April 6, 2010

Taking Offense

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Last week, American University’s student-run newspaper The Eagle published an opinion piece titled, “Dealing with AU’s Anti-Sex Brigade.” The author, sophomore Alex Knepper, argued that “the goal of contemporary feminism and Gay Party activism is not to explain sex, but to abolish its passion.” Most controversially, he writes that “‘date rape’ is an incoherent concept.” It is no surprise that Mr. Knepper’s article began a firestorm of controversy. The campus backlash was fierce and immediate — a boycott of The Eagle, dozens of letters to the editor, over 200 comments online and a campus-wide protest. Faculty and students alike reprimanded the newspaper for publishing the column. Their demands were threefold: publish an apology and the University’s sexual assault policy, produce an ethics statement and fire Mr. Knepper. To anyone who is even remotely familiar with the tragic issue of rape, their anger is understandable. One out of six women in the United States has experienced an attempted or completed rape. Between 2000 and 2005, 38 percent of victims were raped by a friend or acquaintance, 28 percent by an intimate acquaintance. Approximately four out of every 10 sexual assaults occur at the victim’s home. In 47 percent of rapes, both the victim and the rapist had been drinking.

Given the abundance of statistics, one is lead to wonder, what, exactly, is Mr. Knepper thinking? But, as exciting as it would be to delve into the psyche of an individual who seems to bask in the role of “pro-date rape protofascist,” there are more important questions to be asked. Most importantly: Is Mr. Knepper’s seemingly blasé attitude towards date rape an outlying point of view, or is it one more widely shared? If it is commonplace, what does this say about our gender relations within society? And what would this mean for women?

Before delving any further into Mr. Knepper’s “theory” on date rape, it is important to note the legal backdrop of this controversy. This may not come as a shock to anyone, but legally, rape exists. It is a crime. Under almost all state criminal law, it is a criminal offense to engage in the act of sexual intercourse with someone without his or her consent. And if an individual is incapacitated, that person is not able to consent. Date rape may be the most common form of rape that occurs, but it is the most commonly unreported type of sexual assault. In this regard, Mr. Knepper is correct when he writes, “there’s rape and there’s not-rape, and we need a line of demarcation.” That line has been drawn and it includes date rape.

To be sure, Mr. Knepper has very little original content to contribute to an already thoroughly developed body of literature regarding sexual subjugation and gender relations. In his article, Mr. Knepper simply restates, in hyper-provocative language, a long-rejected view that women consent to sex by engaging in particular activities like drinking.  But if Mr. Knepper’s argument isn’t clearly wrong on first read, a simple thought experiment can easily show the heteronormative and misogynistic groundings of his assertions: Matt, a freshman, goes to a frat party and drinks a lot of alcohol with a bunch of his frat brothers. Matt gets wasted and, at the end of the night, meanders off into a friend’s bedroom to pass out. Is Matt indicating a desire to have sex? Presumably, the answer is no. But, here is a salient detail: Matt is a woman.  According to Mr. Knepper, Matt is indicating a desire to have sex. If the answer to this hypothetical relies on the gender of Matt, the individual, then Mr. Knepper’s argument depends on asymmetrical assumptions about gender roles — that is, that women and men are not equal in sexual relations.

It is this type of question and scenario that the public should contemplate in the wake of Mr. Knepper’s article and it is this sort of thoughtful discussion that The Eagle should have considered before publishing his piece. To that end, The Eagle has certainly failed. To the extent that Mr. Knepper’s views are shared, The Eagle’s publication of his article may create a threatening environment for women at social events. The Eagle should have been acutely aware of the possibility that Mr. Knepper’s article might legitimize, in some minds, the sort of conduct which he deemed “not-rape.”

On the one hand, the public deserves a full and thorough hearing of the issues. The First Amendment is not at issue here, as the protection of free speech only applies against the government and not private actors, namely The Eagle. However, an underlying justification for the freedom of speech is the unhindered marketplace of ideas. As famous American jurist Oliver Holmes wrote, “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.” The marketplace works in this way: Both good and bad ideas are presented to the public, who will scrutinize them and discover which are good and which are bad. It is not necessary to censor Mr. Knepper’s point of view in order to prevent the harm that may result from it.

If The Eagle was committed to publish Mr. Knepper’s article, being, as they claim, “not in the business of censorship,” they could have published alongside Mr. Knepper’s article, an opposing view. The audience could then have read both articles and have decided who had the better argument. Mr. Knepper’s ideas would be heard, following the tradition of the First Amendment and given the scarcity of reason, the absence of supporting evidence and the thoroughly confused and bitter quality of Mr. Knepper’s writing, it is not hard to believe that almost all readers would find his article less than credible. We should allow some measure of trust in people to know bad ideas when they see them and hopefully, Oliver Holmes can rest easy.

Original Author: Kathryn Ling