Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Trouble with Linda Hirshman's Critique of Jezebel

From Double X: Trouble with Jezebel by Linda Hirshman:

I turned on my computer one morning last summer, and there was a YouTube clip of two women, manifestly drunk, discussing why one of them could not be bothered to call the police when she was raped. Thinking I had stumbled into some rerun of The Jerry Springer Show, I checked again. Nope, the clip was from “Thinking and Drinking,” Lizz Winstead’s then-weekly live interview program from a New York theater. The drunk women were Maureen (“Moe”) Tkacik and Tracie (“Slut Machine”) Egan, then bloggers at the website Jezebel. (emphasis mine)

The bolded section undermines Linda Hirshman's credibility. The only way to describe someone not calling the police in this manner is to have zero understanding of the very real and valid reasons the majority of rape victims don't report.

In the 3 plus years I've been blogging I've highlighted many of the current issues with our legal system which is so much better on the whole than it was when I was raped in 1974.

We have rape kit backlogs, we have rape victims in Texas being stuck with the bill from their hospital exam, and those are just a few of the problems which have been highlighted in the last few weeks.

Many investigators still decide to stop investigating a reported rape the second they hear that the rape victim was drunk at the time of the rape. This attitude can contribute to cops who are called to protect a drunk woman and who instead rape that woman which is exactly what 2 New York cops are charged with doing.

The prospect of reporting rape can feel like deciding whether or not to play Russian roulette. But Hirshman either doesn't know this or doesn't care.

Instead of just unfairly insulting one woman, Hirshman has unfairly insulted many thousands of them. This insult is rooted in demands for women not to be victims with no louder demands for men to not be perpetrators.

This is not about one brand of feminism vs. another brand. This is about ignorance which uses feminism as a shield. I don't like this any more than I like victim blamers who use Christianity or any other religion as a shield when they claim that victims of date rape are always at least partly to blame for their own rapes or when they say uncovered women are like slabs of meat.

When Hirshman contrasts the women of Jezebel to the beginning of the women's liberation movement she doesn't mention how men's physical and sexual violence against women factored into that movement long before equal pay became a major issue.
Liberation always included an element of sexual libertinism. It’s one of the few things that made it so appealing to men: easy sexual access to women’s bodies.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what liberation means. Easy access to women's bodies is easy exploitation of girls and women in the name of equality but without the presence of genuine equality.

The old view of women as men's property (father or husband) meant that certain girls and women were off limits while the rest (girls and women of bad character) could be targeted mercilessly.

But this new view doesn't elevate girls and women to full human status with the right to control their own bodies, it turns girls and women into unclaimed property. And if girls and women are unclaimed property they must never be in a position of vulnerability because men would then have the legal right to seize that unclaimed property.

This view is why so many rapists who didn't get consent claim, "it was consensual," simply because the victim was there alone with them. And this is why so many people accept that claim with a flip, "If she didn't want to have sex what was she doing there."

It is this view of what liberation means which hurts girls and women, not girls and women who frequently consent to sex. Hirshman doesn't stop there.
But unregulated sexual life also exposes women to the strong men around them, and here, the most visible of the Jezebel writers reflect the risks of liberation. Even if the girls gone wild stories are substantially overstated, the emergence of Tkacik and Egan as brand emissaries of Jezebel, and its attendant increase in popularity—as well as the responsive posts from the community of commenters, who call themselves “Jezzies” or “Jezebelles”—forces feminism to confront their public sexual narrative. How can women supposedly acting freely and powerfully keep turning up tales of vulnerability—repulsive sexual partners, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, even rape?
Rape is not a risk of female liberation. Rape is a risk -- period.

Because most rapists are male if any group needs to have their sexual life regulated it is boys and men. The attitudes and beliefs of rapists, which often come from peers and those who are respected, are what cause men to rape and it's what causes different men to rape in different situations. When the criticism around disclosures of rape focuses negatively on the victim this provides moral support to rapists.

I'll simplify a long sentence in the quote from Hirshman above to focus only on rape:

How can women acting freely and powerfully keep turning up tales of rape?
Think about everything that is packed into this one question.

My answer is simple. Acting freely and powerfully is no magic shield against rape. Neither is acting in a restricted manner. Going to the hospital isn't viewed as risky behavior, but rape happens in hospitals. What woman going to the hospital would expect rape and after release, an attempted murder? Women in that hospital were exposed to a stronger man, but nobody is warning women about the dangers of being a hospital patient.

In the US during 2007 it was estimated that 248,300 sexual assaults were committed against people aged 12 and over. With that number of rapes, most of which are committed against girls and women, how can we as a society claim that girls and women have the freedom to act freely and powerfully?
These Jezebel writers are a symptom of the weaknesses in the model of perfect egalitarian sexual freedom; in fact, it’s the supposed concern with feminism that makes the site so problematic. How can Tracie, who posted this picture, criticize the men who go to Hooters? How can writers who justify not reporting rape criticize the military for not controlling…rape? It’s incoherent.
Here Hirshman conflates the actions of Jezebel women with the actions of rapists.

To have not reporting rape disqualify someone from criticizing the military for rampant sexual violence, Hirshman must view the rape victim as at least as responsible for her own rape and what the police will do (or not do) about her report if she made one as the military is for rapes committed by soldiers. This conclusion is what is incoherent.

Military leadership have the power to set policies related to the investigation of rape in the military. They have the power to set the tone related to sexual violence in the military. They also have the power to not give exemptions to recruits with a history of violence against women.
Given the high level of risk the Jezebel life involves, it is surprising that the offense that arouses the liberated Jezebels to real political fury is the suggestion that women like them might be made responsible for the consequences of their own acts, or that there might be general standards that define basic feminist behavior. Suggest that women report the men who rape them for the sake of future victims, say, or that women should be asked why they stay with the men who abuse them, or urged to leave them, and the Jezebels go ballistic. Judgmental, judgmental!
Hirshman is again letting violent men and the systematic enablements in our society off the hook. Those who rape Jezebel women have been reduced to Pavlov's rapists.

This attitude is counterproductive to primary prevention.

Those who have personal responsibility for the rape of drunk women are the rapists. Those who have personal responsibility for repeated rapes are the rapists and those who do nothing about systems which help them repeat their crimes by making reporting such a high risk decision while the odds that a rapist will get away with rape even if rightfully reported so low.

The other problem is the assumption about the level of risk the Jezebel life involves. Alcohol is not what causes rape, but many times rapists use alcohol as a weapon or wait for their intended victim to be drunk before attempting rape. This is the behavior which needs to be called out as dead wrong. Each time someone fails to put the blame for rape where it belongs that helps rapists.

If we as feminists want everyone to be safer from the crime of rape then each of us need to support effective systems which make getting away with rape tough, make reporting rape easy and make leaving every type of abuser easy and safe.
As the Jezebel stories reflect, women begin to numb themselves so that everything feels OK—so that nothing, not even rape, is predictably bad enough to call the police. Hence the jokey, snarky tone that dominates the site.
The problem with this claim is that many trauma survivors numb themselves with alcohol or drugs in an attempt to self-medicate. To blame this on a brand of feminism is to communicate a total lack of understanding for trauma. This quote also makes the baseless assumption that unreported rapes are not reported because they aren't bad enough to call the police. This again ignores a harsh reality which many rape survivors know too well when they've done as Hirshman commands.

If Hirshman wants to blame the writers at Jezebel when they choose to have sex without protection that's a valid critique. But the key is to criticize what people choose not what happens when a girl or woman has the power of choice taken from her.

When women of Jezebel talk about having been raped or talk about the difficulty of leaving an abuser it is clear that they do not live in the model of perfect egalitarian sexual freedom. But to blame that lack of freedom on Jezebel is to ignore the penis in the room.


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posted by Marcella Chester @ 10:27 AM   6 comments links to this post


At May 13, 2009 11:29 AM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

'Because most rapists are male if any group needs to have their sexual life regulated it is boys and men.'

So true which is why there is a huge backlash whenever feminists attempt to hold men and boys accountable for their assumptions that male = unlimited sexual access to women and girls. Real sexual liberation is not sexual libertarianism which is precisely what is often claimed whenever a man or boys rapes a woman or girl he knows.

Once women and girls were men's private property now all women and girls are seen as men's public AND private property.

Real sexual liberation will not happen until such time as men and boys are educated about the meaning of real sexual autonomy and rights. This applies to both women and men not simply men. Any sexual contact cannot be consensual unless and if both parties freely agree without any coercion, threats, physical force, psychological shaming or sexual insults. Obvious is it not - but not according to rape apologists and those individuals who believe sexual autonomy can only be accorded to men and boys.

At May 14, 2009 12:51 AM, OpenID loki said...

What a nasty example of victim blaming! Well done on picking it apart - very lucid.

MEN CAN STOP RAPE is a very controversial slogan on campuses. HUH. I'm thinking of making it into a sticker or tshirt myself.

At May 14, 2009 9:14 AM, Anonymous Melissa said...

Linda Hirshman's article on Rhianna is poorly researched garbage. Nicole Brown Simpson & O.J had been divorced for 2 years when she was murdered.

We shouldn't even give this moron a second thought.

At May 14, 2009 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. As a person who reported, but was not believed, I can clearly state that reporting is only the first step into a whirlwind of lost agency that is hard for anyone to imagine - and I was 16.

To hell with this woman who chooses to sit in judgement to make herself look edgy.

At May 14, 2009 1:06 PM, Anonymous Kali said...

I agree with what you have written here but I also sympathize with Hirshman and her frustration that men are getting away with rape, in part because their rapes are never reported. I agree that women/girls who don't report rape have very valid reasons not to do so, but it is frustrating nevertheless.

Also, isn't Jezebel the site that is pro-porn and pro-prostitution and defends all kinds of sexual objectification of women? It contributes to the sexually toxic environment that you wrote about recently - the environment that breeds rapists. I can imagine women on that site trying to minimize their own rapes so they can dress-up their fear of reporting as sexy empowerfulment. Maybe that is what Hirshman was refering to?

At May 14, 2009 2:01 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


My heart breaks each time I hear someone mistreated the way you were.


It's one thing for Hirshman to be frustrated because rapes are not reported, but it is something else entirely when she takes her frustration out on rape and domestic abuse victims.

Frustration is never a valid excuse. Not for physical abuse and not for verbal abuse.

Hirshman completely misses that feminists (even those never raped) can and are working toward creating a criminal justice system where all victims of rape will feel safe enough to report.

In my critique of Hirshman I was in no way defending the areas where Jezebel supports our sexually toxic environment. However, by choosing to enmesh her entire article with victim blaming (including the implication that Jezebel writers were asking for it) any valid observations she had about Jezebel were lost.

This felt like a personal grudge being played out, with a disclosure being thrown back in a survivor's face, rather than a reasoned analysis.

Sexual and domestic violence are not within Hirshman's areas of expertise and it shows.


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