Some arguments are so extreme and transparently stupid that it’s not even worth engaging with them other than to take satisfaction from our opponents’ making fools of themselves. But other times these arguments tend to be less acceptable ways of stating beliefs that many people hold and put forward in more subtle ways.
I wish James Taranto’s rage-inducing piece on the Wall Street Journal’s website yesterday entitled “Drunkenness and Double Standards” (click if you dare) were the former, but in the midst of the Woody Allen debate, in the age of Steubenville, I’m afraid it’s not. While some of what Taranto says is particularly egregious, many of the sentiments run through the current discussion about preventing sexual assault.
I could probably have titled this piece 457 problems with this piece, for the sake of relative brevity:
1. Putting sexual assault in scare quotes. You know someone is taking an issue seriously when terming it “what is called the problem of ‘sexual assault.'” It drips with dismissiveness. While I’m tempted to just dismiss him in turn, some thoughts on his “arguments.”
2. Downplaying the trauma of sexual assault. It’s not a big surprise that someone with Taranto’s agenda would start his piece with a false rape accusation story. But he then goes on to “the other end of the spectrum” to describe a vicious assault that happened at UMass Amherst. He uses that as a setup to say that the “unambiguous brutality” of that attack is “atypical.” He thus downplays the trauma that can occur from acquaintance rape, which is just boys getting drunk and doing “something stupid,” rather than a brutal assault.
3. Invoking antiquated notions of chivalry. Taranto quotes Heather McDonald lamenting the loss of a “chivalric ideal,” which leads to men ignoring the “special duty to the fairer sex” and acting “boorishly” while women supposedly round up doubt and anguish to rape. Never mind the idea of refraining from sexual assault out of respect for women and human beings and the fact that it is abhorrent and wrong. Before the condescending claptrap causes you to vomit, Taranto is quick to point out that feminists don’t deserve that treatment because they act like sluts while still wanting to be seen as “vulnerable.” Apparently the idea of women having sexual agency while expecting not to be raped produces so much cognitive dissonance for Taranto that he deems it “Orwellian.”
4. Ignoring gender and power dynamics. Throughout the piece, Taranto acts as though men and women are on equal footing in a situation that could lead to sexual assault. He emphasizes the danger men face of having their lives “disrupted” by charges brought against them by women with impaired judgment from excessive drinking, as though this is a much more rampant problem than women being assaulted. But his complete lack of understanding really shows through in his ridiculous drunk-driving analogy:
Which points to a limitation of the drunk-driving analogy. If two drunk drivers are in a collision, one doesn’t determine fault on the basis of demographic details such as each driver’s sex. But when two drunken college students “collide,” the male one is almost always presumed to be at fault. His diminished capacity owing to alcohol is not a mitigating factor, but her diminished capacity is an aggravating factor for him.
Yes, sexual assault is just two drunken college students colliding, and we should treat them just like two drunk drivers with equal blame. He doesn’t point out that women aren’t blamed for getting hit by drunk drivers, or that women aren’t disproportionately the victims of drunk driving accidents, with a women being hit every 2 minutes. Which leads to the key point..
5. Forgetting that rape doesn’t happen without a rapist involved. There are plenty of reasons to argue that both men and women should refrain from excessive drinking. But if I ever chose to drink that much, there are plenty of men I’d be comfortable doing so in front of because they are not rapists. No matter how much you drink, you’re not going to be assaulted without the other person actively deciding to commit sexual assault.
Taranto is an easy target for his far-out views. But there’s a thread that runs through things I and many of you I’m sure have heard from people you know, including ostensibly progressive men. Steph Guthrie gets to a key point for people to keep in mind: “When you victim-blame, be aware that in all likelihood, at least one woman you know and love silently decides she cannot trust you.”