Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and PTSD
The debate between Roxane Gay and Christina Hoff Sommers – recently described as a ‘near meltdown’ in New York Magazine – was never going to go smoothly. Gay is a professor and writer celebrated in feminist circles. She is known for her blunt, accessible style and her insights on race and gender. She’s been lauded as a “hero for millennial women” by Harper’s Bazaar. She is also a sexual assault survivor.
On the other end of the political spectrum, is Sommers who describes herself as the ‘factual feminist’. She spends most of her time critiquing mainstream feminism to an audience of conservatives and libertarians, who fawn over her descriptions of “hysterical” “fainting-couch” “victim feminists”. The language she uses to describe anti-rape activists is often pejorative, and her attitude can be dismissive to the point of cruelty. Nonetheless, some of the points she makes about sexual assault research are worth consideration.
Sexual assault statistics vary wildly, largely because experts disagree on what constitutes sexual assault. The oft-cited statistic, ‘one in five’ women are victims of sexual assault, has been supported by some studies, but it isn’t as concrete as some anti-rape activism might lead you to believe. That’s not to say sexual assault isn’t an important issue – just that it’s difficult to quantify the issue. Unfortunately, Sommers uses this valid point to frame the entire concept of rape culture as “hysteria”, and to gloss over the increasingly obvious issues in male sexual culture.
The ‘debate’ was, to put it lightly, a shit storm. Most of the audience seemed to be there to see Roxane Gay – they didn’t know who Christina Hoff Sommers was, and her concern for young men living in fear of false rape allegations (which occur, according to research, approximately 2 to 8 percent of the time) was not received kindly. Within minutes of the event starting, the majority of the audience was groaning at Sommers. Some people started yelling over her answers, jeering her every response. At the Sydney event, pundits were allegedly stamping their feet to drown out the sound of her voice.
They were angry, not just at Sommers, but at what she represented: the prioritisation of men’s discomfort over the suffering of female victims. An attitude of denial that has drowned out women’s testimony for millennia. In a society where the sexual objectification of women is so visible, and where over 90 percent of sexual assault victims are female, her victimisation of men is difficult to justify, and her denunciations of anti-rape activists are downright offensive. It’s not surprising people were angry: I have no doubt many audience members were sexual assault survivors themselves.
As a woman who’s experienced her share of sexual trauma, I sympathised with the rest of the audience – I even stood up to ask my own outraged question at the end – but I also felt a little sorry for Sommers. Unlike the women around me, I knew who she was, and I was prepared for her attitude. Yes, she did seem to feel more empathy for men who might be falsely accused than for women who had actually been assaulted, and yes, it came across as pretty abhorrent, but she didn’t actually say anything reprehensible. She expressed support for the #MeToo movement. She didn’t argue the onus should be on women to protect themselves from sexual assault, as some Australian outlets reported. What she did say was that self-preventative rape education programs appear to work well for university students, according to research. Did that deserve a jeer? No. Does the idea that anti-rape activism is infantilising, hysterical and delusional? Yes.
Here’s the issue: various outlets, including the New York Magazine article, framed the failure of the debate as the fault of Gay’s overly emotional supporters. The outraged audience, according to some commentators, hindered a “meaningful conversation” about feminism.
In reality, feminists really don’t want to debate whether or not sexual assault is an issue worth being upset about. It’s already been well established. Just because Sommers‘ approach is empirical, that doesn’t mean that her stance makes sense.
For instance, in Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Portrayed Women, Sommers argues sexual assault statistics are flawed because they count digital penetration as assault. Try telling that to the Stanford victim, who was digitally penetrated while she was unconscious behind a dumpster. She said the assault, which the perpetrator was jailed for, left her “irreversibly hurt”. Sommer’s narrow understanding of assault is out of step with legal practice, and it overlooks the experiences of thousands of survivors.
In an interview with The New York Times, Sommers argues anti-rape activists portray women as “fragile and easily traumatised”. The truth is, sexual assault victims are overwhelmingly women, and sexual assault is traumatic (according to one study, 94 percent of rape victims experience PTSD symptoms in the first two weeks after the assault). Her portrayal of anti-rape activists – who are often survivors themselves – as “hysterical” is not only insensitive, it draws on tropes of female instability that have been used to degrade and manipulate women for centuries.
In 2017, journalist Bret Stephens gave an influential lecture, ‘The Dying Art of Disagreement’. In the speech, he argued that identity politics are eroding the principles of good debate:
“… to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning.” – Bret Stephens
It’s true that Gay’s supporters, who were mostly there to see Gay, not Sommers, failed to grasp an empathetic understanding of Sommers‘ arguments. But that’s because Sommers‘ whole standpoint is founded on a lack of empathy for theirs. And when the subject you’re debating is rape, one of the most traumatic experiences a person can live through, empathy needs to be a priority.
Which leads me to another issue that comes with ‘debating’ sexual assault: when the subject you’re discussing is so distressing, the people it has impacted the most find it difficult to participate – not out of weakness, as Sommers frames it, but because that’s how trauma works – how do you create the conditions for a fair debate? Before we throw a bunch of anti-rape activists together with the icons of the alt-right, that’s something we need to start thinking about.
Emotionality, I would argue, was not the issue here. It was a lack of emotional intelligence – partly from the audience, but mostly from Sommers, and the event organisers themselves. That’s not necessarily an accusation; historically, our society has not been great at dealing with trauma. It is something humankind is very much learning to do. But the lesson here is not that the audience was wrong for being upset. It’s that we need to find more constructive ways to debate distressing issues.