Late last year, after a minor Twitter brouhaha, I put up a blogpost criticizing author Christina Hoff Sommers’ views on the prevalence of rape in America. Today Sommers responded to that post with a four-pronged rebuttal, prompting a round of demands from her followers that I reply.
I’m happy to do so.
Sommers takes issue with my position on four issues — her role in the culture wars of the 1990s, the validity of a 2011 CDC study on rape, her analysis of the 2010 National Crime Victimization Study, and her position regarding rape in the contemporary United States. Let’s take each one in turn.
1. The Culture Wars
In my original post I said that anyone who was “around for the so-called Culture Wars of the mid-1990s” would likely remember Sommers, whose book Who Stole Feminism? “was a centerpiece of right-wing attacks on mainstream feminist theory and organizing at the time.”
Sommers describes this as a “faulty or fabricated” account, saying that she is a Democrat, that Nadine Strossen and Erica Jong wrote her fan mail, and that she, not her critics, represents “mainstream” feminism.
But Sommers is rebutting arguments I didn’t make. I didn’t say that Who Stole Feminism? was a right-wing or an anti-feminist work (although many prominent feminists have). I said that it was a centerpiece of right-wing attacks on mainstream feminism. Which it was.
Right-wingers and anti-feminists absolutely loved Who Stole Feminism? It was glowingly reviewed in practically every prominent conservative publication you can name and endlessly cited by feminism’s critics in print, online, and in face-to-face debates.
You couldn’t poke your head over a feminist parapet in 1995 without having Sommers’ book hurled at your head, is the point. Whether Sommers intended it to play that role in national debates around feminism or not, that’s a role it played.
2. The 2011 CDC Rape Study
In the video to which I was responding in my blogpost, Sommers characterized the CDC study’s questions in this way:
“No-one interviewed was asked if they had been raped or sexually assaulted. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. Now, 61.5% of the women the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced what the CDC called “alcohol and drug facilitated penetration.” Now, what does that mean? I mean, if a woman was unconscious or incapacitated, then every civilized person would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape. Indeed, a non-trivial percentage of all customary sexual intimacy, including marital sex, probably falls under that definition.
There’s a lot going on here, so before we get to my prior critique of this passage and Sommers’ rebuttal, let’s unpack it a bit.
Sommers criticizes the CDC for not asking respondents if they had been raped or sexually assaulted, calling that a “straightforward” question. But the question is anything but straightforward. State laws vary widely in their definitions of rape and sexual assault, as does colloquial usage. To find out whether a person has been subjected to a particular kind of sexual assault, it’s necessary to ask them specific questions.
And what specific questions did the CDC use to, as Sommers put it, “determine whether the responses indicated sexual violation”? The primary one was this: Whether anyone had “used physical force or threats of physical harm to make [the respondent] have” oral, anal, or vaginal sex.
That’s not a vague question. It’s not an ambiguous question. It’s a simple, clear, narrow framing of the issue. And by that definition, using respondents’ answers to that question, the CDC estimates that nearly fifteen million American women have experienced rape in their lifetimes.
The second question the CDC used in that survey was the one Sommers characterized as asking about “alcohol and drug facilitated penetration,” suggesting that it was a catch-all term for any “sex while inebriated.” But let’s look at what that question, in the context in which it was asked, actually says:
“Sometimes sex happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications. This can include times when they voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs or they were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or consent. Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault.
“When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people have ever…had vaginal sex with you? Made you perform anal sex? Made you receive anal sex? Made you perform oral sex? Made you receive oral sex?
That’s a lot of verbiage, to be sure, but it repeatedly and explicitly frames the issue under discussion as one of non-consensual activity, specifying at the top that it’s referring to circumstances in which an individual is “unable to consent to … or stop” sexual acts and then later asking about times when “you were … unable to consent.” In the questions about oral and anal sex (though not vaginal) the questioner returns yet again to the question of consent, asking whether someone had “made you” perform or acquiesce to those acts.
Go back and read Sommers’ gloss on this question again, and see whether it strikes you as a fair and accurate summary.
It didn’t strike me as one, so I said this in my post:
She suggests that the CDC counts consensual “sex while inebriated” as rape — indefensible, if true — but she does so by selectively and tendentiously quoting from the questionnaire. In fact, that section of the questionnaire — read to all respondents, but never mentioned by Sommers — states specifically that the questions within it concern sexual contact that “happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications.”
Sommers knows this, but she deliberately excludes it from her writing and speaking on the topic in order to facilitate her misrepresentation of the CDC report.
In today’s rebuttal, Sommers accuses me of selective quotation since I left out the third and fourth sentences from the question. But in her video she quoted none of the language at issue, and in a 2014 Time magazine piece she quoted only the two I left out, omitting the initial statement that the questions to follow concern non-consensual sex specifically.
Do I think the CDC’s question was worded as well as it could have been? No. Do I think it left open the possibility of misinterpretation? Yes. But whatever its flaws, the question began with an explicit, unequivocal declaration that the question concerned non-consensual sex. If Sommers has publicly acknowledged that fact before today, I’m unaware of it. (And yes, I just spent a good fifteen minutes Googling.)
One more item on the CDC study before I move on.
In the video, Sommers declared that “61.5% of the women the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010” had responded in the affirmative to the question about drug and alcohol facilitated assault. It would be easy to assume from this phrasing that only the remaining 38.5% of those categorized as having been raped were so identified as a result of saying that they had experienced sexual assault as a result of “physical force or threats of physical harm.”
As it turns out, however, many of the women in the study had experienced multiple forms of sexual assault, and only 41% of the study’s reported assaults were in response to the drug-and-alcohol question. If Sommers had a good reason for using the potentially misleading 61.5% figure instead of the far more straightforward 41% number, I haven’t heard it.
I raised this issue in my original post, by the way, but Sommers didn’t address it in her reply.
3. The 2011 NCVS
In my blogpost I contended that Sommers was exaggerating the differences between the CDC’s rape rate and that obtained by the Department of Justice’s more conservative National Crime Victimization Survey by comparing completed rape numbers from the NCVS with completed-plus-attempted rape numbers from the CDC. In her response today, Sommers says I was “wrong.”
This one is easy: I was wrong.
Here’s how it happened. The NCVS report Sommers cited gave an estimate of 188,000 rapes in the United States in 2010, the figure Sommers relied on. But another report on the same data — this one analyzing only rapes committed against women — found that 143,000 women experienced completed rape that year, while another 89,000 experienced attempted rape. Since the NCVS report did not state explicitly that the 188,000 figure included attempted rape, I concluded that the discrepancy between the 188,000 number and the 143,000 number was a result of the exclusion of men from the second sample, and that the 188,000 figure applied only to completed rapes.
But like I say, I was wrong.
It turns out that the DOJ changed the way that it tabulates rape statistics in 2011. By counting incidents of rape rather than victims of rape, the new formula produces higher numbers. And while the the survey Sommers cited in her video used the old formula, the one I found — analyzing statistics from the same study conducted in the same year — used the new one. My interpretation of the data was plausible, but incorrect. I apologize for the error, and I’ll be correcting the original post.
4. Sommers’ Views on Rape
In the tweet that started this whole exchange, I said that Sommers had fallen further “down the rape denialist well” than I’d previously realized. That phrase — rape denialist — was one that incensed her supporters on Twitter, and explaining it was one of the things I set out to do in my post.
In today’s Facebook post Sommers said that “contesting statistics about rape is not the same as trivializing the crime or being a ‘denialist.'”
I agree with this. In fact, I agree with it so much that I said essentially the same thing myself in a response to a comment on my blogpost more than five months ago:
“The problem that I have with Sommers, ultimately, isn’t that she believes that there are fewer rapes happening in this country than I do. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the statistics, and reasonable people can disagree about which ones should be taken the most seriously.”
So if it’s not our disagreements on which statistics are most reliable that led me to use that term, what was it?
Well, it’s a few things. Partly it’s her misrepresentation of the data, which I addressed in part above and may say more about in another post. But more than that it’s her rhetoric.
According to the NCVS, which Sommers has described as the “gold standard” of sexual assault statistics, three hundred thousand rapes were committed in the United States in the most recent year for which we have information. According to the CDC, something like twenty million American women are survivors of rape or attempted rape — and that remains true even if you, like Sommers, discount their alcohol and drug statistics as unreliable.
In the face of all this, Sommers has described the rape crisis in America as “manufactured.” She has compared it to the Satanic ritual abuse hoaxes of the 1980s. She has declared that there is a “false accusation culture on campus,” and she has approvingly signal-boosted supporters who compared rape accusations to the Salem witch hunts.
This is not the language of statistics. This is not the language of reasoned debate over the precise magnitude of a serious social problem. This is the language of denial.