A Field Guide to the North American Responsibility Troll

I would like to thank Emily Yoffe for her article The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting So Wasted, in which she spends more than 2,700 words explaining young women’s “responsibility” when it comes to preventing their own rapes. Not because I like it – it’s infuriating – but because it serves as a perfect example of a particularly insidious form of concern trolling. Let’s call this sub-species of troll, who criticizes women’s behavior in the guise of being concerned for their well-being, a “responsibility troll.”

The responsibility troll has a problem: he or she has a lot of thoughts about the way Women Ought to Behave, but knows that it’s socially unacceptable to insist directly on double standards for men and women. Luckily, however, our society is totally fine with restricting women’s lives if it’s for their own good (or, sometimes, for their children’s). Problem solved!

The responsibility troll won’t say that it’s not ladylike for women to drink the way men do – but she wants you to be aware that studies show that women who get drunk are more likely to get raped. The responsibility troll knows you think your right to choose is important, but he feels you ought to know that studies show that women who have abortions end up sad ladies who are full of regret. The responsibility troll doesn’t tell women that they should prioritize their babies over their careers – but does feel a need to point out that studies show that exclusive breast-feeding is best for the infant. Studies show, you know. The responsibility troll loves studies.

Responsibility trolls mimic the markings of genuinely helpful friends, so it can be difficult to distinguish them on first glance. However, if you know the signs, you’ll be able to easily spot these trolls in the wild.

1. It’s not your fault you do dumb things.  You can’t be expected to know any better.  (Because you’re dumb and the responsibility troll hasn’t told you what to do yet.)

The responsibility troll can rarely resist insulting the people he or she is supposedly trying to help. Emily Yoffe, for instance, refers to college women as “naïve” and “inexperienced,” repeatedly references their lack of “responsibility,” and suggests that they won’t know intoxication increases their vulnerability to sexual assault unless they are specifically trained on that subject – preferably via a program that includes older students describing the horror of their own assaults. Genuinely concerned friends won’t start from the assumption that you’re a moron, so if this happens to you, you’re probably dealing with a responsibility troll.

2. Double Standards = Double the Fun!

The responsibility troll loves double standards. Except, he or she will hasten to point out, they aren’t really double standards – it’s just that women should address woman problems, and men should address man problems. See? Fair!

Getting raped, for instance – that’s a woman problem if ever there was one. (You would never know, from listening to a responsibility troll, that men can be raped too.) That’s why Yoffe tells her daughter to remember that “it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself” from sexual assault.

Being falsely accused of rape, on the other hand, is a man problem.  Yoffe tells her hypothetical son that “it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.” (No mention of anything the imaginary lad might do to prevent rape, such as intervening if he sees an acquaintance trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman. That would be asking a man to solve a woman problem, and therefore unjust.)  Personal responsibility!

3. It’s not that it’s your fault, it’s just that you have to take responsibility for your choices, and if you had made different choices, this would never have happened.

The responsibility troll can’t imagine any effective way to solve woman problems except via improvements in women’s behavior. It’s all about “personal responsibility,” remember? That’s why, to a responsibility troll, the victim’s intoxication is the most relevant part of this particular story:

“As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.”

That’s right: this perpetrator was apparently a known sexual predator. The rapes this man had committed in the past had not led to his ostracization from their social group, so he was still around, trolling for victims. This victim’s friends, who were sober enough to realize what was going on at the time and remember it later, failed to intervene when they saw this known rapist leading away their inebriated companion. And yet Yoffe focuses on the victim’s behavior. Personal responsibility!

To the responsibility troll, the solution is always more personal responsibility – preferably on the part of women. Later in her article, Yoffe spends several paragraphs bewailing the non-rape-related dangers that binge drinking poses to students of both sexes, but then brightly offers a solution: “If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest – and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle – I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.” (Emphasis mine, because of wow.) Apparently, it’s not even worth considering asking men to act differently until women’s behavior is perfect – at which point we should just cross our fingers that the runoff of from all that feminine rectitude will have magical dude-improving powers.

Readers attempting to spot a responsibility troll in the wild will do well to remember that no one who actually cares about you will suggest that you rely on “trickle-down” anything. Such statements are a sign that you’ve fallen into the clutches of either a responsibility troll, or a Reaganite Republican. Either way, it’s time to make your escape.

4. Pat Riarchy? Didn’t he play first base for the Yankees?

The responsibility troll is very, very uncomfortable examining any role that patriarchy, racism, or other such societal-level issues might play in the problem at hand – or the degree to which his or her trolling might be reinforcing those same harmful norms. The responsibility troll will make the obligatory references to societal obligations in order to defend herself against snarky bloggers like yours truly, but they’ll be tossed off in a cursory fashion, and usually followed immediately by the word “but.”

For instance: “[o]f course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent.”

“Built-in complications?” Wonder what those could be.

The source Yoffe cites – a guide to prosecuting alcohol-facilitate rape issued by the National District Attorneys’ Association – contains an extensive discussion of the ways in which social disapproval of women’s drinking makes it difficult to prosecute rapists. For instance, “jurors may view a voluntarily intoxicated victim with skepticism or dislike, and may assume that she put herself in danger with her behavior.” (Apparently responsibility trolls serve on juries, too.)

Articles like Yoffe’s bolster those harmful beliefs, but she doesn’t engage with them.  Instead, she compares the difficulties of prosecuting rape-by-intoxication cases – in which the victim’s intoxication must be proven – to the relative simplicity of prosecuting DUIs, in which the perpetrator’s drunkenness is at issue. By doing so, she manages not only to subtly equate being the victim of rape to being the perpetrator of a DUI, but also to completely miss the fact that her own source says that such judgmental attitudes are one of the reasons why alcohol-facilitated assaults are so difficult to prosecute in the first place.

5. Who cares about the facts? Personal responsibility!

The claims made by the study-spouting responsibility troll are often at some variance from the facts on the ground.  For instance, as Yoffe’s colleague Amanda Hess pointed out in her excellent response to Yoffe’s article, statistics suggest rates of rape and female binge drinking are actually negatively correlated with each other: the Justice Department’s national crime victimization study shows that there has been a precipitous fall in the number of rapes per capita since 1979, while rates of binge drinking among women spiked in the 1990s and have remained steady ever since.*  And it’s also quite odd that Yoffe responded to claims that a 14-year-old high school student was assaulted by her teenaged schoolmate by criticizing the choices of … college students?  It’s almost as if the responsibility troll is just looking for any excuse to make a trollish point.

All joking aside, though, this kind of thing does real harm.  It shames victims.  It supports norms that demand that women choose between their freedom and their safety.  And it distracts from strategies that might actually lower the incidence of sexual assault.  It needs to stop.

* The pedantic nerd in me notes that I have not examined the methodology of those two studies, and so can’t say if it’s reasonable to match their results against each other in this way.  That being said, I haven’t seen any evidence that the correlation goes the other way, as Yoffe seems to be claiming.

18 thoughts on “A Field Guide to the North American Responsibility Troll

  1. Pingback: Reblog: A Field Guide to the North American Responsibility Troll (Wronging Rights/ Amanda Taub) | Barb Taub

  2. I’m not disagreeing with any particular point in this post, I have quibbles with various things but none worth getting into.

    I do wonder, however, if you believe that women shouldn’t consider their behavior in the context of something bad happening to them? Or is it that you don’t want people pointing it out? Or, is it that you don’t like people primarily pointing it out, without sufficient emphasis on the responsibility of men not to rape?

    I am legitimately curious about this. I’m trying to understand this personal responsibility/rape apologist war. It appears, to me, that the right answer is some mix of taking care of ourselves and teaching others to be good people (i.e., don’t rape). It’s not really an either or. Kind of like teaching kids not to steal, but still teaching them to lock their doors.

    Perhaps there is an assumption that those writing an article on personal responsibility don’t also support better sex education in schools? So that’s why people get really angry over anyone writing about that side? I suppose I could see that, since it’s probably true in a lot of cases. Though in an acute sense, I think it’s probably easier to implore freshman girls not to put themselves in dangerous situations than it is to reteach the freshman boys everything they’ve learned about sex. Though that is obviously conjecture.

    • I think the answer to your questions is in number #1: “Emily Yoffe, for instance, refers to college women as ‘naïve’ and ‘inexperienced,’ repeatedly references their lack of ‘responsibility,’ and suggests that they won’t know intoxication increases their vulnerability to sexual assault unless they are specifically trained on that subject.”

      Young women are taught from the time they are small children that they need to do X, Y, and Z to protect themselves. We know. Trust me. We know. We are told over and over again. We do not need a special campaign or a sex ed class or any more articles on the subject. Talk to any woman you know about all the steps she takes every day and especially every night to protect herself. I guarantee she already has plenty. Yoffe’s decision to repeat it all again shames victims, excuses rapists, and shows she believes young women are idiots.

      Also, women in college drink because alcohol is delicious and partying is fun. They’re not going to stop because Yoffe told them drinking means their bodies are up for grabs. If Yoffe really wants to prevent rapes, this seems like a really ineffective plan.

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  5. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for asking your question in such a respectful way.

    I have no issue with women taking whatever steps they need to take in order to feel safe – from rape or any other kind of threat. And I also have no problem with, say, parents teaching their children strategies for safety, or friends watching out for friends who might not be making good choices, or whatever. Personal responsibility is a thing that exists in the world, and is good. Indeed, I and every other woman I know spend an absurd amount of time figuring out how to balance our need to be safe against our need to do things in life, whether those things be “grocery shopping” or “human rights lawyering in dangerous places.”

    But that’s not what Emily Yoffe’s article was about. Her article was putting forth an argument about the kinds of systemic strategies that we should use to reduce rape. (The title is “The Best Rape Prevention,” after all.) And the strategy it focused on was to demand that women change their behavior – and to implicitly criticize them as being irresponsible and unintelligent for having failed to do so already.

    That’s a choice. In this case, Yoffe made a very obvious choice to place this burden on women, because her suggested solution – less drinking – would actually be more effective at preventing sexual assaults if it was practiced by both men and women. And then, in case we didn’t get the message the first time that this is a burden for girls only, she highlighted it with the different obligations she placed on her daughter and hypothetical son. She made another choice to not discuss any other concrete solutions to the specific issues raised by her own experts and anecdotes, such as better policing, better bystander education, etc. And she made another choice to not discuss any of the official and unofficial strategies that college women are already using on campuses around the country to protect themselves and their friends from sexual assault, such as sororities’ practice of having “sober sisters” – thereby presenting herself as a bold truth-teller, and reinforcing her presentation of college women as being more naïve than a sack of kittens.

    And, as I’m sure Yoffe would agree, choices have consequences. Her choices are especially problematic, because they reinforce the idea that women have to earn protection from sexual assault through their own good behavior. That concept is baked into our justice system as well as our societal attitudes. We no longer have laws that specifically require a victim to prove that she was chaste and physically resisted her attacker in order to bring a rape case, but those ideas are not gone from the minds of judges or juries. (The DA’s Association guide that Yoffe cites goes into a lot of detail about how those attitudes hinder rape prosecutions, so I highly suggest giving that a read.)

    Yoffe may think her article is bravely standing up to political correctness, but in fact it is extremely common for people to respond to sexual assault claims by explaining all the things that the victim did wrong – often in the guise of advice for other women to protect themselves from a similar fate. (A particularly egregious recent example is the Fox News commentator who blamed the young Maryville victim for her assault, saying and “nobody forced her to drink,” and “what did she expect to happen at 1 a.m. after sneaking out?”) There is a reason statements like that come in for a lot of criticism from people like myself: they are mean to victims, and insulting to everyone else.

    If this still isn’t making sense to you, maybe an analogy will help: imagine you live in a high-crime neighborhood. You would like it to be less dangerous. But every time you ask for policy changes to make it safer, you just get suggestions for how you could change your behavior. Imagine that, when you went to the city council to request more police for your block, you got a helpful lecture about how much safer you would be if you just stayed inside your home and never went out. Imagine that, when you got mugged and called the police, you got a lecture from them about how you shouldn’t be leaving the house to run errands, because a lot of people get robbed that way, and don’t you know that you’re taking up valuable police resources with your irresponsible behavior?

    I am guessing that you would not be grateful for the advice. Instead, rightly, you would be annoyed that the focus was on changes to your behavior, instead of solutions to the problem. You would probably also be annoyed by the implication that you weren’t already altering your life in all kinds of extremely inconvenient ways in order to avoid being victimized by this crime wave. This city council doesn’t know your life! Why are they assuming you’re reckless and dumb?

    Hope that helps explain where I’m coming from on this.

    – Amanda

    • This makes sense. I didn’t actually read Yoffe’s article, to be honest, because I figured it was just like every other article I’ve read on the topic. And it is.

      I think that the context you’ve laid out is very concerning. And I can definitely understand the frustration that would go along with the press, pundits, policy folks, etc. pushing the “be responsible” button over and over again rather than saying *anything* about educating boys on what rape means. About shifting culture. Speaking from personal experience, that would have been a really helpful conversation to have a few times in middle school/high school. It is not immediately obvious where the line is unless you have some real frank talks about it. Especially not to a 19 year old (male or female). We need to do more of that–it would help the rape epidemic in colleges more so than anything, I think. Most guys don’t want to hurt women, if they realized they were I think there would be a lot less of it.

      I do think, however, that battles need to be picked wisely though. I think that everything above makes a ton of sense–public figures need to be shifting the conversation toward issues that are going to change the equation rather than further entrench the status quo. Figures of authority need to be having frank discussions with guys about their responsibilities, both as individuals trying to get laid and individuals watching their friends trying to get laid (the difference between assertive and controlling, convincing versus forcing, asking versus intimidating, etc.) A program with older guys explaining to younger guys mistakes that THEY’VE made, or situations they’ve found themselves in where they had to make a hard decision–those should be at every college. But it is bothersome to see a campus police officer give a talk to freshman girls on things they should do to keep themselves safe, and then have it turn into a huge protest about how she shouldn’t do that. Not all parents *do* have that conversation with their kids, and not every student understands the culture that they’re going to be running into. A police officer’s job is pragmatic, to keep people safe, not political. (That said, it’s also a huge problem that it’s so common for rape victims to face ridicule from the police when they report their crimes. This is obviously not ok.) It depends on what they say, telling women to where habits to frat parties is clearly way over the line, but conceptually it’s a reasonable conversation to have.

      I think that’s where this gets confusing for people like myself, who are not insensitive to cultural norms being a problem and the need to change the way we think about sex/rape/etc., but still think we need to be realistic. The conversation feels very “either/or” rather than, “we need to dramatically shift the conversation.” I very much think we need to dramatically shift the conversation, I would love to jump on that bandwagon. But it doesn’t feel like anyone is driving that wagon. It feels like the only choices are to line up with the “stop expecting people to protect themselves” crowd or the “it’s every person’s responsibility to protect themselves, guys will be guys” crowd. Neither one is particularly satisfying. Neither side feels like it’s going to solve any problems any time soon, and these are problems that *need* solving.

      I appreciate your explanation, though. I think that for the most part I agree with what you have to say. Especially in the context of the article being cited (and every other one like it). It doesn’t seem like they are necessary. And the stuff that was said on Fox News was outrageous. It’s an absurd thing to say about *anyone*, but a 14 year old? Are you kidding me? That commentator should be fired and never allowed on television again. And I hope they don’t have children.

      • Thank you both for that exchange. Matt, I think that you, and other likeminded men, would be great drivers of part of this conversation change bandwagon. I think that so much of this, like so much of our national discourse generally, has devolved to either/or that it might take men who don’t automatically get painted with the feminist label and all of it’s baggage to make some headway.

  6. The woman who wrote this article isn’t a troll. She is just someone who is terrifed of her daughter being raped at college and realizes its easier to tell the vicitm to be careful than to change the fucked up mind of the rapist. You should honestly be ashamed of yourself. The blood of the victims are on your hands.

    Talk to me when you have a college aged daughter like me.

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  12. Socially we should all be equal. We should all fight to make the world as equal as possible for each of us. However, biology simply didn’t make everyone equal when it comes to physical (or emotional) violence. This isn’t about gender, it is about physics. For example, I am a large man, and one of my best friends is a very small man. Unfortunately, the reality is my friend needs to be far more careful in some situations than I do because he is far more vulnerable if he says an off handed comment that some a**hole at a bar takes offense to. It isn’t fair, the a**hole is still at fault, but my friend unfortunately has to deal with this reality of life, and it would be unwise for him to just assume the a**hole will consider him equal, unfair or not.

  13. To clarify, I didn’t mean to imply that the (or emotional) part was related to gender either. Just that some people, man or woman, tend to be more affected by that than other people.

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