choice. I want my sons, who have never been in such situations, to know how to make the right choices, and have the conviction to do the right thing.
    5. Dr. Phil is concerned with “can” rather than “should.” Wrong again. His question is prompting conversation so that we can dialogue and learn how to discuss what is right and wrong with our own children.
    I think that the public and the author of this article have blown this way out of context that Dr. Phil likely intended. I’m sure that, given the current climate and events, he’s trying to get people and kids to THINK BEFORE acting. I’ve had these conversations with my own boys: “is it EVER ok to do something to someone when they’re not capable of giving consent or participating voluntarily? Is it EVER ok, to take the girl’s clothes off when she’s passed out? Is it EVER ok to coerce someone to do something that they don’t want to do that could be wrong? I have an 17 year old who will at some point find himself in a situation where he’s the ONLY one present with a conscience who is WILLING to do the right thing rather than fall for the “group-think” phenomenon. Will our kids still make mistakes as they go thru life-absolutely. But we CAN teach them to THINK first when they are in situations that have temptations.
    Furthermore, if you BOTHER to actually look at his twitter page, he asks questions constantly, trying to get people to THINK about each issue he’s asking about. Anyone who has seen his show on topics like this would know that he is far from “vile” thinking. He uses his show as a platform to address serious issues like this all the time and state very clearly that it is NEVER okay to take advantage of another person in ANY context.

    In a culture that teaches women “not to get raped” -this question prompts parents like me to talk to my boys about being better men.

  2. Posted August 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    You can’t just focus on “the survivors” if you want to change rape culture. You must focus on our future: our children, male or female, teaching them to be better humans. Teaching them to make choices that are the kinds of choices proper people make-choices that do not cause harm to another. Dr Phil is trying to get people to have these conversations with our children so they will have the knowledge to make better choices. I have a 14yo who teased a cousin about his weight, thinking he was “just teasing” and didn’t understand why his cousin was upset-or how what he did was wrong.. that the cousin perceives this as bullying-something my own kids have experienced. We HAD to have the conversation for him to understand the scenario-this isn’t a rape situation, but we can learn to teach our kids to identify what is ok and what is not ok, so that they’re better equipped in the future if they’re in a situation that calls for them to dig into their guts, their moral compass, for direction.

    • Posted August 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Good point. In fact focusing on survivors is entirely the wrong tactic since you can’t change the past. You can’t undo what was done to them. But maybe you can teach others to act differently and thus save someone else from ever being raped in the first place.

  3. Posted August 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    The faux umbrage gestating a critique in search of a non-existent Dysphemism.

    How many consenting heterosexual adults have NOT had fabulous sex while under the influence? You are the only ones that are NOT rapists! The majority rest of us are . . . according to you. Balderdash.

    The proper answer to Dr. Phil’s question reading OUT OF what he actually wrote and avoiding the mortal sin of reading INTO what he didn’t write is,

    “Yes, it is OK for consenting partners who have gotten legally too drunk to operate heavy machinery but who still feel willing and able to have fabulous, toe-curling sex!’

    Dr. Phil did not WRITE,

    “If a girl is drunk and passed out, or can’t stand up without falling down, or is so drunk she can’t speak without slurring her words or walk a straight line, or is otherwise INCAPACITATED, is it OK to have sex with her?”

    In this and only this case would the answer be “NO”

    Consensual sex when one or both partners are legally drunk but not so drunk not to be able to consent is NOT RAPE. Many couples willingly drink, and or smoke some Obama choom, or do some other mind-altering drugs before they CONSENT to have sex. Then the only crime may be illegal drug use.

    If you come across a very drunk guy with a smile on his face and an exposed erection and a girl sits on and he says, “Hell yes, girl!” is this OK? Why or why not?

    • Posted August 21, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      I was going to point out what you said about levels of drunkenness, but realized that Alexandra had already gone over that.

      “it isn’t always rape to sleep with someone who has been drinking; the line for judging whether someone can give consent is incapacitation, not the existence of any alcohol in our blood. “Drunk” isn’t a precise term, so if we use it to mean a wider range of mental states than just incapacitation, there’s a real discussion to be had here. ”

      I think her point was Dr. Phil could have phrased his question in such a way as to spark conversation while pointing out that sex with someone unable to consent is rape. Maybe something along the lines of when is sleeping with a drunk person rape or when do you know that a drunk person is too drunk to consent to sex? It’s hard to fit a good question into 140 characters, but if you can’t do it then maybe twitter isn’t the right place to do it.

    • Posted August 21, 2013 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

      It appears that you missed the entirety of the author’s section #2, judging from your convoluted response.

      Also, “balderdash”? Good for you, Joe Biden.

    • Posted August 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      My, is that first sentence a bit of a mess. But on the topic of faux umbrage (or at least misinformed umbrage)…

      From the article: “After all, it isn’t always rape to sleep with someone who has been drinking; the line for judging whether someone can give consent is incapacitation, not the existence of any alcohol in our blood.”

      So… you did a poor job reading the article (if you in fact did read it at all) and then decided it’d be a good idea to write a (slightly incoherent) rant about how the author asserted something that she explicitly did not assert. The author clearly states that the standard for consent is primarily about incapacitation, not alcohol consumption alone, which is pretty much the exact point you’re angrily trying to make.

      She also never says the answer to Dr. Phils question is always and forever an unequivocal and resounding “No!” This article is about why it was a stupid question to pose in the first place. The author, as I understood it, is saying that throwing out this glib, one sentence question totally free of context is dumb and harmful, due to some of the fairly obvious implications of its phrasing. I don’t see anywhere that she claims ‘Sex with drunk people is always rape’ (again, she does however explicitly state that she does not believe that) or ‘Dr. Phil is trying to say having sex with drunk people is always 100% okay.’ She’s not really addressing Dr. Phil’s intent here; she is addressing the problematic aspects of what is elided and what is implied by the question as a result of its brevity and its phrasing.

      Also, it’s fairly absurd to decry the author for “reading into what he didn’t write” when that is exactly what you do. Your proposed answer to Dr. Phil’s question obviously assumes several things the Dr. Phil “didn’t write.” The question says exactly nothing about participants being “willing and able” or the sex being “fabulous.” (And the fact that it’s asking whether or not the sex is acceptable or not strongly suggests that he is not talking about an uncomplicated scenario where all participants are willing, able, and having enthusiastic, amazing sex.)

      You’re right that he didn’t NOT say those things. But that’s the whole point: he didn’t say much of anything at all. Basically, Twitter was an asinine platform to use to discuss an issue this complex and the question has very messed up connotations relating to its gendering and who he chose to address it to.

  4. Posted August 21, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I have another take on the question “Is it rape if somebody has sex while drunk?”. An excuse I hear among some members of the MRM is how can I commit rape if I’m too drunk to recognize that she’s too drunk to consent? I’ve equated this to drunken driving. Do not drink and have sex. If you’re too drunk to know if some one has consented, don’t initiate sex.

  5. Posted August 21, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    The problem also is that he’s put the emphasis on the drunk female instead of the rapist. The question should read, Rape is rape regardless of whether the woman is sober or not. Therefore, are you a rapist? FOCUS ON THE MAN (Perpetrator) not the woman (Victim).

    • Posted August 22, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      You’re missing the point. It’s trying to get at-risk individuals to think about it. Not just give them the answer.
      And asking “are you a rapist?” is just outright pointless. What is that going to accomplish? Seriously. I’m curious what you think that would do.

      • Posted August 24, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        What would it accomplish? Well I’ll let you know. What it would ACCOMPLISH is helping men, as well as women, understand what rape IS so they never fucking do it AGAIN. How is that so hard to understand?

        Do you honestly think it isn’t important for men and women to know what rape is? How in the world is that NOT important?

  6. Posted August 22, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I would like to ask a question / get an opinion on relative vs absolute truth. It’s not an attack on feminism or you. I’ve seen both feminists and MRAs make the exact same arguments / counter arguments as the other person depending on the topic of discussion. I often get the feeling that both sides are more focused on getting advantage for a gender than advancing social justice.

    On rape feminists tend to take an absolute view. Rape is rape. A possible exception is the rape of males by females where some (I think a minority) choose to either not classify it as rape or view it as not as bad. MRAs tend to look at shades of consent. Some even look at shades of rape. I’ll detail the specifics in a another comment in case you’d like to exclude it, but it’s an interesting case and pertinent to this post.

    When it comes to DV and non-consensual circumcision, feminists take a relative view and MRAs take an absolute approach. MRAs focus on the act. A slap is battery and wrong, which would make roughly 50% of all DV perpetrated by women. Feminists focus on the level of harm. 85% of serious DV is perpetrated by men. Same with circumcision. MRAs tend to view FGC and MGC as equally wrong (focusing solely on the violation of bodily autonomy). Feminists tend to view FGC as worse because the effects are generally more severe. Feminists however will fight against the ceremonial nick, which causes less trauma than a routine MGC and unlike MGC has no lasting effect. Some MRAs (probably most) and some feminists (probably most) have no problem with infant girls getting their ears pierced so where does that leave the bodily autonomy argument?

    Now add one more layer of complexity. I’m very big on freedom of choice. I understand how levels of coercion can impact choices so that they’re not truly free will. In Sweden, fathers are “forced” to take 2 months pf paternity leave and there is discussion about raising that to three. I understand that being forced removes the stigma of taking leave especially for men and that’s a good thing. It allows men to form a bond with children and that should benefit society, but is it right to force feed someone on a hunger strike because it’s good for them? How does or should societal interest play out in the abortion debate? The baby Veronica article cautioned that weakening rights for birth parents could result in children being taken away from poor parents and given to wealthy people for their own good. How does relative and absolute right play out when the end is “good”?

  7. Posted August 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think one can criticize a persons response by stating it is ‘wrong’, it is just theirs’.

    I think the problems with dr phil from a feminist and female rights position are all too many and somewhat complex to fully cover here. It also takes a knowledge of mental health, its background, its prejudice and based in misogyny against females and dr phils knowledge of all that and his misuse of that information. Misuse of his power. He and his show are also using this for publicizing.
    I think the backlash has to do with his ongoing abuse against females of all ages, all the while telling the world that he is actually an advocate for them and their safety.
    It is like the fox guarding the hen house.
    He is using his platform to teach other males how to treat women thusly , also., and it would seem to seek out revenge from his own life.
    The majority of his shows have some form of misogyny, that can be overt or subtle or simply encased in his version of his own religious beliefs and women or his deliberate misuse of his power and knowledge of the mental health system, the legal system, which needs changing , not encouraging and ongoing geared against women. He advocates to keep it the same. It works for him and males, and the service of women toward them. His religious views.
    It should be a feminist with mental health knowledge and clarity that addresses these in a critiquing and ongoing exposure of his special form of control and abuse , and the effects it is having .
    I would love to see someone like Gloria Steinem or help her go over every single show to point out his real abuse, to those with less knowledge.

  8. Posted August 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I think focusing on whether someone is drunk or not is a mistake. There are too many grey areas such as what if both are drunk, what if you can’t tell / didn’t know if drunk, what if you’re in a prior relatinship, what if not drunk but are high on something, etc.

    The way to get around that is to keep it simple and stick with enthusiastic consent. If someone is enthusiastically consenting you are good. All other factors are irrelevant.

    Keep in mind that someone who is totally smashed won’t be able to give enthusiastic consent. But someone whose had a few drinks but is still in full control of their senses can, and should be able to give consent without it being rape.

    It’s so much simpler this way and ends all the arguments.

    • Posted August 23, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      Affirmative consent should be the standard. The problem with enthusiastic consent is that it doesn’t work within the confines of a long term, committed, relationship. A couple won’t always like the same movies or activities. They’ll have different interests, but they’ll listen to the other person’s excitement over their topical interest because it’s important to the other person. Much of relationship is built on compromise. Sometimes people will agree to have sex they’re not enthusiastic about at that moment because they want to make their partner happy.

    • Posted August 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      Come to think of it. Maybe there should be multiple standards. Enthusiastic consent seems to be more appropriate when people don’t know each other and sex is really the only factor being considered. Affirmative consent in long term relationships where people are more likely to compromise. Affirmative consent in instances of transactional sex including sex which is engaged in in the hope that it will lead to something else. You may be correct when it comes to drunk sex. The bar probably should be set higher.

  9. Posted August 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    It was a bad choice for Dr Phil to try to use Twitter as the forum for this kind of complex discussion. However, Alexandra, some of your critiques are off base.

    #4 is where you’re most wrong. The focus HAS to be on the [potential] perpetrators. No victim blaming, no risk-avoidance masquerading as anti-rape education. I don’t know what the #teenaccused thing is about. But to combat rape culture the focus has to be on the mindset and attitudes of boys and men. That is where the problem is and that is where the solution is.

    5. You’re reading way too much into this. “Is is OK” can be read many different ways. Legally, morally, etc.

    On 1 and 2 I actually agree with you, mostly. He could have just said “having sex with someone who’s too drunk to consent is rape. Reactions?”

  10. Posted August 24, 2013 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    Most of this is OK, but #3 is absolute bullsh*t and makes me wonder whether Feministing is even a feminist site anymore. Guess what? Statistically, 90% of rape victims are female, and over 99% of rapists are male. In other words, with a few exceptions, rape is an overwhelmingly gendered crime. Ignoring this fact and refusing to name the real problem (MALE VIOLENCE) is not only ridiculous and unhelpful, it’s also anti-feminist.

  11. Posted August 27, 2013 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    99% of rapists nay be male but that includes men raping men in jail which is also a big problem right now. I have to agree with Renee on this one, I think your being way over protective of your own gender and need to lighten up a little. # 3 is iffy at best in my opinion. Once a guy gets to a certain level of intoxication, a woman trying to rape him will have a hard time getting it up. Dr. Phil’s tweet was an open debate for opinions. Stop being so knit picky.

  12. Posted August 27, 2013 at 2:53 am | Permalink

    Although I do agree with the last couple sentences of #3.

  13. Posted August 27, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised no one else picked up on the use of the word ‘girl’ rather than ‘woman’ – so is he really asking if it’s OK to have sex with a child?

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