Emily Yoffe: Don’t Empower My Rapist

Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Emily Yoffe: Don’t Empower My Rapist

by

Kirsten Clodfelter

Last week, Emily Yoffe wrote an article urging young women, especially those on college campuses, to stop getting so drunk if they’d like to reduce their risk of being sexually assaulted or raped. Yoffe writes Slate’s popular advice column “Dear Prudence,” of which I am an avid reader. Traditionally, much of Yoffe’s writing has offered at least a thoughtful perspective on issues that are complicated or don’t always have a clear answer, but this piece is not one of them. “College Women: Stop Drinking” is disappointing and dangerous.

As many other writers and bloggers have aptly discussed already, teaching men not to engage in risk-taking behavior that has the potential to hurt or victimize others—educating men not to rape—is the fundamental, and most important, part of abdicating rape culture. In her piece, Yoffe uses Antonia Abbey’s research (some of which, by the way, is more than twenty years old) to note that “more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol,” though she fails to make clear that the perpetrators of sexual assault are often more likely than the victims to be intoxicated. And even if this weren’t the case, how can it seem acceptable to put the onus of risk avoidance squarely on the shoulders of college-aged girls when the reality is that ALL college students would be safer and better off if they drank responsibly?

As an undergraduate, I was not quite a prime example of the young women Yoffe addresses in her article. I didn’t drink often, and despite what Yoffe claims, when I did choose to drink or party with my friends, these actions were not the product of a post-feminist society in which I was brought up being told that I have every right to match men drink for drink without somehow asking for it (though girls do have this right and are not asking for it). Conversely, I was not any more deterred from drinking by the anxious “advice” I received from my father, a single dad who, as I was growing up, echoed many of the warnings Yoffe offers in her piece.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I traveled with two close male friends whom I’d known for years to Montreal. Our first night there, we were chatted up by Jerimiah, an affable bartender in his early thirties who bought us a round in celebration of our arrival and offered to take us out the first evening he had off work.

When that night came, he escorted us to an impressively popular bar in the city, the line to get in stretching down the block in that forever-long way in which all things are exaggerated when you’re still a teenager. He walked us smugly ahead of everyone else, nodded to the bouncer, generously paid our cover fee, and led us through the door like he owned the place. It’s so mortifyingly obvious now, as an adult, to see how we were targeted. Once inside, he made sure the three of us had drinks in our hands at all times.

As Yoffe’s article suggests, like most victims, I didn’t need anything slipped to me — I took each drink willingly. Despite the dangers of being in an unfamiliar city in another country, I was with two friends whom I trusted. Everyone we had met thus far on our short trip had been extraordinarily friendly. And anyway, I rarely partied. A society full of misinformed, well-meaning grown-ups just like Yoffe had, consciously or otherwise, made me think that rape was something that happened to other girls—ones who were far more reckless and irresponsible and slutty than I was. I felt safe.

I started to black out before the night was over, so getting me out of there was easy. Though my memory of that night is only in pieces, I was told later that Jerimiah asked my friends if they would be able to get home okay on their own and then told them he was taking me to his house. Plenty drunk themselves, they didn’t argue. And why should they have? When we propagate the idea that victims are responsible for their own safety, or even when we target messages about consent only to the men who are themselves engaging in sexual behavior, we fail to encourage (or even acknowledge) the importance of bystander prevention or social responsibility.

But instead of going to Jerimiah’s home as he’d told my friends, I was taken to a hotel. Here, my credit card was used to pay for the room—something I can’t imagine offering on the tip money I made waitressing when I wasn’t in class. At one point as we kissed on the bed, I made it clear that I was not going to have sex with him. I had only slept with one other person in my life, news I delivered half-proudly, half-sheepishly: my high school boyfriend of three years with whom I had recently broken up. I distinctly remember feeling self-consciously young as I offered this explanation. I was interested in some type of hook-up (whether genuinely or because of all the alcohol I had been plied with, I can’t be sure), but for nineteen-year-old me, that kind of intimacy wasn’t going to come in the form of intercourse.

I expected his disappointment, but Jeremiah seemed unfazed. Maybe he responded with, “Sure,” and a shrug of his shoulders; or maybe he said nothing at all and kissed me in a way I might have found, at the time, to be romantic. Maybe his eyes lit with the sudden understanding that this was going to be even easier than he’d thought. We kept kissing. He took off my panties. Then he kissed me some more. When his pants came off and he climbed on top of me, I told him again, “Hey, no sex.” Then I came to with him inside of me.

I panicked, but I didn’t fight him. I’d like to think that I was beginning to realize, finally, that I might be in very real danger, alone in a foreign city with a complete stranger, separated from my friends who would have no idea where to even look for me. More likely, I was probably still too drunk to think rationally and coherently about what to do next. Finally, he stopped having sex with me and passed out on the bed. I waited until I heard snoring, managed—still stunned—to quietly dress and quickly gather my things, and fled.

The part of our brains that helps with sound judgment and realistically processing long-term consequences doesn’t fully develop until our mid-twenties. However naively, I thought that the fun, cool person my friends and I met at the bar on the first night of our summer vacation had a genuine interest in showing us a good time. And though Yoffe warns of predators who act just like this, some with even less obvious warning signs, I have a hard time believing I would have acted differently even if I’d read Yoffe’s article days before our trip. I’m too smart for that kind of manipulation, I surely would have thought, much in the same way that teenagers and young adults often feel inappropriately invincible.

When we fail to account for these relevant factors, articles like Yoffe’s reinforce the terrible idea that if girls didn’t actually want it, they shouldn’t have been out drinking in the first place. In the wake of the horrific news out of Steubenville last year, I came across an article comment from a man who expressed dismay that a teenage girl would dare to feel victimized by the boys who assaulted her while she was intoxicated. When a girl goes to a party with the guys and gets wasted, “this is just the price of admission,” he said, and the casual insistence of his statement, the way in which this seemed so obvious to him, has been impossible for me to forget.

Speaking to this, Andrew Smiler writes for the Good Men Project in “It Takes a Village to Raise These Rapists” that many people within a community (parents, teachers, coaches, peers, the media) contribute to the kind of entitlement that drives teens and young men to target and assault girls, particularly when they’re compromised in some way. Though it’s evident that Yoffe finds such behavior rightfully appalling, she doesn’t spend much time in her piece taking those who participate in it or enable it to task.

In a culture of partying that the author herself admits is not going away any time soon, Yoffe would have done better to take a page from the Amanda Hess Playbook and discuss the more practical and meaningful ways in which we should shift victim blaming to outreach and advocacy instead. The foci of more inclusive social responsibility are many: Reminding young, inexperienced drinkers to keep an eye out for each other; implementing K-12 programs that more fully teach students about consent alongside how to intervene when someone appears unable to give it; a push for policy changes that force universities and communities at large to do better in not failing victims of rape or assault; encouraging professors to use teachable moments to engage students in an honest dialogue about how pervasive our rape culture is; reinforcing the reality that one’s gender does not determine their valuethat women are not objects, and that the responsibility for prevention falls on the shoulders of many people long, long before the first drink is ordered at the bar.

In a response to her critics, Yoffe acknowledges that other action needs to be taken too, particularly in how we educate men about consent, but that “[i]n the meantime, this weekend, some young, intoxicated women will wake up next to guys they never wanted to sleep with.” To warn people (and not just women, but everyone) that predators find drunk, vulnerable girls to be easy targets is not irrelevant to rape prevention. But in the way Yoffe elects to address it, she perpetuates the idea that the women who fall outside of the safest or most conservative standards are, in fact, asking for it, that rape is still just a women’s problem. (Though Yoffe does state emphatically that “perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crime,” in a piece that talks almost exclusively about how the best way to prevent rape is for girls to get less drunk, what else can we expect the take-home message to be?) Even worse, to the most twisted and predatory young perpetrators, Yoffe’s sentiments can easily be misinterpreted as yet another justification for these crimes, empowering rapists who seek out and prey on victims who are too drunk to say no.

Not long ago, one of the friends who accompanied me on that trip to Montreal (perhaps forgetting in the intervening decade what happened to me there) casually mentioned that he feels the media makes too big a deal out of rape culture, that although things are surely bad for women in some parts of our country and elsewhere in the world, the hysterical, hypersensitive concerns over objectification, sexism, or victimization don’t very accurately reflect what he’s witnessed or experienced, that rape culture in America hasn’t been his reality. I think articles like Emily Yoffe’s, and the ideas they condone, are likely a big part of the reason why.

***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com

Okay but Seriously, Stop Blaming the Victim

Okay but Seriously, Stop Blaming the Victim

by

Kirsten Clodfelter

As a feminist, I admire Hanna Rosin. I enjoy the important work she’s done in co-founding DoubleX, and I regularly teach excerpts of her essay, “The End of Men,” to my undergraduate composition students. As a new, breastfeeding mom, I’m appreciative of her refreshing, my-body-my-choice approach to the Breast is Best agenda. This made Rosin’s response to The Feminist and the Cowboy author Alisa Valdes’ recent blog post (since deleted but cached here), in which Valdes revealed the terrifying abuse she suffered at the hands of the book’s “hero,” all the more surprising and disappointing.

Valdes’ memoir details her dissatisfaction with feminism and its “dreary shroud of lies,” all while lauding a man who forces her into submission, helping her to see the way things are, according to Valdes, biologically supposed to be. As Rosin points out in her initial review of the book, some of the scenes with the controlling cowboy are definitely “creepy”; the red flags have been raised.

But after Valdes comes clean about the cowboy’s aggressive, intimidating behavior, the headline of Rosin’s next Valdes piece is disaffected and bored: “The Cowboy Abused the Feminist. What a Surprise.” In this article, Rosin writes, “Many of us skeptical, desiccated feminist types suspected that submission would mostly just lead to being submissive and that the long-term result would be something less than happiness.” This criticism of the submission Valdes touts isn’t wrong. However true it may be, though, it’s not an adequate reason for glossing over the issue of domestic violence.

In her book, Valdes rejects second-wave feminism and instead aligns herself with the theory of “difference feminism,” celebrating her newfound femininity under the guidance of her macho boyfriend. Any person, a so-called “reformed” feminist or otherwise, who has been victimized, manipulated, or brainwashed by an abuser (and in Valdes’ case, it seems, over a long enough period of time for that behavior to become normalized) does not deserve a cavalier, yawning, here’s-my-shocked-face brush off from anyone, but especially not from someone who is herself a feminist.

Rosin appropriately takes Valdes to task forpublicizing a book that is encouraging women to submit themselves to a romantic formula whose end sum is ‘painful, controlling, emotionally abusive, crazymaking,’” and this is truly an important part of the conversation that we should all continue to address. Had Rosin taken the time to speak with Valdes, though (and I can’t say for sure if she attempted to reach out to her), she would have learned that, according to her conversation with Max Read at Gawker, Valdes now readily acknowledges that she’s written “a handbook for women on how to fall in love with a manipulative, controlling, abusive narcissist.”

Rosin closes her article discussing the possibility of Valdes writing a follow-up, which she may use as a platform for processing some of the cowboy’s reprehensible actions. Rosin is quick to silence that voice, “But as the cowboy would say, Alisa: Stop. It’s over.” I agree wholeheartedly with Rosin that Valdes is doing a grave, dangerous disservice by continuing to promote this sham of a love story in any way, but I think what we’re seeing in Valdes’ string of recent, controversial blog posts following the memoir’s release is an attempt to reconcile the abuse she’s suffered. How, then, is it helpful or kind or ethical to tell Valdes to put a lid on it?

If we attached that “What a Surprise” headline to the provocatively-dressed eleven year old in Texas who was gang-raped in November of 2010 or to the blackout-drunk high school student in Steubenville who last year was sexually assaulted and peed on as she was carried unconscious from party to party by members of the football team, there would be, and rightfully so, a loud and raging outcry.

So why the cold shoulder to Valdes? Is it that she marketed herself as a disgruntled product of the worst parts of feminism and used her memoir to push an anti-feminist agenda? In his article for The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky writes that even after revealing the abuse, “In comments on her [blog] post, Valdes insists that she still rejects the feminist ideology that prevented her from trusting men. She insists she still stands by her claim that ‘feminism stole my womanhood.’” Are Rosin, and other writers and article commenters discussing this issue, feeling some flicker of validation in light of this development? If Valdes claims that feminism directed her to believe that men were un-trustworthy, and then it turned out that she couldn’t trust that powerful, manly, dominant cowboy after all, is this supercilious attitude a consequence of haughtily thinking that, well, those feminists were right?

But as feminists, as people who champion for women—for their equality, for their freedom, for acknowledgement of their value—do we really want to shame someone who rejected that ideology (and, arguably, just a small but vocal minority within the feminist umbrella) with a big dose of, hey, that’ll teach her? The feminist community should be a safe space for the many women who don’t have one, not an exclusive, snobby club only for people who subscribe to a very particular and rigid set of ideals about the movement. My experience with feminism and, in speaking with my friends and colleagues, many other men and women’s experience as well, is thankfully nothing like what Valdes has described. Regardless, to turn up our noses at her now only helps prove her point.

Some of the worst comments I’ve seen from readers of Rosin’s article and others around the Internet suggest that Valdes is making up the whole thing as some type of twisted publicity stunt (because certainly I can think of nothing that might sell a love story more than traumatizing abuse). Others, rather missing the point, demand that in light of submitting to her abuser, Valdes’ “feminist card” be revoked. The most offensive demand that Valdes “shut the fuck up” and call her an idiot, an attention-seeker, and “an embarrassment to humanity,” and then there’s just the ridiculously obnoxious, such as, “Giddy-up, bee atch.” Are we not better than this? When we find out a woman has suffered through a violent relationship, do we really believe that the appropriate response is to tell her we guess that means she really isn’t a feminist? Or worse, that she brought it on herself? That she deserved it?

In September, Mary Elizabeth Williams smartly shut down the idea that Rihanna should be castigated for her reconciliation with abuser Chris Brown; yet when Valdes writes a book in which she professes her love for a man who she later begins to realize is abusive, or even after that, when she reflects on her complicated feelings for her former abuser and denies some of the worst conclusions being drawn about him (a pretty common consequence of a long-term, abusive relationship), the common response seems to be annoyance that anyone, least of all Valdes, is surprised by this information.

Valdes is being shamed when what she needs is a supportive community that won’t stand for domestic violence to rally around her. Where is the calling out of the publishing community—her publisher, agent, and editor who read early drafts of this book, who surely must have seen the obvious, early warning signs of manipulative, controlling, and dangerous behavior that many reviewers have already mentioned—and still elected to market the book to women as a beautiful romance with a fairy-tale finish? (To be fair, Max Read at Gawker has at least mentioned this issue of mutual accountability.)

Tracy Clark-Flory recounts some of Valdes’ abuse in her article at Salon, detailing in Valdes’ words from her initial blog post that the “cowboy became emotionally and physically abusive, and during one fight ‘simply dragged me down the hall to the bedroom, bent me over, and took me, telling me as he did so that I must never forget who was in charge.’”

Yet both Berlatsky and Rosin, in their respective articles, describe this particular incident from Valdes’ now shattered love story as “something close to rape.” As Valdes has told it, however, dragging a woman down the hall during a fight and then physically entering her body while you remind her who’s in charge is rape. Are people choosing not to call it that because then they’d have to show more outrage?

Regardless of whether or not we agree with every decision Valdes has made up to this point or with the way she’s choosing to communicate parts of her story currently, she is brave for speaking out about her experience. The message of Valdes’ book is, frankly, reprehensible, but voicing the truth about Steve Lane’s twisted behavior—possibly at risk to her own physical safety—so that others who might still read her book have a more accurate understanding of what was really going on is commendable.

One thing that I imagine would be the helpful for Valdes at this point, as with any abuse victim, is a little empathy. What is certainly not helpful are other men and women, other feminists, rolling their eyes in light of this news. If this is the so-called “feminism” that Valdes felt she had to run away from, honestly, can we really blame her?

 ***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her work has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, Word Riot, Narrative Magazine (as the runner-up in their 2011 30-Below contest), Rock & Sling, and Hunger Mountain, among others. She is a regular blog contributor at Fogged Clarity, and she writes and teaches in Southern Indiana. You can read some facts about her at KirstenClodfelter.com.