Rape is rape. Anything that isn’t rape isn’t rape.

As it turns out, that argument is more controversial than intuitive. In a recent viewpoint, I used those words and drew the ire of campus feminists for violating the required sensitivity for discussions of sexual violence. What should have been the baseline for a productive discussion instead revealed the deep gulf between how men and women perceive rape.

In the feedback to my viewpoint and in reader e-mails to myself and Daily editors, it became apparent that something more than simple disagreement was afoot. This was not one of those “agree to disagree” debates. The stakes were too high; the political had become personal.

Not only did critics find fault with my criticisms of the F-Word’s campaign, many seemed to feel I didn’t even have a right to argue the point. In a comment posted on the Daily’s website, one respondent wrote, “Any effort, whether or not you believe it’s effective, against rape is noble. I am so sorry that you are so against eradicating rape, as it appears to be the only way you are able to get off.”

Harsh words. And telling. Sentiments like those are why many who had the most insightful responses to my critique chose to remain anonymous. Whether “ignorant,” “insensitive” or “disappointing,” the words of dissenters were mischaracterized and disregarded by overzealous supporters the second they chose to join the debate.

With sexual violence against both men and women historically underreported already, the classic argument contends that aggressive attacks on feminists and feminist tactics only further discourage victims from coming forward and seeking justice.

But many men are frustrated by this latest round of feminist rhetoric, and understandably so. Both my inbox and the comments thread for my viewpoint are full of anonymous quotes from men who feel that they have been bullied by feminists for years. They are happy to hear someone speak out.

Responsible men reject the premise that men must all answer for the actions or thoughts of rapists. We don’t believe that calling a friend a “player” or “pimp” is even roughly comparable to sexually violating another person. And we certainly don’t blame any anonymous and debatable force – what feminists call “rape culture” – when people impose themselves sexually upon other people.

But when substantive criticism of a public relations campaign is equated to being “against eradicating rape,” and when skeptics come under siege for daring to disagree, we don’t have very fertile ground for a campus dialogue. Feminists can discount their critics’ very real misgivings if they choose, but writing them off as “ignorant” really misses the point.

If men see the idea of rape culture as a “shameless feminist scare tactic,” then education, not moral suasion, is necessary. If our community is truly unaware as to the realities of rape on campus, it means that outreach groups have some work to do. If the F-Word’s goal is really to spread awareness, then the “ill-informed” responses its spokespeople assail reveal just how much outreach remains. Perhaps rather than lampoon the uninformed, the F-Word will study them to see what’s missing: why they view the issue so differently and how their awareness campaign can fill that gap.

There is hope. The F-Word’s recent viewpoint (Commit to ending sexual violence, 03/12/2007) was the most thoughtful explanation of the group’s motives that I have seen yet. Going forward, it would be best if our dialogue was driven by the very standards the F-Word’s spokespeople laid out: “If our dialogue . is not driven by the understanding that every human being deserves equal respect, individuals will be unable to live as free human beings.”

I couldn’t agree more. If men can’t ask the tough questions without fear of being labeled chauvinists, those of us who aren’t scared into wearing white ribbons will instead be driven to apathy. And no one wins when no one cares.

Communal safety is in all of our best interest. But if the elimination of sexual violence is as worthy a cause as feminists claim, surely it’s one that can take the constructive criticism that would bolster its educational efforts.

It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. Feminists must learn to say it better if they want to get the help from men that they say they desperately need.

James Dickson can be reached at davidjam@umich.edu

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.