The Soapbox: On Richard Dawkins’ Rape Comments & How We Discuss Sexual Assault

Yesterday, the atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins made comments about rape and pedophilia on Twitter that made many people angry.

From what I can gather, Dawkins appeared to have been tweeting over the weekend regarding religion and Israel, saying support for the Israeli state does not mean condoning the country’s current behavior in Gaza. Then he pivoted his examples — I would argue somewhat insensitively — to ones about about sexual abuse:

Very quickly, Dawkins was criticized on Twitter and throughout the blogosphere. Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon pointed out Dawkins’ past offensive statements about sexual abuse. Others brought up Dawkins’ past rude and dismissive behavior towards fellow atheist/Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson—which also included, apparently, getting Watson kicked off a panel in which they were to appear together.

As often happens in situations when a person receives pushback, early yesterday morning, Dawkins tweeted a whiny complaint that his 140-character declarations weren’t embraced quite like he thinks they deserved:

No old white man should be lecturing anyone about whose traumatic experience was “worse.” As someone who has experienced sexual violation and coercive date rape, and who has many, many female friends who have been raped and molested, his arrogance is offensive. I tend to agree with a tweet from Andi Zeisler at Bitch magazine that Dawkins’ tweets were “basic attention-whoring”; to me, it brought to mind the late (old white man) Christopher Hitchens’ attempts at being “provocative” by writing about how women are not funny. Obnoxious behavior doesn’t become less obnoxious just because a “great man” does it. So, yeah, Richard Dawkins: douchebag.

All of that being said, watching this unfold yesterday reminded me of past discussions of how we as a society tend to frame things as “what’s worse?” in regards to sexual violence. My frustration in these discussions is that I think feminists and women’s rights supporters (who I’ll henceforth refer to as just “feminists” to be succinct) scrub out a lot of nuance  — what Dawkins called “absolutist” — which is actually doing a disservice to how we conceptualize specific ways criminals perpetuate violence against women.

A lot the work that feminists do with the public, unfortunately, is really fucking basic education about the ways violence functions in our culture to oppress women. There’s really fucking basic education about the sexual autonomy of women and girls. There’s really fucking basic education about what consent means. There’s really fucking basic education about how a victim is never responsible for his or her own abuse. There’s really fucking basic education about how victims are not tainted or impure. You have to be passionate about doing this work because, honestly, the myth-busting gets very repetitive.

That there is no hierarchy to the experience of trauma is another myth that feminists are constantly fighting. Being raped by a guy down the hall in your dorm is no “better” an experience than being raped by a strange man who jumped out of the bushes. Being sexually assaulted by a creeper who shoves his hand under your skirt on public transit is no “better” than being molested by your father in your childhood bedroom. It’s all the same oppression and abuse stemming from the same place. What I don’t understand, however, is why there isn’t more effort to emphasize the additional elements that make the experience of a traumatic crime so traumatic. Such an emphasis would amplify mitigating factors which also need to be addressed.

While I don’t agree with Dawkins regarding the experience of trauma in his statement “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse” because the various ways to experience sexual trauma should not b ranked, I’m uncomfortable with the erasure of the “at knifepoint” part as a salient factor. It is relevant to contextualize the use of weapons against women in perpetuating violence. I would have used guns as an example, personally, given the current push by gun control advocates to keep abusers from buying and carrying guns. But the point still stands. It’s important that we say not just “don’t abuse women” but also “if you have weapons, don’t use them to hurt women” and specifically address those situations when weapons are used and why it happened. “At knifepoint” or “with a gun” an intricately connected and situationally amplifying element in how women are harmed that needs to be addressed. Talking about this shouldn’t have to mean that the speaker automatically condones it as “worse” a la Dawkins.

Let me use another example, one which is more personal. Three years ago, I wrote on The Frisky about some particularly lurid anti-sexual violence PSAs targeted towards women which were rightfully accused of victim-blaming, as they focused on the victim’s behavior instead of the perpetrator’s. The ads dealt with sexual assault and drinking — “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no” — and I voiced the opinion that people should learn how much alcohol we/they can safely handle. My argument was basically that feminists need to stop positioning alcohol’s role in rape culture as “who cares, go drink a lot just because you should be able to on principle!!” Drugs and alcohol affect how we behave; people make decisions when they are under the influence that they would not have made while sober and some decisions may put a person more at risk. I said that incapacitating oneself from drugs or alcohol is “stupid” and that I think feminists should be more critical of binge drinking in general.

At the end of that particular piece, in an aside which I can see now appeared glib, I wrote:

Obviously, being drugged with a “date rape drug” is an extenuating circumstance. Rapists who use date rape drugs can sit in solitary confinement until they die, for all I care. It’s just evil.

I didn’t mean to come off as glib about sexual assault; I meant to illustrate the point I made above regarding guns, which is that date rape drugs amplify the perpetuation of violence in these circumstances. Violence against women is the main issue; the existence and use of date rape drugs to perpetuate that violence is an intricately connected and amplifying issue, which should also be dealt with.

When that piece came out, there was a response on the blog Feministe by the author Jaclyn Friedman, who wrote What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame Free Guide To Sex And Safety. In it, Friedman dug in her heels about the abuse of alcohol and drugs not being relevant (“Even your 12-year-old niece knows that ‘bad girls’ should expect bad things to happen to them, and drinking, especially to excess, is one of the hallmarks of a bad girl.”) and wrote that I had created an “hierarchy … between rapists who prey on drunk women and rapists who use date rape drugs.” She wrote:

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?)

At the time Friedman published this, it was extremely upsetting to be accused of spreading a “fucking disgusting and dangerous message.” It was also, honestly, confusing. Can people really not see how there’s an added fucked up element to roofie-ing someone to incapacitate them in order to rape them? Or are we just not supposed to discuss how, in addition to being a rapist, someone went out of their way to go buy drugs to incapacitate someone, which means someone else sold him those drugs and profited off them, which means somewhere, some company is profiting off the sale of these drugs? Because those are all additional problems  It doesn’t mean date rape is “better” and rape after being roofied is worse, it means the problem has been amplified and we as a society have additional things to focus on.

I didn’t write this in that 2011 piece, but my thinking on this is informed by the fact that one of my closest girl friends was roofied once. She was not sexually assaulted because other people saw what had happened and got her to safety. My anger about it was not just focused on a violent, woman-abusing culture that led to some person roofieing her so that he could hurt her (although most certainly it was there). My anger was focused on a whole chain of events that lead to the date rape drugs being in that guy’s pocket in the first place. I’m sorry, Jaclyn Friedman, but I do think that a rapist who uses date rape drugs to incapacitate victims has an extra layer of shitty human being on him that needs to be addressed. And from a criminology standpoint, I wish these “at knifepoint” situations could get emphasis without damning accusations flying around.

I understand we live in a world of 140-character reactions and blog posts typed up to be made live 20 minutes from now. I get why, from a communications standpoint, strong, emphatic reactions are going to lack nuance in the service of making larger points. But sometimes I feel like we could stand to look more at the trees instead of the whole forest as a way to more finely-tune our responses to problems. It could actually lead, I think, to more effective education. As we do our work of repetitive myth-busting, it would behoove feminists to acknowledge the relevancy of nuances more instead of immediately dismissing it as the creation of a “hierarchy.”

[Salon]
[Jezebel]
[Skepchick (1)]
[Skepchick (2)]
[Guardian UK]
[Violence Policy Center]
[Feministe]

[Image of Richard Dawkins via Shutterstock]

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