The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The insane (and hopeless) logic of #YesAllWomen critics

Elliot Rodger’s bullet holes in Isla Vista, Calif. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

The hashtag #YesAllWomen was not just a response to Elliot Rodger and the extreme sexism of his manifesto and YouTube trove, recorded before his UC-Santa Barbara rampage. More than that, it was a response to the #NotAllMen crowd, people quick to “explain” that not all men are violent and abusive toward women. The implication, which effectively shuts down the conversation, is that frustrated women are complainers or exaggerators.

Look, it’s true that a minority of men harass women. But all women have to deal with catcalling, sexual harassment in the workplace, rape jokes, or the fear that turning down a man’s request for a date might leave her bruised, bloody, or even dead. A Connecticut teen stabbed a young girl to death after she rejected his invitation to attend prom. It doesn’t matter if the perpetrators are outliers; the point is that the victims are the opposite—everywoman.

Rape apology, a phrase I use here to describe ideas that minimize the impact and reach of rape culture, is an easy trap to fall into if you’re not careful. Dangerous messages since childhood and wrongheaded lessons keep us confused. Rape apology help us make sense of the ugly persistence of sexual violence in this country and elsewhere. Denial is a natural response to a world in which 1 in 5 women and 1 in 6 men experience sexual violence.

But even though Elliot Rodger was an extreme case, rape apology must be fought. Silencing women who share their daily experiences with sexism and violence will not prevent future violence. That means spotting and smacking down common illogical arguments thrown out to deflect or end the argument. And since an argument relies on logic, here’s how to spot some assertions that don’t hold up.

Women elsewhere have it worse

Conservative columnist David Frum slipped into this trap.

Of course, he’s right: Despicable violence against women is a problem all over the world! But why would that mollify American victims? Women may get stoned in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean that real—if less crude—misogyny doesn’t exist here. American women should not have to be quiet about the sexism they face in their daily lives just because women elsewhere are also suffering. This a basic logic fail. Both things can be true without one diminishing the other.

If the victim had just [insert suggestion here], she wouldn’t have been raped.

We want to think the world is just. That bad things happen to bad people, or if something bad happened to someone, then perhaps her poor choices caused it. The questions about whether the victim was “asking for it” persist, and yet the appropriate logic demands that no matter what the victim chooses to do, it’s the rapist who exercises a choice here—that is, the choice to rape. Instead of asking a victim if she was flirting or leading the rapist on, ask why the he didn’t stop when she said no.

If she hadn’t have been drinking, she wouldn’t have been raped.

Relatedly, women are often told to cut back on drinking or make sure they don’t leave their drinks unattended in order to guard against sexual assault. Here is an amazing archive of such thinking. The problem with this logic is that sober women and men are raped every day. Drunk women and men, too, are raped every day. The important variable is not booze, but the perpetrator’s decision.

Misogyny is only harmful to women.

The number one tweeted response to #YesAllWomen criticizes feminists for failing to acknowledge that Elliott Rodger’s rampage took the lives of more men than women. The rationale is that, since misogyny is the hatred of women, and Elliott Rodger killed more men than women, his spree wasn’t a misogynist act.

As if motivations don’t matter to outcomes! It was Rodgers’s mindset the led him to do what he did, no matter how many people of which sex died. At any rate, 18 percent of mass shooting incidents begin with a domestic violence incident. That means that the perpetrator kills or attempts to kill their significant other, often a woman they have been abusive to in the past (as in the case of the D.C. sniper), and only then goes on a rampage. The existence of male victims proves that misogyny isn’t something only women need to be concerned about. Misogyny kills—and is a danger to everyone.

Giving every woman a gun for self defense will end rape forever.

The NRA really wants American women to believe that guns are the answer to end rape forever. The problem with that logic is that the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows and in a place where the victim feels safe. In other words, unless you are living in a Wild West fantasy, where women bring AR-15s to every OKCupid date, then guns won’t help prevent the majority of rapes.

Women who don’t have guns aren’t choosing to be victims.  One in six men are sexual abused before the age of 18. Should a 7-year old boy be expected to be a good shot to prevent his own abuse? Of course not.

We shouldn’t let faulty logic, classic deflection, and fear stop us from having necessary conversations about sexism and violence. Unless we have candid conversations to change behavior that dehumanizes women and makes them targets of violence, we will continue to see inexplicable crimes against our entire communities.