“Rape culture” is a feminist theory which suggests that our institutions and social mores tend to tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) condone and/or normalize rape. I don’t object to naming an alleged cultural phenomenon as shorthand to identify a collection of forces (real or perceived) that one is trying to illuminate. The trouble with rape culture rhetoric, however, is that acceptance of the term’s validity has been treated by “with us or against us” feminists as a morality test, wherein you either agree to the scary assertion without question, or you’re “a rape apologist.”
Recently, Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely apologized for not following standard journalistic practice before publishing a spurious article (that has since been retracted by the magazine) regarding an alleged gang rape in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia.
“The past few months,” she said, “since my Rolling Stone article ‘A Rape on Campus’ was first called into question, have been among the most painful of my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”
As some critics have pointed out, she did not apologize to the fraternity house and its members who likely suffered in her undue process. I submit that this imbalance in her apology is consistent with the sort of journalistic biases that might have inspired her troubled article in the first place: we live in a “rape culture” culture. That is, we live in a philosophical world where “rape culture” is all-too-often assumed to be ubiquitous, which in turn causes the notion of “believe the victims” to be celebrated as the mantra of the virtuous, while due process is discarded as a weapon of the patriarchy.
Notice, for instance, that feminists condemn skepticism towards the terrifying and widespread feminist claim that approximately one of five American students will be sexually assaulted (critics argue the number is closer to one in forty). As I discuss in my post Freedom From Speech, when critics of controversial feminist data have attempted to speak at Canadian universities in the last few years, they have been protested as hate-speakers, and in some cases their talks were disrupted by feminist demonstrators pulling fire alarms.
“I don’t agree with the fire alarms pulled,” said feminist and motivational speaker, Rachel Décoste, in regard to attempts to mute Dr. Janice Fiamengo and her blasphemous criticism of modern feminism, “but when somebody says that the statistics that we’ve been based on forever are wrong, and therefore rape is not as much of an issue as it should be, I think that draws laughter, if not crying, because it’s just so preposterous. So, if [Dr. Fiamengo] wants to speak, that’s fine, but she doesn’t get to have the forum of our publicly funded universities, paid for by my and your taxes to disseminate that information that’s just not right.”
Décoste (along with all-too-many feminist advocates) seems to want the controversial one in five statistic to be cemented into law and never questioned. This kind of aversion to criticism is “rape culture” culture. If you don’t agree with feminist conclusions, you apparently deserve what you get.
Thus, for many journalists, politicians, and academics, the notion of criticizing assumptions of rape culture surely feels like a career-endangering maneuver. Indeed, it seems to me that most such professionals tend to play it safe and not criticize feminist “research” and advocacy, which in turn allows feminists to reside unfettered in a special branch of study that, like “Christian Science,” moulds the data to fit their theories instead of the other way around. (Who, after all, is going to stop them?)
I believe the key to releasing Western society from “rape culture” culture lies in the hearts and pens of the press. Journalists must reclaim their right and responsibility to critically report on settled feminist topics.
Philosopher and critic of what she called “gender feminism” and its supplanting of “equity feminism,” Christina Hoff Sommers previewed the problem of journalistic credulity (in regard to gender feminist assertions) in her 1994 work, Who Stole Feminism?
In the preface, she describes a variety of credulous reporters who apparently cited dubious feminist claims without checking the sources behind them. For instance, after several notable publications reported a false feminist assertion that battery was the leading cause of birth defects in the United States, Dr. Sommers contacted, among others, a hoodwinked reporter from Time Magazine. Says Sommers:
“The first thing she said was ‘That was an error.’ She sounded genuinely sorry and embarrassed. She explained that she is always careful about checking sources, but this time, for some reason, she had not” (page 14).
In Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers asks her readers a vital question:
“Why was everybody so credulous? Battery responsible for more defects than all other causes combined? More than genetic disorders such as spina bifida, Down syndrome, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia? More than congenital heart disorders? More than alcohol, crack, or AIDS—more than all these things combined? Where were the fact-checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?” (pages 14-15).
Sommers’ description of otherwise earnest reporters relinquishing their journalistic training when encountering feminist dogma should have warned us of the “rape culture” culture we are surrounded by today.
In her apology for the Rolling Stone article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely says:
“Over my 20 years of working as an investigative journalist—including at Rolling Stone, a magazine I grew up loving and am honored to work for—I have often dealt with sensitive topics and sources. In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth. However, in the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.”
“Ultimately,” the story’s editor, Sean Woods confirms, “we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.” (See the ninth paragraph of the “Failure and Its Consequences” section of the Columbia University report.)
I don’t doubt Erdely’s and Woods’ explanation that their compassion overtook their journalistic objectivity, and that they weren’t intentionally fabricating a story that could deeply hurt a lot of people. Let’s assume that, on topics not related to rape, Erdely and Woods have always proceeded with due diligence. We should be asking them what, then, was the distinguishing factor in this case (as opposed to other situations where their compassion might have also been piqued) that made them forgo their training and experience? Is it possible that they were influenced by “rape culture” culture to the point that they were less inclined to question and verify their source’s claims than they would have been when dealing with any other topic?
The good news is that Rolling Stone asked Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, to investigate “what went wrong” in the reporting of this story. Such a willingness to open one’s process up to independent scrutiny is progress, I think. In that analysis, Coll, along with co-authors Sheila Coronel and Derek Kravitz, point out a series of apparent failures of verification by Erdely, along with the fact-checking and editorial teams at Rolling Stone. More importantly, they include in their analysis a possible inciting cause that might have fueled these mistakes.
“The problem of confirmation bias—the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones—is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established on campus, repeated and accepted.” (See the seventh paragraph of the ‘I had a faith’ section of the report.)
The confirmation bias in this case strikes me as a symptom of “rape culture” culture. The report concedes, however, that:
“Of all crimes, rape is perhaps the toughest to cover. The common difficulties that reporters confront—including scarce evidence and conflicting accounts—can be magnified in a college setting. Reporting on a case that has not been investigated and adjudicated, as Rolling Stone did, can be even more challenging.” (See the first paragraph of the “For Journalists: Reporting on Campus Rape” section.)
Hopefully, Rolling Stone’s humiliating failure here does not dissuade the magazine and other publications from pointing their gaze at all aspects of campus culture (including daunting subjects such as rape and sexual assault). But, when they do, I hope they report the stories they find, instead of the narrative they’ve been taught to expect.