2014: Rape culture on the ropes

When Jaclyn Friedman entered the atrium of the Queen’s University Biosciences Complex on April 8, 2014, she did so like a visiting dignitary. At the university to deliver a guest lecture, Friedman walked briskly and upright, pausing briefly to look at some artwork here and there, nodding gently during conversation, all the while radiating a reserved enthusiasm—much like what one would expect of royalty. Just like any dignitary, she was escorted by eager volunteers, and just like any dignitary, she had a security detail.

While Friedman is a somewhat popular figure in the feminist community, she is by no means generally popular. The overwhelming majority of people—including students—likely have no idea who she is; she does not in any sense enjoy the sort of popularity that would send legions of shrieking fans armed with autograph books and smartphones to book signings or lectures. She’s known by other feminists. That’s about it.

Friedman’s security detail was present not to fend off frenzied aficionados but because of a supposed threat from a small group of Men’s Human Rights Activists (MHRAs) correctly rumoured to be in attendance. There wasn’t any threat from the MHRAs present of course (I know this because I was one of them), but if you haven’t done so before, you can check out what happened prior to and during the lecture here.

In any case, Friedman’s lecture was advertised as a rebuttal to a talk given at Queen’s a couple of weeks earlier by Professor Janice Fiamengo, in which the former feminist delivered a calm but merciless dissection of the double standards inherent in modern feminism. Friedman didn’t discuss any of Fiamengo’s lecture, however, and instead spoke at length about rape culture. Those in attendance, hoping to hear Friedman engage in some form of debate, to challenge the assertions made by Fiamengo, were left deflated.

Instead, Friedman’s lecture was predictable—dependent on the usual canards surrounding consent, sexual assault, and statistics. Frankly, it was bloody boring. However, as boring as it was, there was one illuminating moment—a moment in which an offhand remark from Friedman provided a telling insight into the workings not just of her mind but also of the minds of those invested in the perpetuation of myths like rape culture.

About halfway through her talk, Friedman made reference to a letter written by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. RAINN is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States, which makes it one of the largest anti-sexual violence groups in the world. The letter was a 16-page document containing a number of recommendations for preventing and responding to rape on college campuses.

As well as making recommendations, RAINN provided a statement on rape culture:

In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime [emphasis mine].

The idea of blaming rapists for rape, and not a community for rape, is pretty commonsensical. A debate on the issue isn’t really necessary. Rapists rape, after all. Friedman, however, wasn’t happy with RAINN’s recommendations, and as soon as the acronym had passed her lips, she breezily dismissed the letter, saying, “I don’t know what that was all about.”

Unfortunately for feminists like Friedman, her dismissal was not reflective of a wider desire to ignore what RAINN had to say—the letter proved a massive rhetorical blow against the rape culture narrative. RAINN not only enraged the feminist community but also emboldened many within the media. Prior to the declaration, few mainstream journalists dared confront the idea, instead submitting to the unwritten but broadly understood rule that “she is always to be believed.” The feminist cult of rape culture went unchecked in the mainstream media for years—as did the establishment of kangaroo courts on U.S. college campuses and the persecution of innocent men. Testament to this ideological hegemony was the daily regurgitation of the repeatedly debunked and outrageous one-in-five statistic; even Obama got in on the act.

The Dear Colleague Letter of 2011, penned in an effort to reduce sexual assaults on campus, made things worse. University administrators, terrified at the potential loss of revenue and funding from government, enrolled feminist ideologues to help structure and administer “justice” on their campuses. The result was a growing list of men denied due process, their reputations destroyed. (Another consequence of these bizarre star chambers is a mounting number of lawsuits in real courts of law, from many of those same men.)

However, following RAINN’s denouncement, journalists began to ask questions and to more closely examine what was (or wasn’t) happening on college campuses.

In Canada, journalists at the National Post along with the newspaper’s editorial board spoke out against the idea of rape culture, publishing four articles within a fortnight on the subject. But they weren’t alone. Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail also attacked the idea, as did many others. Quite suddenly, the deference—or, more accurately, the fear—surrounding rape culture began to dissipate. Journalists were questioning not only the statistics but also the theory. A re-examination of other ideas such as justice took place, and concepts like “innocent until proven guilty,” “burden of proof,” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” began to receive a proper airing once more.

This didn’t stop rape culture adherents from banging the drum whenever possible though. In April 2014, Emma Sulkowicz filed a Title IX lawsuit against Columbia University in which she claimed that the school had mishandled a previous sexual assault case in which she was an apparent victim.

Sulkowicz and two other women had previously banded together to bring a case against fellow student Paul Nungesser. Following three separate campus hearings, Nungesser was adjudged to have been “not responsible” in all three cases despite the application of a preponderance of evidence standard and despite the fact that Nungesser was not allowed to bring potentially exculpatory information into evidence. Nungesser, who has remained publicly silent throughout the entire episode, broke his silence in a recent interview with The New York Times, stating unequivocally that the case brought against him was malicious and as a result of deliberate collusion between the three women. The German student has become a pariah at Columbia as a result not only of the accusations but also of Sulkowicz’s decision in September 2014 to make her senior thesis a protest against the administration’s handling of her case. “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight” created a stir on campus and across the United States. The protest intensified the focus not only on Sulkowicz’s supposed plight but also on the hostility toward Nungesser, who by that time had been excommunicated by friends and become the victim of graffiti slurs and other forms of bullying. Sulkowicz’s piece, in which she lugs her mattress around with her on campus, was lauded by critics and journalists and even compared with Christ’s Stations of the Cross. It didn’t matter that Nungesser was cleared of all charges. Nor did it matter that he was undergoing immense psychological and reputational damage as a result of Sulkowicz’s actions.

Nungesser is set to graduate in May, during the same ceremony as Sulkowicz, who, according to The New York Times, says that she might throw her mattress on the stage during the event.

*

As the year went on, rape culture proponents continued to shriek and caterwaul. They continued to hold vigils and rallies and cling tenuously to the idea that society was just really, really rapey. At no point during the various protests and SlutWalks did they stop to think that they might be wrong. All that mattered was the narrative. They kept walking, shouting, and lighting candles. They did all that and more at the University of Virginia (UVA) following “revelations” of a rape culture there from Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

Erdely penned a 9,000-word piece on an alleged campus rape going back to 2012 when a freshman at the college, “Jackie,” was apparently gang-raped by seven men. The alleged details of the rape are utterly horrific: “Jackie” was raped atop of broken glass and at one point penetrated with a bottle while others watched and “swigged beers.” Except, it is highly unlikely that anything like that happened; not only was the account offered by Erdely self-contradicting, but it was also wildly at odds with eyewitness testimony as well as factually dubious in numerous areas. The veracity of the article was initially investigated by The Washington Post but was soon picked to pieces by the mainstream media in a fashion that was utterly unprecedented. Journalists around the globe seized on the story and between them repeatedly, and viciously, pulled it asunder, calling for the removal not only of Rolling Stone editor Will Dana but also of anybody involved in checking the validity of the story.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that a male student was accused of rape by a female student. It wasn’t even the first time that factual inaccuracies cast such a looming shadow of doubt over a story. What made this story special, however, was that for once the media finally acknowledged that there was a problem. Erdely had put ideology ahead of truth in her pursuit of a hot story. She wasn’t investigating a scandal. She was creating one.

If Ederly’s goal was to raise awareness of the issue of campus rape, she certainly succeeded, albeit not in the fashion that she would have anticipated. Her article provided fresh impetus for a new direction in the conversation around campus sexual assault and the reality of false accusations. As the year came to a close, yet more evidence was presented to an awakened public on what was really happening on American campuses. The lunacy of rape culture theory was finally laid bare. And just days later, the statistics that buttress the theory would also come under renewed scrutiny.

The timing really couldn’t have been any better. Erdely’s article was barely off the agenda when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report about rape and sexual assault among college-age women.

For those who have been at the forefront of debunking rape culture hysteria, these findings are not surprising. What is new, however, is the consistent attack on rape culture theory, maintained and focused over the period of a full year. What is also very new is the news that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) dropped the one-in-five factoid from her site after publication of the study. It was silently removed without explanation, but there is no doubt that the 38-word deletion, which specifically removes the reference to the one-in-five myth, was done so in recognition of a changing dynamic around the conversation.

Put bluntly, people aren’t going to swallow the bullshit anymore, and Gillibrand is smart enough to get out while the going is good.

*

When I wrote “Fear and Loathing in Kingston, Ontario: Confronting Lies at Queen’s University” earlier this year, I did so with an agenda of my own in mind. I wanted more than anything to create a mood, to sound a very particular tone. It was important that readers of the article, already familiar with the theories and statistics, were also made familiar with the cult-like behaviour of those invested in perpetuating rape culture. That was part of the reason I wrote the piece the way I did. I wanted readers to feel uneasily close to the emotional manipulation, unethical methodology, and the cynicism necessary to make people believe such hysterical nonsense. As I look back on 2014 and how the media’s coverage evolved, it seems as though I’m far from being the only one.

For me, 2014 will be remembered as the year that we did serious damage to rape culture. There now exists a media that has grown skeptical of feminist claims. There now exist organizations like RAINN, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and even the DOJ whose voices are growing louder and who are undoing the myths around rape and feminist “theory.” There’s also a little group called A Voice for Men and we’ve been doing our bit too.

I wasn’t surprised when Friedman sneered and cast aside RAINN’s statement on rape culture. It was typical of her. I wonder now, though, how easily she could dismiss all of the evidence, all of the counter-argument, all of the pressure heaped on her bigoted worldview today. I’m sure Friedman will give more lectures in 2015, but will she as summarily dismiss the DOJ data on rape and sexual assault? Will she as easily dismiss the UVA scandal? Will she dismiss Paul Nungesser—a man cleared of any wrongdoing—the victim of a disgraceful smear campaign?

Will she say, once again, “I don’t know what that was all about”?

She probably will, but she won’t get very far because the next time that she tries to do what she did at Queen’s University, there will be more people in the audience waiting to call her on her bullshit. It won’t be just a handful of MHRAs. There will be more people saying, “Wait—we know those statistics aren’t accurate. That theory is bigotry masquerading as a legitimate idea. You’re not telling the truth.”

The year 2014 marked a serious turning point in the fight against rape hysteria; if we are to finally rid ourselves of this hateful idea, then we must continue to speak out and to call out those who propagate the myth.

Maybe this time next year we can finally say that we killed rape culture.

It can’t come soon enough.

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