There is the stereotype of the feminist blogger foaming at the mouth while banging on a keyboard covered in spittle. Let me tell you, though, writing week after week about feminist issues inevitably causes you to become a bit jaded; things that once would have sent the spittle flying only inspire a curl of the lip, a roll of the eyes. But today, thanks to an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times about "the rape hype" on college campuses, my blood is boiling and I am fully embodying that stereotype.
Writer Heather Mac Donald -- don't miss her past writings on the wonders of racial profiling and the utility of torturing suspected terrorists! -- argues that the oft-cited statistic that 20 to 25 percent of college women are raped is total fiction. Working the lines at a college rape crisis center is a "lonely" job, she says, because no one calls. Why does no one call? "Because the crisis doesn't exist," she writes plainly, confidently.
Mac Donald explains that the statistic originated from a survey by Mary Koss, a University of Arizona professor of public health. It found that 15 percent of women had been raped, 12 percent had experienced an attempted rape; therefore 27 percent had either experienced a rape or attempted rape. Koss attempted to strip her questions of the word "rape," so as to lessen the social stigma facing her respondents; she didn't ask them whether they had been raped but whether they had experienced a range of incidents that are, by definition, rape. For instance, she asked: "Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?" Understandably enough, some have criticized her approach, noting that the question could be misinterpreted to mean, "Have you had sex under the influence and regretted it the next morning?"
But, these concerns have already been invalidated! In 1999, researchers set out to test whether Koss' question was actually getting at the rape question. They asked: "Have you engaged in sexual intercourse when you didn't want to but were so intoxicated under the influence of alcohol or drugs that you could not stop it or object?" And, what do you know, this much more precise question yielded similar results; 17 percent of female students responded "yes." Not to mention, these findings have been duplicated by a number of other studies -- look here, here and here, just for starters.)
Mac Donald ignores these inconvenient facts and simply notes that subsequent studies show a "divergence between the victims' and the researchers' point of view." Consistently, researchers are far more likely than the respondents themselves to define nonconsensual sex as rape. No! You mean there's a widespread resistance among rape victims to labeling such a traumatic experience by its culturally loaded name? Next, Mac Donald will argue that a woman isn't abused, isn't a victim of domestic violence if she doesn't personally choose that label -- regardless of whether her experiences define her as such. (Apply that to any number of abuses, illnesses or crimes.)
Fully moving beyond the facts, we get to the cold, un-beating heart of Mac Donald's argument: She argues that the reality "behind the rape hype" is "that it's the booze-fueled hookup culture of one-night, or sometimes just partial-night, stands." In other words, hookup culture is responsible for the disagreement between how women label their experiences of rape and how researchers define them. When researchers see an act as rape but the woman does not, she argues that it isn't a case of social stigmas reigning supreme -- it's that ever-popular myth of "gray rape." "Most campus 'rape' cases exist in the gray area of seeming cooperation and tacit consent, which is why they are almost never prosecuted criminally." That is a lie -- as mentioned above, these studies are simply not dealing with "gray" areas.
Beyond her butchering of the statistics -- and denial of the library of supporting research -- her philosophical position is unconscionable. She actually argues that "greater sexual restraint would prevent campus 'rape.'" If only she hadn't worn that skirt, walked down that dark alley, had something to drink, smiled his way, she wouldn't have been "raped." In the very same breath, she bizarrely goes on to rail against sex-positive workshops on college campuses. (Apparently a campus workshop called "Sex Toys for Safer Sex" amounts to an endorsement of "recreational sex" -- and, one might assume, rape-in-quotation-marks -- "at every opportunity.")
It's a pity Mac Donald went through all this trouble to explain why so many women are resistant to calling a forced, nonconsensual sex act "rape," when researcher are not. She need only look at the prevalence of victim-blaming attitudes like her own.