The Soapbox: On Rape, Alcohol, Victim-Blaming & Feminist In-Fighting

If you write for a living — especially opinion writing, and especially as a feminist — you set yourself up for criticism. You really have no control over how others respond to your work, other than choosing not to write it. By attaching your name to your views, you put yourself in the position to be agreed with, judged, lauded, mocked, quoted reverently, misinterpreted, called somebody others “must read”, called crazy or ugly or both. I’ve experienced all these things at some point in my career.

It sucks, though, when the worst of those experiences happen from within the feminist community.

Last Friday, I checked my email and saw a Google alert for my name. I clicked the link and found my way to the feminist blog (jokingly called “In defense of the sanctimonious women’s studies set”) and an article entitled “Girl-On-Girl Victim Blaming Action (Or The Most Terrible Time Of The Year,” by Jaclyn Friedman. Friedman is the co-author of Yes Means Yes: Visions Of Female Sexual Power And A World Without Rape with Jessica Valenti. She’s also the moderator of a feminist journalist listserv that I’ve been a member of for about five years, as well as the author of the recent book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide To Sex And Safety. I went to her book party for What You Really Really Want a few weeks ago, which is when I met her in person for the first time. She signed my book and was warm and lovely; we have been corresponding over email about setting up time to do a Q&A for The Frisky.

Why do I mention all this? Because I was surprised and disappointed see her writing about a blog post I wrote earlier this month about alcohol, binge drinking, and date rape. Her blog post was not particularly kind towards me.

My Frisky piece was about recent PSAs (which have since been pulled) from the PA Liquor Control Board that depicted a woman lying on a tiled bathroom floor, panties around her ankles, with the words, “She didn’t want to do it but she couldn’t say no.” It’s a shocking reminder that alcohol can render us incapable to give consent. Lots of people — myself included — saw the PSA as sending the message that it is the woman’s fault if she is raped while drunk. I said as much in my Frisky post.

But I also explained in my Frisky post that I believe there needs to be a better discussion around binge drinking safely, specifically when it comes to communicating what you do/don’t want to do sexually and knowing your drinking limits instead of getting (accidentally or purposefully) blackout drunk. Overdrinking is not something I think should be defended; to not know one’s limits and to not be able to take care of oneself while drinking, in my opinion, is just plain stupid. The same goes for drug use/abuse.

I wrote about it in my blog post because I suspect less rape, especially date rape, will occur if more young people are cautious with overdrinking. This is why, for example, we teach young women self-defense. However, it seems to me a guy or girl is a lot more likely to need to put down that fourth vodka shot than to flip an attacker. While self-defense is an empowering and important thing to know, there are other opportunities to protect oneself that will probably come up a lot more frequently. Personally speaking, I took self-defense classes in high school (we had a pretty progressive phys-ed program, I guess) and am fortunate enough to have never needed to use those skills. No one taught me how to drink or do drugs, though, and there were at least two very, very bad booze-related experiences when I went over my limits in a dangerous way. Besides, everyone is entitled to protect herself or himself in the way they feel is most empowering — and self-defense moves may not be it for everyone.

As a young person who drinks, as well as a feminist, it seems like common sense to me that if you are going to put alcohol or drugs in your body, you or a trusted friend needs to be able to take care of that body so it isn’t needlessly put in harm’s way. Women can protect ourselves better from rapists; women can be empowered to get out of bad situations with preventative decision-making. That was the crux of my piece. And the irony of the whole thing is that I quoted Friedman herself in it, saying I agree with her idea that folks need to practice “enthusiastic consent” when it comes to sex, which obviously gets muddled when drugs or alcohol are involved.

Jaclyn Friedman’s Feministe post briefly referenced my Frisky post, but without any specific quotes from my piece. Instead, her piece accused me of “women hating on women” and branded me a victim-blamer of rape survivors. It scathingly continued:

While many people went to great pains to point out that this is a fucking disgusting and dangerous message, Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky “bravely” ventured that maybe us laydeez really do need lecturing about “how taking more drugs or drinking more booze than you can handle is stupid.” (With a bonus hierarchy set up between rapists who prey on drunk women, and rapists who use date rape drugs. Because there’s rape, and there’s rape-rape, amirite?)

My initial reaction to reading that above paragraph was “Um?” As in, “Um, did you actually read what I wrote?” and “Um, did you understand it?” You can go read my Frisky post for yourself and be the judge, but I don’t see the part where I say or imply rape isn’t “fucking disgusting,” “lecture” women (at least, any more so than any op-ed piece I write for The Frisky is a “lecture” for women), or set up an hierarchy between “real” rape and “not real” rape-rape. (My boss Amelia was date raped while drunk and it would offend me if someone suggested — as several have — that what happened to her was not “real” rape.) In fact, this sentence of mine sums my beliefs on rapists quite nicely: “Rapists are responsible for committing rape and all rapists should be put behind bars for the rest of their lives.” Friedman’s reading of my Frisky post struck me as an extreme reaction, coupled with a a mischaracterization of my work as seen through the lens of that extreme reaction.

I did feel “ouch” at one particular place in her post, though: that one little word, “bravely” — which, in quotes, was denoting sarcasm. I’m not sure exactly what was brave — er, “brave” — that was deserving of snark. A guess? My piece included a personal admission that explicitly states why I don’t believe overdrinking should be defended. To quote from my piece:

I came from a family background with alcoholism and drug abuse in it. It’s not something I write about because it is private to me. However, I will share that I’ve spent years and years and years in Ala-non groups, Ala-teen groups, and individual therapy dealing with the ways substance abuse has affected my life and my belief systems (both in good and bad ways). And to that end, I very strongly feel — actually, I know — that people do things while on substances that they would not do if they were sober. This is true of people with alcoholism or substance abuse problems, as well as people who just got really, really, really wasted just one time (aka binge drinking, which is what the PA Liquor Control Board PSA is targeting). Substances are the reason their judgment is clouded; the substances are what turn Good Uncle Bob into Drunk Uncle Bob Who Drove His Pickup Truck Into The Swimming Pool. And the person who put too much of the substances into your body is you.

I wasn’t writing about that (sarcastically) “bravely.” I actually think my admission, contextualizing my argument, was brave. Reading that it was (sarcastic) “brave” stung, as it seemed needlessly dismissive and unkind. It’s true that as a writer I set myself up to have readers respond that way; admissions from painful personal experiences that I usually keep private was a risk for me. In this case, it’s a risk I took in the service of contextualizing a nuanced argument. And certainly no one, feminist or not, has to agree with me regarding my opinion on overdrinking. But I would hope, genuinely hope, that I could write about a sensitive topic like this without it being mocked.

That’s a smaller issue, though, compared to the bigger issue at hand: there’s a party line about rape and alcohol that one is supposed to parrot. The party line for feminists on rape and alcohol/drug abuse is that rape is the rapist’s fault, period, end of story, shut up after that part.

Which, DUH. Of course it is rapist’s fault for raping. Does anyone really believe, in 2011, that men can’t help themselves? I certainly don’t — and I say as much in that particular piece, as well as all of my other pieces in my fairly large body of work. But what the party line for feminists on rape and alcohol/drug abuse doesn’t allow for — as I found out — is suggesting that we empower women by encouraging them not to overdrink, because, to use Friedman’s own word, that’s “dangerous” as it can go down a slippery slope of blaming the victim.

Let me spell this ideological argument out for you: empowering women by telling them they should know their alcohol/drug limits and strive not to make choices they wouldn’t make while sober (like, say, crashing for the night in some dude’s bed because it’s too hard to get home), is not an acceptable thing to say to say because blaming the victim. It’s not common sense. It’s not public safety advice. It’s “women hating on women.”

So Jaclyn Friedman not only snarked me — which is disrespectful in and of itself for someone who is her peer — but she snarked at me instead of making a strong argument against my work because other people might jump down a slippery slope based on what I said. If my piece was really as victim-blaming as she characterized it, one would expect she could have used my own arguments to hang me from my own rope. But she didn’t hang me from my own rope; she chose to snark, and then mischaracterize, my writing.

The mischaracterization is what especially bothersome. This may be the Wild Wild West blogosphere and all, but that’s still a journalistically squicky thing to do. You’re not supposed to put words or insinuations in other people’s mouths. You just don’t. But there were several ways that I was  mischaracterized in Friedman’s piece which are straight up unfair. First of all, the “women hating on women” allegation is so kooky that I don’t think I need to dignify it with a response. (I mean, really.) Secondly, despite the fact I very clearly said what I feel about rape and rapists, I’m portrayed as someone who doesn’t think the PA Liquor Control Board PSAs were the least bit victim-blaming. Instead of acknowledging that I’m a blogger (just like Friedman) who writes op-ed pieces, I’m portrayed as “lecturing” other women. And lastly and most hellaciously, I’m am characterized as setting up an hierarchy between “rape” and “rape-rape,” as if I believe a woman who is roofied is deserving of more sympathy than a woman who raped while blackout drunk. When I mentioned date rape drugs in my piece, it was as an aside to point out that cautious drinking/drug use won’t stop a rapist from roofieing you, and how dudes who roofie are “evil.”  Somehow, that point got twisted into me saying there’s a difference between “rape” and “rape-rape.” 

Anyway, all those mischaracterizations should be clear to anyone who did a thoughtful reading of my piece, even if such a reader disagrees with my argument. So the question is why they happened. Was Friedman just being a sloppy reader or writer? Was she intentionally trying to mischaracterize my work to support her own outrage? Does she not care enough about disagreeing opinions by feminists to take pains to be clear? I don’t know the answers. (I did write Friedman a personal email on Friday afternoon asking her for clarification on all this.)

In any case, all of this brings me to the point I’ve really wanted to make, which is one I’ve been itching to do on The Frisky for awhile: It really troubles me when feminists who are working on the same issues tear each other down. It’s a damn shame when that happens. Feminists with differing views or approaches ultimately have the same basic goals. And there are enough morons out there (like men’s rights activists) who are genuinely against those goals and are hellbent on tearing us down already. It troubles me when feminists are the ones getting nasty because it poisons our sense of community; it troubles me because it creates rifts where there could or should be bonds; and it troubles me because it makes capital-F Feminism seem more ideological (“you must think/say this!”) than something individually reasoned and thoughtful. I’ve begun to write a few pieces in the past when other feminists wrote similarly nasty things about me, like the time Feministe blogger Jill Filipovic suggest my POV indicated an “immature” “princess fantasy” because I want to have kids with a man who can financially support our family while I can be a stay-at-home mom for a few years. (Although “princess fantasy” was quite kind, actually — the aforementioned men’s rights activists had a field day calling me a “gold digger.” When the MRAs agree with the snark from someone writing for Feministe, you know we have a problem!)

When that particular “princess fantasy” Feministe post was published and I was upset by Filipovic’s snark, I had friends — both feminist bloggers friends and just random friends from high school — say things to the effect of “Yeah, I agree with your post that you should have children with someone who has the same goals as you do about how to raise them, but you’re not supposed to say stuff like that.” Wait, what? We aren’t supposed to be honest about what we really value and believe because it might look “unfeminist” to someone? It pisses me off to no end that doctrinaire aspects of modern-day feminism control the debate in this way and there are certain things one cannot say or feminists will tear you down (“call you out”) if you say them. And in the case of the Friedman post, they will do it in a blog post how horrible it is when “women [are] hating on women.” (I mean, really?)

Such is a fact of life, apparently: we have to think in lockstep on some issues. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, as I’ve been a feminist activist and writer long before I even knew who any of these people were and I’m kind of a hippie to the point of naivete when it comes to playing nice in the sandbox.  I just treat others the way I want to be treated on principle; I try not to be unkind; and I appreciate my feminist community, especially since I know what life — as a writer and as an an indivual — can be like without one. 

A few months ago the journalist Emily Nussbaum wrote an article for New York magazine about young feminist bloggers in NYC. I was bummed not to be included in the Jezebel-heavy piece, although I was heartened plenty of other fantastic bloggers weren’t included as well: Megan Carpentier from Raw Story (formerly of Jezebel), Michelle Dean from The Awl, Chloe Angyal from Feministing, and even Jill Filipovic herself. It felt like being left out of a community which I have long been a member and that stung.

But when things like what happened on Friday happen? When I’m publicly tarred and feathered for being a “victim-blamer”? When I’m told I’m apparently not feminist enough according to other feminists?

Suddenly, I don’t mind so much anymore.

Contact the author of this post at [email protected], preferably if you have nice things to say. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaWakeman.