TIME Media

It’s Women Who Suffer When We Don’t Ask Questions

UVa Fraternity
Protestors carry signs and chant slogans in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia, Nov. 22, 2014, in Charlottesville, Va. Ryan M. Kelly—AP

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Perhaps the lessons of the UVA story will help us balance our support for victims with the presumption of innocence.

The shocking Rolling Stone story of a brutal fraternity gang rape and administrative inaction at the University of Virginia has now unraveled, with a Washington Post investigative report disputing key parts of the account and the magazine issuing a partial retraction. While we may never know the whole truth behind the story, the controversy around it has once again raised the thorny question of when it is proper to doubt claims of sexual assault.

In the past week, several critics have questioned the story’s authenticity and faulted author Sabrina Rubin Erdely for failing to seek a response from the alleged rapists or to corroborate the account provided by Jackie, the UVA student identified as the victim. Meanwhile, some commentators have blasted the skeptics for perpetuating a culture of sexist mistrust toward women’s reports of sexual violence. For many, believing and supporting accusations of rape is an essential feminist principle. But that principle is not only at odds with journalism; it is also gravely detrimental to justice—for the accused and, in the end, for victims.

Slate journalists Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin, who followed up on the UVA story, found a strong belief among victim advocates on the campus that “questioning the victim is a form of betrayal.” This is a common attitude in activist ranks—and in the feminist media, as the response to critiques of the UVA story confirms. The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister noted bitterly that if Erdely’s story is discredited, this will boost the belief that “bitches lie.” Gawker’s Allie Jones acknowledged the weaknesses in Erdely’s research but slammed the critics as “disingenuous” and prejudiced against rape complainants. Salon’s Katie McDonough wrote that while Erdely’s article may have been “imperfect,” the backlash against it was part of “rape denial playbook,” the product of a culture “overwhelmingly inclined to think that victims are lying when they say they have been raped.”

In a piece posted just two days before the story came undone, New York’s Kat Stoeffel not only deplored the resistance to “taking a traumatized young woman at her word” but argued that even if Jackie’s harrowing tale was made up or exaggerated, it was problematic to debunk it. In Stoeffel’s view, the benefits of believing the story—“forcing reform at UVA, encouraging other women to come forward”—outweighed any possible negatives, since no specific individuals had been accused and no innocents’ lives could be ruined.

“To what end are we scrutinizing?” wondered Stoeffel—a startling question for a journalist to ask. The answer is simple: Because journalism is about facts and truth-telling. To defend a possible lie that may have social utility is not journalism but propaganda.

Besides, in this case, the potential for harm was obvious. If Jackie’s horrifying story of being ambushed in a dark room during a fraternity party, pinned down, punched in the face, and brutally raped by seven men for three hours was widely believed to be true, but no perpetrators were ever brought to justice, it would have sent a terrible message to the community and especially to women; it would have also casts a shadow of suspicion on all men who were members of the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, during the period described in the article. (Indeed, the names of possible suspects were already circulating online.)

Now that the Rolling Stone story has come undone, will its collapse hurt the credibility of genuine victims of rape? If the negative publicity discourages victims from coming forward, that will be tragic indeed. One hopes that no sane person would take the discrediting of one very extreme account of sexual violence to mean that campus rape doesn’t happen, or that most women who report being raped are lying. But when believing all such reports is treated as an article of faith, every allegation exposed as false becomes deeply damaging. That is why “believe the survivor” dogma must inevitably backfire: While no one knows exactly how common false rape allegations are, it is a fact that they happen.

New York’s Stoeffel writes sympathetically of “feminists who believe in believing women”—among whose number she clearly counts herself. But such faith is arguably bad feminism, putting women on a pedestal rather than on the same footing as men; it’s certainly bad justice and bad journalism. (“If your mother says she loves you, check it out” is still a good principle.) Erdely and her Rolling Stone editors chose to stake a major story on believing one young woman’s account—a trust that the magazine now acknowledges was “misplaced.”

Commentators across the political spectrum have expressed concern that Rolling Stone’s sloppy journalism will damage what Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle calls “the righteous fight for rape victims.” But despite its righteous goals, the crusade against rape has leaned too far toward promoting the dangerous idea that accusation equals guilt and that to doubt an accuser’s word is heresy. Finding the balance between supporting victims and preserving the presumption of innocence is a difficult line to walk. Perhaps the lessons of the UVA story will help steer the way toward such a balance.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

How to Turn a Cool Moment Into a #ShirtStorm

British physicist Matt Taylor sporting a garish shirt featuring a collage of pin-up girls during an interview at the satellite control centre of the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany on Nov. 13, 2014.
British physicist Matt Taylor sporting a garish shirt featuring a collage of pin-up girls during an interview at the satellite control centre of the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany on Nov. 13, 2014. AP

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Sadly, the brouhaha over Dr. Taylor’s shirt overshadowed not only his accomplishments but those of his female teammates

Correction appended, Nov. 18, 2014

When I first heard about the outrage over a scientist from the Rosetta mission, which landed the Philae space probe on a comet, wearing a “sexist” shirt for a press appearance, I racked my brain wondering what the offensive garment could have been. A T-shirt showing a spacecraft with a “My secret fort—no girls allowed” sign? An image of a female scientist with the text, “It’s nice that you got a Ph.D., now make me a sandwich”? No, a colorful Hawaiian shirt on which, if you really looked—one censorious article actually included a description “in case you can’t see the shirt properly”—you could see cartoon images of scantily clad babes with guns. This brought on a tweet from Atlantic journalist Rose Eveleth, “Thanks for ruining the cool comet landing for me a–hole,” and a headline in the online magazine Verge that verged on self-parody: “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing.” The ShirtStorm, as it was dubbed on social media, culminated with the transgressor, British physicist Matt Taylor, offering a tearful apology for his “mistake” at a briefing.

Taylor’s shirt may not have been in great taste. But the outcry against it is the latest, most blatant example of feminism turning into its own caricature: a Sisterhood of the Perpetually Aggrieved, far more interested in shaming and bashing men for petty offenses than in celebrating female achievement.

Of course, to the feminists of ShirtStorm, the offense was anything but petty: in their view, a man who treats sexualized images of women as a source of pleasure or fun is thereby reducing women—all women—to live sex toys. Or, as one of Taylor’s critics tweeted, “His shirt says to women in STEM: I have no respect for you as a professional. When I look at you, I see a sex object.”

But that’s dubious logic. If a scientist gives an interview in a custom-made T-shirt with a photo of his wife and kids, is he telling women their sole purpose in life is babymaking? To suggest that a heterosexual man is incapable of seeing women both as sexual beings and as people is insulting to men and rather sad for women—a feminist version, if you will, of the old Madonna/whore complex (call it the bimbo/brain complex). Besides, generally speaking, cultures that censor sexualized expression have not been particularly progressive about women’s rights.

Yet this particular brand of feminist ideology, which inevitably stigmatizes straight male sexuality, is at the center of the recent culture wars. The mildest sexual innuendo and humor, even if it does not refer to women in any way, can be seen as demeaning. Last year the Internet was in an uproar after a female computer specialist tweeted a photo of two men at a tech conference to chastise them for exchanging jokes about suggestive-sounding technical terms such as forking and dongle. A leading feminist blog, Jezebel, quickly branded the jokesters—one of whom lost his job for this offense—“sexist dudes.” The Jezebel author, Lindy West, actually admitted that she had repeatedly made similar jokes herself—but insisted that in the context of a male-dominated industry, such humor excludes women.

But first of all, the exclusion is very much in the eye of the beholder. Some women are perfectly comfortable joining in ribald merriment; some men are not. Second, such arguments can too easily justify double standards that allow or even celebrate female sexual self-expression while censoring if not demonizing the male kind (which separates neofeminist prudery from its Victorian counterpart). Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines,” in which a man seductively croons “I know you want it” to a woman, has been condemned as a “rape anthem” and banned from university campuses. Yet Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” songs that glamorize alcohol- and drug-fueled sex—routinely equated with sexual assault in today’s feminist rhetoric—were hailed as female-empowerment anthems in the coverage of this year’s Video Music Awards.

Such double standards exist in many environments. At a skeptic convention last year, feminist science blogger Rebecca Watson, a strong critic of sexism in the atheist/skeptic community—mostly in the form of men “sexualizing” women—gave a presentation consisting of a raunchy humorous tale in which a male ex-Mormon was ridiculed for not drinking before a casual hookup and for being overcautious about birth control. If a male speaker had dared to entertain an audience these days with similar crude humor at a woman’s expense, he would have been tarred and feathered for creating an unwelcoming environment for female attendees.

Would a female scientist have been trashed for wearing a shirt that “objectified” men or even made a male-bashing joke? Very doubtful. And if she had, most of the people outraged by Taylor’s shirt would have likely risen to her defense.

Meanwhile, Taylor was not simply ribbed for a faux pas but also targeted with nasty, sometimes violent name-calling and denounced for misogyny. Never mind that anyone who bothered to check his Twitter feed would have found out that the day before his fateful appearance in the “misogynist” shirt, he was urging his followers to follow NASA’s Rosetta project scientist Claudia Alexander. They would have also learned that the shirt was made and given to Taylor as a birthday present by a female friend, Elly Prizeman. And they would have seen a photo of him wearing that shirt right next to a smiling, waving female colleague, planetary scientist Monica Grady.

In a supremely ironic coincidence, a clip of Grady jumping in noisy joy at the Philae landing was offered by Guardian writer Alice Bell as a “positive” conclusion to a column that lambasted Taylor for his shirt and his colleagues for overlooking such a sexist atrocity.

Grady’s delight at the success of the mission clearly wasn’t ruined by a gaudy shirt with “sexualized” women on it. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Taylor: His Twitter account, so full of excitement a few days ago, went entirely silent after his public humiliation.

Sadly, the brouhaha over Taylor’s shirt overshadowed not only his accomplishments but also those of his female teammates, including one of the project’s lead researchers, Kathrin Allweg of the University of Bern in Switzerland. More spotlight on Allweg, Grady, Alexander and the other remarkable women of the Rosetta project would have been a true inspiration to girls thinking of a career in science. The message of ShirtStorm, meanwhile, is that aspiring female scientists can be undone by some sexy pictures on a shirt—and that women’s presence in science requires men to walk on eggshells, curb any goofy humor that may offend the sensitive and be cowed into repentance for any misstep.

Thanks for ruining a cool feminist moment for us, bullies.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the format of Rebecca Watson’s presentation. It was part of an entertainment program.

Read next: Cracking the Girl Code: How to End the Tech Gender Gap

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME online abuse

Online Harassment Affects Men Too

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

According to a Pew study, men are also largely affected by cyber harassment—and to make it sound like a women-only problem is bad for women

The harassment of women online has emerged as a major subject of concern recently—even, perhaps, “tomorrow’s civil rights agenda,” according to feminist commentator Amanda Hess who brought this issue into the spotlight with a long article in Pacific Standard magazine last January. Highly publicized events such as the mass release of stolen nude celebrity photos—nearly all of women—and threats against several female critics of sexism in videogames have bolstered claims that the Internet is a cesspool of misogyny, with women routinely subjected to vile abuse and threats for having an opinion or simply for being female. But are these claims true? A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that, while the Internet can indeed be a nasty place, it is not uniquely so for women. This finding is consistent with earlier research. Yet it has been reported in ways that often lean toward the familiar narrative of women in jeopardy—a narrative that is distorted and ultimately damaging to women.

The Pew online harassment study, based on a survey of nearly 3,000 Internet users last June, found that 44 percent of men and 37 percent of women had experienced some form of online abuse, from name-calling to physical threats and stalking. The biggest gender gap was in the fairly mild category of being called offensive names, experienced by nearly a third of men on the Internet but only 22 percent of female users. However, more men—10 percent, compared to 6 percent of women—also reported being physically threatened. Women were more likely than men to say they had been sexually harassed (9 percent versus 6 percent) and stalked (10 percent versus 7 percent); sustained harassment was reported by 8 percent of men and 7 percent of women. Interestingly, the survey also found that people perceived most online spaces to be female-friendly; 18 percent even said that the social media were more “welcoming” to women than to men, while only five percent agreed with the reverse.

Meanwhile many articles on the study emphasized the perils for women. Sample headlines: “Pew: Women Suffering Online Harassment Worse Than Men.” “For Women, the Internet Can Be a Scary Place.” “Everyone’s a Jerk to Everyone Online, But Young Women Have It the Worst.” Some commentators even expressed frustration and disbelief that so few Netizens saw online life as a hostile environment for women.

The women-as-victims angle focused mainly on the survey’s youngest respondents, ages 18 to 24. Twenty-six percent of women in this demographic said they had experienced online stalking, compared to 7 percent of men. (“Sustained harassment” was reported at roughly equal rates of 18 and 16 percent.) A quarter of the young women and 13 percent of the young men said they had been sexually harassed on the Internet.

However, an important caveat was overlooked: these figures are far less reliable than the study’s general results. While the survey had an overall margin of error of 2.4 percentage points, it was almost 11 percent for the under-25 sample of just 137 women and 126 men. Given that slightly older women, 25 to 29, were far less likely to report online stalking or sexual harassment, dramatic conclusions seem premature.

Women of all ages were more frequently upset by Internet harassment: 38 percent of women who had experienced it described the most recent such incident as “extremely” or “very” upsetting, while 17 percent of the men did. But these responses could be interpreted in a number of ways. Do women suffer worse abuse? Do they find online harassment more distressing because it’s more likely to come from friends or family, and thus to be linked to personal problems? Do they feel more vulnerable, or are they more willing to admit to being upset by words on a screen? Is it a combination of many factors? Even the data on specific forms of abuse lend themselves to subjective judgment, since the survey did not define such terms as “sexual harassment” or “stalking.”

It also worth noting that a Pew Internet use survey last year found men and women to be at virtually equal risk for the most severe consequences of online conflict. Five percent of women felt that something that happened online had put them in physical danger—a figure cited in Hess’s Pacific Standard article as evidence that the Web was a hostile environment for women. Yet the figure for men was three percent, a gap within the poll’s margin of error.

A survey released in February 2013 by the McAffee security technology company challenges another common belief about gender and danger online: that “revenge porn” victims are overwhelmingly women. Eight percent of American women 18 to 54 said they had been threatened with having a sexually embarrassing photo exposed online—but 12 percent of men also reported such an experience. What’s more, nearly two-thirds of the threats against men but only half of the ones against women were carried out.

Then why has the notion that women are singled out for rampant online abuse become entrenched media wisdom? Perhaps because abuse targeting men is far less likely to be noticed and acknowledged.

Thus, in a post arguing that the virulent backlash against feminist media analyst Anita Sarkeesian’s critiques of sexism in videogames is driven by misogynistic rage, progressive blogger Ally Fogg asks why gamers are picking on Sarkeesian and not “evangelical Christians like Jack Thompson,” a crusader against violent games. But this “gotcha” question is comically wrong. When Thompson was in the spotlight seven or eight years ago, diatribes against him on gaming websites and forums included references to emasculation and rape. While an interactive game inviting players to beat up a likeness of Sarkeesian two years ago was deplored and quickly removed, there was no such outrage over four games in 2006 making Thompson a target of virtual violence and even murder. The game blog Kotaku, which now takes a strong stand against the harassment of women in gaming culture, fought a successful legal battle against Thompson’s demand to remove threats against him from its comments threads.

Such double standards are common. When Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities were victims of a nude photo leak, it was seen as an indictment of cultural misogyny; yet no one seemed too upset when NBA player Trey Burke and former Disney star Dylan Sprouse apologized after having their nude selfies posted online by vindictive ex-girlfriends. Threats and harassment targeting conservative male bloggers have gotten little attention while similar actions toward feminist bloggers, chronicled by Hess and others, have been treated as a war on women.

Is Internet abuse toward women more likely to be gender-based? To some extent, that too depends on definitions. A taunt toward a woman that refers to anatomy or sexuality is presumed to be sexist, while a taunt toward a man that refers to undersized genitalia or virginity is treated as a mere personal slur. An evidence-free social media charge of being a sexual predator is unlikely to be seen as a “gendered” attack, even though such charges are almost certainly directed overwhelmingly at men and can be quite devastating.

Partly, the double standard is rooted in the perception of women as a disadvantaged class. But also at work is a much more traditional, almost Victorian paternalism that sees women’s sensitivities as more fragile and worthy of protection.

While the Internet has brought us many wonderful things, it has also facilitated new forms of bullying, including some that are not only obnoxious but truly damaging, from cyberstalking to slander. It is imperative to find ways to create more recourse for victims of such abuse without infringing on protected speech. But such an effort should rely on facts rather than hype. The women-in-jeopardy narrative not only encourages women to be more fearful but promotes gender polarization, which is the way to a more hostile climate for everyone.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Halle Berry’s Child-Support Fight: Female Breadwinners Can’t Have It Both Ways

Celebrity Sightings In Los Angeles - May 24, 2009
Nahla, Gabriel Aubry and Halle Berry at the Topanga Canyon Festival on May 24, 2009 in Topanga Canyon, California. David Aguilera—FilmMagic

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

We need to shed the notion that providing for one’s family is an essential part of masculinity

The latest celebrity tussle over child support has an unusual twist. The parent seeking a reduction in child-support payments is the mother, Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry. The parent collecting the checks is her ex-boyfriend, French-Canadian fashion model Gabriel Aubry, who shares custody of their 6-year-old daughter Nahla. The gossip website TMZ reports that Berry has petitioned the judge overseeing the couple’s custody arrangement to reduce the monthly child-support payment of $16,000 to just $3,000, alleging that Aubry is refusing to get a job. Is this what equality looks like? Sometimes, it is—though the reactions to this skirmish show that a double standard definitely persists when it comes to men “living off” women.

TMZ ran the story under the headline, “Halle Berry: GABRIEL AUBRY IS A BUM; I Want Child Support Slashed.” A piece on Gawker’s Defamer blog sarcastically complimented Aubry on finding a great gravy train and suggested that Berry could not be blamed for wanting to put a stop to it. When a Gawker commenter posted a crude remark questioning Aubry’s manhood and joking about “medical bills to reattach his penis,” blogger Jordan Sargent’s only response was, “Strong comment.”

Would a woman collecting a lot of child support from her wealthy ex be derided as a lazy bum? Certainly not. (She might be attacked as a greedy vixen, but such attacks would likely be seen as misogynist.) For all the feminism-inspired changes in cultural beliefs about what it means to be a woman or a man, the idea that providing for one’s family is an essential part of masculinity has endured. While 40% of mothers in the U.S. are now their family’s primary breadwinner—including nearly a quarter of married moms—nearly a third of Americans still agree it’s best for everyone when the man provides for his family. One person’s Mr. Mom is another’s Mr. Bum.

While men are somewhat more likely than women to hold traditional views on gender issues, there is evidence that in their personal preferences, women may actually be more wedded—as it were—to the male-breadwinner ideal. In a 1994 study based on U.S. survey data of single adults, men were almost as willing to marry “someone who earns much more” than them as “someone who earns much less.” For women, a higher-earning partner rated 6 points out of a maximum of 7, compared with 3.5 for a lower-earning one. Women were also much less willing than men to marry someone who did not have a steady job.

Have things changed in 20 years? Perhaps not, in this regard. In the latest Pew Research Center poll on marriage, one of the biggest gender gaps for singles is in how important people consider employment for a spouse or long-term partner: 78% of women regard having “a steady job” as “very important” in choosing a mate, while only 46% of men do. Sorry, Gabriel Aubry.

These preferences are largely related to family roles. It’s not that women are materialistic gold diggers; rather, most want the option to curtail or interrupt paid work for motherhood. But prejudice against men who aren’t good providers may paradoxically clash with ambitious women’s life plans.

Take one of the women interviewed for feminist journalist Peggy Orenstein’s 2000 book, Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World. “Abbey,” a 26-year-old artist and comic-book sales rep planning a career in the industry, admitted to growing ambivalence about her art-director boyfriend Jeremy. While Jeremy was devoted, supportive of Abbey’s goals and willing to follow her when she had to move, she was put off by his lack of ambition and limited earning potential. Ultimately, Abbey confessed that she’d rather have the choice to stay home after having children—despite being virtually certain that she wouldn’t exercise that choice and being strongly attached to her identity as a professional woman. Yet marriage to a Jeremy may be the best choice for a woman who wants to balance career and family.

Generally, it’s conservatives like RedState.org blogger Erik Erikson who defend the male-breadwinner role as biological (not quite the case if you look at the animal kingdom). Yet when a man and woman are in financial conflict, many feminists will line up in apparent solidarity behind a woman who upholds the most stereotypical of attitudes about gender and providing.

During the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, prosecutor Marcia Clark sought more child support from her estranged husband—who earned half her salary—because of trial-related child-care expenses. (Imagine the derision if a male attorney had done the same.) When Gordon Clark asked for temporary custody, a chorus of feminist voices rose to defend Clark as a strong woman under attack. Today feminist websites like Jezebel mock affluent men who want to pay less child support as cheap crybabies—but offer no comment on Halle Berry’s bid for child-support reduction.

To be sure, $16,000 a month for a 6-year-old who spends half her time with her dad may raise questions about appropriate levels of child support in cases involving wealthy parents—and about when child support becomes a subsidy for a parent who should be pulling his, or her, weight. But such questions should be raised across the board, without double standards. In his own accidental way, Aubry is a pioneer for gender equality.

Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is Rotten for Men

"Noah" - UK Premiere - Red Carpet Arrivals
"I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me," said Emma Watson at a UN Women speech in September. "Men-- I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender Equality is your issue, too." Anthony Harvey—Getty Images

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Until feminism recognizes discrimination against men, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.

“Gender equality is your issue too.” That was the message to men from Emma Watson, Harry Potter star and now United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, in her widely hailed U.N. speech earlier this week announcing a new feminist campaign with a “formal invitation” to male allies to join. Noting that men suffer from sexism in their own ways, Watson asked, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Truer words were never spoken. Too bad they are belied by the campaign itself, which is called “HeForShe” and asks men to pledge to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” but says nothing about problems affecting men and boys.

Watson clearly believes that feminism — which, she stressed, is about equality and not bashing men — will also solve men’s problems. But, unfortunately, feminism in its present form has too often ignored sexist biases against males, and sometimes has actively contributed to them. Until that changes, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.

Take one of the men’s issues Watson mentioned in her speech: seeing her divorced father’s role as a parent “valued less by society” than her mother’s. It is true that in the 1970s and 1980s, feminist challenges to discriminatory, sex-specific laws helped end formal preferences for mothers in child custody matters. But as fathers began to fight against more covert anti-male biases in the court system, most feminists sided with mothers.

There are plenty of other examples. The women’s movement has fought, rightly, for more societal attention to domestic abuse and sexual violence. But male victims of these crimes still tend to get short shrift, from the media and activists alike. Despite several recent high-profile recent sexual assault cases in which the victims were teenage girls, disturbing cases in which boys were victimized — by other boys or by girls — have received far less publicity and sparked little outrage. Experiments have shown that while people are quick to intervene when a man in a staged public quarrel becomes physically abusive to his girlfriend, reactions to a similar situation with the genders reversed mostly range from indifference to amusement or even sympathy for the woman. To a large extent, as feminists sometimes point out, these attitudes stem from traditional gender norms which treat victimhood, especially at a woman’s hands, as unmanly. But today’s mainstream feminism, which regards sexual assault and domestic violence as byproducts of male power over women, tends to reinforce rather than challenge such double standards.

Just in the past few days, many feminist commentators have taken great umbrage at suggestions that soccer star Hope Solo, currently facing charges for assaulting her sister and teenage nephew, deserves similar censure to football player Ray Rice, who was caught on video striking his fiancée. Their argument boils down to the assertion that violence by men toward their female partners should be singled out because it’s a bigger problem than female violence toward family members. Meanwhile, in Watson’s native England, activists from women’s organizations recently blamed the shortage of services for abused women on efforts to accommodate abused men (despite the fact that, as Guardian columnist and blogger Ally Fogg demonstrated, even the lowest estimates of the prevalence of domestic violence against men suggest that male victims are far less likely than women to get help).

Watson deserves credit for wanting to end the idea that “fighting for women’s rights [is] synonymous with man-hating.” But she cannot do that if she treats such notions only as unfair stereotypes. How about addressing this message to feminists who complain about being “asked to modify our language so we don’t hurt men’s feelings” when talking about misogyny — for instance, not to generalize about all men as oppressors? Or to those who argue that “Kill all men” mugs and “I bathe in male tears” T-shirts are a great way to celebrate women’s empowerment and separate the “cool dudes” who get the joke from the “dumb bros”? Or to those who accuse a feminist woman of “victim-blaming” for defending her son against a sexual assault accusation — even one of which he is eventually cleared?

Men must, indeed, “feel welcome to participate in the conversation” about gender issues. But very few will do so if that “conversation” amounts to being told to “shut up and listen” while women talk about the horrible things men do to women, and being labeled a misogynist for daring to point out that bad things happen to men too and that women are not always innocent victims in gender conflicts. A real conversation must let men talk not only about feminist-approved topics such as gender stereotypes that keep them from expressing their feelings, but about more controversial concerns: wrongful accusations of rape; sexual harassment policies that selectively penalize men for innocuous banter; lack of options to avoid unwanted parenthood once conception has occurred. Such a conversation would also acknowledge that pressures on men to be successful come not only from “the patriarchy” but, often, from women as well. And it would include an honest discussion of parenthood, including many women’s reluctance to give up or share the primary caregiver role.

It goes without saying that these are “First World problems.” In far too many countries around the world, women still lack basic rights and patriarchy remains very real (though it is worth noting that even in those places, men and boys often have to deal with gender-specific hardships, from forced recruitment into war to mass violence that singles out males). But in the industrial democracies of North America and Europe, the revolution in women’s rights over the past century has been a stunning success — and, while there is still work to be done, it must include the other side of that revolution. Not “he for she,” but “She and he for us.”

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sexual Assault

The CDC’s Rape Numbers Are Misleading

Obama Ebola
The entrance to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Oct. 8, 2013. David Goldman—AP

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Men reported being “made to penetrate” at virtually the same rates as women reported rape

CDC: Nearly 1 in 5 Women Raped.” “One in Five U.S. Women Has Been Raped: CDC Survey.” These alarming headlines were typical of the coverage of last week’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on sexual and intimate violence in the United States. The CDC study—the second in two years—seems to support a radical feminist narrative that has been gaining mainstream attention recently: that modern America is a “rape culture” saturated with misogynistic violence. But a closer look at the data, obtained from telephone surveys done in 2011, yields a far more complex picture and raises some surprising question about gender, victimization, and bias.

Both critics and supporters of the CDC’s methodology note the striking disparity between CDC figures and the Justice Department’s crime statistics based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (which includes crimes unreported to the police). While the CDC estimates that nearly 2 million adult American women were raped in 2011 and nearly 6.7 million suffered some other form of sexual violence, the NCVS estimate for that year was 238,000 rapes and sexual assaults.

New Republic reporter Claire Groden points out that while the NCVS focuses on criminal acts, the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey asks about instances of forced sex which respondents may or may not regard as crimes. Yet it is worth noting that in the early 1990s, the NCVS was redesigned to elicit more reports of sexual and domestic violence that may not fit the conventional mold of criminal attacks. In addition to being asked directly about rape, attempted rape or sexual assault, respondents now get a follow-up question about “forced or unwanted sexual acts” committed by a stranger, a casual acquaintance, or someone they know well.

The CDC study goes much further in asking about specific unwanted acts. But there are other important differences. For one, CDC survey respondents are not asked whether anyone has used physical force or threats to make them engage in a sexual activity, but “how many” people have done this (in their lifetime and in the past year). This wording removes the extra hurdle of admitting that such a violation has happened, and thus encourages more reporting. But could it also create “false positives” by nudging people toward the assumption that the default answer is affirmative—especially when preceded by a battery of other questions and statements about sexually coercive behavior?

A much bigger problem is the wording of the question measuring “incapacitated rape” (which accounted for nearly two-thirds of the CDC’s estimate of rapes that occurred in the past year). Respondents were asked about sexual acts that happened when they were “drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.” This seems to imply that “unable to consent” is only one of the variables and to include situations in which a person is intoxicated—perhaps enough to have impaired judgment—but not incapacitated as the legal definition of rape requires.

A CDC spokesperson told The New Republic that “being unable to consent is key to the CDC’s definition of rape.” Presumably, this is conveyed by the introduction to the question about alcohol- and drug-enabled rape: “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.” However, in a telephone survey, some people may focus only on the question itself and let the introduction slide by.

Moreover, the introductory message ends with an advisory that may create more confusion: “Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault.” Obviously, the intended point is that even if you got drunk, you’re not to blame for being raped. But this vaguely phrased reminder could also be taken to mean that it’s not your fault if you do something stupid while drunk or on drugs. At no point are respondents given any instructions that could result in fewer reports of alleged victimization: for instance, that they should not include instances in which they had voluntary sex while drunk but not incapacitated.

For many feminists, questioning claims of rampant sexual violence in our society amounts to misogynist “rape denial.” However, if the CDC figures are to be taken at face value, then we must also conclude that, far from being a product of patriarchal violence against women, “rape culture” is a two-way street, with plenty of female perpetrators and male victims.

How could that be? After all, very few men in the CDC study were classified as victims of rape: 1.7 percent in their lifetime, and too few for a reliable estimate in the past year. But these numbers refer only to men who have been forced into anal sex or made to perform oral sex on another male. Nearly 7 percent of men, however, reported that at some point in their lives, they were “made to penetrate” another person—usually in reference to vaginal intercourse, receiving oral sex, or performing oral sex on a woman. This was not classified as rape, but as “other sexual violence.”

And now the real surprise: when asked about experiences in the last 12 months, men reported being “made to penetrate”—either by physical force or due to intoxication—at virtually the same rates as women reported rape (both 1.1 percent in 2010, and 1.7 and 1.6 respectively in 2011).

In other words, if being made to penetrate someone was counted as rape—and why shouldn’t it be?—then the headlines could have focused on a truly sensational CDC finding: that women rape men as often as men rape women.

The CDC also reports that men account for over a third of those experiencing another form of sexual violence—“sexual coercion.” That was defined as being pressured into sexual activity by psychological means: lies or false promises, threats to end a relationship or spread negative gossip, or “making repeated requests” for sex and expressing unhappiness at being turned down.

Should we, then, regard sexual violence as a reciprocal problem? Getting away from the simplistic and adversarial “war against women” model is undoubtedly a positive step, as is admitting that women are human beings with the capacity for aggression and wrongdoing—including sexual assault. On the other hand, most of us would agree that to equate a victim of violent rape and a man who engages in a drunken sexual act he wouldn’t have chosen when sober is to trivialize a terrible crime. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of the CDC’s male respondents who were “made to penetrate” someone would not call themselves rape victims—and with good reason.

But if that’s the case, it is just as misleading to equate a woman’s experience of alcohol-addled sex with the experience of a rape victim who is either physically overpowered or attacked when genuinely incapacitated. For purely biological reasons, there is little doubt that adult victims of such crimes are mostly female—though male children and adolescents are at fairly high risk: as criminologists Richard Felson and Patrick Cundiff report in a fascinating recent analysis, a 15-year-old male is considerably more likely to be sexually assaulted than a woman over 40. The CDC reports that 12.3 percent of female victims were 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization; for male victims, that number is 27.8 percent.

We must either start treating sexual assault as a gender-neutral issue or stop using the CDC’s inflated statistics. Few would deny that sex crimes in America are a real, serious, and tragic problem. But studies of sexual violence should use accurate and clear definitions of rape and sexual assault, rather than lump these criminal acts together with a wide range of unsavory but non-criminal scenarios of men—and women—behaving badly.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Campus Rape: The Problem With ‘Yes Means Yes’

New students at San Diego State University watch a video on sexual consent during an orientation meeting, Aug. 1, 2014, in San Diego.
New students at San Diego State University watch a video on sexual consent during an orientation meeting, Aug. 1, 2014, in San Diego. Gregory Bull—AP

Having the government dictate how people should behave in sexual encounters is a terrible idea

The campus crusade against rape has achieved a major victory in California with the passage of a so-called “Yes means yes” law. Unanimously approved by the state Senate yesterday after a 52-16 vote in the assembly on Monday, SB967 requires colleges and universities to evaluate disciplinary charges of sexual assault under an “affirmative consent” standard as a condition of qualifying for state funds. The bill’s supporters praise it as an important step in preventing sexual violence on campus. In fact, it is very unlikely to deter predators or protect victims. Instead, its effect will be to codify vague and capricious rules governing student conduct, to shift the burden of proof to (usually male) students accused of sexual offenses, and to create a disturbing precedent for government regulation of consensual sex.

No sane person would quarrel with the principle that sex without consent is rape and should be severely punished. But while sexual consent is widely defined as the absence of a “no” (except in cases of incapacitation), anti-rape activists and many feminists have long argued that this definition needs to shift toward an active “yes.” Or, as the California bill puts it:

“Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. … Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.

The law’s defenders, such as feminist writer Amanda Hess, dismiss as hyperbole claims that it would turn people into unwitting rapists every time they have sex without obtaining an explicit “yes” (or, better yet, a notarized signature) from their partner. Hess points out that consent can include nonverbal cues such as body language. Indeed, the warning that “relying solely on nonverbal communication can lead to misunderstanding,” included in the initial draft of the bill, was dropped from later versions. Yet even after those revisions, one of the bill’s co-authors, Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that the affirmative consent standard means a person “must say ‘yes.’ ”

Nonverbal cues indicating consent are almost certainly present in most consensual sexual encounters. But as a legal standard, nonverbal affirmative consent leaves campus tribunals in the position of trying to answer murky and confusing questions — for instance, whether a passionate response to a kiss was just a kiss, or an expression of “voluntary agreement” to have sexual intercourse. Faced with such ambiguities, administrators are likely to err on the side of caution and treat only explicit verbal agreement as sufficient proof of consent. In fact, many affirmative-consent-based student codes of sexual conduct today either discourage reliance on nonverbal communication as leaving too much room for mistakes (among them California’s Occidental College and North Carolina’s Duke University) or explicitly require asking for and obtaining verbal consent (the University of Houston). At Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, nonverbal communication is allowed but a verbal request for consent absolutely requires a verbal response: If you ask, “Do you want this?”, you may not infer consent from the mere fact that your partner pulls you down on the bed and moves to take off your clothes.

Meanwhile, workshops and other activities promoting the idea that one must “ask first and ask often” and that sex without verbal agreement is rape have proliferated on college campuses.

The consent evangelists often admit that discussing consent is widely seen as awkward and likely to kill the mood — though they seem to assume that the problem can be resolved if you just keep repeating that such verbal exchanges can be “hot,” “cool,” and “creative.” It’s not that talk during a sexual encounter is inherently a turn-off — far from it. But there’s a big difference between sexy banter or endearments, and mandatory checks to confirm you aren’t assaulting your partner (especially when you’re told that such checks must be conducted “in an ongoing manner”). Most people prefer spontaneous give-and-take and even some mystery, however old-fashioned that may sound; sex therapists will also tell you that good sex requires “letting go” of self-consciousness. When ThinkProgress.com columnist Tara Culp-Ressler writes approvingly that under affirmative consent “both partners are required to pay more attention to whether they’re feeling enthusiastic about the sexual experience they’re having,” it sounds more like a prescription for overthinking.

Of course anyone who believes that verbal communication about consent is essential to healthy sexual relationships can preach that message to others. The problem is that advocates of affirmative consent don’t rely simply on persuasion but on guilt-tripping (one handout stresses that verbal communication is “worth the risk of embarrassment or awkwardness” since the alternative is the risk of sexual assault) and, more importantly, on the threat of sanctions.

Until now, these sanctions have been voluntarily adopted by colleges; SB-967 gives them the backing of a government mandate. In addition to creating a vaguely and subjectively defined offense of nonconsensual sex, the bill also explicitly places the burden of proof on the accused, who must demonstrate that he (or she) took “reasonable steps … to ascertain whether the complainant affirmatively consented.” When the San Gabriel Valley Tribune asked Lowenthal how an innocent person could prove consent under such a standard, her reply was, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Meanwhile, Culp-Ressler reassures her readers that passionate trysts without explicit agreement “aren’t necessarily breaches of an affirmative consent standard,” since, “if both partners were enthusiastic about the sexual encounter, there will be no reason for anyone to report a rape later.” But it’s not always that simple. One of the partners could start feeling ambivalent about an encounter after the fact and reinterpret it as coerced — especially after repeatedly hearing the message that only a clear “yes” constitutes real consent. In essence, advocates of affirmative consent are admitting that they’re not sure what constitutes a violation; they are asking people to trust that the system won’t be abused. This is not how the rule of law works.

This is not a matter of criminal trials, and suspension or even expulsion from college is not the same as going to prison. Nonetheless, having the government codify a standard that may implicitly criminalize most human sexual interaction is a very bad idea.

Such rules are unlikely to protect anyone from sexual assault. The activists often cite a scenario in which a woman submits without saying no because she is paralyzed by fear. Yet the perpetrator in such a case is very likely to be a sexual predator, not a clueless guy making an innocent mistake — and there is nothing to stop him from lying and claiming that he obtained explicit consent. As for sex with an incapacitated victim, it is already not only a violation of college codes of conduct but a felony.

Many feminists say that affirmative consent is not about getting permission but about making sure sexual encounters are based on mutual desire and enthusiasm. No one could oppose such a goal. But having the government dictate how people should behave in sexual encounters is hardly the way to go about it.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

TIME feminism

Stop Fem-Splaining: What ‘Women Against Feminism’ Gets Right

Young woman using laptop on bed
Getty Images

The charge that feminism stereotypes men as predators while reducing women to helpless victims certainly doesn’t apply to all feminists — but it’s a reasonably fair description of a large, influential, highly visible segment of modern feminism

The latest skirmish on the gender battlefield is “Women Against Feminism”: women and girls taking to social media to declare that they don’t need or want feminism, usually via photos of themselves with handwritten placards. The feminist reaction has ranged from mockery to dismay to somewhat patronizing (or should that be “matronizing”?) lectures on why these dissidents are wrong. But, while the anti-feminist rebellion has its eye-rolling moments, it raises valid questions about the state of Western feminism in the 21st century — questions that must be addressed if we are to continue making progress toward real gender equality.

Female anti-feminism is nothing new. In the 19th century, plenty of women were hostile to the women’s movement and to women who pursued nontraditional paths. In the 1970s, Marabel Morgan’s regressive manifesto The Total Woman was a top best seller, and Phyllis Schlafly led opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. But such anti-feminism was invariably about defending women’s traditional roles. Some of today’s “women against feminism” fit that mold: they feel that feminism demeans stay-at-home mothers, or that being a “true woman” means loving to cook and clean for your man. Many others, however, say they repudiate feminism even though — indeed, because — they support equality and female empowerment:

“I don’t need feminism because I believe in equality, not entitlements and supremacy.”

“I don’t need feminism because it reinforces the men as agents/women as victims dichotomy.”

“I do not need modern feminism because it has become confused with misandry which is as bad as misogyny, and whatever I want to do or be in life, I will become through my own hard work.”

Or, more than once: “I don’t need feminism because egalitarianism is better!”

Again and again, the dissenters say that feminism belittles and demonizes men, treating them as presumptive rapists while encouraging women to see themselves as victims. “I am not a victim” and “I can take responsibility for my actions” are recurring themes. Many also challenge the notion that American women in the 21st century are “oppressed,” defiantly asserting that “the patriarchy doesn’t exist” and “there is no rape culture.”

One common response from feminists is to say that Women Against Feminism “don’t understand what feminism is” and to invoke its dictionary definition: “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” The new anti-feminists have a rejoinder for that, too: they’re judging modern feminism by its actions, not by the book. And here, they have a point.

Consider the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag, dubbed by one blogger “the Arab Spring of 21st century feminism.” Created in response to Elliot Rodger’s deadly shooting spree in Isla Vista, Calif. — and to reminders that “not all men” are violent misogynists — the tag was a relentless catalog of female victimization by male terrorism and abuse. Some of its most popular tweets seemed to literally dehumanize men, comparing them to sharks or M&M candies of which 10% are poisoned.

Consider assertions that men as a group must be taught “not to rape,” or that to accord the presumption of innocence to a man accused of sexual violence against a woman or girl is to be complicit in “rape culture.” Consider that last year, when an Ohio University student made a rape complaint after getting caught on video engaging in a drunken public sex act, she was championed by campus activists and at least one prominent feminist blogger — but a grand jury declined to hand down charges after reviewing the video of the incident and evidence that both students were inebriated.

Consider that a prominent British feminist writer, Laurie Penny, decries the notion that feminists should avoid such generalizations as “men oppress women”; in her view, all men are steeped in a woman-hating culture and “even the sweetest, gentlest man” benefits from women’s oppression. Consider, too, that an extended quote from Penny’s column was reposted by a mainstream reproductive-rights group and shared by nearly 84,000 Tumblr users in six months.

Sure, some Women Against Feminism claims are caricatures based on fringe views — for instance, that feminism mandates hairy armpits, or that feminists regard all heterosexual intercourse as rape. On the other hand, the charge that feminism stereotypes men as predators while reducing women to helpless victims certainly doesn’t apply to all feminists — but it’s a reasonably fair description of a large, influential, highly visible segment of modern feminism.

Are Women Against Feminism ignorant and naive to insist they are not oppressed? Perhaps some are too giddy with youthful optimism. But they make a strong argument that a “patriarchy” that lets women vote, work, attend college, get divorced, run for political office and own businesses on the same terms as men isn’t quite living up to its label. They also raise valid questions about politicizing personal violence along gender lines; research shows that surprisingly high numbers of men may have been raped, sometimes by women.

For the most part, Women Against Feminism are quite willing to acknowledge and credit feminism’s past battles for women’s rights in the West, as well as the severe oppression women still suffer in many parts of the world. But they also say that modern Western feminism has become a divisive and sometimes hateful force, a movement that dramatically exaggerates female woes while ignoring men’s problems, stifles dissenting views, and dwells obsessively on men’s misbehavior and women’s personal wrongs. These are trends about which feminists have voiced alarm in the past — including the movement’s founding mother Betty Friedan, who tried in the 1970s to steer feminism from the path of what she called “sex/class warfare.” Friedan would have been aghast had she known that, 50 years after she began her battle, feminist energies were being spent on bashing men who commit the heinous crime of taking too much space on the subway.

Is there still a place in modern-day America for a gender-equality movement? I think so. Work-family balance remains a real and complicated challenge. And there are gender-based cultural biases and pressures that still exist — though, in 21st century Western countries, they almost certainly affect men as much as women. A true equality movement would be concerned with the needs and interests of both sexes. It would, for instance, advocate for all victims of domestic and sexual violence regardless of gender — and for fairness to those accused of these offenses. It would support both women and men as workers and as parents.

Should such a movement take back feminism — or, as the new egalitarians suggest, give up on the label altogether because of its inherent connotations of advocating for women only? I’m not sure what the answer is. But Women Against Feminism are asking the right questions. And they deserve to be heard, not harangued. As one of the group’s graphics says, “I have my own mind. Please stop fem-splaining it to me.”

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

TIME society

The Surprising Truth About Women and Violence

France v United States
Goalkeeper Hope Solo takes her position in goal during the second half of a women's friendly soccer match against France on June 14, 2014 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Brian Blanco—Getty Images

Traditional stereotypes have led to double standards that often cause women’s violence—especially against men—to be trivialized.

The arrest of an Olympic gold medalist on charges of domestic violence would normally be an occasion for a soul-searching conversation about machismo in sports, toxic masculinity and violence against women. But not when the alleged offender is a woman: 32-year-old Hope Solo, goalkeeper of the U.S. women’s soccer team, who is facing charges of assaulting her sister and 17-year-old nephew in a drunken, violent outburst. While the outcome of the case is far from clear, this is an occasion for conversation about a rarely acknowledged fact: family violence is not necessarily a gender issue, and women—like singer Beyoncé Knowles’ sister Solange, who attacked her brother-in-law, the rapper Jay Z, in a notorious recent incident caught on video—are not always its innocent victims.

Male violence against women and girls has been the focus of heightened attention since Eliot Rodger’s horrific rampage in California last month, driven at least partly by his rage at women. Many people argue that even far less extreme forms of gender-related violence are both a product and a weapon of deeply ingrained cultural misogyny. Meanwhile, the men’s rights activists also brought into the spotlight by Rodger’s killing spree defend another perspective—one that, in this case, is backed by a surprising amount of evidence from both research and current events: that violence is best understood as a human problem whose gender dynamics are much more complex than commonly understood.

There is little dispute that men commit far more violent acts than women. According to FBI data on crime in the U.S., they account for some 90% of known murderers. And a study published in American Society of Criminology finds that men account for nearly 80% of all violent offenders reported in crime surveys, despite a substantial narrowing of the gap since the 1970s. But, whatever explains the higher levels of male violence—biology, culture or both—the indisputable fact is that it’s directed primarily at other males: in 2010, men were the victims in almost four out of five homicides and almost two-thirds of robberies and non-domestic aggravated assaults. Family and intimate relationships—the one area feminists often identify as a key battleground in the war on women—are also an area in which women are most likely to be violent, and not just in response to male aggression but toward children, elders, female relatives or partners, and non-violent men, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Violence.

Last April, when Connecticut high school student Maren Sanchez was stabbed to death by her a classmate allegedly because she refused to go to the prom with him, feminist writer Soraya Chemaly asserted that such tragedies were the result of “pervasive, violently maintained, gender hierarchy,” male entitlement, and societal “contempt for the lives of girls and women.” But what, then, explains another stabbing death in Connecticut two months earlier—that of 25-year-old David Vazquez, whose girlfriend reportedly shouted, “If I can’t have you, no one can!” before plunging a knife into his chest shortly after Vazquez said he was leaving her for a former girlfriend? Or the actions of a 22-year-old former student at New York’s Hofstra University who pleaded guilty last November to killing her boyfriend by deliberately hitting him with her car due to a dispute about another woman? Or the actions of the Florida woman who killed her ex-partner’s 2-year-old daughter and tried to kill the woman’s 10-year-old son last month shortly after their breakup?

Research showing that women are often aggressors in domestic violence has been causing controversy for almost 40 years, ever since the 1975 National Family Violence Survey by sociologists Murray Straus and Richard Gelles of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire found that women were just as likely as men to report hitting a spouse and men were just as likely as women to report getting hit. The researchers initially assumed that, at least in cases of mutual violence, the women were defending themselves or retaliating. But when subsequent surveys asked who struck first, it turned out that women were as likely as men to initiate violence—a finding confirmed by more than 200 studies of intimate violence. In a 2010 review essay in the journal Partner Abuse, Straus concludes that women’s motives for domestic violence are often similar to men’s, ranging from anger to coercive control.

Critics have argued that the survey format used in most family violence studies, the Conflict Tactics Scale, is flawed and likely to miss some of the worst assaults on women—especially post-separation attacks. Yet two major studies using a different methodology—the 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey published last February—have also found that some 40% of those reporting serious partner violence in the past year are men. (Both studies show a much larger gender gap in lifetime reports of partner violence; one possible explanation for this discrepancy is that men may be more likely to let such experiences fade from memory over time since they have less cultural support for seeing themselves as victims, particularly of female violence.)

Violence by women causes less harm due to obvious differences in size and strength, but it is by no means harmless. Women may use weapons, from knives to household objects—including highly dangerous ones such as boiling water—to neutralize their disadvantage, and men may be held back by cultural prohibitions on using force toward a woman even in self-defense. In his 2010 review, Straus concludes that in various studies, men account for 12% to 40% of those injured in heterosexual couple violence. Men also make up about 30% of intimate homicide victims—not counting cases in which women kill in self-defense. And women are at least as likely as men to kill their children—more so if one counts killings of newborns—and account for more than half of child maltreatment perpetrators.

What about same-sex violence? The February CDC study found that, over their lifetime, 44% of lesbians had been physically assaulted by a partner (more than two-thirds of them only by women), compared to 35% of straight women, 26% of gay men, and 29% of straight men. While these figures suggest that women are somewhat less likely than men to commit partner violence, they also show a fairly small gap. The findings are consistent with other evidence that same-sex relationships are no less violent than heterosexual ones.

For the most part, feminists’ reactions to reports of female violence toward men have ranged from dismissal to outright hostility. Straus chronicles a troubling history of attempts to suppress research on the subject, including intimidation of heretical scholars of both sexes and tendentious interpretation of the data to portray women’s violence as defensive. In the early 1990s, when laws mandating arrest in domestic violence resulted in a spike of dual arrests and arrests of women, battered women’s advocates complained that the laws were “backfiring on victims,” claiming that women were being punished for lashing back at their abusers. Several years ago in Maryland, the director and several staffers of a local domestic violence crisis center walked out of a meeting in protest of the showing of a news segment about male victims of family violence. Women who have written about female violence, such as Patricia Pearson, author of the 1997 book When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence, have often been accused of colluding with an anti-female backlash.

But this woman-as-victim bias is at odds with the feminist emphasis on equality of the sexes. If we want our culture to recognize women’s capacity for leadership and competition, it is hypocritical to deny or downplay women’s capacity for aggression and even evil. We cannot argue that biology should not keep women from being soldiers while treating women as fragile and harmless in domestic battles. Traditional stereotypes both of female weakness and female innocence have led to double standards that often cause women’s violence—especially against men—to be trivialized, excused, or even (like Solange’s assault on Jay Z) treated as humorous. Today, simplistic feminist assumptions about male power and female oppression effectively perpetuate those stereotypes. It is time to see women as fully human—which includes the dark side of humanity.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

TIME Education

Guilty Until Proven Innocent: The Skewed White House Crusade on Sexual Assault

Vice President Biden Speaks On White House Task Force To Protect Students From Sexual Assault
U.S Vice President Joe Biden listens as Madeleine Smith, a graduate of Harvard University who was raped while attending college, speaks during an event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, April 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. During the event, Biden announced the release of the first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Win McNamee—Getty Images

What's missing is virtually any recognition of the need for fairness to the accused.

Last year, a University of North Carolina student who remained anonymous for safety reasons spoke to the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, about feeling victimized by the school’s response to a sexual assault report—the handling of which is now the target of a federal civil rights investigation.

But there’s a twist: The student is a man who says he was wrongly accused.

It doesn’t help that at many colleges, a zealous cadre of activists regards any rape exoneration as a defeat and defines rape so broadly as to criminalize insufficiently enthusiastic sex.During his freshman year, four months after their breakup, his former girlfriend—a fellow UNC student he had started dating in high school—filed a complaint alleging repeated rapes. The student was promptly suspendedand forced to undergo an evaluation that included demeaning sexual questions; the results, he claims, were improperly shared with his accuser. Even after a student and faculty panel of three women and two men cleared him of all charges except one of verbal abuse, he was barred from campus for another semester pending additional psychological tests, then ordered to avoid classes that could place him near his ex-girlfriend.

Of course, the federal probe—one of the 55 cases on the list just released by the Department of Education—addresses the complaint by the alleged victim, Landen Gambill, who feels the university let her down. No one but Gambill and her ex-boyfriend knows what really happened (and there may be a “his” and “her” version of the truth). But only one side of the story has the government’s backing—which highlights some of the problems with the Obama Administration’s initiative against sexual violence on college campuses.

The administration’s effort, which made headlines last week with a report by the White House task force on campus sexual assault and new Department of Education guidelines, has an indisputably noble goal. Unfortunately, it is marred by flaws, including alarmist statistics, fuzzy definitions and a polarizing ideology of presumed guilt.

One of the foundations of this crusade is the staggering claim that one in five female students are sexually assaulted while in college. This figure comes from the 2005-2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, which, as Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler has noted, was conducted at just two schools, with a fairly low response rate. Moreover, the survey’s data for “drug- and/or alcohol-enabled sexual assault” (about 70% of the incidents in the study) lump together unconsciousness or incapacitation with intoxication that may cloud one’s judgment and affect consent. Notably, despite widespread sexual assault awareness programs, two-thirds of the college women whom the study counted as victims of drug- or alcohol-enabled rape did not think they were raped, and few felt they had suffered psychological harm.

University of Michigan economist Mark Perry also points out that, if you take police records from university campuses and factor in the White House estimate that only about 12% of campus sexual offenses are reported, you don’t get anywhere near a one-in-five victimization rate over the course of a woman’s college attendance—more like 1 in 20 or 1 in 30.

Even in smaller numbers, sexual assault on campus is a cause for concern. But the government’s quest to address it creates new troubling issues.

Thus, since 2011, the Department of Education has recommended that colleges use the lowest burden of proof—“preponderance of the evidence,” which means a finding of guilt if one feels the evidence tips even slightly toward the complainant—in disciplinary proceedings on sexual assault. (Traditionally, charges of student misconduct have been judged by the higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence.”) The new guidelines make this a requirement; they also encourage “juries” with no student participation and even a shift to a single-investigator process.

Missing is virtually any recognition of the need for fairness to the accused. The recent White House Council on Women and Girls report on sexual assault dismisses false accusations as a “myth,” citing a 2010 article by University of Massachusetts Boston psychologist David Lisak that concluded that “only 2-10% of reported rapes are false.” Yet a 10% error rate is hardly trivial. This estimate also refers only to proven fabrications; no one knows how many unresolved charges, nearly half of Lisak’s university sample, may be false. And people may be wrongly accused because of confusion rather than deliberate lies—especially when drinking is involved.

It doesn’t help that at many colleges, a zealous cadre of activists regards any rape exoneration as a defeat and defines rape so broadly as to criminalize insufficiently enthusiastic sex. (A campus campaign in Canada warns that “if it’s not loud and clear, it’s not consent. It’s sexual assault,” using posters with “fine” and “okay” in tiny print to convey that “muted” or “uncertain” expression of consent doesn’t count.)

Do see-no-evil college bureaucrats sometimes discourage victims from complaining or coddle perpetrators? No doubt, especially if the accused is a star athlete or another privileged student. But some claims of neglect may be shaky. An accuser at Swarthmore who faults the school for not supporting her complaint admits that, after rebuffing a former hook-up partner’s first attempt to initiate sex while staying in her room overnight, she did not protest when he tried again because she was tired and sleepy. In a University of Colorado case under federal investigation, the complainant was outraged by the light punishment for her alleged assailant (eight months’ suspension and a $75 fine). Yet her complaint to law enforcement resulted in no charges at all; according to police, the woman admitted she was inebriated but “not ‘blackout drunk’” during the encounter, which the man insisted was consensual.

Meanwhile, there is a countertrend of civil rights suits from young men accusing colleges of wrongful, gender-biased expulsion on charges of sexual misconduct. Last month, Xavier University settled a lawsuit from basketball player Dez Wells, whose expulsion in 2012—on a charge local authorities called false—may have been meant to appease federal scrutiny. Even a prominent advocate for strong action against campus sexual assault, National Center for Higher Education Risk Management founder Brett Sokolow, has recently voiced alarm that schools are rushing to judge male students for mutual drunken hook-ups.

The administration’s one-sided involvement may exacerbate this type of injustice. A far better solution would be to draw a clear line between forced sex (by violence, threats or incapacitation) and unwanted sex due to alcohol-impaired judgment, miscommunication or verbal pressure. For the former, victims should be encouraged to seek real justice: a rapist deserves prison, not expulsion from college. For the latter, the answer is to promote mutual responsible behavior, not female victimhood.

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