Wendy McElroy debates Jessica Valenti at Brown University on “Rape Culture”

Note: Valenti threatened legal action if the video of her half of the debate was not deleted by Brown University. The full video has since been posted by others.

McElroy’s opening statement:

Full debate:

Transcript of Wendy’s full statement:

Thank you and good evening

How many of you came tonight knowing exactly who I am and thinking you know exactly what I’m going to say?

I’m an individualist feminist which is a tradition within feminism that you may not be familiar with/ It’s also called libertarian feminism.

I’m going to open in an unconventional manner by speaking about my personal background.

I’ve had a great deal of violence in my life. When I was 16 I ran away from home and lived on the street. I was raped, and brutally so. I did not blame society, I did not blame the culture. I blame the man who raped me. I’ve had reason in my life to blame other men. Due to a domestic violence incident years ago, I had a hemorrhage in the central line of vision of my right eye that left me legally blind. I did not blame society. I did not blame culture. I blame the man who put his fist in my face.

Every morning I wake up I know the pain and the importance of violence against women because I see only half of the world because of it.

I am bringing this up before I bring up arguments and the evidence because when a woman like me comes and disagrees with the feminist orthodoxy, what comes back are accusations. They claim I don’t know what it means – the significance, the importance of violence against women. Or that I trivialize rape.

Let’s put that behind us. Let’s say I am a woman who knows intimately the pain of sexual violence, and that I disagree. Let’s do the one thing that is most important on this issue, which is actually discuss the issues. Raise questions.

This evening I’ll address two topics all too briefly. The rape culture, and how I think sexual assault accusations on campus should be treated.

So, the rape culture. A conflict within feminism about the rape culture came into focus on February 28th of this year when the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network – known as RAINN – the largest anti-sexual-violence organization in America and the most influential…and hardly a voice of conservatism – RAINN sent a 16-page letter to a new White House task force that had the mission of reforming and standardizing campus reform hearings across America

RAINN stated “there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming the rape culture for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campus. While it is helpful for pointing out the systemic barriers towards dealing with the problem it is important not to lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions of a small fraction of a community to commit a violent crime. While that may seem an obvious point it has tended to get lost in recent debates.”

RAINN argued that focusing on rape culture made it harder to stop sexual violence because it removed focus from the individuals at fault and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions. I agree. The treatment of rape needs to move away from what has become the status quo assumption of feminist orthodoxy, away from rape as an expression of culture, and toward holding a small number of individuals absolutely responsible for their options. “Men” or “women” as a category do not rape – individuals do. And yet this idea runs counter to the whole idea of the rape culture. When you speak of a rape culture, you’re saying rape is so widely accepted that it is a cultural norm. In short, it is a defining aspect of society.

And certainly there are cultures in which that definition fits. There are parts of Afghanistan, for example, where women are married against their will, they are murdered for men’s honor, they are raped. And when they are raped they are arrested for it, and they are shunned by their family afterward. Now that’s a rape culture.

But that is not North America. It doesn’t resemble North America. Here rape is a crime that is severely punished. Even an accusation of sexual harassment can ruin someone’s career and their lives.

A few days ago I saw a sight that made me just wither inside. A man who had – a scientist behind the Rosetta comet landing – wept in apology on TV because after the biggest achievement of his life, he basically was hounded because he wore a shirt that a female friend of his had made that showed cartoon super heroines on it. And he was made to weep in apology on TV rather than revel in an incredible accomplishment.

Who had the power there? Did he have the power there? Feminists came and said that he basically should be excoriated and he wept on TV. It was a terrible sight. It was a cruel sight.

The messages sent to men today are not that it’s okay to rape. It’s the opposite. And according to both RAINN and the Department of Justice the rate of rape and sexual assault as decreased by more than half since 1993 so why aren’t we celebrating?

North America is not a rape culture. It is an insult to women who live in one that women here with so much freedom and so much opportunity are trying to share the same status of oppression with them.

I offer here statistics meant to prove that things are far far worse for women here than I’m making out. But there’s a problem with the statistics used to support a rape culture. Many researchers have tried to find out where they come from, what they’re based on, and it is an incredibly hard task.

For example a recently circulated claim is that 8% of college men have attempted or have successfully raped – and I’ll be dwelling on this stat for a reason. Some rape culture critics have tried to track it down and it’s typical of what happens over and over again when people try to track down these stats, to find out where are they based, what are they rooted in.

A key reason I find no evidence for systemic rape culture, only evidence of rapes committed by individuals, is because the data supporting a rape culture doesn’t exist. The stat in question was traced back to a book titled “Body Wars” by a clinical psychologist Barbara Maine. To quote from the book, “8% of college men have either attempted or successfully raped, 30% say they would rape if they could get away with it. When the wording was changed to ‘force a woman to have sex’ the number jumped to 58%, or still 83.5% argue that ‘some women look like they are just asking to be raped'”

I stumbled when I first read the 83.5% figure because it seemed improbable to me. First, that a scientifically based study would ask the question, and second, that would be the result. And, again, I’m a woman who has known an unusual amount of violence, I am hardly naive on this subject.

When the National Post, which is a major Canadian paper, decided to follow up on the questions raised about the stats in Maine’s book, a reporter contacted her. She was largely unable to give her sources. There was one study she reported, and to quote the book again – “In one study over half of high school boys and nearly half of the girls stated that rape was acceptable if the man was sexually aroused”. No one – including Maine – was able to come up with that study. No one has found it yet.

When pressed, Maine emailed the National Post basically saying she didn’t know where it came from, she didn’t know why it hadn’t been cited, and she was too busy to bother.

Well I’m too busy to bother giving the stat credibility.

And by the way I brought the article if anyone’s interested in the forensics of the attempt to get the stats. [Post-speech note: no one asked to see the article or otherwise pursued the point.]

Returning to the 8% figure, Maine said it came from another work published in 1988. This is in reference to the extremely influential study conducted by Mary Koss which was popularized in 1988 through the book “I Never Called It Rape: The MS study on recognizing, fighting and surviving date and acquaintance rape” by Robin Warshaw

There are so many problems with the Koss study. For one thing Koss herself admits that only 27% of the women she had counted as rape victims considered themselves to have been raped. 49% said the sexual encounter in question had been the result of miscommunication, not rape. Koss ignored the voices of these women and redefined their own experiences to fit her own studies. And that’s a problem. If you don’t find that to be a problem, then I find it to be a problem that you call yourself a feminist.

Again I dwell on tracking down the 8% stat because it’s a key reason feminist like me reject the rape culture – you look at the stats, you look at the data. It’s extremely biased, it’s badly flawed, Or it is not there.

And perhaps the factual weakness is a reason why the rhetoric surrounding a rape culture is so hyperbolic. I even find the term “rape culture” to be hyperbolic. It seems to prevent the productive dialogue that includes healthy questioning. And that’s a shame. Because as a rape survivor, and like I said, I’ve gone through hell with a lot of violence in my life – as a survivor I want to know the truth about rape and sexual assault in our society. I don’t want politics, I don’t want ideology, I want the truth. And I want it for a simple reason. Rape is a hideous crime and is never going to be deterred until we deal with its reality. Not its politics, but its reality.

I’ll move on now and focus on how I believe universities should handle accusations of rape. But one thing I’m not going to discuss, at least not during my talk and certainly during the Q&A, is the stats on how many rapes, on how many false accusations occur. And again there’s a simple reason. If even one rape occurs it raises exactly the same question as if 100 rapes occur, and that is how do we handle it? If even one false accusation occurs, it raises exactly the same question as if 100 occur. how do we handle it? How do we prevent an innocent person – almost certainly a man – from becoming a victim?

So what’s the best way to be sure a rape victim receives justice? My answer, which is both simplistic and unsatisfying to me and to you: It is a criminal offense. Go to the police. Rape is a crime. It’s not an infraction of college policy. The police are trained to investigate and process it, and they often do a piss-poor job. I don’t argue with that. But I think they do a better job than bureaucrats, academics, many of whom are ideologically biased, and under federal marching orders not to use criminal or exacting standards of investigation. And I’ll come back to that in a moment.

If students want to make a difference in the justice with which rape victims are treated, then you should be protesting at police departments and outside court rooms. If you did that, and changed the efficiency and the attitude with which law enforcement approached rape, then you wouldn’t just be helping yourselves – you’d be helping every woman in America. Every woman would be in your debt.

But that’s not going to happen. Because there is an extreme political push behind campus hearings. Arguably the push began in April 2011 when the Department of Education informed campuses that they needed to comply with new standards for adjudicating sexual assault if they wanted to receive federal funding. And everyone does.

Even private universities are under pressure to conform to what’s becoming the standard on all campuses. The new standard deprives an accused of legal protections such as the presence of counsel and the right to cross-examine an accuser. The criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt which is used to ascertain guilt was scrapped, in favor of the civil standard of a preponderance of the evidence, and that means that hearing officials are 50.1% convinced that one side is more likely to be telling the truth as another. In other words a student can be found guilty of rape by the same standard that traffic courts use to adjudicate parking tickets.

The federal pressure on campuses continues. on September 3rd, NPR reported: “more than 70 campuses are under federal investigation for violating the civil rights of alleged victims, and some students say schools are running so scared that they’re violating the due process rights of defendants instead.” Early this month the Department of Education accused Princeton of violating anti-discrimination laws because the university was one of the last holdouts on reducing the standard of proof in rape hearings. In the settlement they caved, as of course they would have to, they lowered their standards.

The conflict is heating up on both sides. The organization A Voice for Male Students recently issued – listed – 42 lawsuits brought by students against universities for violating their rights in hearings. The real figure is closer to 50. And there will be more. And there will be a Supreme Court challenge. Believe me. A common response to such criticism is that the hearings are not legal proceedings and though this is technically true I find it disingenuous. The hearings actually operate in a legal grey zone. For example the most recent federal instructions on how to conduct hearings include ‘improved cooperation with the police’. What this means I don’t know, no one does yet. It comes from the new white house task force that was formed in January. Moreover the testimony an accused gives at a hearing can be turned over to the police and used against him in court, even though he has no legal representation, he has no due process, he has no ability to truly defend himself by asking questions of his accuser.

The so-called non legal hearings can impose penalties as draconian as any court. A student can be expelled with the word “rapist” permanently in his file, tens of thousands of debt. He may have no prospect of getting a license to be a lawyer or a doctor…or whatever else he dreamed of. He is effectively barred from many other unlicensed professions – what university of quality is going to accept him? His reputation is destroyed. And having spoken to some of the men bringing lawsuits against their universities, I know the extraordinary pain they go through, then and now, and probably will for the rest of their lives.

And, yet, for the sake of argument, let me grant that hearings are not legal proceedings. The fact that an adjudication is not legal does not release people from the professional and moral responsibility to be fair. There is what we must do and, then, there is common decency. Common decency is a debt that you owe to every other human being – whether they are male or female, whether they are black or white, whether they are gay or otherwise. This is especially important when you are exercising power over the lives of other human beings. And a basic tenet of fairness is that you do not condemn or punish a person without objectively weighing the evidence and allowing them to defend themselves.

I said I wasn’t going to comment on the false accusations – at least, not the stats. But I need to comment on the existence of false accusations – if not their frequency, then their existence. People lie. Men lie. Women lie. Feminists lie. Yesterday I read about a drunken video that was meant to dramatize the rape culture. The video went viral and it shows a supposedly drunk young women asking various men for assistance. The men made sexual suggestions instead.

Then the LA Weekly revealed that the men had been paid, that their lines had been scripted. People lie. Men lie. Women lie. Feminists lie.

You cannot build justice for women on injustice for men. Thank you.