Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Instrumentalising Suffering

On 'Rape Culture' & the Denigration of Progress

"Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes.
 - Amanda Marcotte, Feminist Blogger
Marcotte is one of a number of prominent feminists vehemently arguing that America - and the West in general - is presently in the grip of an epidemic of sexual violence, normalised and institutionalised by what they call 'rape culture'. Such arguments have gained considerable traction in progressive discussion, but they have not done so without meeting resistance from the libertarian Right, and from dissenting voices within feminist circles and the broader Left.

Disputes over whether use of such a sweeping term is justified by actual incidences of rape and sexual assault have focussed on fiercely-contested statistics derived from wildly divergent empirical studies (more of which in a moment), and the murky grey areas regarding what does or does not constitute meaningful consent.

But when Rolling Stone published contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely's essay "A Rape On Campus" in late November [since deleted, but cached here], it ground all debate to a halt. Front-and-centre of Erdely's sensational article was a story of male sexual sadism, institutional indifference, and innocence defiled, so stark in its moral simplicity, and so devastating in its implications, that it appeared to bulldoze all nuance in its path.

In the autumn of 2012, a beautiful and guileless young University of Virginia (UVA) freshman named 'Jackie' was invited to a party at an elite fraternity house by a 3rd year student with whom she worked as a lifeguard. Jackie, we were told, was a "chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town . . . initially intimidated by UVA's aura of preppy success". She had dressed herself in "a tasteful red dress with a high neckline" and "she wasn't a drinker":
"I remember looking at the mirror and putting on mascara and being like, 'I feel really pretty,' " Jackie recalls. "I didn't know it would be the last time I wouldn't see an empty shell of a person."
Upon arrival at the party, Jackie's naive faith in the goodwill of men allowed her to be lured by her date into a darkened room on the second floor of the fraternity house. Once inside, she was grabbed by unseen hands and thrown through a coffee table. Pinned down on the shards of broken glass and pacified with a blow to the face, she told Erdely that she was then raped by seven men and vaginally assaulted with a beer bottle as jeers and catcalls rang in her ears. Jackie claimed this horrifying ordeal lasted an agonising three hours.

But, nauseating though the specifics of Jackie's gang-rape were, it was from the implications of her subsequent treatment at the hands of callous friends and colleagues and an indifferent campus administration that the article drew its full impact. As the subheading forewarned, it was when Jackie tried to hold those responsible for her ordeal accountable that "a whole new kind of abuse began".

Abandoned by her tormentors, Jackie fled the fraternity house past partygoers - not one of whom expressed any concern for her well-being - and, stumbling into the street, she telephoned three friends, begging for help. But when they arrived they displayed a grotesque lack of concern for her distress, instead professing themselves preoccupied by how their involvement might affect their social standing at the college. The counselling and advice she subsequently received from university admin and support groups likewise proved grossly inadequate.

Erdely's article purported to expose, not just a singularly terrible crime, but also the rotten culture which allowed such acts of sadism to be committed with impunity by the privileged against the vulnerable. The curtain had been pulled back on the hidden squalor of American rape culture, and Erdely was inviting her audience to appraise a fraudulent civilisation unmasked, and daring them to turn away.

Knowing what we know now, it is hard to believe that this narrative - which owes more to the lurid exploitation films of the 1970s than to anything approaching the reality of contemporary American college life - was ever considered remotely credible. That it took nearly a fortnight for serious cracks to appear in Erdely's story, while uncritical outrage swept through social media like a forest fire, suggests that America is in the grip - not of a culture of rape glorification and apologetics - but, rather, a kind of moral panic.

But questions were inevitably raised - tentatively at first, and then with greater insistence - about the extraordinarily callous behaviour of the story's supporting cast. Was such behaviour possible? Well, theoretically, yes. Was it plausible? No, not really. Not unless one is prepared to accept, a priori, a view of humanity so jaundiced and unforgivingly misanthropic that it can only be described as nihilism. Erdely's feminist narrative, marbled with a crude anti-elitist populism, presupposed that the civilising influences of Enlightenment thought, progressive politics, and feminist activism had succeeded only in constructing a veneer of privilege-serving hypocrisy, beneath which lay a society as pitiless and cruel as that of the world's most backward theocracies and failed States.

What has been most disturbing and fascinating about the unravelling of Rolling Stone's story is the vehemence with which Jackie's ostensible defenders have clung to Erdely's apocalyptic version of reality and its politics of despair. As the evidence stacked up that Jackie had almost certainly not been subjected to a three-hour ordeal of torture, it became apparent that there were many who preferred and, indeed, desperately wanted to believe that she had. Without even realising what they were doing, those earnestly presuming to speak on Jackie's behalf were systematically depersonalising her and until her name was little more than an ideological cudgel.

When it transpired that Erdely had not approached the accused for comment, and was unwilling to confirm whether or not she even knew their identities, legitimate doubts about the prima facie plausibility of her narrative gave way to equally legitimate questions about the rigour of her reporting.

Rolling Stone published Erdely's story on November 19. It was not until December 1, with gaps in Erdely's story multiplying, that Robbie Soave at Reason found the courage to print the word "hoax" for the first time, albeit qualified with a question mark. At the New Republic, Judith Schulevitz cautiously echoed Soave's doubts and wondered whether Erdely and Rolling Stone had not fallen victim to confirmation bias. In the LA Times, Jonah Goldberg implied the same, pointedly remarking that Erdely had disapprovingly referred to UVA as a college lacking a "radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy".

In a sign that the disinterested search for truth was already in direct conflict with radical feminist dogma, opinions like these were met with a scornful backlash. In articles and blog posts which were long on invective but noticeably short on reasonable argument, Soave, Goldberg, and other understandably sceptical journalists found themselves accused of stupidity and bad faith, and of participation in a cynical campaign to smear the victims of rape. The feminist writer Jessica Valenti took to twitter to declare that Soave's article was "the last nail in [Reason magazine's] credibility coffin". This rather over-hasty judgement, offered without substantiation, was retweeted 73 times.

On December 5, the fraternity at the centre of Erdely's story released a statement refuting key elements of the story. Rolling Stone responded by hastily appending an unpardonably self-serving update to the top of their story, distancing themselves from their source. Erdely went to ground, refusing all further requests for interviews and has not been heard from since. At this point a number of journalists realised that the game was up and decided to cut their losses rather than run the risk of looking any more silly.

Others, however, doubled down, adopting a new line that rested on the following conflicting premises:
1. As a victim of a violent sexual assault, Jackie's testimony is to be uncritically accepted.  
2. As a victim of a violent sexual assault, Jackie's account will obviously contain 'discrepancies', all of which can be explained away with reference to post-traumatic stress affecting the clarity and reliability of memory.  
3. Erdely ought to have been more sceptical of Jackie's account.
4. Anyone now displaying precisely the kind of scepticism Erdely lacked, was almost certainly pursuing a suspect agenda. 
Reconciling these claims resulted in arguments as comical in their incoherence as they were defiant in their unapologetic contempt for objectivity.

In an article for Politico, Julia Horowitz, assistant managing editor at UVA’s student newspaper, fretted about the manifest shortcomings of Rolling Stone's reporting before deciding that "to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake." Was hypothesising that something might have happened really so different from asserting it had? she wondered.

In a thoroughly retrogressive OpEd piece for the Washington Post arguing that upholding the presumption of innocence in cases of rape and sexual assault was "in important ways...wrong", the feminist writer Zerlina Maxwell wrote: "'Rape culture,' as it is often called, is real. Because rape it is [sic] such a poisonous charge, we are so careful not to level it until we can really prove it." Maxwell was apparently unconcerned that the second sentence directly contradicted the first.

And in an unintelligible piece of rage-blogging on the Feministing website, self-declared (presumably in order of importance) "feminist and former fact-checker" Maya Dusenbery concluded:
[J]ournalism can lie, just as feminism can lie, because they are both created by the fallible humans who live in it. And journalism lies far more than feminism does about the nature of the truth. Journalism lies and acts as if it’s the only game in town — as if it is not just one of many ways of telling the truth.
Some writers and activists insisted openly, and without embarrassment, that the truth of what actually happened to Jackie was less important than the political value of her fabrications. Others sought to re-describe truth as lies so they could continue to pretend they were upholding the former, largely by assailing the corrective reporting of Washington Post and others as "irresponsible" and attempting to discredit the reporters in question with a battery of crass and childish ad hominems.

For those ideologically so-inclined, stratagems like these were feminism at its most fearless, radical, and uncompromising. For the rest of us, they were intellectual dishonesty at its most breathtaking.

By December 12, the three friends libelled in Erdely's story as heartless sociopaths had come forward with an alternative account of events, letting it be known that Erdely had never approached them for comment, either. Whatever remained of Jackie's credibility as a witness now lay buried beneath the rubble of Erdely's own reputation.

The same day, the New York Observer reported that Rolling Stone's deputy managing editor Sean Woods had offered his resignation to the magazine's founder and publisher Jann Wenner (who - for reasons best known to himself - declined to accept it). A post-mortem is now underway at Rolling Stone, which will in time doubtless produce a lengthy correction and apology, featuring all the usual contrition-speak about mistakes made, lessons learned, and changes moving forward.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely is surely finished, her sacking and disgrace now a mere formality. It is unclear at this point whether the single source on whom she so unwisely relied is a mendacious fraud or a damaged and disturbed fantasist. If it turns out to be the former, then 'Jackie' should be stripped of whatever remains of her victimhood mantle and made to answer for the defamatory falsehoods she has helped to circulate. But if it turns out to be the latter, then Erdely's responsibility for exposing a vulnerable and unstable young woman will stand as a further indictment of her unscrupulous and disgraceful abdication of journalistic ethics.

It is a rather satisfying irony, however, that, in seeking to expose America's culture of victimisation, Erdely has instead exposed a cult of victimhood run totally out of control, and the self-discrediting lengths to which its adherents will go to defend it.

There is, after all, a self-refuting paradox at the heart of Erdely's story. If her article had been published in a country in which, as Marcotte would have it, "rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes", then Jackie's ordeal would have had no purchase on precisely the kind of moral outrage it was designed to generate. Jackie's gang-rape was somehow at once a shocking indictment of American culture, and at the same time almost banal.

In an "I-Believe-Jackie" article for the Guardian, the feminist writer Jessica Valenti blithely remarked that "one in five women is sexually assaulted at American universities – so Jackie’s story wasn’t so uncommon." With predictable cynicism, Valenti presented this hair-raising statistic unburdened by either qualifying caveats or links, intentionally creating an impression that it is uncontested.

In fact, this figure has long been the subject of intense controversy, with critics arguing it is little more than alarmist agitprop, extrapolated from unrepresentative studies, themselves disfigured by low response rates and deeply problematic methodologies. On December 15, two of the researchers responsible for one such study were moved to detail their own caveats in an article for Time, echoing many of their critics' key concerns.

Meanwhile, on 11 December the Bureau of Justice Statistics (a sub-division of the US Department of Justice) published their latest findings which revealed, inter alia, that the rate of rape and sexual assault is 0.61% of female students aged 18-24, and 0.76% of female non-students. These findings have remained almost unchanged since publication of the previous BJS study in 2005, which found rates of 0.6% and 0.79%, respectively. But even if one is tempted to argue that the BJS studies are an over-correction, the 1 in 5 (or 20%) statistic remains an affront to common sense.

In a brilliant and detailed essay critically analysing claims of a rape epidemic on American campuses, the Slate columnist Emily Yoffe noted that this figure - if accurate - "would mean that young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war." The implications of this comparison make it clear just how absurd the casual fetishisation of victimhood in radical feminist discourse has become. For if young women in America are no better off than those forced to survive the Congo's war zones, then it follows that women in the Congo are no worse off than those studying on American college campuses. To say this diminishes the suffering of Congolese women is an understatement.

It is doubtful that such a comparison will give the prophets of Western rape culture and their credulous disciples much cause for reflection, still less embarrassment. An unthinking denigration of the West and its achievements is, after all, a characteristic hallmark of self-regarding radicalism in First World Left-wing politics. But it is unsurprising that a Somali-born dissident like Ayaan Hirsi Ali subjects this kind of thoughtless cultural equivalence to withering scorn. Having crossed the yawning chasm that divides the patriarchal societies of the East from the egalitarian societies of the West, she understands the incalculable value of progress far more clearly than those fortunate enough to have known nothing else. 

It is long past time that the falsehoods and distortions undergirding the rape culture myth are subjected to the scrutiny, derision, and scorn they so urgently merit. Not simply because they are reactionary and false, but because the irresponsible fear-mongering they encourage has the power to inflict enormous damage on men and women alike.
  • At the moment, widespread belief in a pandemic of campus sexual violence is somehow managing to co-exist with a 4:3 ratio of women to men enrolled in American universities. But should America's rape panic gain further traction, it could start to affect the willingness of young women to enter university at all. 
  • As Emily Yoffe's Slate essay documents, a mass media hungry for click-bait sensationalism, combined with an opportunistic and intellectually lazy political class, has already produced deeply illiberal legislation which is feeding a feverish assault on egalitarianism, due process, and civil liberties.
  • A prevailing climate of paranoia and fear is being allowed to foster an unnecessary but deeply corrosive suspicion and mistrust between the sexes. Young women are being instructed that the campuses on which they live and study are in fact threatening arenas of predatory male hostility and violence, and young men are being told that it their own base sexuality necessitates the introduction of draconian new legislation which will ensure they experience "a cold spike of fear" before they even contemplate sex with a partner.
In the quote with which I opened this essay, the American feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte revealed perhaps more than she intended when she explained:
"Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes.
Notice that Marcotte does not defend the term on the basis of its accuracy, but on the basis of its utility. She concedes, in other words, that 'rape culture' is less a matter of objective fact than an instrument of ideology. And, as the Rolling Stone affair has so clearly demonstrated, so are its purported victims.

Herein lies the value of 'Jackie' as a pawn of gender warfare, and the reason why Marcotte, Valenti, and like-minded allies steeped in their reactionary cynicism were not prepared to give her up without a fight, no matter how ridiculous it made them look in the short-term. Contrary to their own pious and self-serving claims, the interest of these activists lies not in alleviating the suffering of women, but in manufacturing and instrumentalising it.

UPDATE 6/4/15: The Columbia School of Journalism's investigation into Rolling Stone's reporting of Erdely's 'A Rape On Campus' story has finally been published. It is a careful, sober analysis and a devastating indictment, cataloguing failures of journalistic ethics, of editorial process, of basic fact-checking and fair-mindedness, and of dispassionate rigour and critical thinking. "The problem of confirmation bias –" the report's authors observe with characteristic understatement, "the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here."

While I take on board the distinction made in the report's conclusion between Erdely's failures and the whole-cloth fabrications of Jayson Blair, I nevertheless find it astonishing that Jann Wenner has announced that not a single head will roll over this fiasco, and that Erdely will remain a Rolling Stone reporter.

The full 13000 word, 25 page report can be read here:



  1. "Was it plausible? No, not really. Not unless one is prepared to accept, a priori, a view of humanity so jaundiced and unforgivingly misanthropic that it can only be described as nihilism."

    Savile, Harris, Cyril Smith (and his vile peers), the perpetrators in Rotherham. Perhaps a little dash of "nihilism" might have protected their victims.

    You're right though, the incident is a bad one on which to build any kind of theory or philosophy - hard cases make bad law, as they say.

    That goes for both those using it to further feminism and those who use it to bash feminism.

    I suspect you're clever enough to know this, and that you're preaching to the choir, which makes your post nothing more than cynicism of the worst kind.

    1. Damned if you do, damned if you don't? Would you be so kind as to briefly share your interpretation of events then?

  2. However, you're not part of that choir Jeff?

    (It's SexyIsntSexist btw)

  3. Brilliant writing, analysis, and documentation.

  4. Ditto, Shelo. A very poignant analysis. It would appear that the only folks capable of speaking truth to the behemoth these days are Brits. This "Jackie", whomever she is, should stand responsible for fabricating such a tall tale. She is no better than the woman at the center of the Duke Lacrosse case (who's in prison now, btw) . . . which case, except for the determination (and money) of the boys' parents, would have led to the permanent destruction of innocent lives. Talk about being raped. Sitting in prison for decades on the basis of a false or faulty accusation must surely rank as an injustice so severe that it might suffice to describe it as rape.

    What's up with the previous two commenters? Are they speaking code?

    1. I wondered the same thing.

      But no, quite a few Yanks are getting it too. This blog gives credit to the brilliant piece by Emily Yoffe--whom I assume is American. Hers and this one are by far the best I've seen on the subject.

  5. The demonised "heterosexual white male" was and is almost a caricature of the old Labour Parties and trade unions in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, of the old Democratic Party in the United States, and of the old parties of the Left on the Continent.

    His denigration was and is the denigration of their achievements.

    And thus, at least implicitly, the celebration of those achievements' dismantlement.

    Past, present and putative.

  6. This reminds me of something that happened a male colleague of my brother's, at a medical school they both taught at, roughly 10 years ago. My brother's colleague met with a female student behind closed doors at his office for a couple of hours, where they were discussing her professional future, her choice of field.

    The department chair got it into her head that the student had been sexually victimized by my brother's colleague. And even when the student herself swore up and down that this was absurd, that she was just having a career-related discussion with the colleague (who was her adviser), the chair stuck by her theory and even tried scouring the colleague's history for evidence that he was a sexual predator.

    This colleague found himself in a lot of trouble, even though the presumed "victim" herself kept claiming that nothing had happened.

  7. Gentlemen, for over 100 years black mothers have warned their sons about fooling around with white girls.

    White girls will lie to protect their "reputation".

    They will send you to prison or (if you are black) get you lynched.

    Be warned.

    Whenever you consort with white girls, use an iPhone voice recording application to record voice along with a time, date and GPS stamp.

    Do not tell the girl, just turn the recorder on when yo start fooling around. It may save your life.

  8. Feminists are pushing a war on men, and part of that war involves casting all males as predators. Dubious stats and labels help solidify the feminist agenda.

    Zerlina Maxwell must be a big idiot to think being accused of a sex crime, a social death sentence, is not as painful as nit being believed.

  9. Excellent post. Have linked on my blog.


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