I swear, we should invent a dance called the Dawkins Backpedal.
Dawkins has misrepresented the course of events here. His narrative goes, essentially, Smith got drunk, consented to sex with Shermer, and then accused him of rape to get him arrested and jailed. This is a common narrative among rape apologists that operates on the assumption that women who are assaulted while drunk just regret their decisions and try to accuse their assailant in order to clear their consciences of their own bad behavior.
It’s a misunderstanding of the point of talking publicly about sexual assault that involves alcohol. Notice that no one filed a police report against Richard Shermer. No one tried to get him jailed. This is the great red herring of rape apology - the idea that women do this with the intent in mind of ruining a man’s life via jail time and subsequent sex offender registry. Then, when we - and I will say we because I was raped while I was drunk and did not ultimately press charges for a plurality of reasons - when we don’t follow through either with a police report or formal charges, we’re labeled as liars, because apparently the only way to validate a trauma or a violation or sexual violence is by involving the law.
Nope, guys. Nope nope nope. Smith stated her motivations for talking about it in the e-mail she wrote to Myers: “I wanted to share this story in case it helps anyone else ward off a similar situation from happening.” There are three ways to cope with a rape when you are the victim: Legal consequences, social sanctioning, and healing yourself emotionally. Smith decided, for whatever reason, that she wasn’t going to press charges. That doesn’t mean that she wasn’t raped. I’m sure that in the ensuing five years, it has probably occurred to her to seek help to heal from the trauma. Part of that might have been the decision, borne of a conviction that there’s a troubling pattern in the atheist/freethought community, to speak out publicly about Shermer taking advantage of women repeatedly.
And here’s the thing: We feminists do actually know that there are nuances in the experience of rape, something that people like Dawkins and other rape apologists don’t understand, which I’ll get to momentarily. No one ever accused Michael Shermer of rape. No one used the word rape. They did question his sense of responsibility, however. Rather than saying “it’s her fault for getting drunk,” can we explore the possibility that Shermer has allegedly made a habit of drinking quite a bit less than the women he has sex with, thereby putting them in a questionable position to actually, consciously, enthusiastically consent, and that that is irresponsible of him?
That conversation is the goal. The conversation that asks, when is it appropriate to expect someone to be able to consent? No one is trying to get Michael Shermer put in jail. They’re having a conversation about what is apparently a pattern of behavior on his part that they would like to see change.
Thing is, though, Richard Dawkins doesn’t even validate that conversation. Last week, he retweeted a link to an article from the Daily Caller, a right-wing publication that Dawkins himself has criticized in the past, claiming that California’s affirmative consent legislation is “bizarre” and will make “sex a legalistic nightmare for college males.” I don’t think I’m wrong to assume that this retweet constitutes support on Dawkins’ part, considering his attitude toward women in the past and, of course, presently.
What really got me about this article was this quote: “Communication of consent can be vague and muddled - a nod of the head, say, or perhaps some kind of lean-in movement.”
Lean-in movement = “Yes, I absolutely want to have sex with you, where’s the condoms”? Um, no, it’s not the same thing. I know from fairly recent experience - I was dating pretty heavily in late 2012 and early 2013 - that it is simply not that difficult to take a minute before proceeding with intercourse to verbally check that your partner is on board. Even when you’re drunk. And, frankly, if one of you is too drunk to hold a conversation well or potentially, you know, remember whether or not they consented, it might be a good idea to just save it for later. The only argument that I’ve heard against this kind of behavior is “Well it’s not very sexy to do that; it breaks the flow of the moment.” Oh, boo hoo. 1) Yes, it is sexy to know that the other person is completely on board with having sex with you. Enthusiastic verbal consent is a huge ego-boost. 2) You’re willing to compromise your ethics to keep your mojo flowing? Stop. Just stop it.
I wish that, as a society, we hadn’t gotten to the point where it felt necessary to legislate consent. But that’s where we are - the campus rape epidemic is bad enough that as of June, 64 schools were being investigated by the Department of Education for Title IX violations. Campus rape investigations are a mess that too often ends with a victim who has at best received no justice and at worst been pressured off of campus by her peers while she’s trying to recover from trauma. And the more that rape apologists dig their heels in and say that this isn’t happening, that women are liars, that there is no rape problem, while women continue to be raped, the more it’s going to come to legislation.
Really and truly, we just want to change the conversation about how sex happens in this country. Because one in five women will be sexually assaulted during our lifetimes, according to the best and most recent information that we have from the CDC, and that is too many. To keep denying or qualifying it is counterproductive and constitutes an endorsement of rape.
You would think that the atheist and freethought communities would be behind feminism as a rational cause (you know, one that is founded on statistics and data about women being viably less than equal to men and wanting to change that), but the number of anti-feminist atheists boggles the mind. I have an idea where these atheists-against-feminism come from, though, and it might have something to do with atheist thought leaders who sneer down their noses at women who are tired of being constantly harassed by strangers either for sex or about our looks or any number of other topics that generally have to do with reducing us to our bodies in complete denial of the fact that we have brains at all, and then take three years to issue a then further problematic pseudo-apology that kind of reiterated the asshole statement in the first place, that street harassment and violent rape aren’t the same thing, which Rebecca Watson already knew when she very mildly requested in 2011 that men not harass her at conferences.
Which is the same attitude that led to another troubling tweet that Dawkins published and then deleted, just a few days before he issued his kind-of-sort-of apology for “Dear Muslima,” stating this: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and think.”
Holy missing the point, Batman! By saying that stranger rape at knifepoint is worse, you’re qualifying date rape as “better,” implying that date rape victims might have something to be thankful for (it could’ve been worse, after all!), which just isn’t even the issue here. Can we start from the assumption that all rape is bad, and then go on to say that every single rape is different without necessarily needing to qualify it as “better” or “worse” than something else? I get that Dawkins appears to be concerned with the legal consequences of criminal accusations, and therefore would be interested in discerning what punishment is appropriate for date rape versus rape at knifepoint (although I’m not sure why the rapist being a stranger or not would make a difference if there’s a weapon involved).
But even if we’re going to assume that it’s appropriate for Dawkins - who is a biologist and a freethought advocate, not a legal scholar - to continue pondering aloud about what a viable legal punishment for different kinds of sexual assault would be, I would like him to start by noting that in the United States, rape reporting rates are low (40%), rape investigation rates are even lower (10%), and rape prosecution rates are lower still (8%). Which is to say that rape rarely leads to any viable kind of punishment at all in the U.S., despite the fact that false reporting rates are only 2-8%, the same as for any other crime.
So was it better or worse for me that I was raped by someone I know - twice - rather than being raped by a stranger at knife- or gunpoint? I don’t really care. I just care that as a society, we do better at acknowledging the validity of rape claims and supporting victims through their recovery and, if appropriate, legal process, instead of haranguing them about whether or not they were REALLY raped or just assuming they’re lying from the get-go. I care that we talk about rape like it’s a real thing that really happens at quite an alarming rate and is incredibly painful and traumatic for victims instead of talking about it like this theory that feminists have that we’re just pulling out of our asses to make men feel bad.
Instead, of course (of course), Dawkins is making feminists out to be hysterical reactionists. Yes, some of us have strong visceral feelings about being raped while drunk and not being taken seriously because some of us were raped while drunk and not taken seriously, or our friends were, or a classmate, and we're tired of living in communities in which our experiences are treated as if at best they're just topics for thinkpieces and pithy tweets instead of real events and real traumas that have a real impact on our lives and are judged and abstracted by the community at large but not given justice or even very much basic compassion. The atheist community is that, for women atheists. And Richard Dawkins is one of the largest reasons why.