The Pragmatic vs. the Political

I’ve been sitting on this post for awhile, ruffling and unruffling my feathers and trying to think about what I want to say. The right “moment” has probably already passed–but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

It’s been a season of feminist blogger backlash against the advice columns. It started with restless rumbling against Lucinda Rosenfeld’s harsh critique of a young woman left in the street, drunk, by her so-called friends. Right on the stilettos of this one came Hess vs. Garner regarding Eva, who had been raped (but was reconsidering calling it that) by her boss, was raising the child that resulted from that assault, and wanted help winning back her ex-husband, who left her when she chose not to terminate the pregnancy.

But the bs really hit the fan, so to speak, the day after Thanksgiving, when Amy Dickinson advised a college student who was sexually assaulted at a frat party.

The key points of Amy’s response were:
1) Making the decision to drink to the point where judgement and inhibitions are impaired is never wise–and that’s something you can choose to control
2) According to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, no matter what state either of you were in, if you did not consent to have sex, and it happened anyway, that’s rape
3) You must seek physical treatment and emotional support immediately through the resources available at your university.
4) Find a way to tell this dude that someone is onto him, and that whether his behavior is deliberately, violently malicious or terrifyingly, alcoholically ignorant, it’s not going to fly under the radar anymore.

The bloggers went to town on this one (among them, Hortense at jezebel.com, meloukhia of This Ain’t Livin’, Amanda Hess at The Sexist, and ginmar at A View From a Broad, henceforth, “the bloggers”), all of them generally re-stating Amy’s response this way:

“Yeah. That’s right. You stupid slut, you made your bed, now go lie in it. Everyone knows that going to parties at frat houses will result in rape, or sex that you will regret, and no self-respecting lady would ever attend such a party, for this very reason.” (that’s meloukhia)

Arrrrrrrrrgh. OK.

I think the advice columns are a fantastic source for social activists of any kind to identify the problems that burden our society. And rape on college campuses is certainly one one of them. I’m all for re-purposing these columns, pushing them out there to raise awareness, to be sure that men, women, parents, and children know that this is happening, and must change. There’s a social and political cause here, for sure.

But I maintain that for the advice columnists, the pragmatic comes before the political.

Amy is pretty cutthroat, no doubt. I agree with the bloggers that her first line, “Were you a victim? Yes. First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment,” probably did not make “Victim(?) in Virginia” feel much better. That’s her style–she’s not a coddler. Carolyn Hax might have started the column with, “I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through, and the pain and uncertainty you’re struggling with.” But guess what? I suspect she would have followed it up with very similar advice.

Frankly, I’m not sure Amy is in a position to say, “yes, you were raped. ” In any case, it’s clear she didn’t feel she was in a position to say it. She’s not a doctor, a lawyer, or a psychologist. She’s never met or spoken to Victim, or heard more about what happened than, he quickly proceeded to go against what he ‘promised,’” which doesn’t give a lot of medical or legal information. It doesn’t help that the whole thing is clouded by (possibly illegal) consumption of alcohol (possibly by both parties).

This is so often the case, and I think must be the hardest part of being an advice columnist: rarely, if ever, can they safely diagnose. They can’t confirm that your spouse is cheating, they can’t tell you to definitely have that baby, they can’t help you get a girlfriend, and they don’t know whether you were raped. What they can do, and what most of them are quite good at (in different ways) is break down an overwhelming event into comprehensible chunks, and make recommendations for moving forward.

Another harsh truth of advice columns is that they can only advise the person who wrote to them. It does no good to say “Your mother-in-law sounds like a real bitch, she shouldn’t treat you that way” or “This criminal needs to stop raping people.” The mother-in-law and the criminal don’t care. All the columnist can offer is perspective and choices for the person who wrote.

So bloggers, use these columns to your heart’s content! Please draw notice to the fact that even in this day and age, a young woman can be sexually assualted, and the only place she can think to turn is a stranger, a face she’s seen in the newspaper. People need to know that. And we need to fix it. But keep in mind when you do that that face in the newspaper is trying to provide useful, accurate, honest guidance to an unknown person, on a terrible, delicate situation about which she has only 2 paragraphs of vague information–and about the same amount of space to respond.

You can expand upon, repurpose, and even totally disagree with what the columnist says, while respecting the fact that your audiences and purposes are very different ones. You can take a different tack, make something more of a column that you thought was fundamentally weak, without calling the original writer “one part incredible bitch and one part cover-your-ass scold” (that was ginmar).

For the record–I think Amanda Hess does that really well this time. She’s clearly disgusted by Amy’s response, but her commentary is nevertheless precise, logical and nuanced.

The trouble is, when you get so worked up about criminalizing the columnist, you force yourself to make everything black and white, to disparage everything she says for the sake of being right. For example, meloukhia is affronted that Amy didn’t “provide [the victim] with any resources beyond a tepid recommendation to go to the college health clinic.” Ok…the college health clinic is free, it’s on campus, they’re trained in dealing with students, and they could refer her to local doctors, hospitals, or rape crisis centers with much greater expertise than Amy could. What’s wrong with this recommendation, and how is a directive to go there “tepid”? I don’t get it.

And finally…..(drumroll)…..I admit it: I don’t think Amy’s reinforcing rape culture by agreeing with Victim that her choices weren’t good ones. I believe (subtlety again, look out!) that there’s a difference between, “this probably could have been avoided” and “you deserved what you got, you hussy.”

I don’t believe that anything you do or don’t do, say or don’t say, wear or don’t wear, means you deserve or are asking to be assualted. I do believe that there are choices that make it more likely to happen.

Let me be clear: I am not saying women should wear habits, keep a 9 p.m. curfew, and avoid direct eye contact with men, lest the men be aroused beyond their control. I am saying that everything we do, and everywhere we go, falls somewhere on the spectrum of risk to our well-being: we could be hit by a car, we could get food poisoning in the cafeteria, we could meet a stranger in a dark alley–or an untrustworthy charmer at a party. The answer, of course, is not to cower under our beds (after all, the roof could cave in). But the responsibility to calculate those risks, and choose to take them on, or not, with a clear mind, lies with each of us alone.

Women have fought for autonomy, on college campuses and off, for years. Female college students have insisted, rightfully of course, that parents, house moms, dates, RAs, and older brothers have no place dictating, or even knowing, where we go, what we do, and when, even though just a few decades ago that wasn’t the case. But the corollary is that the responsibility for those choices is ours and ours alone. Being the victim of sexual assault is absolutely not any woman’s fault or rightful punishment. But choosing whether to isolate herself, while incapacitated, with a stranger in a strange place is in her hands, and no one else’s.

The trick of the advice column is that it has practical merit only if it’s directed specifically at what Victim can control. Unfortunately, that inevitably puts the focus on her choices and options, not his unacceptable behavior. Whoever this guy is, he obviously should never have lied to Victim, and then attacked her as soon as he got her alone. But Victim wasn’t able to stop him from doing it, and Amy certainly can’t do anything about it now, from her column. Victim just wants permission to call herself, well, a victim. Amy could give it to her–but what good would that do? What would she do next? Instead, she focuses on a plan of action, encouraging Victim to seek treatment, help, and closure, to reclaim the agency and control that she lost in this terrible episode.

To a wide audience of parents, students, feminists, voters, etc., “This should never have happened! Our society is broken!” is a powerful rallying cry. But to one woman to whom it already did happen…well, it’s not so helpful. We need both the political and the pragmatic, the activist and the advice columnist. What we don’t need is the ranting and the name calling.

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4 responses to “The Pragmatic vs. the Political

  1. I agree with your post on this topic and your comments about how the role of an advice columnist dictates their answers and Amy's response was pragmatic and not political. I think my opinion on what she should have said lies somewhere between the "bloggers" and yourself, leaning towards you. I think Amy was incorrect in the ordering of her response. I think the comment on the possible victims judgment should have been saved until later in the letter. Unfortunately less than half of rapes are reported each year – the biggest category of unreported rapes unfortunately happen on college campuses. Mainly do to illegal alcohol consumption and question if one was in fact raped, and self blame, lead many to not report these crimes. Self blame is unfortunately a coping mechanism. By blaming yourself you feel that you can prevent it form ever happening, that you have control, to counteract the fat that you were just in a situation where someone else controlled you. Amy's number one prerogative should have been to get this girl to a professional who she could at length discuss what happened and figure out legal possibilities. That should have been 1 for the sake of any other potential victims. Amy's comments about her decisions making her more vulnerable have a place and are valuable to readers who could maybe take head and be more responsible but it should have been after the importance of seeing someone. Also she should not have suggested that the possible victim talk to her possible rapist. This is legally and emotionally unadvised. You are allowing someone who has already taken advantage of this girl to try and talk her out of reporting and to manipulate her into thinking nothing wrong happened and that she just doesn't remember saying yes but she did or threatening that he will tell everyone she is a slut and begged for it. It is a law enforcement professionals job to interview him. Plus the emotional stress of just seeing him again could cause her to shut down. This guy is no longer just a schoolmate to her. That's my opinion.Thanks for the great post.

  2. The one thing I will disagree with you on this is the insistence that this incident could have been avoided. That DOES place the responsibility on the woman, rather than on the man not to rape. That attitude falls within the larger context of our society's rape culture – that a woman was so drunk/dressed a certain way that he couldn't HELP himself but to rape. That is the attitude that we need to change. Though I do agree with you that within the context of the column, Amy can only respond to the inquirer. Did she do a perfect job? Not at all. But it's also important for her to have raised the issue of rape-without-struggle, which many people still ignore or aren't even aware of.

  3. Anonymous–thank you for reading and commenting. Your reasons for not contacting the guy directly make good sense. Most people read the directive to involve him as a suggestion to ask whether or not he thought what he did was rape. I agree with you and the bloggers that that will almost certainly only lead to more uncertainty and, likely, self-blame on her part. I guess I read it as, "make sure he knows and faces the fact that what happened was not OK with you, and that you're not going to just pretend it didn't happen." But I do see that, in reality, such an encounter is much more likely to go wrong than right.

  4. Amanda-I agree with you that thinking like "she was so ____ I couldn't help myself" is indicative of an attitude, and a culture, that blames victims rather than perpetrators. However, that kind of shifty shifting of blame is not the kind of responsibility that I–and I would venture to guess, Amy–am talking about. I didn't intend to suggest that she–or her clothes, or her blood alcohol level–is in any way responsible for his response, or that it's her job to make herself "unrapeable" by preemptively accounting for every factor that might "drive" someone to assault her. Choosing to exploit, or not, was of course this man's responsibility. But I do think that all adults–men and women alike–are responsible for their own environments, for the situations they *can* choose. In this case, this woman put her safety in someone else's hands, while incapacitated, and when it's clear she felt uncomfortable about his intentions. Had she said "no" when it was easier and safer to do so–i.e., by not going up to "his" room–she would have protected herself. That she couldn't, or chose not to, is the personal or cultural problem that was of most interest to me in this column. Going alone, drunk, to a stranger's bedroom–regardless of what they've "promised" you–just doesn't show good judgment. Just as picking up a hitchhiker on a dark road or giving a contractor the key to your condo, then moving in without changing the locks doesn't show good judgment. And I do think there's a distinction between saying that it was her fault, her responsibility to not get raped, and saying that all independent adults have to be aware of their environments, and do their best to avoid situations that are likely to end in harm. We can, and should, expect much of the world and the people we meet. But that doesn't mean we can assume it. There are so many situations where we can't control what happens to us–why voluntarily abdicate our agency when we don't have to?

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