Dishonor RollEverything Scold Is New Again

image by Margot Harrington

A few weeks ago, the news came across various Twitter channels that Harper’s magazine was planning to cover the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet, a document that had circulated for less than 24 hours back in October as the #MeToo conversation was just getting started. The writer rumored to be behind the Harper’s piece—and who was apparently planning to out the anonymous creator of the list—was the notorious Katie Roiphe, who more than 20 years ago became synonymous with the campus-rape epidemic…by denying its existence.

Back in 1991, Roiphe, the Harvard-educated daughter of second-wave feminist author Anne Roiphe, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Date Rape Hysteria,” whose premise was eventually expanded into 1993’s The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus. One of the buzziest books of the year, The Morning After had a convoluted but irresistible premise: The climate of fear around campus sexual assault was a ginned-up victimization plot fomented by feminists who encouraged young women to cry rape whenever they felt shame about having sex. Her proof? No one she personally knew had experienced rape or sexual assault. (The idea that perhaps her friends knew that Roiphe was the last person they should confide in didn’t seem to occur to her.)

If, as the familiar adage has it, history recurs the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, this particular moment points out that a certain media-friendly brand of condescension toward young women and sex never changes at all. And in the past several weeks, a small but loud scrum of media pundits who made their names in the 1990s and early 2000s have burst back onto the scene to tell the #MeToo crowd that they are #MeToo-ing all wrong. Along with Roiphe, the reemergence of Andrew Sullivan and Caitlin Flanagan seems to suggest that what this national conversation about power, sex, and predation really needs is the right person to lean down from a cushy media perch and wag their learned finger in the face of newly minted activists.

A little backstory is in order here to explain why it matters that these three voices feel so discordant now. The news of Katie Roiphe’s Harper’s piece, slated to run in the March issue, was greeted with such ire because, simply put, people know she cannot be trusted with the complex, nuanced analysis that the Shitty Media Men list requires. Roiphe’s take on campus rape had an immeasurable impact on the cultural narrative about it. The Morning After built on existing conservative fears about colleges as incubators of overheated “PC” claptrap, as well as those about feminism as a doctrine of learned helplessness—a narrative that we regularly see with every prominent story about campus rape that tumbles into the news cycle. At a time when current events like the Anita Hill hearings were putting the lie to the idea that feminism had served its purpose, Roiphe was the perfect vehicle to discredit the growing momentum of third-wave feminism: young, white, pedigreed, and willing to use a tiny spoonful of anecdotal evidence to cement long-held beliefs about women as overemotional and unable to judge their own lives rationally.

Sullivan’s rise to pundit notoriety came a bit later: A former New Republic editor and the founder of one of the internet’s first political blogs, The Daily Dish, Sullivan was bombastic, prolific, and always ready to bait liberals. (He famously praised the 1994 book The Bell Curve, for instance, which argued that race and genetics correlated with IQs and pressed numerous conclusions aligned with scientific racism.) Sullivan wasn’t a bog-standard conservative: As an openly gay man, he advocated for marriage equality, and, once the Iraq War began, he became disillusioned with his fellow Republicans and  eventually left the GOP to support Barack Obama’s presidency. Regardless of political affiliation, his take on the #MeToo movement, published by New York magazine, was exactly what you might expect: Comparing proponents of #MeToo to McCarthyites of the 1950s Red Scare, Sullivan’s words dripped with disbelieving sarcasm: “[T]oday’s McCarthyites claim that appeals to the police, or the HR department, or to the usual channels, are ‘fruitless’—because they’re part of the patriarchal system too!”

And then there’s Caitlin Flanagan, who made her name in the mid-2000s with a series of well-written (and well-paid) contrarian screeds for both The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Many of them targeted feminism—lamenting, for instance, the selfishness of 1970s women’s libbers and their promotion of working outside the home—but some were just pure spleen. In the past two weeks alone, Flanagan has written three separate Atlantic pieces decrying the overreach of #MeToo and warning against alienating potential supporters with “unchecked rage”—ignoring, of course, that the societal imperatives against women showing anger are exactly why sexual harassment and assault have been allowed to flourish in plain sight for so long.

In their outlook on the young women who have been #MeToo’s most prominent voices, these throwback scolds aren’t appreciably different than some of the Trump appointees who are poised to have a substantial effect on campus sexual-assault policy. Like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, these folks seem to have almost no interest in what actual college students have to say about their own experiences; like Candice Jackson, the acting head of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, they have very specific ideas of what constitutes “real” victimhood. (Spoiler: It’s what they decide it is.)

That all three of these writers have come roaring back this month to grab a slice of the #MeToo action is notable because each of them has been more or less silent in previous years as news stories and conversations about campus rape hurtled across the internet and social media. (Both Roiphe and Flanagan have only recently joined Twitter, a place where so much feminist discourse has blossomed.) While the subjects of campus sexual assault, rape culture, consent, and institutional complicity are still hot-button ones, recent years have seen the work of activists (both on-campus and off), journalists, and legislators begin to pay off. The youth-directed advocacy organization Know Your IX was founded to educate and train students to advocate for survivors and push for policy reform; the Yes Means Yes movement has focused on standardizing affirmative consent on campuses and statewide, with California and New York officially adopting affirmative-consent laws; the victim of Stanford University’s Brock Turner made national news with an impact statement detailing the degrading, dehumanizing process of bringing official charges against him; and the Obama administration created the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault as part of its “It’s On Us” initiative.

Meanwhile, concepts and talking points nurtured in activist spaces and feminist organizing have slipped out of the blogosphere and into mainstream news reporting. Splashy coverage of everything from Columbia University’s mattress-toting student Emma Sulkowicz to the now-president of the United States bragging on a hot mic about grabbing women by the pussy has been accompanied by a rise in awareness around victim-blaming language and passive headline construction. More and more sports journalists have reported on various high-profile cases of athletes and sexual assault and challenged what has long been a shrugging acknowledgement of their inevitability. Simply put: When you hear the phrase “rape culture” issuing from the mouth of a CNN commentator, you know the needle has moved at least a little.

That’s not to say America has become a place where college students can always feel safe and confident that reporting sexual assault will be a process that foregrounds gravity and care. But a couple of crucial things have changed the frame. The internet and social media has foregrounded the voices of actual college students, with young and majority-women reporters and advocates talking to students rather than skeptical representatives of legacy media speaking for them. The expansion of media outlets in general has helped build a common parlance that finally acknowledges rape and sexual assault as systemic, institutional issues, rather than individual instances of bad luck or poor judgment. And both of those have made it possible to, for instance, finally censure the “open secrets” of serial predation by Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and many others as what they are: terrible crimes inflicting untold damage.

In other words, it’s not a great time to bring back the sledgehammer contrarianism of Roiphe, Flanagan, and Sullivan. When Roiphe misrepresented herself to the creator of the Shitty Media Men list, she demonstrated that she is, once again, not likely to bring anything approaching complexity to the subject of sexual assault. Flanagan took an exhaustively deep dive into fraternity culture for The Atlantic in 2014, but seems unable to apply the same empathy she holds for 18-year-old boys butt-chugging vodka to young women who make similarly reckless choices. (The fact that Flanagan’s twin sons are currently in college seems significant to her animosity toward the postadolescent women of #MeToo, but I won’t speculate further.) As for Sullivan, he appears to have less skin in this particular game, but his derision of anything hovering in the general area of political correctness means he’s likely to continue being called upon to comment.

Their words don’t cancel out the work of reporters on the campus-rape beat, or on sex educators who prioritize the importance of affirmative consent when they speak to students. But they still carry cultural capital, and their opinions are given far more weight in these ongoing debates than on-the-ground reporting from inside movements and campuses. That makes this moment a particularly dicey one for the future of good-faith coverage of campus sexual assault. As various critics have pointed out since 1993, Roiphe managed to set the tone of discussion around sexual assault and “date rape” without doing any actual reporting. The loudest voices around #MeToo stand to influence that tone as well: After all, students know that what they see in media and pop culture—for instance, characterizations of the women speaking up in Hollywood as joyless extremists seeking to drain the fun from sex and paint all men as predators—informs campus beliefs and norms. As students, activists, and advocates continue to combat and raise the alarm on campus sexual assault, we can’t let a handful of contrarians hijack the many conversations to come. 

DisHonorRoll is made possible through a grant from The Media Consortium

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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