The list of prominent men who stand credibly accused of sexually assaulting women and children just keeps growing. Just today, Kevin Spacey and Neil DeGrasse Tyson got added to it.
In my cynical moments, I agree with Malcolm Reynolds
Do you think I’m exaggerating? Well, then you clearly missed the Wall Street Journal’s review of the Gandhi biography Great Soul which described (among many unsavory aspects of his life, from hypocrisy to outright racism) how “when he was in his 70s and close to leading India to independence, he [Gandhi] encouraged his 17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her “nightly cuddles” with him.” If this is Gandhi, what did we expect from Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby? Perhaps our world is structured so that the people who get the statues built after them are the people willing to step on others to get there. After all, the blood on the hands of villains and the blood on the hands of saints is still the same color.
But there are two silver linings to the floodgates of accusations we’re now witnessing. The first is the most obvious: these men aren’t getting away with it anymore. For every famous icon who is shamed and punished, I hope there are dozens or hundreds of predators out there who begin to act with decency out of a sense of fear and self-preservation. I hope women are safer today than they were yesterday because of the courage of these women to come forward and name their attackers, and because a complicit and corrupt media has finally been shamed into covering the story.
The second is not as frequently commented on. That is the fact that the perpetrators defy partisan explanation. We’ve got a Republican president, a Holocaust survivor, a famous gay actor (that’d be Kevin Spacey), a scientist known for his views on global warming and atheism (DeGrasse Tyson), one of the mega-pundits of conservatism, and of course Harvey Weinstein was a major Democratic fundraiser. Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, black or white, the list of predators confounds just about every conceivable partisan breakdown. And if you think your particular partisan niche is safe, just wait. Because here are a couple of inviolable rules of human nature. The first is that men–yes, men in particular–are driven by sexual desire. The second is that power tends to corrupt. This means that when men have the power to coerce victims and get away with it, quite a lot of them will do so.
This has long been my problem with so-called “rape culture” criticism. The term “rape culture” implies that there is some kind of special, unusual set of assumptions required to create an environment in which sexual assault flourishes. It is a tragically naive view that the default, natural state of human beings is to be kind and nice to each other, and if only we could get rid of these ideological perversions–the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, whatever–and return society to its default, natural state then rape would go away.
But analyzing rape and sexual assault through a political lens has always been a lost cause, because the origins of sexual assault are not political or ideological. It does not require some kind of special philosophy, culture, or ideology to allow sexual assault to flourish. Rape culture is not some kind of aberration. It is the default. Civilization is the exception.
Some people have expressed surprise or even skepticism at the #MeToo campaign. I have not. For whatever reason, when I was growing up I was the kind of person people liked to confide in. So many of my female friends told me of the times they had been sexually assaulted (up to and including rape) that I have long supposed that a woman who hasn’t been sexually assaulted is very, very rare.
The reality is that men as predators are not exceptions or aberrations. It doesn’t take a specific culture for rapists to flourish. That’s the default. It takes a specific culture to counteract the natural tendency towards exploitation and abuse. It takes unnatural institutions like criminal justice systems alongside unnatural concepts such as honor and duty and sacrifice to create an environment where rape is suppressed.
If there’s one thing that I hope we can learn from these horrific revelations: this is it. That the ideas that men and women are interchangeable or that moral violations are political are bad ideas. They are political dogmas that fly in the face of common sense, science, and–most importantly–that consistently sabotage our efforts to build an anti-rape culture. Because we should be less concerned with tearing down rape culture and more concerned with building up anti-rape culture. We should be less concerned with teaching about consent–which is a horrifically low bar–and more concerned with teaching ideals of respect, honor, virtue, and love. We should be less concerned with sexual liberation and more concerned with discipline and self-control. Yes, I realize that the idea of teaching adolescents concepts like chastity and self-control sounds laughable today.
That’s why we’re here.
There will never come a day when rape does not exist in our society for the same reason that there will never come a day when theft and murder do not exist. But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to tolerate this degree of profligate harassment and exploitation, either. It doesn’t mean we have to do nothing or accept the status quo. We do not.
What does this look like in practice? I don’t think Weinstein was confused about consent. Teaching him the concept would have accomplished nothing. But teaching him about chastity would not have done an iota more good than teaching about consent. However, a society that still had some appreciation for ideals of chastity, fidelity, self-control, and what used to be called “decency” would be a much more hostile environment for predators. We live in a country where the President of the United States could coerce a young intern into a sexual relationship and instead of being viewed as a universal affront to civilization it became a partisan issue. The day we decided Bill Clinton’s abuse and exploitation of women was somehow his personal business and decided to rehabilitate a serial sexual abusesr and accused rapist into some kind of grandfatherly political icon was the day that we told every Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the world: go ahead. It’s open season. As long as you’re powerful enough, we’ll look the other way.
If we returned to old-fashioned concepts of honor, propriety, and decency maybe some boys would grow up to be better men and never assault women. I believe that would happen. But–worst case scenario–at least we could take away the horrific sense of entitlement that men of power are currently operating under. Because, as great as it is for the current crop of serial abusers to get taken out, as long as the underlying assumptions of our society remain unchallenged, the only thing that will change is that the next generation of predators will be smarter than the last.
In the circles I run in, there was tons of coverage and discussion about the myriad comments Trump has made over the years that many of us consider blatantly sexist. When the Hollywood Access tape came out, I took (and still take) his comments as an admission of sexual predation, a topic that means a great deal to me. I was already a #NeverTrump conservative, but the Hollywood Access tapes made it much more difficult for me to understand how people of good conscience, especially women, could vote for this man.
My feed started to include articles such as The Atlantic’s “The Revolt of the Conservative Woman” and viral tweets from conservative women feeling betrayed by their party’s defense of Trump. Between his apparent gross disrespect of women and the opportunity to elect the first female president, I thought women would vote in droves for Clinton and against Trump. Article’s like FiveThirtyEight’s “Women are Defeating Donald Trump” seemed to think so too.
But clearly I was missing some major parts of the puzzle. (Apparently a lot of us were, including the pollsters.) As Walker pointed out recently, Trump’s support among (all, not just white) women was only slightly lower than the average for Republican presidential candidates since 2000 (42% compared to an average of 44.2%). Clinton’s support among women was exactly average for the Democratic presidential candidates since 2000 (54%). Women weren’t driven to the polls to vote against Trump or for Clinton—overall turnout among women was only 1% higher than in 2012.
So what happened? What pieces of the puzzle was I missing, that women were neither particularly repelled by Trump nor particularly inspired by Clinton?
What leads a woman to vote for a man who has made it very clear that he believes she is subhuman? Self-loathing. Hypocrisy. And, of course, a racist view of the world that privileges white supremacy over every other issue.
Sarah Ruiz-Grossman at Huffington Post authored a letter to white women that started with “Fellow white women, I’m done with you.” In sync with a lot of the commentary I’ve read, it showed no curiosity as to the perspectives, hopes, fears, or values of millions of women that led them to vote for Trump (or at least not vote for Clinton). Instead, and again, it simply told them what they didn’t care about, what their moral failings were, and what they must do now.
While I appreciate the frustration, I think this approach is an awful strategy. Lambasting people, especially conservatives, for bigotry has not been terribly effective at changing their minds (or votes). Berating the other side seems to mostly get them to tune out entirely when the inevitable accusations of prejudice begin. And the rampant shaming of Trump supporters clearly did nothing to dissuade them throughout the primaries (when shaming was coming from conservatives and liberals alike) or the rest of the election. Why would it work now, when they’ve won? They have less reason than ever to be concerned about the opinions of people who show no understanding of their perspectives or interest in their wellbeing.
But it’s not just that I think accusing people of bigotry is poor strategy; I think it’s poor reasoning too. In this post I go through three theories of how voting for Trump was bigoted and explain whether I think those theories make sense.
Theory 1 – Internalized sexists: women voted for Trump instead of Clinton because they are sexist against female candidates.
How Trump measured against Clinton is a major factor. The pantsuit nation adored Clinton, of course, so for them this was no contest at all. But we aren’t looking into what HRC’s biggest fans thought; we’re exploring the millions of women who disagreed.
It’s not that everyone who voted for Trump thought he was wonderful: exit polls show that 20% of people who voted for Trump had an overall unfavorable opinion of him. Nearly a quarter of Trump voters said he wasn’t qualified for or did not have the temperament to be president, and a full 17% of people who voted for Trump to be President said they would be “concerned” if he were elected!
But 28% of Trump voters said they chose him mainly because they disliked Clinton. Trump received about 60M votes, which would mean about 17M cast their votes primarily as a vote against Clinton. Along the same lines, while voter turnout for Trump was slightly lower than it had been for Romney, voter turnout for Clinton was much lower than it had been for Obama.
Some will argue that these numbers show sexism: people so rejected the idea of a female leader they either stayed home or voted for someone they despised just to stop Clinton. Actually women get accused of sexism no matter which way they vote: Women who backed Clinton are accused of bias, just “voting with their vaginas,” and the rest of us are accused of not voting for her because we’re misogynists. It’s a lose-lose.
But these theories ignore the fact that women don’t generally vote based on gender, and gender stereotypes end up being less relevant than party affiliation in voting decisions. In other words, we vote based on political positions. The reality is that most of the women voting for or against Clinton did so based on a variety of competing concerns and priorities, just as most men choose their candidates.
CNN reported that millennial women in particular “rejected the notion that gender should be a factor in their vote.” As FiveThirtyEight put it:
Clinton’s stunning loss Tuesday night showed that issues of culture and class mattered more to many American women than their gender. The sisterhood, as real sisterhood tends to be, turned out to be riddled with complications.
On average, for the last 5 presidential elections, 89% of Democrats chose the Democratic nominee and 91.4% of Republicans chose the Republican. Last week 89% of Democrats chose Clinton and 90% of Republicans chose Trump. If internalized sexism were a major factor in terms of female nominees, we’d expect 2016 to show a drop in Democrats voting for the Democrat (as internally sexist Democratic women abandoned Clinton) and perhaps even a jump in Republicans voting for the Republican (as internally sexist Republican women were motivated to stop Clinton). But there was no such change.
Similarly, if internalized sexism was a major factor we’d expect Clinton to get a lower proportion of women’s votes compared to previous Democratic nominees. Yet, as mentioned above, she got exactly the average proportion of women Democratic nominees have had in the last five presidential races. Or, if we’re operating under the idea that only conservatives can be bigots, we’d at least expect a higher proportion of women to vote for Trump in order to stop Clinton. Yet Trump got just slightly less than the average proportion of women Republican nominees have had for the last five races.
If anything, these stats suggest women weren’t influenced by gender at all.
Theory 2 – Indifference to sexism: women cared more about party lines than taking a stand against Trump’s misogyny.
There are several assumptions embedded in this line of thinking: (A) The women who voted for Trump accessed the same information we did about him. (B) When they assessed that information, they came to the same conclusions we did about the degree of Trump’s misogyny. (C) There was nothing else in the balance for them in this election that could have meant more to them than Trump’s misogyny.
2a. Trump voters were likely accessing different information.
Hopefully it’s not a secret that conservatives and liberals consume different media. I wish I had time to do an entire blog post on how drastically this impacts our views of each other and of our political landscape. But the main point is we should be very careful when assuming that everyone else—especially people that run in different social circles and already hold different perspectives—“knows” the same “truths” we know. Which stories get reported and how they’re described varies a lot, and sadly, at least in my experience, most people don’t look for sources from worldviews they don’t hold. Or, if they do, it’s not in an attempt to observe and understand, but to feel outraged and argue.
So when John Oliver does a witty, biting piece on “making Donald Drumpf again” and you see it reposted over and over, that doesn’t mean everyone saw it. The people who already hated Trump were a lot more likely to see it than anyone else. Late night comedy is, after all, a bastion of liberal derision.
2b. Trump voters were likely interpreting information in different ways.
That’s not to suggest Trump supporters were wholly unaware of criticisms against him. I think it’s unlikely, for example, that many Trump supporters didn’t at least hear about the Hollywood Access recording. But the context in which conservatives in general, and enthusiastic Trump supporters specifically, interpreted that was often quite different than how leftists saw it.
Many people (including me) were disgusted and horrified by Trump laughingly talking about getting away with kissing and groping women without their consent. But many others mostly heard politically-motivated faux outrage. The same people so focused on Trump’s comments and the sexual assault allegations against him remained dismissive or defensive about the long history of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Bill Clinton—and Hillary Clinton’s role in silencing Bill’s accusers. Clinton fans retorted that Hillary isn’t responsible for Bill’s behavior, but that misses the point. She’s responsible for her behavior: she referred to these women as “floozy,” “bimbo,” and “stalker,” and put great effort into “destroying” their stories.
Good luck telling conservatives they must take a principled stand against sexual assault while refusing to acknowledge that the Clintons basically embodied rape culture.
Of course the Hollywood Access tapes are only one example of Trump’s sexism, but the pattern remains the same. Whatever example you point to, if outraged accusations of bigotry are coming from leftists or the media, conservatives are extremely skeptical. In fact, getting back to point 2a, conservative circles are more likely to have articles about people who made upstories ofhate crimes – stories which, before being shown to be false, often caused viral online outrage (as well as extensive donations to the alleged victim).
I find this problem very frustrating. I do believe the left is too quick to claim bigotry, but I believe the right is therefore too quick to dismiss actualbigotry. Robby Soave of Reason.com summarized this view well:
[It’s] the boy-who-cried-wolf situation. I was happy to see a few liberals, like Bill Maher, owning up to it. Maher admitted during a recent show that he was wrong to treat George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain like they were apocalyptic threats to the nation: it robbed him of the ability to treat Trump more seriously. The left said McCain was a racist supported by racists, it said Romney was a racist supported by racists, but when an actually racist Republican came along—and racists cheered him—it had lost its ability to credibly make that accusation.
After all, these same voters have watched as every Republican candidate in recent memory has been accused of waging a “War on Women.” If Democrats are going to claim that Mitt Romney and John McCain hate women (and they did), then they shouldn’t be surprised when voters ignore them when they say Donald Trump hates women. If every Republican is a misogynist, then no Republican is.
I don’t believe the right’s resistance to recognizing bigotry is all the left’s fault. I think that’s a factor, but ultimately we’re all responsible for assessing each situation and trying to be fair-minded about it.
Even so, I think many conservatives viewed the outrage over Trump as nothing more than yet another chapter in a long history of selective and manufactured leftist outrage, and so they discounted it. So even if they had watched John Oliver, they probably would have just rolled their eyes at another leftist show mocking conservatives again.
2c. Trump voters were weighing a lot of additional concerns apart from bigotry.
But there were a lot of conservatives who heard about the problems with Trump and were seriously concerned. Many of them became the #NeverTrump crowd, but others still voted for Trump. Why? Because they weren’t balancing the problems of racism and sexism against nothing. They were taking those issues and factoring them in with a lot of other issues, weighing each one, and coming to a decision. Even women who voted against Trump had other concerns they considered more important than sexism.
Many reject as ridiculous this concept of weighing multiple factors, saying it’s a weak excuse to try to cover up bigotry. They assert nothing could outweigh the civil rights threats Trump represents, and therefore the people who came down on Trump’s side, by definition, just didn’t care enough about civil rights.
Interestingly, I saw the same reductive thinking from conservatives trying to berate #NeverTrump people into voting for him. If you didn’t vote for Trump—if you voted for Clinton, or even if you voted third party—you must not care about massive government abuse and corruption, our country’s impending economic collapse under an overregulated welfare state, and, possibly above all, the killing of tens of thousands of babies.
Does that last part sound hyperbolic to you? Because, for a huge portion of the pro-life movement, that was the assertion. Many pro-lifers view abortion as morally equivalent to any other unlawful human death. If you want to imagine the abortion debate from a pro-life perspective, just replace the concept of “fetus” with “toddler,” and listen to how the arguments sound. So when Hillary Clinton campaigned on a platform of no restrictions through all three trimesters and requiring Medicaid to cover abortions, that was an absolute deal breaker for many people. Abortion happens in this country roughly 1 million times a year. Imagine for a moment you were choosing between (1) a candidate who stirs racial animosity and blatantly disrespects women and (2) a candidate who unapologetically embraces policies making it legal to murder a million toddlers a year. Who would you pick?
If your first response is to explain why that second description is false, you’re missing the point. Yes, I understand that for many, abortion is nothing at all like killing a toddler and even the comparison is offensive. I’m not trying to convince anyone here how to feel about abortion. I’m trying to convince people that you can’t sincerely talk about what motivates others if you refuse to acknowledge their actual perspectives. People who voted for Trump could (a) recognize Trump’s racism and sexism, (b) care greatly about those issues, and (c) still believe the threats Clinton represented were more dire. The only way you can genuinely believe that every single vote for Trump represented at minimum a callous disregard for civil rights is if you ignore or dismiss the circumstances and value systems of millions of people.
Passion about abortion likely affected many of women who voted for Trump. LV Anderson was aghast that more than half of white women would vote for a man who said he’d appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is amazing to me that so many people are still taken off guard when women are antiabortion. Half of American women are against abortion, and that has been true since long before Trump entered the primaries. Yet each time thousands or millions of women don’t go for the pro-choice position, pro-choice people are just so surprised. This is another example of the same pattern: be totally unaware of what people have repeatedly said they care about, and then be surprised and angry when they vote for the things they said they cared about all along.
I’ve used abortion as an example of competing values, but it’s only one of many. A recent New York Times article profiled women who voted for Trump. While 22-year-old Nicole Been mentioned her deep opposition to abortion as part of her stance, other women discussed Trump’s approach to veterans, their own dire financial situations, and their disillusionment with Democratic efforts to improve their lives. Another New York Times article profiled college-educated women who voted for Trump; they, too, opposed abortion, but focused more on economic security and job and college prospects for their children.
Note that racial anxiety is one of the recurring themes. The left seems to want to reduce this narrative to bigotry and nothing more, and I’ve spent a lot of time here explaining why I think that’s inaccurate. But the right seems to want to reflexively deny bigotry had any part to play, and I don’t think that’s true either. At minimum there was certainly a racial component to Trump’s candidacy. Looming large in the support of Trump were concerns about minority groups getting unfair preferential treatment and resources, immigrants taking resources and increasing criminal activity, and terrorists threatening our safety.
Theory 3 – Institutionalized sexism and racism – regardless of personal motivation, women who voted for Trump supported a platform that would disproportionately harm minority groups.
A major hurdle with discussions of racism and sexism is the use of the same words to mean very different things. In my right-leaning circles, “racism” generally means an individual’s disdain or animosity towards others based on race. Same thing with “sexism,” but based on sex. In my left-leaning circles, “racism” and “sexism” often mean individual disdain or animosity, but can also mean cultural norms and systemic and institutionalized systems that disproportionately negatively impact minority groups.
So when someone claims that a vote for Trump was racist, they could either mean (a) the person casting the vote has disdain or animosity toward people of other races or (b) the person casting the vote, regardless of his or her motivations, helped to uphold systems that have major negative impacts on women and nonwhite people.
The interesting thing about the “effects not intentions” version of racism is that it can be empirically verified. Motivations can be pretty complicated, multifaceted, and irrational. Effects can be objectively measured. So if “racism” (or sexism or Islamophobia or homophobia) is defined as “policies and practices that hurt these groups,” and if electing Trump ends up hurting these groups, then it follows that electing Trump was racism, by this definition.
3a. It’s reasonable to believe electing Trump will end up hurting these groups.
Trump campaigned on ending sanctuary cities, suspending visas, and deportation. If implemented, those policies would disproportionately affect undocumented immigrants (about half of which are Hispanic or Latino, followed by Asian) as well as American citizens from families with mixed citizenship statuses. Whether you agree with these policies or not, and whether you personally care how these policies affect others or not, it’s hard to deny that they will negatively impact immigrants and their family members who are American citizens.
Trump has talked about requiring immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries to register upon entering the U.S. Alternatively he called for a ban on Muslims immigrating to the country; while he clarified this would not apply to American citizens, it’s hard to believe such policies and related rhetoric about Muslims won’t affect public perception of and reaction to Muslims already living here. The FBI has released data showing a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015. Some are worried this trend is related to Trump’s rise and campaign rhetoric; others say there are other factors–such as 2015 terrorist attacks–that likely played a part. But I think either of those reasons underscores the central point: when the public increasingly perceives a group as dangerous, violence against innocent people in that group becomes more likely.
It seems like Trump’s potential effects on African American communities have been less of a focus, but there are reasons for concern. (This link includes some reasons I think conservatives will dismiss as more faux outrage, but, for what it’s worth, I believe some of these points are pretty valid.)
While Trump didn’t propose specific policies against LGBT folk, the 2016 Republican Party platform did object to legalized gay marriage and take other positions seen as anti-gay. Because Trump was the Republican nominee and can now nominate SCOTUS judges, many believe he will work to adopt those Republican positions. I think it’s unlikely gay marriage will get overturned, but I don’t think it’s a certainty, and I see why many people are worried their marital status could be threatened.
Trump has a history that suggests a pretty disrespectful view of women, not to mention (again) his statements in the Access Hollywood recordings. To the extent women believe support for Trump signals societal dismissal of sexual assault, that belief could have another chilling effect on women reporting assaults and seeking help. I watched this play out on both the national level and with women I know personally after the Access Hollywood firestorm. Women (and men, for that matter) who have experienced sexual assault listened as friends and family who were Trump supporters minimized, dismissed, and, in my opinion, very generously interpreted Trump’s statements. That was difficult. Victims of sexual assault hear those reactions and believe the reactions would be the same if they came forward with their own stories. I can understand why people fear this kind of dismissal of sexual misconduct will only get worse now that Trump will be president.
A vote for Trump lent support to these policy proposals and attitudes, even if the person voting didn’t personally support one or any of the above. In this sense I think Theory 3 is truer than the other theories—I think a Trump administration will very likely make life harder for these groups.
3b. First problem: negative effects count as racism regardless of what they’re being weighed against.
Consider Trump’s campaign regarding Islamic terrorism. I do believe requiring (mostly) Muslim immigrants to register upon entering the country, or refusing to let them enter at all, will negatively affect the public’s views and behavior toward Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants already here.
But I also recognize that the people who support these measures believe they will significantly increase our national security and safety. Based on my understanding of Theory 3, what Trump voters believe about these measures (and how those beliefs speak to their motivations) is irrelevant, because Theory 3 is all about effects on minority groups, not the intentions of the people pushing these policies. Whether they sincerely believe these measures will save American lives doesn’t change whether or not this approach is defined as racist.
And we’ve only talked about what they believe, not what is objectively true. Apparently NSEERS, the similar Bush-era program that required immigrant registration, was ineffective at preventing terrorism; it sounds like it was just more security theater, but in this case directed at specific groups. But suppose, hypothetically, immigrant registration made a huge difference in national security. Suppose—as I suspect is the belief of some who support this idea—that without immigrant registration we’d have more San Bernadino and Pulse nightclub shootings. Or another World Trade Center.
If these policies actually prevented terrorism deaths in our own country, does that change whether they are racist? If I understand Theory 3 correctly, it does not. In this way Theory 3 rings a bit hollow for me, because while it is at least technically accurate and objectively measurable (does X policy negatively impact Y community or not?), if it ignores all other factors I still consider it misleading.
3c. Second problem: conflating Theory 3 with Theories 1 & 2.
In my experience, the left frequently blurs the line between “negative impacts” and “personal animosity.” A great example is the Slate article “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Supporter.” Chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie argues that Trump supporters do not merit empathy because they “voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes.” He cites other authors who have claimed Trump’s victory does not reveal an “inherent malice” in the populace (referring to the “personal animosity” definition of racism). Bouie counters with the “negative impacts” definition:
Whether Trump’s election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency…If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question.
But, as the title of the piece suggests, Bouie is not condemning only the effects of voting for Trump; he’s condemning the Trump voters themselves. He asserts that it is myopic and even “morally grotesque” to suggest Trump supporters are good people. He compares Trump voters to the men in the early 20th century who organized lynchings (they “weren’t ghouls or monsters. They were ordinary.”) and the people who gawked and smiled at those lynchings (“the very model of decent, law-abiding Americana.”) He sums up: “Hate and racism have always been the province of ‘good people.’”
Note the switch here. Bouie is no longer talking about practical outcomes; he’s talking about hate. He has switched from the “negative impacts” definition of racism back to the “personal animosity” definition. So is he saying that most Trump supporters did not have inherent malice but should be condemned for the policies they supported? Or is he saying that anyone who can support Trump has to be, at least in part, motivated by hate?
And this is often how I see the conversation going. To (heavily) paraphrase:
Person A: If you voted for Trump, you’re racist.
Person B: I’m really not. I disagreed with a lot of what he said but I thought Clinton would do more damage in XYZ ways.
Person A: Yeah, you may not personally feel racist but you supported racist policies. It just shows you think the concerns of white people are more important than the actual human rights of everyone else.
Person B: That’s not what I think at all!
Person A: It’s not about what you personally think! It’s about what you supported!
In other words, in principle motivation is supposed to be irrelevant because racism is about effects, but in practice accusations of racism nearly always boil down to motivation—at best a selfish indifference and at worst outright malice. So, in principle, I think Theory 3 has some merit and is worth talking about. In practice, I find I just end up repeating the arguments I made for Theories 1 & 2.
Understand your conversations aren’t happening in a vacuum; silent victims are listening to you.
Sometimes I want to talk to people about “rape culture.” I’m putting “rape culture” in quotes because the people I most want to talk to about this often recoil at the phrase. If there was another shorthand phrase I knew to describe this situation, I’d use it, but I don’t know of any.
For clarification, when I say “rape culture” I do not mean a culture that is totally chill with violently forcing people to have sex. I mean a culture that minimizes the seriousness of sexual harassment and assault in myriad ways, most of them not purposeful but still very impactful. The cumulative effect is that far too many women have not only been sexually assaulted but—and for me this is a crucial point—they feel unable to do anything about it or even tell anyone.
(Before I continue, please note that in this post I talk exclusively about male rapists and female victims because I am talking about my personal experiences. However it’s important to understand that men are also assaulted and they also struggle to talk about it.)
I feel very strongly about this issue. I probably feel more strongly about this issue than any other social or political topic, by a lot. And that’s because, for me, this is very personal.
When I talk about “rape culture,” I’m not trying to have a political conversation or a policy debate. I’m not trying to establish whether liberals are on witch hunts or conservatives hate women or feminists hate men or whatever else. I don’t care how you feel about your ideological opposition. If I’m trying to talk to you about “rape culture,” this is what I’m trying to say:
I’ve been assaulted. It traumatized me for a long time, and it was even worse than it needed to be because I didn’t think I could tell anybody. When I eventually did tell someone, someone I trusted and loved, he told me he was disappointed in me. I felt humiliated and ashamed, and I really wished I hadn’t told him. I didn’t tell anyone else for a very long time. And I suffered for it.
And many women I love have been assaulted. It’s not my place to share their stories, but the bottom line is this: of all the women I’m closest to, more of them have been assaulted than haven’t. Many of them didn’t talk about it with anyone for a long time. And they’ve suffered for it too.
If I had just walked up to you and told you that, would your first response be “How do you know your loved ones aren’t lying to you? How do I know you’re not lying to me? Women lie sometimes. We should be talking about that.”
The women I know who don’t go public with their stories fear they won’t be believed, fear they’ll be blamed, or fear there will be reprisals against them. And I can’t reassure them that wouldn’t happen, because, from what I’ve seen, that is usually what happens. Even in the more obviously criminal situations, I couldn’t get them to tell the police. Often they won’t even tell their social circles. The men who do these things just go on with their lives, in many cases going on to assault more women who also won’t say anything. My heart breaks for those future women, who I can’t save. It breaks for my friends, who got no justice or relief.
Before this post, I’ve only told a handful of people that this has happened to me. It’s not something I want to think about, and it’s not something I want to be defined by. But I’ve decided to write about it because I’m tired of having this conversation as if we’re discussing “them”—other women, not present, who have gone through this and what it may or not be like for them and how they may or may not react to the way we discuss this. We’re not talking about “them,” we’re talking about me. We’re talking about my family and friends. And, in all likelihood, we’re talking about your family and friends too. For countless people, this is not an abstract discussion; this is our lives.
The more vocal I am about how seriously I take this, the more women end up telling me their stories. They trust me to believe them, and they also trust me not to tell anyone. Sometimes that’s the hardest part, because I want to tell everyone. I want people to understand how common this is.
In one of my friend’s cases, I knew the guy. I fantasized about walking up to him and punching him in the face. But she didn’t want me to say anything to anyone. So when I saw the guy, I had to just act like nothing had happened. Everyone acts like nothing has happened. I wonder if he even thought about it again. She was intimidated about leaving her house, she would cry when she got home, she would make extra sure her door was locked—and he doesn’t even have to think about it again.
When I think about how many women I know—personally—who have not only been preyed on, but then shamed or intimidated into silence, I feel overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed with sorrow and I’m overwhelmed with rage. I feel rage at men who take whatever they want with no real concern about repercussions, and I feel rage to know they’re right not to worry. I feel rage at a society that’s quick to find reasons not to take my friends’ stories seriously, not to face how common this is. I feel rage at myself that I can’t do anything besides listen and grieve.
And you know what else? If you’re the person who can’t have even one conversation about this without saying “what if she’s lying?” – I feel rage at you.
You think because you’re not physically attacking anyone, because you’re “just asking questions,” that you’re not a part of this—that you’re innocent. You are not innocent. Every time you talk about this publicly or in groups, odds are good that someone who’s been through it is listening. She’s hearing your suspicion and condemnation, and she’s deciding she’s much better off never telling anyone. If no one knows, no one can call her a liar, man-hater, idiot, or slut. No one can use one of the most painful parts of her life to hurt her all over again. But she’s also a lot less likely to get the help she needs. And the guy who attacked her is free to go attack someone else.
And you. You who think we don’t talk enough about false accusations, who think we don’t consider how scary it is for men to hook up with women they don’t know, who think a man assaults an unconscious woman hidden behind a dumpster because of a “hook-up mentality”–you’re a part of this. Where do you think “culture” comes from? Each time you talk about sexual assault, you’re contributing to a culture of some type. You might be contributing to a culture of support, compassion, a desire to understand. But if you’re contributing to a culture of suspicion and blame, that’s on you. She hears you, and she’s shutting up, and that is on you. So I feel rage at you too.
When I talk about “rape culture” I’m not advocating for a political party or policy or position. I’m not calling for a ban on any ideas or any topics of conversations. Talk about false accusations, talk about drunken regret, talk about whatever you want. Just understand your conversations aren’t happening in a vacuum; silent victims are listening to you.
So when I talk about “rape culture,” that’ s what I’m trying to make clear. I want you to recognize that none of us are observing this from the outside; we’re all involved. Everyone who talks about this—and everyone who refuses to talk about it—is a part of this. We are all a part of this. And all I really want is for you to think about which part you’re playing.
I like Camille Paglia a lot in no small part because the world clearly has no idea what to do with her. I mean, just look at the intro she gets to this piece for Time: Paglia is the author of Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars. I mean, that’s true, she did write that book, but it has nothing to do with who she is, what she thinks, or why so many people find her fascinating (or infuriating). Anyway, here’s her take on sex crimes on collage campuses: “Young women today do not understand the fragility of civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature.”
She calls the warning cries about levels of sexual violence on college campuses “wildly overblown” and–in direct contradiction of conventional wisdom from all the experts–declares that it really is forcible rape by strangers that should be every woman’s concern. She writes:
Despite hysterical propaganda about our “rape culture,” the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.
I’d be inclined to write her off as being a bit over-confident in her own anecdotal experiences over hard facts if it were for the fact that I also recently read an NRO piece on the same topic: The Rape Epidemic Is a Fiction:
Much of the scholarly literature estimates that the actual rate is more like a tenth of that one-in-five rate, 2.16 percent, or 21.6 per 1,000 to use the conventional formulation. But that number is problematic, too, as are most of the numbers related to sexual assault, as the National Institute of Justice, the DoJ’s research arm, documents. For example, two surveys conducted practically in tandem produced victimization rates of 0.16 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively – i.e., the latter estimate was eleven times the former. The NIJ blames defective wording on survey questions.
So the numbers are really in dispute after all, and Paglia may have some legitimate backup. Setting that contention aside for a moment, however, I think there’s no real arguing with these paragraphs from her piece:
Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.
Too many young middleclass women, raised far from the urban streets, seem to expect adult life to be an extension of their comfortable, overprotected homes. But the world remains a wilderness. The price of women’s modern freedoms is personal responsibility for vigilance and self-defense.
And that dark vision of human nature and the reality we inhabit really explains Paglia’s appeal to conservatives despite her radical left-wing politics. I can’t resist quoting just a bit more:
Current educational codes, tracking liberal-Left, are perpetuating illusions about sex and gender. The basic Leftist premise, descending from Marxism, is that all problems in human life stem from an unjust society and that corrections and fine-tunings of that social mechanism will eventually bring utopia. Progressives have unquestioned faith in the perfectibility of mankind.
The horrors and atrocities of history have been edited out of primary and secondary education except where they can be blamed on racism, sexism, and imperialism — toxins embedded in oppressive outside structures that must be smashed and remade. But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.
You should just read the whole post. It is, like so much of what she writes, well worth the time.
The documentary The Invisible War made waves a couple years ago by tackling the subject of sexual assault within the U.S. military, largely focusing on female victims. A recent issue of GQ has a disturbing and heartbreaking article focused solely on male victims:
Sexual assault is alarmingly common in the U.S. military, and more than half of the victims are men. According to the Pentagon, thirty-eight military men are sexually assaulted every single day. These are the stories you never hear–because the culprits almost always go free, the survivors rarely speak, and no one in the military or Congress has done enough to stop it.
…The moment a man enlists in the United States armed forces, his chances of being sexually assaulted increase by a factor of ten. Women, of course, are much more likely to be victims of military sexual trauma (MST), but far fewer of them enlist. In fact, more military men are assaulted than women—nearly 14,000 in 2012 alone. Prior to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011, male-on-male-rape victims could actually be discharged for having engaged in homosexual conduct. That’s no longer the case—but the numbers show that men are still afraid to report being sexually assaulted.
Military culture is built upon a tenuous balance of aggression and obedience. The potential for sexual violence exists whenever there is too much of either. New recruits, stripped of their free will, cannot question authority. A certain kind of officer demands sex from underlings in the same way he demands they pick up his laundry. A certain kind of recruit rapes his peer in a sick mimicry of the power structure: I own you totally.“One of the myths is that the perpetrators identify as gay, which is by and large not the case,” says James Asbrand, a psychologist with the Salt Lake City VA’s PTSD clinical team. “It’s not about the sex. It’s about power and control.”
I’m sure everyone has heard of the scandal / sexual crime in which hackers grabbed nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton and then posted them online. What isn’t being reported, but is being covered by Wired, is that a key tool used in the hack is actually a piece of software designed for use by law enforcement agencies.
On the web forum Anon-IB, one of the most popular anonymous image boards for posting stolen nude selfies, hackers openly discuss using a piece of software called EPPB or Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker to download their victims’ data from iCloud backups. That software is sold by Moscow-based forensics firm Elcomsoft and intended for government agency customers. In combination with iCloud credentials obtained with iBrute, the password-cracking software for iCloud released on Github over the weekend, EPPB lets anyone impersonate a victim’s iPhone and download its full backup rather than the more limited data accessible on iCloud.com. And as of Tuesday, it was still being used to steal revealing photos and post them on Anon-IB’s forum.
There isn’t any suggestion that it’s actually law enforcement officers who are doing the hacking, of course, because it turns out the software is just not that hard to come by:
Elcomsoft’s program doesn’t require proof of law enforcement or other government credentials. It costs as much as $399, but bootleg copies are freely available on bittorrent sites. And the software’s marketing language sounds practically tailor-made for Anon-IB’s rippers.
“All that’s needed to access online backups stored in the cloud service are the original user’s credentials including Apple ID…accompanied with the corresponding password,” the company’s website reads. “Data can be accessed without the consent of knowledge of the device owner, making Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker an ideal solution for law enforcement and intelligence organizations.”
So obviously the main take away is that your data isn’t safe. Unless you’re going to invest the time to become a full-time computer expert, you may as well just assume it’s not safe. This has all kinds of implications for the conversation about rape culture and sexual violence in our society: do we tell women it’s a bad idea to have nude photos of themselves (supply side) and pass laws against “revenge porn” (demand side)? Or is addressing the supply side at all a form of victim-blaming? I’m not going to debate that here.
Instead, here’s something totally different: this story shows one of the subtle but profound ways in which future society is going to be markedly different from past societies. One of the defining characteristics of modernity is the supremacy of formal institutions and of those formal institutions the most powerful is the nation-state. The reason for this supremacy is the wide power-differential between formal institutions (like governments) and informal instutions (like a mob of angry citizens). As recently as the 18th century, a bunch of angry colonials could stand against a global empire or a bunch of angry Parisians could topple their own government. In the centuries since then, the level of power available to a group of citizens (informal institution) vs. a state (formal institution) has diminished drastically. Governments have fighter jets and aircraft carriers. Insurgents can make car bombs, sure, but there’s a reason this kind of warfare is known as asymetric: only governments have the resources to field military-grade hardware these days. That is a big part of why we see formal institutions as being so dominant in our society. But it’s changing.
The software put out by Elcomsoft is government-grade, but it’s easily available to consumers and, for that matter, Elcomsoft is not exactly Boeing or Lockheed-Martin. Meaning that small companies and even individuals can put together top-flight software. Another example is TrueCrypt, an open-source harddrive encryption utility whose future is in jeopardy today, some believe, precisely because despite being free and open-source it was military-grade encryption for the every man.
In a lot of ways, we’re returning to the era when a bunch of farmers and their muskets were at least in the same ballpark as professional armies: all they needed was to steal a few canons to make a war of it. Or, going back farther, to the days when peasants and farming or hunting implements quite literally were an army in terms of training and hardware. A world where informal institutions like organized crime, militias, political movements, and the like can actually pose a threat to nation-states is not a world we’ve never seen before. But it might be a world we never thought we’d see again, at least not in the developed parts of the globe. But the power of formal institutions is on the wane.
Myth: Rape is caused by lust or uncontrollable sexual urges and the need for sexual gratification.
Fact: Rape is an act of physical violence and domination that is not motivated by sexual gratification. (Counseling Center at Roger Williams University)
The idea that rape is about power, and not about sex, is one of those facts that everyone knows. Sort of like everyone knows that humans only use 10% of their brain capacity. In other words: it’s totally and completely wrong but people keep saying it anyway.
The urban legend about folks using only 10% of their brain may be annoying, but as a general rule it doesn’t get anyone hurt. Misdiagnosing the cause of rape can lead to bad policies, confusion, and more rape, however. It’s not just an annoyance. It’s serious and worth getting right. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, politics gets in the way.
The original source of the idea that sexual assault is about violence and power instead of sex or lust doesn’t come from a scientist or an academic study. It comes from a feminist writer named Susan Brownmiller who invented the theory pretty much from scratch for her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.
According to Brownmiller, rape is “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” There is some validity to the idea that the consequence of widespread rape and sexual assault is a ubiquitous power imbalance between men and women in society, and that in that sense even men who never sexually assault women might be said to benefit from rape, but the contention that men consciously engage in rape for the purpose of control (to the exclusion of sexual gratification) never made much sense at all.
In a sane world, Brownmiller’s theory would have been very short lived. This is because an actual scientist stepped in with a direct rebuttal just four years later, in 1979. The book was called The Evolution of Human Sexuality and it was written by the anthropologist Donald Symons. It is no coincidence that Symons wrote from a scientific rather than a political perspective, and his book was widely heralded by some of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century, including Richard Posner, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Steven Pinker.Symons’ thesis was very simple and aligned with common sense: he saw rape as being primarily about the satisfaction of sexual lust. In particular, he used evidence to document that:
Victims, as a class, were most likely to be young physically attractive women (as opposed to older, more successful career women). On the other hand, convicted rapists were disproportionately young disadvantaged men whose low social status made them undesirable as dating partners, or husbands. (Summary from Psychology Today)
The nature of sex and sexual violence in society has changed significantly since the 1970s, but continuing research cements Symons’ central claim that rape is a way for men to get access to sex that they can’t get in other ways.
For example, I recently came across another stark confirmation of this in the paper Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health. In it, researchers Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah found a simple and direct correlation between legalized prostitution and rape in Rhode Island. The state unintentionally legalized prostitution in 2003 an then recriminalized it in 2009. After prostitution was legalized, the sex market increased in size and rape (overall, across the entire state) declined by 31%. When prostitution was criminalized again in 2009, the incidence of rape went back up. As Jason Kerwin summarizes:
Cunningham and Shah are very careful to say that they cannot conclude exactly why decriminalizing prostitution reduces cases of rape. They consider a number of potential mechanisms, and conclude that the most likely one is that, for some men, rape and prostitution are substitutes. That is, men commit rape in part due to sexual desire, which can be satisfied in other ways.
Kerwin goes on to point out that:
While Cunningham and Shah’s paper cannot demonstrate this for sure, their finding is consistent with other research by Todd Kendall that finds that the rollout of the internet, and the attendant increase in the accessibility or pornography, appears to have driven a decrease in cases of rape.
I’m well aware of the difference between causation and correlation, but taken together the research of Symons, Cunningham & Shah, and Kendall paint a stark picture in which men—driven by a more powerful sex drive—see rape as one among a series of competing sources of sexual gratification, the others being consensual sex, pornography, and prostitution.
Women have always born more of the risks and costs of sexual activity because it is women who get pregnant. In the 1960s and 1970s, this created incentives for women to wait until marriage to have sex or, more realistically, to at least keep sex within the confines of social courtship rituals. Men with high social capital, because they made good potential mates, therefore had reasonably high access to sex both through marriage and through the courtship that led to marriage. Men with low social capital who had much worse prospects in courtship committed the majority of rapes for that reason: they had less access to sex through courtship and marriage.
Since that time, society has changed dramatically, and the costs of sex—in terms of risks of unwanted children or sexually transmitted infections—have gone down dramatically. However, this has primarily benefitted men rather than women. This is because the prevalence of elective abortion has changed societal attitudes about pregnancy to make it basically a woman’s problem. Since a woman can get an abortion, if she does not society is more likely to see it as her choice alone. This diminishes the social responsibility men feel towards their own offspring and means that women are guaranteed to bear the costs of unplanned pregnancy—whether it’s the aftermath of an abortion or single parenthood—alone. So the costs of sex outside of marriage or courtship rituals have gone down, but the inequality between men and women has actually increased.
For men with low social capital this means that the need to rely on rape may be somewhat diminished because casual sex might be more accessible to them then expensive courtship rituals. The old idea that a man had to have a stable job and be ready to provide for a family before marrying and having sex is dead. It’s possible that men with low social capital are still seen as less desirable mates, but even in that case the ready availability of cheap and abundant porn is a safer outlet (from their perspective) than violent rape.
Men with high social capital have the same considerations, but more so. The kind of man with high social capital is likely to be the kind of man who goes to college. Not only does this create a ready abundance of opportunities for casual sex and porn consumption, but the hookup culture also creates the perfect opportunity for date rape. Date rape is much, much lower risk (for men) than violent rape because there is often no physical evidence and so it becomes a matter of he-said, she-said that our justice system cannot hope to successfully prosecute as a general rule.
Because the political theory that rape is a systematic form of oppression completely misapprehends the actual motivating factors behind rape, it cannot offer reliable policy guidance to address rape. It persists only because the alternative, seeing rape as a about sexual gratification, requires a politically unpalatable recognition of fundamental differences between the sexes. Denial of these unpalatable realities blinds us to the reality that sexual liberalization is virtually always beneficial for men at the expense of women and children.
Another big blind spot that comes from the theory of rape-as-power is the tendency to underestimate the connection between rape, pornography (which often includes depictions of violence, and so is basically simulated rape) and prostitution (which often involves sex slavery and coercion of minors, and so is basically outsourced rape). Consequently, the idea that prostitution and pornography can ease sexual violence in society has merit only to the extent that we recognize we’re regulating sexual violence as opposed to avoiding it. Since it’s difficult to see formalized, lethal dueling being proposed as an answer to murder, it’s hard for me to see pornography and prostitution as solutions to sexual violence against women
Acknowledging the real nature of rape does not lead directly to any silver bullets that will eliminate sexual violence from our world. It is a deep and disastrous dysfunction, much like murder, that will never be entirely eliminated from society. There is hope, however, that correctly recognizing the causes can lead to better policies to make sexual violence less prevalent.
UPDATE: I knew this would be a controversial post, but some of the push back was more than I expected. This is an important issue, both to me personally and also for society at large, and so I want to say thank to the folks who contributed and brought in new perspectives and resources, especially Cynthia L. and Kevin L. I’ll be giving the issue more thought–and more research–and will probably return to it again with a follow-up post.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a frustrated counter-reaction to criticisms of Elder Callister’s article “What is the Lord’s Standard for Morality?” A lot of folks liked it. A lot of other folks did not. I found friends and family in both camps. That made me cautious as I wrote this followup. Not because I temper my words to try and please people, but because when folks I respect disagree with me I like to take the time to listen and reconsider. So I listened. And I reconsidered. This post is the result.
A Rock and a Hard Place
The idea that we should be careful in how we talk about sexual morality is valid. Last year, Elizabeth Smart provided a stark example. She described how an object lesson she’d heard in church that compared sex to chewing gum came to her mind after she was first raped by her kidnapper.
I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value. ‘Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.’
I’m sure that the person who gave this lesson meant well, but that object lesson (along with its cousins: the nail in the board, the licked cupcake, and the crumpled rose) is an example of purity culture, and purity culture is Satanic. Most of the time when we talk about sin, we use a mistake-paradigm. Sins are mistakes, and through the Atonement they can be fixed. Jesus says “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” It is true that the Atonement cannot erase the consequences of our sins, but it can and does make us whole. That’s the point, and for the most part, it’s what we teach.
Except when it comes to sexual sins. Then, suddenly, we switch from a mistakes-paradigm to a purity-paradigm. You can fix something that is broken, but rotten meat is bad forever. Even more pernicious, however, purity-culture makes it seem as though virginity and chastity are the same thing. This implies that even a victim of a rape should somehow bear the guilt of sexual transgression. That is an abominable and indefensible teaching. The mistakes-paradigm is compatible with Christianity. Purity culture, although it’s often preached by Christians, is not. It is antithetical to the Savior’s message of hope and redemption. It is what Satan, the accuser, wants us to believe.
As she recounts in her autobiography, Smart remembered that lesson when it could have done the most harm to her. She was rescued from despair, however, by the memory of love. She knew that her mother and father would accept her back with loving and open arms no matter what had been done to her. Throughout her awful ordeal, she remembered the love of her family and felt the love of her Heavenly Father. Love won out, and because of that Elizabeth found the resolve to endure and, in the end, to defeat her tormentors. But first she had to defeat a false teaching she had been subjected to in Sunday school.
There is more to the story. As I wrote at the time, headlines covering her comments ran along the lines of “Elizabeth Smart: Abstinence-only education can make rape survivors feel ‘dirty,’ ‘filthy’” and “Traditional Mormon Sexual Purity Lesson Contributed to Captivity, Elizabeth Smart Tells University Audience.” There was no shortage of those who were ready to use her words to score points for the world’s view of sexual freedom, whether she agreed or not.
The Church’s unwavering adherence to strict moral standards is unusual in our modern society, and it is under constant attack. This attack could have tragic consequences, precisely because the Church’s stark and plain teachings on chastity and morality have measurable, beneficial effects. A 4-year study conducted at the University of North Carolina found that, compared to other religious denominations, Mormon youths were more devout, more able to articulate their own faith, and more likely to adhere to the standards set by the Church. As Deseret News reported, the study found that fewer Mormon teens:
Engaged in sexual intercourse
Had ever smoked pot
Drank alcohol a few times a year
Watched x-rated or pornographic programs in the past year
There’s good reason to believe that clear teachings contribute to these measurably different outcomes for Mormons. Researcher Stephen Vaisey interviewed more than 20 Mormon youths for the project, and subsequently noted:
One of the groups that stood out … were the Mormons. In general they tended to be more articulate about their religion, what their religion actually taught and what kind of religious constraints it placed on them. [emphasis added]
Plain and unflinching talk from Church leaders is a shield between our children and the dangerous temptations of our modern world. These teachings are not a matter of sheltering youth, but rather of empowering them to see clearly the choices that lie before them.
We are trapped between the rock of purity culture and the hard place of the world’s dismissal of the seriousness of sexual sin.
Daggers Placed to Pierce Their Souls
The response to my original post that surprised me the most was the oft-repeated complaint that I had skipped over the worst line in the talk. That was:
In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.
Some folks accused me of leaving it out because I didn’t know how to account for it, but the truth is that I left it out because it didn’t even register as problematic. I took it to be just a simple observation that dress, along with many other factors, is one way that like-minded individuals identify potential mates in a process known in economics, sociology and anthropology as assortative mating. If you would like to marry a man who values modesty in dress, then it makes sense to dress modestly. (The existence of assortative mating is itself so well known that some studies fault it for rising income inequality.)
Others, however, pointed out that the word “get” as opposed to “marry” was just too similar to the phrase “get what they deserve” and that, combined with a reference to a woman’s dress, it was just too close to victim-blaming. I do not dispute the validity of this reaction. One of the things I’ve learned, especially in private discussions, is that people can react to the same words in very, very different ways and that if you are willing to listen you will generally learn that people have good reasons for reacting the way that they do.
More than anything else, these discussions reminded me of Jacob’s haunting and cutting words when he spoke about chastity:
7 And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God, which thing is pleasing unto God;
8 And it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul.
9 Wherefore, it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained, because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you according to your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of consoling and healing their wounds; and those who have not been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds.
10 But, notwithstanding the greatness of the task, I must do according to the strict commands of God, and tell you concerning your wickedness and abominations, in the presence of the pure in heart, and the broken heart, and under the glance of the piercing eye of the Almighty God.
I always imagined, when I read these verses as a kid, that the women and children in the crowd must have just had very delicate Victorian sensibilities about the topic of sex. Now I realize how dubious that reading is, and I wonder how many of those in the audience had been traumatized by sexual assault, rape, and abuse. I don’t say this to give Elder Callister a get-out-of-jail-free card, because after all the big difference between Jacob’s words and the Ensign article is that Jacob gave this extended apology/warning (the earliest known trigger warning?) and Elder Callister did not.
My position is this: I think Elder Callister meant no ill will, and that it’s probably impossible to talk about these issues without causing pain to at least some people. As an audience, we should try to understand the principle behind the words. But I also would hope that our leaders can continue to learn how to be as careful as they may, without diluting the message, in picking their words, and I sincerely acknowledge the validity of those who were hurt by these words. Perhaps it is some comfort, in re-reading Jacob 2, to find yourself in good company.
What is Rape Culture, Anyway?
A post at Feminist Mormon Housewives called me out for misunderstanding what the term “rape culture” means. To be fair: that’s valid. I have my own definition of rape culture, but I shouldn’t have used a non-standard definition without more carefully explaining what it was and that it’s non-standard. I’m not going to get into that now, either (although the basics are in my original post). Instead, let’s just pause and consider a small irony.
One of the primary concerns with Elder Callister’s talk is that he used words and phrases that could be hurtful to his audience, even if the hurtful meaning wasn’t intended or even logically implied by his words. And that is valid. But wouldn’t the same concern apply to deploying a deliberately inflammatory term like “rape culture” to describe the talk? After all, there are quite a few people who aren’t familiar with the technical definition (that’s not in dispute, since the FMH post takes the trouble of providing the definition) so, by their own logic, perhaps critics ought to be more careful with their language? Just to be clear, my concern is not that Elder Callister’s feelings might be hurt, but rather that a very large number of faithful Mormons who do not keep current on feminist political terminology will be confused and hurt when some of their fellow Mormons start associating a general authority and advocacy of rape. So really, by the logic of the critics of the talk, we shouldn’t even be having a conversation using the term “rape culture” at all.
The substance of the rape culture accusation could be made without the incendiary terminology. Using the conventional definition, rape culture is the idea that common attitudes can lead indirectly to rape. Specific examples of rape culture include anything that condones or advocates (1) victim-blaming, (2) sexual objectification, or (3) trivializing rape. I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing that the talk trivializes rape. We’ve already talked about how the “get the type of man they dress for” line sounded like victim blaming. I have already conceded the validity of that painful association, but I am not willing to go from sounds like victim-blaming to engages in victim-blaming. (The observation that women’s dress can affect men doesn’t rise to the level of victim-blaming, either.)
So that leaves sexual objectifcation. Here the problem is not with any particular phrasing of any particular talk, but with the concept of modesty as it exists in Mormonism. Critics argue that emphasizing modest dress turns women into sexual objects, and that the only solution is to talk about modesty less. (They also argue that we should encourage women to dress modestly for themselves and not just for the sake of men, but I’m not going to go into that because I agree with it.) So, should the Church shut up about modesty, or at least talk about it a little bit less?
Will the Real Moderates Please Stand Up
As I mentioned, the number one criticism of my post was that I had skipped over the “get the type of man they dress for” line. Only slightly less prominent, however, was the argument that the critics of Elder Callister’s talk didn’t have anything against the Church’s standards or teachings on modesty. The theory was that the big kerfuffle wasn’t about what Elder Callister said. It was just about how he said it. I don’t for a moment doubt that the folks who told me that were sincere, but it’s worth pointing a couple of things out. First, even though some of them said (effectively) “I’m not going to criticize the content, just the delivery” they also disagreed with the content. Their position was “I think Elder Callister is wrong about sexual morality, but I’m choosing only to criticize his delivery. Not his message.” In other words, lots of the critics do, indeed have a beef with the Church’s positions. Secondly, plenty of the folks criticizing the talk did quite plainly criticize the Church’s teachings as well.
The original piece that set me off (Natasha Helfer Parker’s Morality? We can do much better than this) included an explicit rejection of the Church’s teaching that homosexuals ought to remain chaste and urged a shift to accepting monogamous gay sexual relations as moral. Several of the commenters on my piece insisted that, since there’s no direct scriptural evidence against masturbation, it ought not to be considered a sin (or at least, not a serious one). I was tempted to write this off as one of those weird, fringe issues that make the Internet such an interesting place until another piece at Feminist Mormon Housewives made the exact same case:
If you are going to say that the Lord condemns masturbation, please cite me chapter and verse on that. Masturbation is something that a vast, VAST majority of people on the earth and in the church have done. If it is sinful, it is a sin like lying, being inconsiderate, or any number of other mistakes that we all deal with.
And of course, in addition to teachings on homosexuality and masturbation, there are also those who would call for the Church to stop speaking so loudly and clearly about modesty. So, to my friends who tried to tell me that I was getting upset at nothing because no one actually challenged the Church’s teachings, I have to say: “look again.”
Keep in mind that in the first section of this post I argued (1) that the Church’s uniquely clear teachings on moral issues had led to uniquely positive results for our youth and (2) that the world outside is ready to abuse any possible opening to attack those teachings. In that context, the important thing isn’t that certain members of the Church feel comfortable publicly calling for the Church to retreat from traditional teachings. Instead, the important thing is why. What is the rationale behind this call for the Church to moderate moral teachings?
Sara Katherine Staheli Hanks’ (who wrote the FMH piece quoted above) argument boils down to the ever-classic: But everyone’s doing it! (Her exact words, just to re-quote, were that “Masturbation is something that a vast, VAST majority of people on the earth and in the church have done.” So, how bad can it be, right?) Parker, on the other hand, wrote that the standard on homosexual sex should be lowered because it “sets the Mormon LGBTQ population up for almost guaranteed failure,” and then broadened that logic at the end when she said: “The way that sexual standards are presented in this type of talk is unrealistic and sets people up for failure.”
It’s impossible to tell exactly which standards, other than those concerning homosexuality, Parker believes the Church should revise downwards, but the logic is basically limitless. If we accept the idea that whenever the Church’s standards get too high we need to lower them to more realistic levels, then they aren’t really standards at all. They are more like best practices or conventions. The principle of idealism cannot survive that assault. As I stated in my original piece: this logic is fundamentally anti-Christian. It’s the counterpart to purity culture. Purity culture says the Atonement cannot save you, and lowering standards until people can achieve them on their own says the Atonement is not needed to save you. These are just two different ways to repudiate the Gospel.
As much as moderate critics of Elder Callister’s talk may earnestly and sincerely believe in simply improving the way that we talk about sexual morality, it’s important to realize that we’re having that conversation in the midst of a greater battle. There are people both inside and outside the Church who are more than happy to use sincere complaints about how the Church teaches what it teaches to fuel their complaints about what the Church teaches. I don’t think that means that moderate critics ought to be silent or that their concerns are not legitimate. I just hope it explains the reaction of folks like me.
The Man-in-the-Middle Attack
This last section of my response is the most theoretical, but perhaps also the most important. It starts with a concept from cryptography. The man-in-the-middle attack is basically just what it sounds like: two people are trying to communicate to each other and a third party steps between them, intercepts the message, modifies it (possibly), and then sends it on. For example, if you’re logging on to your bank and a hacker is trying to intercept your communication to steal your password, then he’s trying to pull off the man-in-the-middle attack.
Let’s imagine someone trying to pull of a man-in-the-middle attack to sabotage communication between the general authorities (at one end) and the members of the Church (on the other end). A silly example would be to try and hack into the Church’s servers and modify the text of the Ensign so that what the GAs sent out and what the members received wasn’t the same. That’s a silly example because it would be so obvious (among other reasons). But what if, instead of hacking into the Church’s servers, an adversary were to metaphorically hack into the minds of members of the Church and change the way they perceived certain words and phrases? In that case, the words the General Authorities used would not mean the same thing to their audience that they meant to the General Authorities. More importantly, however, the sabotage would be a lot harder to detect because everyone would be so busy arguing about what the “right” meaning of the terms was. The argument over who to blame, the leaders or the members, would obscure the deeper reality: someone had driven a wedge between the watchmen on the walls and the people they are there to warn.
What might this look like in practice? The most obvious examples is the way that professional counselors (like Parker) took Elder Callister to task for using the word “abuse” (when he called masturbation “self-abuse”) in a non-technical sense. Not only did Parker do this, but Hanks followed suit: “Do not co-opt a clinical term used to describe things like ritualistic cutting or burning of the skin to describe masturbation.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way language works. Every specialized discipline in the world finds the need to invent new jargon and repurpose existing words from everyday language, but these technical terms are derived from the ordinary words and they are only valid within specific contexts. To argue that someone in a non-specialist outlet ought to be subject to specialized use of a term is not only irrational, it’s impossible. This is because quite often the same word will get repurposed again and again by different specialties. Off the top of my head, the phrase “tipping point” has a perfectly understandable meaning in plain English, but it also has a more technical meaning in economics and another, different, technical meaning in catastrophe theory. There’s a reason that Wikipedia had to invent disambiguation pages.
This example is too obvious to be a really powerful man-in-the-middle attack. The whole point of Parker’s critique is to assert the dominance of her expertise by calling Elder Callister wrong. Later on, when it starts to become a matter of course that we should bow to expert terminology, it may start to function as a man-in-the-middle attack, but for now we’re looking for a more subtle example. For example: Is it possible that the reaction to the “get the type of man they dress for” line is exacerbated because adherents of rape culture are actively looking for suspicious phrases? In other words, if you really believe in a political philosophy dedicated to unmasking sinister meanings behind otherwise ordinary terms, you’re probably going to find them whether they exist or not. This is the same danger behind accusation of dog whistle politics. When you’re accusing someone of something that is by definition hidden, how can they defend themselves? The reality is that anyone dedicated enough and clever enough is going to be able to find evidence of rape culture just about anywhere with only a little bit of effort and creativity.
This may seem like an academic quibble about linguistics, but the reality is that arguments about language are almost always really arguments about principles in the end. Without questioning the validity or sincerity of those who were hurt by Elder Callister’s word choice, I simply want to raise the possibility that in figuring out who is to blame, we may want to consider those who actively encourage us to look for evil intentions behind every ordinary turn of phrase. To the extent that secular politics (from any end of the spectrum) start to change the way we perceive the words we hear, there’s a risk that we’re starting to lose contact with the General Authorities. We should probably make it a matter of conscious effort to set aside our political filters somewhat when listening to what they have to say.
The article is by and large a tame restatement of the basic moral principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they relate to sex. These standards are pretty much identical to the basic moral principles of all traditional faiths. Quoting from the article:
The Lord’s standard of morality is not so much a list of do’s and don’ts as it is a principle, which can be expressed as follows: The procreative power is to be exercised in the marriage relationship for two key reasons: (1) to bind and strengthen ties between spouses and (2) to bring souls into the world. These uses have the blessing and endorsement of the Lord.
Despite the fact that the principle is more than “a list of do’s and don’t’s,” the article goes on to clearly stake out the practical implications of this principle in plain English: Don’t have sex outside of marriage, including homosexual sex at any time. Don’t try to get around the “no sex before marriage” on a technicality, i.e. don’t even fool around. Don’t masturbate. Don’t look at porn. Dress modestly. The ongoing controversy illustrates the necessity of these clarifications.
It’s no surprise that these standards would be ridiculed and dismissed by pop culture. If the world at large doesn’t hate you, then you’re doing something wrong. There’s nothing new or noteworthy about the idea that religious fuddy-duddies and goody-goodies are silly in the eyes of the world. What’s surprising to me, however, is the amount of push-back coming from within the Church. The most problematic paragraph comes from the section about modesty, and reads as follows:
The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight, it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure.
The outrage comes from thinking that goes something like this: if you say that the way women dress controls how men think and feel, you are making women responsible for men’s actions. In fact, this is the very logic used to defend rape culture: women who dress immodestly are “asking for it”. Therefore, the Ensign is now perpetuating rape culture.
Let’s deconstruct this reasoning.
First, to say that “the dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men” is not the same as saying “women control men’s thoughts.” In every other human interaction, we’re perfectly capable of understanding that a person can influence you without controlling you. If someone cuts you off in traffic, they are going to have a “powerful impact” on your mood. That’s a fact. But your reaction to that provocation is still your decision and therefore your responsibility. That’s another fact. These two facts, (1) that someone can influence you and (2) that ultimately your behavior is still your own responsibility are two facts that people seem to have no problem accepting simultaneously until the discussion turns to modesty. Then suddenly we get this bizarre notion that we can’t say “women have an influence on men” without saying “everything men do as a result is a woman’s fault.” That bizarre notion makes no sense, and doesn’t appear (explicitly or implicitly) in the article.
This article doesn’t claim that women are responsible for men’s thoughts. That’s the accusation, and it is false. Men are still responsible for their own thoughts, but it would be nice if women would dress modestly to help them out. Just as people are responsible for keeping their tempers in control, but it’s generally considered common courtesy not to provoke people unnecessarily. Let me reiterate: if I say “Be nice, because it will help other people not lose their temper,” it doesn’t mean that I’m saying it’s your responsibility whether or not some random stranger loses his or her temper. Even though we interact with each other, we are ultimately responsible for our own behavior, and that’s it. The Ensign shouldn’t need to specifically call this out, because it’s right there in the 2nd Article of Faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins.”
I understand that there are more moderate criticisms as well, such as the fact that modesty standards often seem to be unequally applied to women vs. men. They appear to be unequally applied because they are unequally applied. They are unequally applied because of the fundamental reality that females are on the supply side and men on the demand side of the sex equation. That is common sense which everyone who is not motivated by politics can see, but it is also (in case you’re skeptical) scientific fact. Men and women approach sex differently but it is men who are primarily motivated by visual cues and also who want to have sex more frequently and more casually. (Once again, these aren’t just random assertions. There is data.) A gender-blind approach to sexuality would be no more reasonable than a gender-blind approach to professional sports. If the WNBA did not exist, how many women would make the cut to play pro basketball against men? Zero. Pretending gender differences do not exist when they do in fact exist may be politically expedient, but it does not actually serve the interests of equality. If you’re looking for symmetry, this is where you will find it: women are encouraged to dress modestly (partially for their sake, partially for the sake of men) and men are encouraged to stop watching porn (partially for their sake, partially for the sake of women). There is equality, but not sameness, in the Lord’s standards for sexual morality. Make no mistake: that is the core outrage which this article perpetuates in the minds of its critics. Mormonism espouses a view of humanity in which gender matters, and therefore believes that men and women owe certain obligations to each other in a complementary relationship. The modern world espouses a denialist political ideology in which gender has no deep or lasting significance that we do not create for ourselves.
It is also no great surprise to me that so much of the outrage at the article is coming from professional therapists. The article invites that response when it leads off with a bold statement that God, and therefore the Church, is the ultimate arbiter of sexual morality.
Some years ago my father, an attorney, was trying a lawsuit. For his authority, he cited only one case—a California Supreme Court case issued many years before. His opponent cited a number of lowercourt decisions of more recent vintage. The judge said to my father, “Mr. Callister, don’t you have a more recent case than this?” My father looked at the judge and replied, “Your Honor, may I remind you that when the supreme court speaks on a matter, it only needs to speak once.” The judge nodded with approval. He was reminded that the supreme court trumps all lowercourt decisions, how ever numerous or recent they may be.
So it is with God our Father—He needs to speak only once on the issue of morality, and that one declaration trumps all the opinions of the lower courts, whether uttered by psychologists, counselors, politicians, friends, parents, or would be moralists of the day. [emphasis added]
In fact, the reaffirmation that the Church has the final word on these matters may be the only truly novel claim made in the article. Everything else is a restatement of traditional beliefs. This one is hardly surprising, but it is fairly novel. So it’s natural that psychologists and counselors would lash out in response. It’s a turf war: who gets to define moral standards for sexuality? The Church? Or the APA?
Let’s take a look at the claims made by one counselor in particular, as a representative of the apparent conflict between General Authorities and counselors. Natasha Helfer Parker, in her article Morality? We can do much better than this… has a bullet-list of issues with the Ensign article. She starts by claiming that the article leaves no room for personal revelation. This is obviously not true, as personal revelation is always necessary in addition to official pronouncements and even scripture. That is a fundamental and constant principle of Mormonism. It does not need to be restated in every article. However, in this particular case, I’m wondering precisely what revelation she has in mind. Is she suggesting that if you pray and ask, God might just tell you to go ahead and have sex outside of marriage? There are often shades of gray and complications with applying moral principles, but the “no sex outside of marriage” one is about as universal and clear as it gets.
She next takes the article to task for calling masturbation “self-abuse” because “this is not an appropriate clinical term.” She may not have noticed, however, the Ensign is not a clinical journal. The inability of experts to understand that specialized terminology must give way to common vernacular in non-specialized contexts is faintly amusing. It reminds me of the time that an outraged medical doctor told my father (a professor of English) that it was unfair for PhDs to be referred to as “doctor” because medical doctors had to study harder and did so much more good. My dad smiled, and reminded him that hundreds of years ago when college professors were already using the term “doctor,” the medical professionals of that day were known as “leeches”. Perhaps if he wanted a unique title, he could try and resuscitate that one?
Most of the rest of the bullet points rely on the same tired strawman approach of insisting on seeing a viewpoint you don’t like in its most crude and absolutist form. But the most sinister criticism she levels is the one that comes at the end of the bullet list, although it’s a sentiment that pervades the entire piece, and that is this: “The way that sexual standards are presented in this type of talk is unrealistic and sets people up for failure.”
Well now, we wouldn’t want to set people up for failure, now would we? Contrast this sentiment with Paul’s simple statement that: ” all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
If not all have sinned, than the Atonement is not necessary. If the Atonement is not necessary, then Christ is superfluous. If Christ is superfluous, then the Gospel is a joke. What good news? We have no need of a savior. We just lower moral standards to the lowest common denominator (or maybe pray for an exemption) and then everyone gets to heaven on their own merits. This well-intentioned call for lowered-standards is sadly anti-Christian. The entire message of Christianity–not just Mormonism, but all Christianity–is that none of us can live up to God’s impossible standards. She faults this Ensign article, but it was Jesus himself who said “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Maybe we ought to just hand Parker a copy of the New Testament and a red pen and let her tell us what Jesus should have said.
I will say at least this much for Parker: the fact that she couldn’t even get to the end of one article without cutting out the beating heart of Christian faith provides a very clear example of just how important it is that the business of articulating eternal standards stay in the hands of the General Authorities.
The attacks on so-called “rape apologists” have reached levels of recklessness and insanity that call for a direct and forceful repudiation. I am sick and disgusted of “feminists” who attack those offering sound, reasonable, and moderate advice to help keep women safe.
Let me give you a very, very clear example of this.
Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them.
I can’t think of a more sane, reasonable approach to this problem. And if the topic were anything other than rape this advice would be considered not only reasonable, but sort of obvious. No one thinks that when you tell college kids that they should lock up their bikes that are you some kind of bike-thief apologist. If I tell my son or daughter to lock their car doors when they park on the street, I don’t think I would be accused of perpetuating “burglary culture”. When gyms post signs advising clients to lock the lockers where they leave their stuff, we don’t get some bizarre outcry about teaching children not to steal instead of teaching them to protect their belongings. In no other area of human life do I see any difficulty at all holding these two concepts in our brains at the one time:
1. People who do bad things are bad. And they shouldn’t do them.
2. In addition to urging people not to do bad things and punishing those who do, it’s a good idea to take simple, practical steps to make yourself less likely to become a victim. (Please note: “in addition” isn’t the same thing as “instead of”.)
I can’t believe we actually have to argue about this, but apparently we do.