The Problem With the Backlash to the Game of Thrones Rape Scene

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan—HBO Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Awareness should not turn into obsessive hyper-vigilance

Those incensed by the fictional rape of Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones Sunday night include not only critics and ordinary viewers speaking out in social media, but at least one national politician: Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, slammed it as “disgusting” and “unacceptable” and said she was “done” with the show. The feminist “geek culture” website The Mary Sue also declared Sansa’s rape the last straw and pulled the plug on Game of Thrones promotion.

This is the latest in a series of controversies over the treatment of female characters onscreen. Television and film director Joss Whedon recently left Twitter after a furious backlash against the portrayal of action heroine Natasha “The Black Widow” Romanoff in the latest Avengers movie (while Whedon denied that his departure was related to the attacks, its timing seemed more than coincidence). Gender issues in popular culture are a valid topic of discussion, and feminist discourse can be a corrective to sexist cultural clichés; but when such discourse becomes one-sided and driven by knee-jerk outrage, it can turn into an ideological diktat that is bad for art and bad for gender fairness.

The Sansa rape backlash is particularly odd for several reasons, including the insistence on a dichotomy between the “good” books on which the show is based—A Song of Ice and Fire, the multivolume epic by George R.R. Martin that has acquired a “cool” cachet in progressive circles—and the “bad” HBO show, said to have perverted the books into a misogyny-fest. In fact, the books have received their share of feminist criticism for their extremely high sexual violence quotient, despite having a large array of important, interesting, active female characters.

True, Sansa’s wedding-night rape by ultravillain Ramsay Bolton does not happen in the novels, where Sansa’s storyline unfolds quite differently and Ramsay’s wretched wife is Sansa’s ex-friend Jeyne, a steward’s daughter passed off to the Boltons as Sansa’s sister Arya. But the sadism visited on Jeyne in the fifth book of Martin’s series, A Dance with Dragons, was far more graphic than Sansa’s rape in the episode. What’s more, while Sansa’s ordeal is the focus of drama on the show, the book’s Jeyne was a minor figure whose sexual torture was important solely for its impact on a male character—Ramsay’s debased captive Theon Greyjoy.

The books have other elements that some readers see as tinged with misogyny: repeated rape threats and sexually humiliating comments directed at female knight Brienne of Tarth (minimized on the show); a scene in which an emotionally wrecked Tyrion Lannister—unlike Ramsay, a sympathetic protagonist—has an abusive sexual encounter with a prostitute. (The show’s Tyrion refuses a prostitute’s services.)

Meanwhile, the HBO version ups the books’ sexual sadism toward male characters. Theon’s emasculation by Ramsay was only hinted at in A Dance with Dragons. On the show, it happened practically onscreen—and was preceded by a scene in which Theon was sexually coerced by two female minions of Ramsay’s (after a near-rape by male Bolton soldiers). In another made-for-TV addition in Season 3, a young male character, Gendry, was sexually assaulted by creepy priestess Melisandre—and no one complained.

The contrast between the outrage on behalf of female victims and the blasé attitude toward violence (even sexual violence) toward males ironically replicates a quintessentially patriarchal trope: the assumption that women are fragile creatures who deserve special protection and greater sympathy if they are mistreated.

Other recent blow-ups over alleged creative sins against female characters have been even more misguided. The backlash against Whedon was sparked by a scene in The Avengers in which Natasha told Bruce Banner (the Hulk) about her anguish over being involuntarily sterilized during her training as an super-assassin by a Russian spy agency. Since the dialogue had Natasha telling the Hulk, “You’re not the only monster on the team,” this was interpreted as implying that infertile women are monsters. Whedon was also skewered for supposedly suggesting that motherhood is a woman’s only true calling, and a woman incapable of childbearing, no matter how heroic, will never feel complete. (Never mind that, as some viewers pointed out, Bruce seemed to be more devastated than Natasha by his own inability to have kids.) The Twitter response included death threats and charges of misogyny.

And sometimes, it seems that female characters’ storylines are a no-win proposition. The Mad Men finale was assailed as a “betrayal” of one of the show’s main female characters, Peggy Olson—who rises from humble secretary to successful copywriter and advertising industry rising star—because, after a series of romantic failures, she unexpectedly finds love with co-worker Stan Rizzo. “She shouldn’t need a man to make her feel whole,” carped one critic. Of course, had Peggy been single at the end of the series, someone would have criticized the Mad Men crew for sending the message that the price of career success for a woman is ending up alone.

Should we disregard sexism in entertainment? No, of course not. But awareness should not turn into obsessive hyper-vigilance, or selective (that is, sexist) concern with the pain and suffering of female characters. On a related note, we should be able to criticize the trend toward over-the-top sexploitation and grisly violence on cable TV—and the unfortunate tendency to equate such fare with “adult” storytelling—without turning it into an issue of men versus women.

Each of us can choose to stop watching if we find the violence too exploitative, sadistic, or dehumanizing. (For what it’s worth, I know people who stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire for that very reason—a choice I respect, even if I haven’t made it for myself.) But let’s go easy on outrage campaigns and blanket condemnations. For all its flaws, Game of Thrones has greatly enriched our gallery of memorable television heroines. I’m willing to stick around and see where the story takes them.

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 History

Putin’s Russia Has To Deal With the Legacy of World War II

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

The Soviet Union’s Victory Day, May 9, was the one Soviet holiday that belonged to everyone

Having spent my first 16 years in the Soviet Union, I grew up hearing very little about World War II and a great deal about the “Great Patriotic War”—the German invasion in June 1941 and the four-year “sacred war” that followed. The war was a centerpiece of official propaganda; but it was also a living collective memory of hardship, loss, and survival. The Soviet Union’s Victory Day, May 9, was the one Soviet holiday that belonged to everyone, even to people like my parents and grandparents who quietly hated the Soviet regime. Now, on the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat, the war and the victory are a legacy that seem to divide far more than they unite—a subject of often bitter contention between Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbors, between Russia and the West, and between Kremlin-loyal “patriots” and pro-Western liberals within Russia.

Of course, the legacy of the war was never simple. In our history lessons in Soviet school, we heard about the very real heroism of Soviet men and women who fought in the Red army and in partisan guerilla units; but we did not learn that the Soviet leadership knowingly threw tens of thousands of barely trained, sometimes barely armed or fed draftees into the maw of the German war machine. We did not learn that the NKVD, Joseph Stalin’s secret police, and the dreaded military intelligence force SMERSH (an abbreviation for “death to spies”), had men marching behind regular forces ready to gun down anyone who tried to run or retreat. We were told about the perfidious German attack on the USSR—but the Soviet-German pact was glossed over, and there was no mention of the fact that Soviet troops and government officials in the path of the invasion initially fled in panicked disarray.

I learned about the other side of the Great Patriotic War from personal stories, from my parents, from clandestine foreign radio broadcasts and forbidden literature that found its way into our home. I learned that a family friend’s father was arrested and imprisoned in 1941 for “sabotaging morale” because, while listening to Stalin’s first post-invasion radio address among neighbors, he imprudently remarked that the Soviet leader’s voice sounded very sad. I learned that for millions, U.S. food aid had been essential to wartime survival. (My mother, who was five when the war started, still has fond memories of Spam.) I learned that many across the Soviet Union initially welcomed the Germans as liberators from Communism, and that most Soviet POWs bitterly fought repatriation after the war’s end—not surprisingly, since their homecoming usually ended in the gulag as punishment for the “treason” of letting themselves be captured alive.

Today, the war still haunts Russia and is, perhaps more than ever, at the center of a national mythology; but the war myth lives on in an unrecognizable world. Historical ironies abound. Who could have thought that, 70 years after the Soviet victory, a unified Germany would be a world power and the Soviet Union would be no more? Who could have imagined that in this anniversary year, the two largest former Soviet republics, Russia and Ukraine, would be at not-quite-declared war with each other—and that Germany would be the peace broker?

The disputed legacy of the war is entangled with the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In Kremlin propaganda today, the government in Kiev is routinely branded fascist or even pro-Nazi, a nest of banderovtsy—followers of Stepan Bandera, the controversial wartime Ukrainian nationalist who fought against Soviet rule and at one point allied himself with the Germans but was later imprisoned by them. Many pro-Kiev Ukrainians do, in fact, view Bandera as a hero who fought for his country’s liberation, which pro-Kremlin Russians gleefully point out as proof of Nazi sympathies. A year ago, the Russian media pounced on reports that the governor of Ukraine’s Kherson region gave a Victory Day speech hailing Hitler as a liberator from the Communist yoke. What the governor actually said was that a modern-day “aggressor”—Vladimir Putin—was seeking to encroach on Ukraine’s borders on the pretext of stopping the persecution of ethnic Russians, just as Hitler had once tried to use liberation from communism as justification for his conquests.

In Putin’s Russia, war commemorations increasingly feature tributes to the odious Stalin, a mass murderer of his own people who probably did more to lose the war than to win it: he near-fatally undermined Soviet defenses by wiping out much of the Soviet army’s officer corps in the purges of the late 1930s and ignored warnings of an imminent German attack. In my Soviet childhood, Stalin’s role in the war was barely mentioned. In recent years, Victory Day posters featuring Stalin have cropped up on billboards and buses, while television programs about have increasingly portrayed him as a wise military commander, minimizing his blunders or blaming them on his henchmen.

Debate about the war is still possible to a degree unthinkable in Soviet days; but this debate is more and more circumscribed. A dangerously vague law passed by the puppet parliament and signed by Putin last year threatens those deemed guilty of “denigrating” or “falsifying” Russia’s war history—for instance, arguing that the Soviet “liberation” of Eastern Europe was simply a different brand of subjugation—with heavy fines and up to five years’ imprisonment.

Overly pro-Western views of the war are frowned upon as well. The official Soviet and Russian narrative has always downplayed the role of the USSR’s British and American allies (if our history textbooks in school mentioned D-Day, it was a throwaway line); but today’s levels of officially cultivated hostility and paranoia may have reached an all-time high. A startlingly popular line of thought holds that England and the United States deliberately sabotaged a Russian-German alliance to preserve their geopolitical dominance. An April 23 article in the major pro-government newspaper Vzglyad (“Look”) argues that Germany’s “unification” of Europe and non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union “posed a mortal threat” to “the Anglo-Saxon project” until Hitler attacked the USSR—probably, the author insinuates, in exchange for some unspecified promises from London.

Meanwhile, Russia’s embattled liberals worry that the official Great Patriotic War cult is draining the life from genuine memories and emotions evoked by the war—and manipulating these emotions in the service of a new, domestic brand of fascism. A biting satirical poem by one of Russia’s preeminent modern writers, Dmitry Bykov, in the independent Novaya Gazeta offers a description of the Third Reich filled with in-your-face parallels to modern-day Russia: a leader hailed for reclaiming the nation’s historical lands and restoring its self-confidence; a lie-recycling state propaganda machine that targets Anglo-Saxons as the enemy; attacks on “national traitors” and on “degenerate art.” Pointing out the dismal fate of the Reich’s leaders, Bykov concludes his verse with a celebration of Victory—“the one that was, the one that’s still to come,/Though it is very, very far away.”

Putin’s Russia is not Hitler’s Germany; but the authoritarian nationalism it has embraced, with its peculiar mix of self-aggrandizement and grievance, is a danger to other nations and to itself. If this toxic ideology is to be exorcised, Russians will have to confront the complicated truths of their great war beyond the official myth.

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 Culture

Comics Like Batgirl Shouldn’t Require a ‘Good Feminist’ Seal of Approval

Batgirl Cover
DC Comics Variant cover for Batgirl #41 by Rafael Albuquerque

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

The answer is to spend less energy on policing and more on creating. More women, fewer litmus tests.

A backlash against a Batgirl comic book cover some perceived as sexually violent has caused the cover to be withdrawn — leading to a backlash against perceived censorship. Sexism in popular culture is a valid concern. But when feminist criticism becomes an outrage machine that chills creative expression, it’s bad for feminism and bad for female representation. Making artists, writers, filmmakers, and even audiences walk on eggshells for fear of committing thoughtcrime against womanhood is no way to encourage quality art or enjoyable entertainment — not to mention the creation of good female characters.

The controversial artwork, by Rafael Albuquerque, showed Joker smearing a bloody grin on Batgirl’s frightened face, his arm draped over her shoulder with a gun in his hand. This was an upcoming variant cover for an issue of the Batgirl comic, part of a series of Joker-themed comic covers for the iconic villain’s 75th anniversary. It was also an homage to The Killing Joke, a 1988 graphic novel in which Batgirl/Barbara Gordon is shot by the Joker (and stripped while unconscious) in a plot to drive her father, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, insane.

An online preview set off an angry reaction and generated a hashtag, #ChangeTheCover. Some objected to the image of Batgirl as a helpless victim; others slammed DC Comics for “glamorizing sexual assault.” (Many fans believe Barbara was raped by Joker in The Killing Joke, though the comic itself makes no reference to rape.) DC Comics and Albuquerque promptly announced that the cover was being pulled at the artist’s request.

While this is not “censorship,” Albuquerque’s choice was clearly made under pressure; his statement leaves no doubt that it was a painful decision. The cancellation has been defended on the grounds that the dark, grotesque cover does not match the upbeat tone of the new Batgirl comic books and is wrong for their target audience. Yet the Joker cover was a variant, not the standard version of the comic book issue; it would not have been foisted on any unwilling readers, only made available to customers who would have wanted it — mainly collectors and Joker fans. They no longer have that option.

Feminist culture critic Noah Berlatsky argues that the controversy reflects the changing, more female audience for comic books. But female fans are not a monolith. Some women have praised the cover, even insisting that it contains an inspirational message of survival and triumph: Comic book readers know the crippled Batgirl returns as Oracle, a hero with genius-level computer skills who is no longer a sidekick but Batman’s equal.

Berlatsky sees the disputed cover as the legacy of an era when women’s place in comic books was to provide “sexualized cannon fodder.” But that’s unfair to the cover, in which Batgirl isn’t particularly sexualized, and to comic books, which even in the pre-feminist past gave characters such as Batgirl, Catwoman, or Wonder Woman some opportunities for heroics and adventures of their own (though, admittedly, often treating them as inferior to male heroes). As for the present, the feminist pop culture website The Mary Sue cites several Joker-themed comic-book covers that feature strong-looking heroines. This is meant to show that the variant Batgirl cover could have been similar; however, one can just as easily conclude that women in comic books are faring quite well and won’t be demeaned by one edgy cover.

Indeed, objections to supposedly sexist cruelty toward female characters can look like a sexist plea for special protection for women — given how often male comic-book characters are subjected to shocking abuse. In The Killing Joke itself, Commissioner Gordon is stripped naked and chained to an amusement-park ride while forced to watch giant images of his wounded daughter. One storyline in which the Joker temporarily gained the power to shape reality had Batman being tortured, killed, and resurrected by his enemy day after day.

While critics of the Batgirl cover have argued that Batman and other male heroes would never be shown so powerless, others have readily found examples of such depictions — including one in which Batman is helpless at the hands of a female villain. Male heroes in peril may be far less likely to look fearful or distressed; but one may ask, as does Canadian entertainment journalist Liana Kerzner, if the answer is to expand the men’s range of allowed emotions rather than limit the range allowed for women.

Ultimately, what’s demeaning to women in fictional portrayals is often a matter of opinion. For instance, Batman soon recovered from a broken back while Batgirl remained a paraplegic for more than 20 years, until a recent relaunch. To some, this is a classic example of how female heroes are disempowered. To others, the fact that the disabled Barbara/Oracle managed to be an active crime-fighter using only her upper body — and her intelligence — made her not only more human but more heroic. Comic book writer Gail Simone, a strong critic of sexism in comic books, has said that she repeatedly fought against restoring Batgirl’s full mobility because of her inspirational value to people with disabilities.

Likewise, a strong and overtly sexual female character could be seen as pandering to the “male gaze” or as promoting female empowerment. Bayonetta, a videogame featuring a deliberately hypersexualized female super-fighter, has been denounced as sexist and exploitative by some feminists including media critic Anita Sarkeesian. On the other hand, feminist blogger Alyssa Rosenberg has published a guest post praising the game and its heroine, who “plows through the patriarchy like a wrecking ball” while having fun and flaunting her sexuality.

The worst message to send creators is that if your female character doesn’t get a Good Feminist seal of approval — if she shows too much weakness or too much sexuality, if she has too many stereotypical female qualities or too many “male” ones, if she suffers a failure or a harrowing ordeal, if she is shown in an overly disturbing situation — your work may be attacked as anti-woman. That’s a prescription for bland characters and dull stories.

Feminist critics make a strong case when they assert that there are still not enough female protagonists or major characters in popular culture and not enough good female-driven stories. The answer is to spend less energy on policing and more on creating. More women, fewer litmus tests.

Read next: The New Recipe for Women Entrepreneurs to Find Success

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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

A Better Feminism for 2015

Emma Watson United Nations Speech
Steve Sands—WireImage/Getty Images Emma Watson and Ban Ki-Moon attend the launch of the HeForShe Campaign at the United Nations in September of 2014 in New York.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Half of successful advocacy is knowing to pick one’s battles

Was 2014 the year feminism won the gender war, or jumped the shark? One could say it has had a pretty good year, with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Beyoncé Knowles and Emma Watson and with gender issues often dominating the news.

And yet all too often, the publicity backfired.

The campaign to nix the word “bossy” as a putdown of assertive girls was criticized and mocked not only by conservatives but by liberal and left-wing feminists. The #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag created in response to Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree and his YouTube rants about female rejection elicited a groundswell of sympathy for women’s stories of violence and sexism—but also unease from pro-feminist men and women who felt all males were being unjustly shamed. A social media group called Women Against Feminism sprung up, many of its members stressing that they were for equality but against male-bashing, gender warfare, and contempt for traditional choices. Even the movement to curb sexual assault on college campuses faltered late when diverse critics voiced concerns about the rights of the accused—while the unraveling of a sensational magazine account of fraternity rape exposed the troubling zealotry of advocates for whom believing rape claims is somewhat akin to a matter of religious faith.

Do we still need feminism in 2015 and beyond—and if so, what kind? Advocacy for women’s basic rights clearly remains an urgent issue in many places around the world. Even in the United States and other advanced democracies, a movement for gender equality still has valid issues to address. Here are a few guideposts to keep such a movement from turning irrelevant, toxic, or both.

Intellectual diversity is important; labels are not. Some leading feminists are so concerned with ideological purity that they fret over too many people embracing the term while failing various litmus tests. But supporting feminism, in its dictionary sense of the equality of the sexes, doesn’t bind you to any particular position on gun control, capitalism, or the environment. Even respectful dialogue with people who consider themselves pro-life feminists would benefit both sides.

Conversely, if some people are pro-equality but won’t call themselves feminists because of they don’t like the word’s connotations, chastising them or explaining why they are “really” feminists is unhelpful and arrogant. Feminists, humanists, egalitarians, even (gasp!) men’s rights activists—why not work with anyone who shares one’s overall goals? A gender equality movement can only have a future if it’s a big tent.

Equality should not mean that men and women must be identical in everything—it should mean treating people as individuals regardless of their gender. Too often, the debate about biology and gender pits dogmatic denial of any innate behavioral or psychological differences between the sexes against broad Mars-versus-Venus stereotypes and claims that traditional sex roles are nature’s way. It’s entirely possible that even absent any gender-specific social pressures, women would be much more likely to become full-time parents, nurses, or kindergarten teachers, while men would be much more likely to become CEOs, professional athletes, or engineers. But while many differences in personality traits and cognitive patterns may be innate, they are tendencies, not absolutes. Flexibility is part of human nature, too; and, just as many feminists exaggerate the role of socialization, many conservative critics of feminism underestimate the impact of cultural biases. We can work to reduce such biases and ensure that nontraditional choices are not stigmatized or discouraged—without demanding 50-50 parity in everything.

The other side of sexism must be recognized. Former Jezebel editor Lindy West has argued that such “men’s rights” problems as unequal treatment of fathers in family courts or bias against male domestic violence victims are rooted in patriarchy and that feminism is already addressing them. Unfortunately, facts say otherwise. On these and other issues, feminist activists and commentators have tended to side with women, oppose measures to help men, and promote women-as-victims, men-as-bad-guys narratives. Such double standards need to be confronted.

Despite protestations that feminism helps both sexes, West and many others also claim that our society systematically empowers and advantages men at women’s expense. This is a gross distortion of contemporary Western reality. Biases rooted in traditional norms affect both sexes (and are perpetuated by both sexes). Women may get less support for pursuing high-paying careers; men have less leeway to choose fulfilling but lower-paying work. Women may be unfairly stereotyped as weaker; men, as more violent. While British feminist writer Laurie Penny asserts that our culture “hates women,” researchers including feminist psychologist Alice Eagly find that if anything, both sexes view women more favorably than men.

The perception of pervasive, one-sided male power and advantage can create a disturbing blindness to injustices toward men—even potentially life-ruining ones such as false accusations of rape. A true equality movement should address all gender-based wrongs, not create new ones.

Justice knows no gender—and demands concern for both accuser and accused. There is a real history of legalized sexism toward women seeking recourse for sexual and domestic violence. But achieving justice in cases that hinge on conflicting and often ambiguous accounts is an extremely difficult balance. Choosing sides on the basis of gender is textbook sexism—and insisting that women are entitled to belief is a feminist version of the old-fashioned pedestal.

The personal is not always political. Men behaving badly to women in personal relationships—unless such behavior has social and institutional support—is not necessarily a gender issue. Neither gender has a monopoly on insensitivity, rudeness, manipulation, dishonesty, or entitlement. What’s more, policing relationships in the name of ideology—for instance, trying to dictate how people should express consent to sex—is always a bad idea. Let us by all means have a conversation on changing sexual norms; but this can be done without using coercion and penalties to enforce someone’s version of healthy interaction, or focusing almost exclusively on male mistreatment of women.

A narrative is only as good as its facts. From “women earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar for the same work” to “one in five college women are sexually assaulted by graduation,” a number of statistics commonly used by women’s advocates have withered under scrutiny. So have some recent tales of alleged misogynist infamy, such as the University of Virginia gang rape and cover-up or the supposedly sexist firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson. Too often, the feminist response to such debunkings has amounted to declarations that the big picture matters more than specific facts and figures. But the big picture had better be made up of accurate details. Campus rape certainly happens; so does workplace sexism. But addressing real problems requires solid research and reporting. We badly need more of both when it comes to gender issues.

Trivial pursuit is not the path to equity. Feminism is now battling the alleged scourge of men who take up too much space on public transit by spreading their legs? Not only is this selective male-shaming (social media users quickly noted that female riders are guilty of different-but-equal sins), it is also a comically petty grievance that could suggests the aggrieved have no real issues. Half of successful advocacy is knowing to pick one’s battles.

The biggest unfinished business of gender equality in the West is “work-life balance” and caregiving. This point was eloquently made by Judith Shulevitz in a recent New Republic debate on feminism’s future. Whatever role discrimination may play, childbearing has a major effect on gender disparities in career achievement. Even women who are satisfied with these trade-offs often feel the conflict acutely. But this tension is not just a women’s issue. In a Pew poll last year, almost as many working fathers as working mothers (50% versus 56%) said it was it difficult to balance work and parenthood. Overall, twice as many fathers as mothers—46% versus 23%—felt they spent too little time with their children.

Like many feminists, Shulevitz sees mainly government solutions. Others would counter that the flexibility and creativity of markets and civil society offer far better answers. But this is the kind of debate people should be having in the big tent of a true equality movement.

Could such a movement get its start in 2015? In the waning days of 2014, it looks like an idea whose time has come.


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 Media

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

UVa Fraternity
Ryan M. Kelly—AP 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.

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.
AP 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.

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
David Aguilera—FilmMagic Nahla, Gabriel Aubry and Halle Berry at the Topanga Canyon Festival on May 24, 2009 in Topanga Canyon, California.

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
Anthony Harvey—Getty Images "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."

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

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.

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