By Jennifer L. Pozner
AlterNet and WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND… (April 2006)
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial used tired old 'blame the victim' reasoning to explain away two high-profile rape cases.
Fresh from the media's trusty "Feminism is responsible for every evil thing that can happen to a woman or a man" files, is a new one: Feminists cause rape. That's the premise of an April 14 Wall Street Journal opinion piece headlined, "Ladies, You Should Know Better: How Feminism Wages War on Common Sense."
In a rehash of some of the oldest blame-the-victim nonsense, Naomi Schaefer Riley declared that, although sexual assault is bad ('natch), many women are bringing it on themselves by "engaging in behavior that is 'moronic'."
Upon learning that DNA evidence links Darryl Littlejohn -- the bouncer charged in the gruesome, high-profile rape and murder of graduate student Imette St. Guillen in New York -- to a prior sexual assault, Schaefer Riley's ultimate conclusion is not that American culture and law needs to find real solutions for punishing serial rapists or, more importantly, preventing men from perpetrating such criminal behavior in the first place. Rather, she declares that this brutal attack should serve as a cautionary tale for women, who should "use a little more common sense" lest they go out and get themselves raped.
"Ms. St. Guillen was last seen in a bar alone and drinking at 3 a.m. on the Lower East Side of Manhattan," Shaefer Riley wrote, and "more than a few of us have been thinking that a 24-year-old woman should know better."
If you're wondering who are these "more than a few of us" who'd look at a brutal assault such as the one against St. Guillen and think, "Wow, what a stupid dead girl," it's worth noting the company this Wall Street Journal opinion writer keeps. Her prior work on religion was financially subsidized by the John M. Olin Foundation, a right-wing foundation which -- before it closed shop -- placed hundreds of thousands of dollars into media programs designed to convince the public that feminists whine too much about rape, that date rape is a "myth" and that the Violence Against Women Act is unnecessary. (For example, Olin was a major funder of Christina Hoff Sommers' error-filled screed "Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women," a highly inaccurate, widely debunked polemic that nevertheless garnered a heap of press coverage about feminism's supposed failures.)
Now that we've played "follow the money" for a bit of instructive backstory, it's time to get back to the WSJ commentary, which wasn't content to blame just one victim for her own demise. After dismissively referring to the heated public debate surrounding the alleged gang rape of a 27-year-old North Carolina Central University student and exotic dancer as "much hand-wringing about the alleged rape of a stripper," Schaefer Riley writes that, since the woman didn't anticipate the possibility of being attacked and [didn't] refuse to work the Duke University lacrosse team's party, "A stripper with street smarts is apparently a Hollywood myth."
The trouble with this sort of drivel is not simply that it's insensitive and insulting to the victim and, indeed to all women -- it is -- the problem is that under the guise of advising women about ways they can keep themselves safe, Schaefer Riley promotes dangerous misperceptions about the nature of rape in American culture. While there's certainly something to be said for women (and men) to thoughtfully evaluate the social choices we make with an eye to personal and public safety, staying sober and staying home will never inoculate women against sexual violence.
But keeping women safe wasn't Schafer Riley's real goal -- nor were St. Guillen and the woman at the center of the Duke U. firestorm her ultimate targets. In a typical rhetorical argument often offered by conservatives who lobby against feminist anti-violence efforts, the WSJ's opinion writer claimed that feminists have created a culture of female irresponsibility by telling female college students that:
"… if a woman is forced against her will to have sex, it is 'not her fault,' and that women always have the right to 'control their own bodies.' Nothing could be truer. But the administrators who utter these sentiments and the feminists who inspire them rarely note which situations are conducive to keeping that control and which threaten it. They rarely discuss what to do to reduce the likelihood of a rape. Short of reeducating men, that is."
If the author really believed that it is "not her fault" if a woman is sexually assaulted, it's likely she would have devoted more column inches to discussing men's responsibility to educate other men about not abusing women -- as Jackson Katz does in the newly released book "The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help" -- and fewer to bashing rape and murder victims as too stupid to prevent the attacks against them. But ideological arguments aside, it is simply not true that campus feminist education and advocacy programs fail to include discussions about safety issues.
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