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)
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.