Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
columns

Jul 11, 2016

A Review of Rape Culture Hysteria: Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women by Wendy McElroy

McElroy’s book ignores important sources that would undermine her views.

Rape Culture Hysteria: Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women by Wendy McElroy

Vulgus Press. Kindle Edition.

The main points of McElroy’s book seem to be to be the following: 1. PC feminists are bad and they do bad things; 2. Rape statistics are a mess; 3. The way to solve the problem of rape is to do away with public education.

Let me start with the first major premise: PC feminists are bad and they do bad things. I would hardly want to defend all things other feminists have said, “PC” or otherwise. But these “PC feminists” of McElroy’s—who are they? She mentions Susan Brownmiller, Kate Millett, Judith Butler, Andrea Marcotte, and Jessica Valenti, plus a few others. Brownmiller’s book was first published in 1975. Is she still being read today? Probably, but we have no idea how many people read her and how influential she is today; certainly McElroy doesn’t tell us. Marcotte and Valenti are nearly the only current “PC feminists” she names. So much damage by so few people? Or is it that McElroy has made a big boogiewoman out of these feminists she dislikes? I don’t necessarily wish to defend these writers. I don’t agree with Brownmiller’s major thesis that all men are potential rapists (Though one could argue that she didn’t mean that literally, I don’t want to argue that point). I do think McElroy grossly misinterprets Valenti.. In any case, McElroy offers only a paltry few examples of “PC feminists” and doesn’t give us adequate reason to believe that these have had a sizeable influence on modern American culture.

McElroy is on more solid ground arguing about PC-ism on campus. As a staunch advocate of free speech and someone who remembers firsthand the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, I too deplore some of the recent campus protests against unpopular speakers. It’s childish petulance unworthy of students at an institution of higher learning. But it is unclear how much of that problem is created by “PC feminists,” and McElroy certainly fails to prove that PC feminists are responsible for all that mayhem. I think the students are doing a quite handy job on their own.   As a social psychologist, I feel obligated to point out that such a complex phenomenon has complex origins and shouldn’t be attributed to just one source as McElroy does in her book.

There are other ways in which McElroy doesn’t play fair. McElroy says: “The Koss survey [about rape] is so rife with methodological problems and bias that no one concerned with truth can credit it.” Being familiar with Koss’ research, I was dumbfounded by this claim so I spent several hours searching online for criticisms of it.  Here is what I found: McElroy is absolutely dead wrong.  While there are some criticisms of Koss’ methodology, an occurrence that is extremely common within psychology, a field that frequently questions its own methodologies, the vast majority of academic social scientists who commented on Koss were favorable. For example:

But one thing has changed: The debate over who gets to define rape, and how, is now almost entirely confined to the popular media. Although a few researchers continue to push back against her methodology, Koss’s approach is acknowledged nearly universally as the standard in sexual­ assault research. “We’re all drawing on Mary’s work in some way or another,” says sexual­ assault researcher Chris Krebs, who conducted one of the most recent national surveys on campus rape. In 2000, Koss received the American Psychological Association’s award for distinguished contributions to research in public policy for her work on violence against women. In 2006, she was named a University of Arizona Regents’ Professor, an honor reserved for the top 3 percent of faculty who have made an outstanding contribution in their fields. By the time her survey was updated in 2007 to incorporate new questions about LGBT sexual violence, other scholars and researchers had used the survey hundreds of times in their own work.

So unless McElroy wants to claim that the American Psychological Association and Criminology and Criminal Justice PhD Chris Krebs are all not “concerned with the truth,” I think it is a bit premature to say “no one concerned with the truth” takes Koss seriously.

The vast majority of negative criticisms of Koss that I did find were from conservative sources, for example, National Review, International Women’s Forum, and Christina Hoff Sommers. It’s fine to read these sources and see how well they make their case but none of these critics of Koss are experts in this area; rather, all are ideologues, including Hoff Sommers, whose PhD is in not in any empirical social science but in philosophy. (I have tangled with Hoff Sommers before when I reviewed her book Freedom Feminism. Our exchange may be instructive.)

McElroy’s choice to disregard a major researcher like Koss so contemptuously is hardly in the spirit of scholarly or fair discourse. Instead, McElroy should have engaged with Koss’s research, laid out the pros and cons of Koss’s work, cited other opinions, and, preferably, let the audience decide for or against Koss themselves based on the evidence presented.

I find McElroy’s actions and choices to be somewhat disingenuous considering that she comments several times on how writers need to be fair and not be selective in their sources. For example, she says “The dynamics of rape must be taken seriously enough to be judged on facts and evidence, not ideology. This benefits not only the falsely accused but also victims who deserve the justice of an unbiased hearing.” (e-book location 5484). Speaking of “facts and evidence” (e-book location 3008), McElroy says, “Feminist research is the reverse of the scientific method that attempts to establish a neutral environment.” Pace McElroy, most research on rape is done either by psychologists like Koss or criminologists like Krebs, not by “PC feminists.” I wonder how the peer-reviewed academic journals that their work appears in would feel about McElroy’s dismissal of that research.  As someone who has taught research methods, I am well aware that peer review has its problems.  But to imply that all such reviews, if done by “feminist” researchers, are unscientific is to claim that dozens of such academic journals have thrown objectivity and science to the winds. I can’t buy that. And what of this “neutrality?” To many scientists, social or otherwise, the idea of a “neutral” science is at best quaint. We all have biases, as many commentaries by psychologists have pointed out. What we have to do is strive to look beyond those biases, balance them against good practice, and accept criticism from our academic peers if we veer off course. Psychologists have spent a lot of time talking about this problem.  And honestly, problems and all, I’ll take peer-reviewed journals over the conservative sources that McElroy cites any day, if those are my choices. I know which of the two has less bias.

McElroy goes on to say “No matter how loudly it is proclaimed by PC feminists, the rape culture is not a real crisis but a manufactured one.“ (e-book location 461)  McElroy also claims that rape culture is not precisely defined. But McElroy only claims that the definition is imprecise, she never provides us with an example of the claimed vagueness. Although addressing the topic fully would be a book-length project, I have written an online essay on rape culture that speaks to McElroy’s claims.  In that essay, I cite the editors of Transforming a Rape Culture definition of rape culture. I’ll repeat that definition here:

[A] complex of beliefs that encourage[s] male sexual aggression and supports violence against women [and girls], a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent, and a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women [and girls] and presents it as the norm.

What would a “rape culture” look like in practice? One need only look at recent headlines for some idea. Brock’s Turner’s light sentence of six months for a rape witnessed by two people speaks to the presence in some jurisdictions of cavalier attitudes toward rape. Nor are light sentences for clear-cut cases of rape unusual. See here and here for two recent examples; there are many others. This lax attitude about sentencing rapists is part of what people mean when they say there is a rape culture. If it turns out that such attitudes permeate American culture, it would be fair to say a “rape culture” exists in America.

The important work of anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday has to be mentioned here.  Sanday is one of the leading researchers on rape and rape culture—but in McElroy’s book, Sanday is conspicuously absent.  This alone says volumes about McElroy’s vaunted objectivity.  McElroy not only does not cite Sanday’s rape culture research, she also ignores Sanday’s well-regarded book Fraternity Gang Rape in her analysis of college rape. In both cases, Sanday’s research would destroy her arguments. She holds up the publication of one University of Virginia student’s fabricated rape accusations by Rolling Stone as if that alone proves campus rape is not really a big problem. Sanday’s research says otherwise.  By seizing upon the Rolling Stone scandal but ignoring Sanday’s research, McElroy is cherry-picking her evidence.

Sanday’s early study of rape-prone cultures vs. nonrape cultures first appeared in the Journal of Social Issues, one of the major academic journals published by the American Psychological Association. According to Sanday, the outstanding feature of rape-free societies is the ceremonial importance of women and the respect accorded the contribution women make to social continuity, a respect which places men and women in relatively balanced power spheres. Rape-free societies are characterized by sexual equality and the notion that the sexes are complementary. In rape-free cultures, men and women are valued equally, females are respected, and there is economic equality, that is, women contribute in equal amounts to the economy of the society.  In contrast, continues Sanday, “in the more rape-prone societies, social relations were marked by interpersonal violence in conjunction with an ideology of male dominance enforced through the control and subordination of women.” “In these cases,” she adds, “rape is the playing out of a sociocultural script in which the expression of personhood for males is directed by, among other things, interpersonal violence and an ideology of male toughness.”

Sanday considers the US to also be a rape-prone culture, noting that “socialization for male sexual dominance and control is suggested by numerous studies on U.S. campuses.” “The sexual aggression evident in these particular [campus] cases,” continues Sanday, “does not mean that sexual aggression is restricted to fraternities or that all fraternities indulge in sexual aggression. Sexist attitudes and the phallo-centric mentality associated with ‘pulling train’ [men lining up to have sex with a victim] have a long history in Western society. For example, venting homoerotic desire in the gang rape of women who are treated as male property is the subject of several biblical stories…”

And if McElroy would try to claim post hoc that Sanday’s research is irrelevant or biased, she is going to have a hard time finding anyone to agree with her. All I could find was an article in Foreign Policy that alluded to Sanday’s “fair share of critics,” but the link in that article only took me to a page where one of Sanday’s essays appears in a book titled Evolution, Gender, and Rape, written mostly by evolutionary biologists. In the footnotes of her essay in that collection, Sanday responds to assertions by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, authors of The Natural History of Rape—a book that, unlike Koss’ study, actually has been shredded to pieces by academics for its preposterous and unproven claims that men are natural rapists.

In the course of her discussion of rape statistics, McElroy cites a string of stories about false rape accusations without once noting that study after study indicates that the rate of false rape accusations is estimated to be between 2-8 percent. The anecdotes cited by McElroy must be considered in that context.

McElroy has a section on “fixing the damage.” Her solution to the problem of what she calls “rape culture hysteria” is to do away with the Department of Education and privatize education. Now, I’m a libertarian so I don’t have a problem with these ideas as things that would be good in the long run. But seriously, how useful are they right now? Privatizing education is a nice thought if you are a libertarian but how is it going to help rape victims right now? The answer: not at all.

However McElroy does offer one solution that could be implemented in the near future and on that we can actually agree: “Treat sexual violence as a criminal matter by turning accusations over to the police for investigation and to the courts for adjudication.”  Of course.  Rape is a felony and should be treated that way, no matter where it occurs. It is utterly ridiculous for such a crime to be handled on campus by untrained people. As a college professor (now retired), I have seen too many inept and cowardly college administrators just in my own observations to need any convincing on that issue.  The news provides us with many more examples.

Overall, in my view, McElroy’s book only obfuscates the issues rather than clarifying them. She hypocritically attacks others for selective use of research but does the same herself. She ignores major arguments by important researchers that would destroy her case. There are two words for this: intellectual dishonesty. Chances are there are better uses of your time than reading this book.