Five easy steps for becoming a rape apologist

James Taranto's editorial provides a handy guide for blaming the victim

Topics: James Taranto, military sexual assault, Sexual assault, Violence Against Women, Rape, Claire McCaskill, Wall Street Journal, ,

Five easy steps for becoming a rape apologistU.S. Army Generals at a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 4, 2013. (Credit: Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing)

James Taranto, a well-practiced Internet troll, has come out with a Wall Street Journal editorial on military sexual assault that would make a great best-practices manual on how to be a rape apologist.

Let’s examine his process, shall we?

Step 1: Frame an effort to curb rampant sexual assault in the military as a “war on men” 

If you thought that Sen. Claire McCaskill’s, D-Mo., objections to the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to vice commander of the Air Force Space Command were about Helms’ decision to overturn — against the advice of legal counsel — the conviction of a captain twice accused of sexually assaulting women he served with, then you would be wrong, says Taranto.

And if you thought the broader congressional movement to reform a military culture that allowed sexual assaults to balloon to as many as 26,000 incidents in 2012 was about curbing that number, then you would be wrong again.

Helms finds her “career stalled” not because of questions about her judgment or ability to lead, but because of a “war on men.” And military brass find themselves the subject of scrutiny over their handling of sexual assault cases not because of gross failures of accountability that have left thousands of victims without justice, but because Congress wants to “criminalize male sexuality.” Specifically, Capt. Matthew Herrera’s and other abuser’s sexuality, but more on that in Step 2.

As Taranto so deftly shows, if you want to be a rape apologist, the first thing you have to do is deny that rape happens in the first place.

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Step 2: Call sexual assault “sexual recklessness,” and imply that women (also “sexually reckless”) ask to be assaulted  

Herrera was twice accused and once convicted of assaulting women he served with, but these were women who behaved badly, Taranto says. They flirted with Herrera, drank around him, even got into cars and went home with him. And for this, they deserved any unwanted acts, touches or advances they got, as Taranto notes (because he is a feminist):

Capt. Herrera testified that he and the accuser had flirted earlier in the evening; she denied it. Lt. [Michelle] Dickinson agreed with him. The accuser testified that she had told Lt. Dickinson before getting into the car that she found Capt. Herrera “kind of creepy” and didn’t want to share the back seat with him; Lt. Dickinson testified that she had said no such thing. And the accuser denied ever resting her head on Capt. Herrera’s shoulder (although she acknowledged putting it in his lap). Lt. Dickinson testified that at one point during the trip, she looked back and saw the accuser asleep with her head on Capt. Herrera’s shoulder…

It’s fair to say that Capt. Herrera seems to have a tendency toward sexual recklessness. Perhaps that makes him unsuitable to serve as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. But his accusers acted recklessly too. The presumption that reckless men are criminals while reckless women are victims makes a mockery of any notion that the sexes are equal.

See that? If you don’t think women are willing participants in non-consensual sex acts committed against them, then you don’t believe in gender parity. It’s the rape apologist hat-trick.

Step 3: Use the word “histrionic” whenever possible, but particularly when minimizing the experiences of rape survivors 

Just do it. Here’s how: “To describe the accuser in the Herrera case as a ‘survivor’ is more than a little histrionic.”

Don’t like Taranto’s use of a gendered, negative term to describe those who would call Hererra’s accuser a survivor? You’re probably just being histrionic.

Step 4: Imply that prosecuting rape boils down to a “he said-she said” dispute (though what “he said” is usually right) 

The case against Herrera was really about judging his accuser’s word against his in a “drunken” dispute in the “backseat of a moving car,” Taranto says. Forget evidence presented at the court-martial that persuaded a jury that Herrera was guilty. Rape cases are always ephemeral, loosey-goosey exercises — so who can really say who’s guilty and who’s not?

Well, except for Helms, that is. After a jury convicted Herrera, “Gen. Helms concluded that the defendant was a more reliable witness than the accuser, and that prosecutors had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Capt. Herrera did not reasonably believe the accuser had consented.”

In the first case, when Herrera was convicted, the jury got it wrong. Apparently that time was more about what “he said.” Helms’ decision to overturn the conviction served as a “crucial protection for the accused,” Taranto says.

But in the second case, when Herrera was acquitted … well, then the jury got it right. In the case of a staff sergeant who accused Herrera of abuse, “the incident had occurred in his bedroom, where she voluntarily accompanied him. The court-martial acquitted him of that charge on the ground that she had consented.”

Herrera escaped conviction. Justice was done. The system is working.

Major takeaway: When the system sides with the accuser, something is terribly, terribly wrong with the system.

Step 5: Explain that the perpetrator has been punished enough, and disregard what happened to his or her victim 

As Taranto already explained, it would be histrionic to call Herrera’s accuser a survivor, but it would be completely justified to call Herrera a victim in his own right. Here’s why: After Helms cleared Herrera of his conviction, though he was “spared the lifelong stigma of being listed on a sex-offender registry,” he was involuntarily discharged from the armed services.

See that? An officer, who by Taranto’s own account acted in a sexually “reckless” manner that may make him “unsuitable” to serve in the Air Force was found … unsuitable to serve in the Air Force.

Terrible, right?

And what happened to his accuser? Well, Taranto doesn’t mention anything about that, probably because it’s not worth mentioning.

She was just some drunk woman who got into a car with a man she shouldn’t have, anyway.

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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